Chapter 1: 2nd of Solace, Trust - Anora
She stared down at the letter in her hands for a long moment, quietly acknowledging the fact that it had been crumpled and then flattened out while she read the words again and again. “Visit to Ferelden?” she murmured. “Permanent alliance?”
Looking up at her husband where he stood across the room, his back to her as he leaned on his father's desk, Anora breathed, “Cailan...what is this?”
“Celene being particularly Orlesian,” he answered and the tone he said Orlesian in was almost exactly the same half-sneer her father always said it in. Turning to look at her, Cailan's face was open, desperate, his blue eyes wide. “I wrote nothing of the like to her, Anora.”
She remembered the earlier letter that had been sent by the Empress, talking of the Blight, of the darkspawn he was about to be leaving to fight. It had been polite, a simple offering of men, and Cailan had sent back an answer thanking her for the offer and that he would send word if the Orlesian forces were needed. Anora knew every word of the letter because she had been sitting in his office when he wrote it.
And she trusted her husband.
Turning, she threw the letter into the fireplace and then moved to lean against Cailan's back, the palms of her hands flat against his waist. “I believe you,” she murmured.
The tenseness in her husband evaporated and he turned, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close. His hands found her face and cupped it as he kissed her, gratitude and love radiating from him. Anora slid her hands over his just as the kiss ended and he opened his eyes to meet hers.
“Thank you,” said Cailan quietly and she smiled. Then he nodded towards the roll of parchment on his desk, sealed with the royal seal as well as her own, marking her agreement. “And you...”
“I will support Alistair,” she confirmed. Anora then trembled, unable to keep the fear at bay, and she leaned further into him. As Cailan folded his arms around her again, she breathed, “Be safe.”
He pressed a kiss into her hair and murmured, “If I can return to you, Anora, I will. You have my word.”
She nodded then tilted her head back to kiss him. A different kiss altogether, this had them moving from his office to the rooms beyond, where their bed waited. And as they fell into each other for what might be the last time, memorizing each other with hands and mouths, Anora prayed that she would see him again.
Chapter 2: 8th of Solace, Wishes - Alistair
He stared down at the letter in his hands, disbelieving that the words that were written on it had come from his brother's hand.
Do not ride with Fergus to Ostagar. I don't care if you've been serving as his squire at Highever – I don't want you involved in this, Alistair.
“Honestly!” exclaimed Alistair as he tossed the letter aside onto the nearby end table. Looking down at Aedan's mabari, Dane, who was lying next to his chair. “You'd think he didn't know I could handle myself!”
“Who?” asked Aedan himself as he entered the sitting room. His eyes then flicked to the thicker parchment sitting on the table that had been wrapped around the letter and obviously noted the broken royal seal. “Ah. The King.” As he sank down into the chair sitting on the other side of Dane and leaned down to scratch the mabari behind the ears, he continued, “What's it about this time?”
Alistair sighed as he sank grumpily down in his chair and answered, “He doesn't want me riding out with Fergus. Like I'm a child!”
That made the other young man laugh. “He's doing his job as your big brother and being overprotective,” Aedan said warmly. “I know. Fergus has been doing the same thing to me for years.”
“I know,” groaned Alistair, “and I don't blame him for it. But, Maker, I'm tired of being treated like I'm made of glass! He's been like this since Father died.”
“I imagine he doesn't want to lose you as well,” said Aedan soberly. Lifting a hand, he pointed at Alistair as he said, “Not to mention succession might fall to you if he died.”
Alistair then ran a hand through his hair and made a low growling noise that made Dane perk his ears up and let out a sharp bark. As Aedan patted the dog, the blond young man sighed and said, “I don't want to lose him either, Aedan. That's why I want to be there. I mean, this is darkspawn, not just some normal foe. Anything could happen!”
“I know,” replied Aedan, his tone serious. “My brother is riding out right into it tomorrow, remember?”
Both of them stared at each other then, starkly sober, and Alistair swallowed hard before he spoke again.
“Neither of us is going to Ostagar, are we?”
“Not unless we end up with the Maker's own luck,” answered Aedan as he went back to scratching his mabari's ears. “Way things are, something serious would have to happen for us to end up there.”
“I almost want it to,” muttered Alistair as he reached out to pick the letter back up and fingered it nervously. As Aedan started to open his mouth, he hurriedly added, “Almost.”
“Yes,” said Aedan with a slight nod, “but as Mallol liked to tell me when I was little and wishing for things, be careful what you wish for.
Chapter 3: 17th of Solace, Attack - Alistair
Alistair woke to the sound of sounds of fighting outside his door and frowned as he laid in bed, confused by the fact. Then he heard the distinctive gurgle of a dying man – starkly obvious to him because he'd only heard it once before when he'd attended an execution with Father – and bolted out of bed. His first instinct was to reach for his sword and as he drew it from the scabbard, the blade gleaming in the dying light of the candle on his bedside table, something slammed into his door.
There were several grunts and growls from the other side then whoever it was apparently decided to give up. He waited, every muscle tense, until he was certain they were gone then lunged for his armor where it hung on the stand across the room. His hands trembled a little as he pulled on the gambeson after putting down his sword within easy reach and he paused a moment to take a couple of steadying breaths.
As calm settled over him, Alistair reached for the armor. It was all fine steel and hard leather and had been a gift from Cailan on his twentieth birthday earlier in the year. Perhaps the most shocking part about the gift had been the inclusion of the Theirin mabari emblazoned across the right pauldron and he'd immediately written a letter asking his brother if he'd sent the right armor. Cailan had sent a response that practically bled amusement as he answered that bastard or not, acknowledged by the Landsmeet or not, he had the right to wear the Theirin arms by blood alone.
Securing the last few buckles and making sure they were tight, he reached up to touch that pauldron briefly before grabbing his sword's scabbard and his belt. Now ready, Alistair picked his sword back up, took a deep breath, and pulled open the lock on the door.
As he opened the door and peered into the hall, his eyes widened as he saw the downed figure of one of the Cousland servants, William. Maker, he has a little girl, thought Alistair, remembering that the man had proudly talked about his young daughter's newest feats of artistry constantly. Who did this?!
Stepping out into the corridor, he looked left and right but there was nothing else with him but William's body. He could, however, hear more fighting distantly from his left and his eyes widened as he knew exactly where that hallway led. Turning right at the end of the hall led you to a door that led out into a small, inner courtyard and there was a small set of stairs there that led up to the innermost section of the castle that held the Teyrn's quarters.
Cursing under his breath, Alistair broke into a run and burst out into the courtyard to find a handful of the Cousland guardsmen embroiled in battle with their attackers. The closest pair broke apart suddenly, the attacker staggering back before going completely off balance and falling to the ground and the guardsman rushed forward to thrust his blade into his throat in one swift motion. As the man died, the guard looked up towards Alistair and the young man realized he wasn't just some Cousland guard.
“Alistair!” gasped the Knight. He quickly moved across the space between them and reached out to clasp the younger man's arm. “We feared you dead, lad!”
Shaking his head, Alistair said, “I had my door locked same as I always do in fear of one of Aedan's midnight pranks. They tried it and when they couldn't barge in they apparently moved on.” He glanced beyond the man at his fallen attacker and his eyes grew large as he recognized the heraldry on the man's fallen shield. “I...Howe? It's Howe's men attacking us?”
“Aye, the bloody traitor!” growled Ser Martin. He then spun at a pained yelp from one of the other guardsmen and cursed when he saw one of them was down permanently. Pointing upwards, he snapped, “See to the Teyrna and the others, Alistair! We'll hold them here or damn well die trying!”
Nodding because that was all he could do, Alistair watched as the man ran across the small courtyard to aid the other guardsman. Then he turned and took the steps up towards the inner section of the castle two and three at a time. When he reached the door, he threw his shoulder into it and found himself bursting into the large, common room of the Teyrn's quarters with the backs of two of Howe's men facing him.
And the focus of their attention was the open door at the far end of the room where the Teyrna stood dressed in battle leathers with a bow drawn and a withering expression on her face.
Alistair didn't wait for Howe's men to notice him. He gripped his sword tight with both hands to draw it back and lunged at the man on the right who had a crossbow. At the last moment, the other man turned and his mouth opened to say something but he never got the chance as Alistair brought his blade down in a swift swing that caught him just below the jaw. The force of the blow separated his head from his shoulders and the young man fought a sudden rise of bile in his throat as blood spattered across the floor.
“Alistair,” came Eleanor's voice then and her strong grip on his arm. He looked at her, a little surprised to suddenly find her at his side, and then he saw that the other guard was down with two arrows in him – one to the throat and the other through the eye. Swallowing hard and thinking of how he never, ever, ever wanted to piss off the Teyrna that much, he turned his attention back to her.
“They're Howe's men,” he managed to say. “Ser Martin and a few of the other guardsmen are down in the small courtyard trying to keep more of them from getting up here. He told me to see to you.”
She nodded and started to say something before they both spun as a door opened. Thinking it was the one behind them, Alistair spun all the way around, sword at the ready, but it was instead a door to his right that revealed a bloodspattered Aedan and Dane. “Oh thank the Maker,” breathed the Teyrna and she moved to embrace her youngest son, touching his face as if to make sure he was real. She then looked beyond him, down the hall he'd come from and asked, “Where are Oriana and Oren?”
Dread lapped over Alistair as his friend's expression turned haunted.
“They're dead, Mother,” Aedan answered, his voice barely above a whisper and his hands clenching around the bloodstained short swords he preferred to fight with.
“Those monsters. Oh, my poor Oren!”
Alistair turned his face away, letting them have whatever moment he could, and quietly mourned himself. Oriana had always been kind to him, very much like the family she'd married into, and he'd been at Highever since Oren's birth excepting those months when he'd returned to Denerim. He'd watched the boy grow up! And now he was dead.
Rage filled him suddenly and Alistair gripped his sword tightly as he growled, “They'll pay.”
“Yes, they will,” agreed Eleanor and he looked towards the Teyrna to see her wiping her eyes. Then she straightened and said, “We need to find Bryce. He never came to bed last night so he's somewhere in the middle of this. Then we'll see that Howe pays for this treachery.”
Nodding, Aedan took a deep breath and said, “Let's go then.”
Chapter 4: 17th of Solace, Hope - Aedan
He stumbled blindly down the tunnel, following the sound of clanking armor and harsh breathing that was Alistair ahead of him. More than anything Aedan wanted to turn back, to rush back down the tunnel to the kitchen pantry but by now Howe's men were there. It would only lead to his death to go back.
Yet he wasn't really seeing the problem with that.
Oriana and Oren were dead.
Mother and Father were dead.
Fergus could be dead somewhere along the road for all he knew!
All that he knew was left of his family was Dane.
Suddenly an armored hand gripped his shoulder and Aedan looked up into Alistair's hazel eyes, blinking at his friend for a moment.
“I need you,” hissed the other young man. “Aedan. I need you if we're going to live through this night and see Howe come to justice.”
“Why?” he answered, his voice breaking like it hadn't done since he was a youth. “Everyone I love is dead! I've got nothing left to see justice for!”
Alistair snarled and shoved him against the side of the tunnel, spitting, “Fergus is still out there! And, damnit, man, I love you like a brother! You've got me!”
Aedan blinked hard, sudden tears rushing to his eyes, and he breathed, “Alistair...”
His friend – no, his brother in everything but blood – released him and stepped back even as he held out an armored fist. Expectant. Waiting.
“We'll do this,” insisted Alistair. “Together. You, me, and Fergus. We'll see him pay.”
The hope that filled Aedan suddenly was almost foreign, like he'd forgotten what it felt like as he'd been consumed by grief. As he reached out and grasped Alistair's hand tight, he said brokenly, “Together.” And he knew – knew – right then in that moment that they'd succeed.
Chapter 5: 8th of August, Survivors - Alistair
Seeing the ancient arches of Ostagar and the Tower of Ishal rising out of the trees ahead of them was perhaps the best thing Alistair had seen over the past weeks of hard travel on foot.
By the time they reached the end of the bridge and were greeted by the soldier standing guard at the end of it, he wasn't quite so cheerful. The soldier had obviously seen the Cousland arms on the shield Aedan was carrying and called out, “Last of Highever?”
Immediately his friend flinched violently, causing Dane to growl, and Alistair answered, “The rest of the Highever troops won't be coming. Neither will the Teyrn or Arl Howe with his men.”
“Howe attacked Highever in the night three weeks past!” exploded Aedan angrily before Alistair could answer. “Men, women, children dead and the Teyrn and Teyrna with them!”
The soldier rapidly lost color in the wake of the violent words and stammered, “Uh...ah...you need to see the King. His tent's right beyond this wall to the left.”
“Thank you,” ground out Alistair as he gripped his friend's shoulder and steered him forward. As they started moving, he leaned forward and hissed, “Calm down. I'm sure Fergus is here.” The look he was flashed in return told him his guess about Aedan's behavior was correct and that he didn't rightly believe that his brother would be in camp.
As soon as they walked into the main camp, someone recognized him by the twin mabari on the pauldron of his armor. “Why in the Maker's name are you wearing,” a random soldier started as he stormed towards them and then trailed off when they looked up at his face. “King Maric's bastard,” the man finished in a low, shocked voice.
Gritting his teeth, impatient to get to his brother, Alistair snarled, “Yes, yes, and yes. Now if you'll kindly get out of the way, we have urgent business with my brother.” The man went starkly silent and he dragged Aedan on past him, faintly aware of Dane growling at the man as the mabari stalked after them. He was being terribly rude now, behavior Father and his own childhood nurse Osanna would have had his head for, but he couldn't bring himself to care.
By the time they finally reached the King's tent – having been almost stopped two more times – Alistair was at the end of his considerable patience and simply shouted his brother's name past the guard standing at the door. It caused a great deal of the camp to turn to look at them but it had the desired effect of having a bewildered Cailan poke his head out of his tent.
Of course, almost instantly, his expression turned furious as he dragged the pair of them inside.
“I told you to stay in Highever!” his older brother hissed as soon as the heavy fabric of the 'door' swung closed behind them. Cailan then seemed to notice the state both of them were in and all of his anger vanished to be replaced by concern. “What are you two doing here on your own?”
“Not by choice,” mumbled Aedan and Alistair clasped his friend's shoulder.
“Highever was attacked,” he explained to his brother. “Arl Howe's turned traitor. His men attacked the castle during the night and killed as many as they could. We barely escaped with our lives ourselves and only thanks to the sacrifices of too many good men and women.”
Cailan shook his head in horror then his eyes flicked to Aedan as he asked, “Bryce and Eleanor?”
Before Alistair could answer, his friend mournfully stated, “Dead by now.”
Cursing, Cailan turned away from the two of them and Alistair pushed Aedan towards one of the camp chairs before striding across the tent to stand next to his brother. Blue eyes turned to look at him and he quietly said, “Please tell me Fergus arrived safely. I don't think Aedan can take anymore losses.”
“Yes, he's currently out scouting the Wilds with some of his men.” Cailan paused after speaking and turned to drag him into a hug. “Thank the Maker you're safe, little brother. If you'd died because of Howe's treachery...”
“I didn't,” insisted Alistair as he hugged his brother back tightly. “A lot of good people did though. Fergus' wife and child included.”
Cailan closed his eyes, pain etched onto his face at the news, and when he reopened them they were filled with rage. “When we are done here,” he growled, “Howe will face the full wrath of the crown. I can promise you that.” He then took a breath and called out for the guard standing at the front of his tent, asking for food, drink, and cots to be brought as quickly as possible.
“You'll stay here,” he ordered a moment later, “both of you, right here, in my tent under my watch. No arguments.”
“Howe could very well have men planted in our camp!” exploded Cailan, his calm slipping and causing Aedan to jump on the other side of the tent. He then reached out to grasp both of Alistair's arms and hissed, “I won't lose you, little brother. Not if I can help it.”
After a moment Alistair just nodded and breathed, “Alright.” Under the current circumstances, he could completely understand his brother's protectiveness. “It's going to get awfully cramped, though.”
His brother's lips quirked into a smile as he replied, “I'm sure we'll survive.”
At that point a trio of servants arrived, one of them carrying a pair of cots with two blankets tossed over their shoulder while the other two juggled trays of food and pitchers of something to drink. Waving Alistair aside, Cailan swiftly ordered them around and they were out of the tent as quickly as they arrived. And just in time for them to meet Loghain as he came rushing into the tent.
“What's all of this commo -” The older man was cut off mid-word as he spotted Alistair and he frowned, looking between him and Cailan. His whole demeanor was suddenly terribly weary as he spotted the despondent Aedan cradling the Highever shield in one arm and petting Dane with the other. “Something's happened.”
“Yes,” answered Cailan but when Alistair opened his mouth to explain it again his brother shushed him. “No, you sit, you eat, you get some of the same into that boy before he drops, and then you rest. I'll handle things from here.”
Mouth still open, Alistair started to protest then his shoulders slumped at the prospect of not having to lead. He'd been in charge since Highever, practically dragging Aedan along, and it suddenly struck him how exhausted he was. Cailan nodded at his silent acquiescence then waved Loghain outside the tent, leaving the two younger men alone.
Turning to Aedan, Alistair sighed before moving over to his friend and gently prying the shield from his grasp. It didn't come easy and only with the reassurance that it was nearby did he let go entirely. In the end he didn't manage to get much into Aedan before exhaustion and grief caught up and he ended up having to lever the other boy onto one of the cots. More of the food and water went down Dane's gullet than had gone into Aedan before the mabari settled down on the floor next to his master.
As he was leaning back in one of Cailan's chairs and gnawing thoughtfully on a piece of cheese, Alistair looked up to see Loghain suddenly looming in the doorway. The man was simply staring at him, his expression a mix of surprise and...pride? “Ser?” he queried, confused by the sudden appearance of an emotion the older man had never shown towards him.
“Merely marveling at how wrong a judge I can be sometimes,” Loghain intoned quietly. “You did well, boy.”
Alistair snorted and said, “Not good enough. Bryce and Eleanor...” Now he choked up, recalling that terrible scene in the pantry. “A lot of people died.”
“Yet you and the Cousland boy survived to warn the rest of us.”
“That is the unfortunate tendency of life,” said Loghain. “Thinking of what you could have done different, of who else you might have saved, will only drive you mad.”
Alistair narrowed his eyes at the older man, wondering where all of this was coming from, as he asked, “Speaking from experience?” He got no answer but a thin smile and then the Teyrn was gone, leaving him alone with his exhausted friend and his mabari.
Shaking himself to get rid of the shivers running up his spine at the odd encounter with Loghain, he rose and unbuckled just enough of his armor that it wouldn't kill him laying down on the cot. Aedan was lucky that he was wearing leathers and not steel – it was so much more of a hassle. That thought was Alistair's last before he dropped onto the cot, asleep before his head even hit the pillow that had mysteriously appeared on it.
Chapter 6: 8th of August, Meeting - Duncan
Leaning back into the chair he'd been provided upon entering Teyrn Loghain's tent, Duncan mused quietly over the story he'd been provided by the King. It was a rather impressive tale of survival given the surprise of the attack on Highever and he certainly wanted to meet both of the boys that had stumbled into camp only a few hours before.
That those boys were also the reason he, the King, and the Teyrn were meeting in the Teyrn's tent instead of the King's said something about Cailan as well. It certainly had him regarding the young man in a different light than he had the first time he'd met him. There were many tales revolving around the young King, most of them describing him as something of a fool, but that was not the man that Duncan saw.
No, he saw a very capable young man – perhaps a little overwhelmed from time to time but who was not when faced with a Blight – and a fair leader. And one who would obviously do anything to protect his brother. Given his own charge to protect Fiona's son, he found that he could sympathize greatly with the latter.
“Should we change our strategy?” questioned the King, looking between the two older men. “We've already rebuffed two waves of darkspawn and according to our scouts they seem to have mostly retreated from the area. Dare we really keep all of our forces here while Howe ravages Highever?”
Leaning forward, Duncan said, “You dare not leave, Your Majesty. The darkspawn may seem to be gone but they no doubt will return given this is their best route north. As I have been telling you, we are in a Blight. Until the Archdemon is slain, we will continue to contend with darkspawn.”
From his left Loghain frowned darkly. “If we are in a Blight.”
“We are,” intoned Duncan seriously. “We Wardens know.”
The King looked like he wanted to question how, his blue eyes alive with curiosity, then he seemed to smother the urge. Instead he looked at Loghain and said, “Given that we have no idea of how the darkspawn operate, for now we'll bow to the Wardens greater knowledge of them. Isn't that how you taught me, Loghain?”
“You know full well it is,” growled the Teyrn. He then turned to Duncan and spat, “Very well then, Duncan, how is it you would have us operate?”
Duncan arched an eyebrow at the other man, wondering where the sudden ire from coming from. Then he recalled that long ago mission, his first back into the country he'd been born in, and a much younger Teyrn coming after his King. He wasn't about to let the past play upon the present situation, however.
“Much as you are now,” he answered. “I would, however, put a closer watch on the Tower of Ishal. Those lower chambers worry me and darkspawn are capable of tunneling beneath the earth. I fear with the Archdemon behind this horde they might be wise enough to flank us.”
With a sharp nod, the King said, “I'll send a larger group of men into the Tower then. I also sent one of my men to Redcliffe with a letter for Uncle Eamon to inform him that his troops were needed.”
Loghain straightened at this and Duncan blinked slowly as the Teyrn said, “Two days ago you were claiming that we likely wouldn't need Redcliffe's forces despite my warning that we should have them just to be cautious.”
“That was before my brother walked here from Highever,” hissed Cailan, his blue eyes snapping suddenly with cold fury. “Before I learned one of my Arls went against the oaths he swore and attacked the only other Teyrnir of Ferelden, killing it's rightful Teyrn.”
There was a long pause after he finished speaking and then Loghain leaned forward, his dark eyes serious. “The boy is a bastard,” he snarled. “There is absolutely no reason to worry so much about him when he had no standing.”
The King rose from his seat, his expression thunderous, and snapped, “All the years of my life, you've claimed to never like the politics played by the nobility yet ever since Alistair arrived in our lives, you have taken every opportunity to play politics against him.” Leaning across the table they sat around, he continued in a low snarl, “I do not seek to protect him because he's a possible heir to the throne in the case of my death, Loghain. I seek to protect him because he's my brother, my blood, and I made a promise when I was only five years old that I would never let anything happen to him!”
Leaning back in his chair, Duncan stilled the smile that wanted to show itself. He truly could find himself liking this young King but this quickly growing (and old, by his guess) argument was not productive.
“Gentlemen,” he said in his firmest voice, drawing their attention, “we must not let our focus stray from the dangers of the Blight or we may find ourselves losing everything that we wish to protect.”
After a moment the King nodded and straightened. “You are too right, Duncan. I apologize for my outburst.”
“No need for apologies, Your Majesty,” assured Duncan, allowing his smile to show now. He then inclined his head towards both of them as he continued, “If you'll excuse me, however, I must take my leave. Jarriad should be returning soon with my latest recruits from their mission in the Wilds.”
Loghain narrowed his eyes at him then turned his head away almost dismissively, curiously silent now. The King frowned at the older man for a moment before he said, “Thank you for your advice, Duncan. I should go see to getting those men in the Tower and then see to my brother and Aedan. Good night to you both.”
“Good night, Your Majesty,” said both Duncan and Loghain at once as Cailan left the tent. As he turned to leave, the other man called his name.
Turning back, Duncan arched an eyebrow and met the Teyrn's dark gaze levely.
“I don't like this game you're playing,” growled Loghain.
Narrowing his eyes, Duncan found himself not particularly liking the man the much younger Teyrn he'd met had grown into. Especially not after hearing of how he'd treated Alistair all of the boy's life firsthand from Cailan's lips. “I do not play games when it concerns darkspawn, Teyrn Loghain.”
“Wardens always play games! I learned that firsthand when you all dragged Maric off on that little mission of yours years ago.” Loghain paused then hissed, “That merely led up to that boy.”
“That boy as you call him,” said Duncan slowly, his voice dangerously low, “is the child of one of my oldest friends. She never expected Maric to keep him, merely to keep him safe. It was her wish that he not be involved with either of their lives.”
With a snarl, the Teyrn was out of his seat so quickly that the camp chair overturned. He stalked away a step, his back towards Duncan, and then stopped.
“It was a betrayal to Rowan's memory,” said Loghain and suddenly Duncan could hear the much younger man from years before. There had been pain there then but his own younger self was never able to comprehend it. Now, he could feel it all too well though he did not dare ponder at the why's too closely.
“Alistair was not responsible.”
“I know that!” exploded the other man. He then stilled and turned to lean on the table, suddenly looking far older than he actually was. “The boy surprised me. Surviving that mess in Highever...it was an impressive feat.”
Somewhat amused now, Duncan said, “You shouldn't be surprised. He is, after all, Maric's son.”
“I never saw him as such.”
“And perhaps that is the problem.”
Loghain looked up at that then scowled suddenly, asking, “Wasn't there somewhere you needed to be?” Shaking his head and not at all put off by the abrupt rebuff, Duncan stepped forward and leaned on the other side of the table, smiling slightly.
“I have a few moments,” he answered.
“And something to say,” snarled the other man.
Duncan tilted his head slightly to the side. “You are the one who opened the door. I've merely stepped through it.”
Loghain snorted then fell silent, obviously waiting for him to continue. Shaking his head, Duncan leaned a little further across the table and said quietly, “Perhaps you should try seeing Alistair as the son of your friend instead of the bastard son of your King.”
With that, Duncan turned on his heel and left the tent, leaving the Teyrn to his memories and likely painful confrontation with the reality of what he had been putting an innocent boy through for too many years. He could only hope that the man would come to terms with it quickly as he was all too certain they did not have much time left.
The horde was coming, whether they were ready or not.
Chapter 7: 10th of August, Nobility - Alistair
“Hey, long legs! How about giving a girl a hand?”
Blinking, Alistair stopped in the middle of running through one of the blade exercises Ser Martin had taught him in the free space near his brother's tent and turned to look down at a short, stocky figure hovering nearby. He could just barely make out a bob of short dark hair behind the rather overwhelming looking stack of various gear and he sheathed his sword before moving forward. Taking a hold of a large section of the top of the pile, which seemed to be several spare bits of armor as well as a swath of blue and white fabric, he lifted it up and finally found the face of the speaker.
She wasn't the pretty that he'd seen a few of the other lads in Highever making eyes over thanks to the series of blue tattoos that covered most of the right side of her face and a nose that had obviously been broken a few times but she was pretty. He thought that her green eyes stood out particularly thanks to the brand.
“Thanks!” the dwarf chirped with a broad smile, showing off a pair of chipped teeth. “I'd shake your hand for the help, long legs, as no one else seemed to be giving two nugs about me but they're a bit occupied. Name's Natia.”
“Alistair,” he supplied. Looking down at the fabric on top of the pile in his arms, he suddenly recognized the griffin embroidered across it and glanced down at her in a new light. “You're a Warden!”
The chip-toothed grin appeared again as Natia cheerily said, “Newest in the country as of a few hours ago. Haven't been able to sleep since then and I think old Jarriad finally got tired of me bugging him for info so he sent me to that grumpy looking quartermaster. I think he found it funny to try and make me fall over.”
Frowning, Alistair glanced in the direction he'd learned the quartermaster was from the quick tour one of Cailan's guards had given him when he'd woken up. “He shouldn't have done that,” he said shortly.
Natia shrugged as much as she could with her burden. “I'll be angry about it later. Right now I'm just happy to still be breathing.” Her expression darkened a little as she added, “Seen a good few folks lately that aren't anymore. Got to enjoy the moments you get, you understand me?”
“I suppose so,” he answered even as her words made him think of Highever. Shaking his head, Alistair hefted his new burden and asked, “So, where were you going?”
“Oh, edge of the Wardens camp! Apparently they've got me a tent and everything.”
Judging by the sound of her voice, Alistair could take a guess that in her life she hadn't owned a lot of things.
“I'll follow you then,” he said. Then he paused and turned to call out to the man who was standing guard in front of Cailan's tent. “Ser Oswold, I'll be walking with the Warden down to their camp. Let my brother know if he asks? Or Aedan?” He added the last almost hopefully as his friend had seemed to have fallen into a stupor that he couldn't draw him out of.
“Of course, ser,” answered the guard, inclining his head slightly.
As Alistair turned back to face Natia, he found her eying him curiously. “What?” he questioned.
“Awful friendly with your King's guard, aren't you?”
Laughing, he said, “I'm not surprised you don't know. Let me introduce myself again: I'm Alistair, the King's bastard brother.”
Her eyebrows went up at that and she whistled as she started moving in the direction of the Wardens camp. As he trailed behind her, she turned her head to say, “Didn't take you for royalty, long legs.”
“Oh? Why's that?”
There was a long moment's pause before Natia answered. “Usually all we Dusters hear about royals is how much better than us they are. Unless you're pretty, you won't get anything from one of them.”
Sighing, Alistair shook his head and said, “I can understand that in a way. Bastard's generally don't get anything from nobles either.”
That chip-toothed smile flashed at him again and she said, “We got something in common then, eh, Alistair?”
“Suppose we do,” he answered with a smile of his own. He then frowned and nodded ahead of them towards a tent that looked a little smaller and shabbier than the other tents that were set up. “Is that one yours?”
“Guess so!” He must have been making a face because she continued, “Don't curl up your nose so much, long legs. It's a sight better than anything I've had before. And you'll ruin your pretty face.”
Alistair turned to stare down at her at the 'pretty' comment then figured she was just referring back to their conversation, not making an actual observation. As far as he knew, dwarves didn't have much of an attraction to humans. Shaking the thoughts away, he waited until she had carefully made her way into the tent then crouched down outside, peering inside to see what she wanted to do with the things he was carrying.
As he did so, he heard footsteps coming up from behind him and turned to look up at the Commander of the Grey himself. “Ser,” he began awkwardly, wondering how exactly to explain what he was doing in camp.
Duncan – Maker, Cailan had said his name was Duncan, hadn't he – merely arched an eyebrow and Alistair suddenly didn't have to say anything as Natia poked her head back out of the tent. “Hey, boss!” she chirped as she saw the dark man standing there. “Alistair here was just giving me a hand with the stuff old Jarriad had me get. Ought to give him a commendation or whatever you long legs do. Nobody else helped me when I yelled at them.”
Alistair was oddly hurt that she was calling humans 'long legs' in general. It had seemed like a strangely endearing nickname coming from her.
“I see,” intoned Duncan, his eyes trailing back to Alistair and considering him for a long moment. He then smiled and said, “I'm afraid since Alistair isn't a member of the army he can't get a commendation. However, I do thank you for aiding one of my Wardens.”
Shrugging slightly, Alistair said, “It's no problem,” as he handed the gear he'd been carrying over to Natia. As she ducked back into the tent, he stood up and grinned sheepishly. “I'm always willing to help people if they need something. You can just ask anybody in Hig -” He trailed off as, like a kick to the gut, he realized there might not be anyone left alive in Highever that could be asked.
There seemed to be sympathy in the Warden Commander's eyes as he said, “I heard what happened in Highever. My condolences.”
“Aedan needs them more,” insisted Alistair. “He lost his whole family practically.”
Duncan arched his eyebrows at that. “I was under the impression you had been at Highever since you were young?”
Blinking, he nodded. “Since I was twelve. Minus...” Maker, he still got choked up remembering those few months he'd been back in Denerim. “I was in Denerim before Father died. Cailan sent me back to Highever to finish my fostering under the Teyrn and I kind of ending up staying on as Fergus' squire.”
Mostly because it was always too dangerous to come back home, he thought bitterly to himself. Oh, he understood the reasoning well enough as he'd had the same lessons in politics as his brother. As Cailan had said once about something he couldn't even recall, though, there wasn't anything in the rules that said he had to like that reasoning.
“Then my condolences still stand,” intoned Duncan seriously. He then leaned down and asked in the direction of the tent, “Did the quartermaster supply you with new daggers, Natia?”
“Oh, yeah, boss!” came the dwarf's voice from behind the shabby cloth. “He gave me a pair of nice shiny ones but I sold one back to him this morning. Took a wicked looking one off one of those darkspawn we were fighting.”
Alistair blinked at her words and frowned. She had been out fighting darkspawn? He guessed it could have been a straggler but he was a little confused because Cailan had told him most of their scouts reported few darkspawn still in the area. Looking at Duncan, he commented as much and the man frowned as he straightened.
“The reports the King was given yesterday were true but I fear similar reports today will bear different news. On that note, I must continue on and give my Wardens their orders.”
Natia suddenly reappeared from within the tent, her slightly battered and shabby leathers from earlier replaced with newer ones with the blue and white Warden tabard belted over the top. Resting a hand on what was obviously the dagger she'd taken from the darkspawn judging by it's bare blade thrust through her belt, she asked, “I got orders, boss?”
Smiling, Duncan answered, “Given that you are the newest of the Order, I will be consulting with Jarriad as to where to place you. He'll find you later to inform you of our decision. Until then...” Looking at Alistair, he asked, “Perhaps until then our young friend here would not mind some company?”
“Me?” said Alistair, surprised. He then shook himself, remembering his manners, and turned to Natia, bowing slightly as he said, “M'lady Warden, I would be honored to have your company for the day.”
Whistling, the dwarf exclaimed, “Royal blood and fancy manners to boot!” She then laughed and tipped two fingers at him in a rough salute. “Not got many manners myself, long legs, but I'll accept.”
Smiling, Alistair turned to look at Duncan only to find that the man had disappeared, leaving the two of them alone. Looking back at Natia, he began, “So...”
She just grinned up at him and echoed, “So?”
With a shake of his head, Alistair turned and headed back up the hill towards his brother's tent, calling over his shoulder, “How about I give you an introduction to a decent noble?”
“Why not?” answered Natia as she caught up to him. As he forced himself to take shorter strides so she could keep up, he felt himself blushing as she added, “Though I don't think any nobles are gonna beat you for decency, Alistair.”
“My brother might surprise you,” he answered with a smile.
The dwarf just flashed him that chip-toothed grin and said, “I'll trust you on that one. But one thing I've learned in my life is that nobility doesn't necessarily mean blood.”
Alistair blinked a little then nodded, smiling down at her as he thought of the likes of Arl Howe, Vaughan, and Habren who were some of the worst examples of the nobility and then those like his brother, the Couslands, and Teagan who were some of the best. The Couslands, of course, led him to the people of Highever, who were almost all like their Teyrn and Teyrna; good, kind people, most without a drop of so-called noble blood. And, for the first time since escaping from that nightmare, he didn't shudder at his own memories.
He then looked at her again, seeing her in that same light, and said, “Too right.”
Chapter 8: 14th of August, Promises - Cailan
“I'm not budging on this, Alistair,” growled Cailan, not even looking up from the table in the ancient open hall that had become their meeting area to discuss strategy. As he shoved a new set of pins into the map of the area to represent the latest reports from his scouts of darkspawn movements, he heard his younger brother growl angrily. Looking up now, he met angry hazel eyes with his own blue, trying to project calm when he was anything but. “You're leaving tomorrow with the rest of the non-essentials. You and Aedan both.”
“No!” snapped Alistair. “I won't do it because it's stupid and you need two more swords.”
“Two more swords?” repeated Cailan. “Aedan can't even keep it together long enough to speak most times.” The boy was well and truly shattered by what had happened to his family and really Cailan couldn't blame him. After Father had died...he hadn't been at his best himself. “He cannot fight. And if he is leaving, he needs someone he trusts with him.”
The features so like his own twisted into a mask of fury and Alistair stormed forward, slamming his hands down onto the stone table before he leaned forward into Cailan's face. “Don't you do that!” he snarled, his voice dark with fury. “Don't you try and push me away by guilting me into taking care of Aedan!”
His little brother's entire body shook then and he slumped into the table, all of the fury suddenly gone. “Please, Cailan,” he breathed. “I can't...I can't lose you too. Don't send me away. If...if you die and I'm not there...”
Cailan leaned across the table and lifted his brother's chin so their eyes could meet. “There are more things for me to consider,” he said slowly, “than just us. Have you even thought that I do want you by my side? That I've hated the fact that we've been apart for five years except for seeing each other during holidays?”
Letting his hand drop away, he continued, “But I have to think beyond myself, brother. I have to think of this army and I have to think of Ferelden.”
“Don't,” whispered Alistair.
Cailan shook his head sadly. “I've already spoken to Anora about the possibility of me dying here. She...” He took a deep breath before he continued because Father had made him promise once that he would always keep Alistair free of politics, able to be his own man, and his backup plans would not make that possible. “She agreed to support your claim to the throne and to help see you recognized by the Landsmeet.”
Alistair made a choking noise as he pushed himself back from the table suddenly, eyes wide with sudden fear. “Father...”
“I know what Father told you. He made me promise to keep you free of all of this, to let you be your own man the way neither of us ever were. But...you're a Theirin, Alistair. You're a prince, no matter what anyone has ever said.” Cailan closed his eyes as he added, “And duty sometimes means giving up everything we wanted.”
The words were Loghain's, spoken to a very young Cailan when he'd been railing against his arranged marriage with Anora. And the pain in the older man's eyes had told him all too well that he knew the words were a terrible truth.
Silence hung heavily in the open hall for a moment then Cailan dared look up and saw Alistair had sunk down onto his heels with his head in his hands, his entire body shaking. Moving around the table, he fell to one knee in front of his little brother and pulled him into a hug. Alistair clung tightly, making him recall the day he'd left Denerim for Redcliffe, when a seven year-old Alistair with tears streaming down his cheeks had had to be dragged away from him by Father.
“I'm sorry, little brother,” he breathed. “I tried. I tried.”
Perhaps it was took much to put on him after Highever. But it couldn't wait. He had to know.
Cailan blinked as Alistair suddenly shifted, both of his younger brother's hands suddenly coming up to grab his shoulders tightly. The look on his face was intense, almost feverish, as he hissed, “Promise me you'll survive.”
The word was almost a sob, drawn from the very depths of desperation. And there wasn't anything Cailan could do but bow his head as he breathed, “I promise you, little brother, I'll do my best. That's all I can give.” It was essentially the same promise he'd given Anora, the only promise he could give either of them in the face of the unknown.
The hands clutching his shoulders shook then Alistair's arms were around him again and Cailan hugged him just as tightly. They stayed like that for a long moment then slowly stood, Cailan rising first and pulled Alistair up after him.
Hazel eyes met his for a brief moment, fear and betrayal clear in them, then Alistair turned and walked away, leaving Cailan standing alone in the middle of the open hall. Bowing his head, the King returned to the table but was unable to focus clearly on the plans and maps laid out through the sudden tears clouding his eyes.
After a few moments he gave up and dragged one of the camp chairs out from under the table, sinking heavily into it and burying his face in his hands.
“I'm sorry, Alistair,” Cailan whispered even though there was no longer anyone to hear the words. “I hope one day you'll be able to forgive me.”
Chapter 9: 15th of August, Reunion - Aedan
His hands shook as Aedan grasped the sides of the wagon and climbed inside, his eyes focused only on the form of the man who lay atop a feather mattress that had been supplied by the King from his personal baggage. Stumbling slightly, he collapsed next to the mattress and reached out to touch his brother's arm, still not quite believing that one of the last group of scouts to come back to camp during the night had brought him with them. It was even more unbelievable that he had been brought to the scouts by a group of Chasind who had quickly disappeared.
One of the mages had been brought almost immediately to assess his wounds – Wynne had been her name, he thought – and had declared them well on their way to healing. With his freshly broken left leg and wrist, mending ribs, and the scattering of smaller wounds and scratches, however, it would be some time before Fergus would be able to do anything physical.
And now, in the early morning hours after he'd been brought back, they were in a wagon about to be on their way out of Ostagar with the rest of the non-essential army staff and followers. Despite the fact that he knew he should be staying as he was able-bodied and capable with a sword, Aedan was happy that the King had ordered him to be amongst those leaving.
He wasn't sure he could stand the sight of more blood right now. Not after...
Aedan shook himself, pushing away all thoughts of Highever and that terrible night. He then squeezed Fergus' arm and breathed, “I need you to wake up, brother. I don't know what to do. Everything's been turned upside down and I need to know you're okay. I don't think I could stand it if you aren't.”
“...Pup?” came a strained, quiet voice a moment later and he gaped. Brown eyes were actually open, looking at him with concern despite the obvious pain his brother was in. “How...Chasind?”
“They brought you back. You're at Ostagar again.” The explanation of what exactly was going on spilled hurriedly from Aedan's lips and then he nodded towards the back of the wagon. “We're just waiting on the last to finish getting packed before we can leave.”
Fergus shifted slightly and reached out to grab Aedan's arm, his grip firm despite his weakened state. He was obviously more aware now, as he hissed, “What are you doing here?”
A hundred explanations seemed to whirl through Aedan's mind but he couldn't pick just one. For all the words he thought of, none encompassed the terror of that night nor the loss that still ached inside.
“Arl Howe attacked Highever.”
Aedan whirled at the sound of Alistair's flat voice and blinked at his friend as he climbed into the wagon with Dane clambering in behind him. As he waved for the mabari to lay down by Fergus' feet, he frowned and asked, “Alistair?” He had never in the years he'd been at Highever or before when they'd visited at Denerim heard his friend sound like that.
“Howe?” repeated Fergus disbelievingly. “I don't...I don't understand. Aedan...”
“Fergus,” Aedan breathed. “Please. Don't. Don't ask.”
He watched as his brother's eyes closed in agony and then Fergus asked quietly, “Mother and Father?”
“Dead.” The answer seemed to be pulled out of Aedan, the pain clawing at his heart and throat as he spoke the word. Grasping his brother's arm, he gasped out, “Fergus, please.”
“Oriana?” continued Fergus, his voice panicked now. Then it went very quiet and soft as he asked, “Oren?”
Aedan just shook his head, rocking back and forth as he remembered finding the bodies of his sister-in-law and nephew. He was just barely aware of Dane coming to his side, licking his face once before laying down between him and the mattress. Fergus' grip on his arm was on the edge of his perception and he was aware of that grip tightening – thought he wasn't sure if it was in reassurance or anger.
“I couldn't save them,” he managed to breath after a moment. “I couldn't...Fergus, I tried.”
“I know, Pup,” he heard Fergus say and focused on his brother's face, on the pain he was sure matched his own. Then Aedan looked towards Alistair and found his friend with the same wounded look on his face. Fergus seemed to notice it as well because he released Aedan's arm to reach out towards the other young man. “Alistair.”
“Fergus,” came the answer in a quiet voice that tried hard to stay steady but didn't quite succeed.
“For the Maker's sake,” exploded Fergus, “come here, boy. You're as much family as Aedan and right now...” He paused, swallowing hard, then finished softly, “Right now we need each other.”
For a moment Aedan didn't think Alistair was going to move then he did, shifting across the space in the wagon and settling on the floor next to him. Fergus sighed as he settled and reached out to rest his hand on Alistair's knee, which made the cloak of seriousness the other young man seemed to have wrapped around himself finally crack.
“We both tried,” Alistair whispered, his breath hitching slightly.
Distantly Aedan wondered where the steady friend from that night had gone. Then he shook himself and leaned sideways to bump Alistair's shoulder with his own as he said to Fergus, “I wouldn't have made it out of Highever without him. He gave me hope when I thought I'd lost everything.”
Alistair huffed out a breath then flashed them both a strained smile. “I told him we'd all see Howe pay.”
“And we will,” growled Fergus, his eyes flashing. He lifted his hand from Alistair's knee and Aedan managed a smile as he clasped it with his own. After a moment Alistair's hand reached out to rest on top of both of theirs, a solid confirmation of their dedication to that promise.
Chapter 10: 15th of August, Plans - Loghain
“Of course I would find you here,” grumbled Loghain as he stepped up next to where Cailan stood. The King merely nodded in acknowledgment, his eyes never straying from the line of wagons and people that were moving away from Ostagar below the wooden battlement he stood on. “I take it the boy is leaving with them?”
“He's in the same wagon as the Couslands.”
Loghain blinked at the plural then he remembered – one of their scouting parties had brought a wounded Fergus Cousland back in with them during the night. Teyrn Cousland now, he noted mentally.
“And why is it exactly that we are sending away two able-bodied fighters?” he asked because the question had been licking at his thoughts since he'd guessed that Cailan would be sending both boys away from the fighting.
Cailan didn't look at him as he answered, “Because neither of them have recovered from what happened at Highever.” He then paused before he added quietly, “And Alistair is my heir if I die here.”
Loghain's eyes widened and he whirled on the younger man, snarling, “No!” A thousand things went through his mind at that, foremost being the identity of Alistair's mother. If anyone looked too closely at the servant girl story that Maric had concocted with Eamon's somewhat unwilling aid, the duplicity would be discovered. Fiona's identity in particular wouldn't but it would call into question everything about the boy.
He might have expressed some pride in the boy for getting out of Highever but he certainly didn't have enough faith in him to see him as Ferelden's King.
“It's already in writing,” Cailan said stonily. He then finally turned his head slightly to look at Loghain. “And Anora agreed to back him.”
It was like an arrow to the heart. His own daughter, willing to back the bastard son? Hadn't he taught her better than that?
“There are things you don't know,” began Loghain.
“Then by all means, enlighten me,” snarled Cailan, blue eyes narrowed. “I certainly should know all of the secrets you and Father knew about my own brother.”
There was bitterness there, old but still sharp enough to cut. Loghain met his gaze and said shortly, “If you were to know, you would regret this decision.”
“Let me be the judge of what I will or will not regret.”
They both fell silent then, Cailan waiting and Loghain wondering whether this was truly the moment to reveal this. He had sworn to Maric that he would keep the boy's mother a secret. But what use were promises given to now dead men?
As the wagons rolled on below them, he said, “The Warden mage from that incident when you were young.” He could see Cailan's brow furrow as he tried to remember and supplied, “The elf.”
“Ah. Fiona. Father spoke well of her.”
Loghain snorted. “He would,” he grumbled, recalling Maric's obvious penchant for elves. First Katriel and then Fiona, both painfully Orlesian and neither the proper companion for a King.
He watched as realization struck and then Cailan grabbed his arm as he said flatly, “Fiona is Alistair's mother, not that Redcliffe servant girl.”
“How many more might figure that out if he were to take the throne?”
Unexpectedly, Loghain found himself flung backwards against one of the wooden supports for the battlement, Cailan following to shove him back against it. “You dare threaten my brother?” he snarled.
“I simply point out the possibility,” he answered as he lowered his hand from where it had automatically jumped to the hilt of the dagger at his side.
“And who would think to look too closely at Alistair's background without being pointed there? Who else is there to point there but you?” Cailan's hand closed over his throat above the neck of his armor as he spoke, his thumb pressing up against the soft flesh underneath his chin. “If you threaten my brother, Loghain, you threaten me. Father-in-law or not, I will not stand for it.”
Despite the ache in his back and the uncomfortable feeling of the thumb digging into his jaw, Loghain managed to shrug nonchalantly. “I would not threaten him unless he threatened Ferelden.”
Cailan's eyes seemed to burn then and he growled, “Your idea of a threat is far different than mine. And you're lucky I need you and your men right now, Loghain.” He then pushed himself away, turning his back to watch the last of the wagons, and Loghain lifted a hand to touch his throat, certain there would be a bruise where the King's thumb had been.
As he turned to leave, this new information roiling through his head, Cailan called his name. Loghain turned and found the young man staring coldly at him, whatever affection he'd previously held seemingly gone.
“If you touch my brother, I'll kill you. That is a promise.”
The words caused a pang of sadness at the obvious break between them – he did care about the boy. However, Loghain merely inclined his head and murmured, “Your Majesty,” before he left, heading back towards his own tent. Cailan was far too close to Alistair to see the obvious danger of having him on the throne.
Obviously there would have to be a change in plans.
Chapter 11: 25th of August, Pieces - Morrigan
From their perch at the top of the Tower of Ishal, Morrigan peered down at the destruction then looked sideways at her mother. Flemeth stood even closer to the edge than she, clad in leather and steel and youth instead of homespun cloth and age. Looking back at the room, where the unanswered beacon fire burned amidst the bodies of the dead soldiers, she said, "This is not what you said it would be, Mother."
"Things have changed. Far more than I expected them too."
A cold smile turned up the corners of Flemth's lips and identical golden eyes met as the older woman continued, "There are still, however, elements in play that we may be able to put to use."
Morrigan nodded and lifted her gaze from the fallow field far below to the higher ground, where remnants of the army were quickly disappearing into the woods. They had managed to rescue their wounded King but it would be to no avail. She had watched that wound be struck as she winged her way above the battlefield and heard Mother's judgement as soon as she made mention of it. He would die in the forest despite their efforts.
"The Wardens?" she questioned.
Flemeth nodded ever so slightly, the horns her hair was fashioned into the only thing that made the movement evident. "Two live. The war-forged elf and the dwarf with steel in her heart. There is another, perhaps, but he is distant and there is little chance of you finding him."
Frowning, Morrigan asked, "And what would you have me do, Mother?"
"I would have you see where they go, daughter. Watch them, for now."
"And what of..."
As Flemeth turned from the edge, Morrigan's lips closed over the rest of the words as her mother reached out with a clawed gauntlet to caress her chin carefully. She blinked calmly back, the only thing to give her emotions away the slightly increased rate of her heartbeat, and the older woman smiled.
"There are several paths that may be taken, daughter," she uttered coolly. "One way or another, whether it be the elf or else, you will find a way to do what I have asked of you."
Flemeth nodded and released her, saying shortly, "I have other pieces to see to their places."
Morrigan merely nodded in response and, with a rasp of scales against ancient stone, she was alone at the top of the tower. She surveyed the remains of the battlefield again from her high perch then took to the air herself with a high-pitched caw. Mother had her pieces and she her own.
And perhaps, just perhaps, she could subtlety change those pieces to serve her own ends.
Chapter 12: 28th of August, Duty - Alistair
They were on the road between Lothering and South Reach when the messenger rode by. Alistair was sitting on the seat next to the driver of their wagon - a fellow named Andrew who had joined up when the army had passed through Lothering on their way to Ostagar - when the rider sped up the line. Seeing the royal livery the man was wearing, he lifted his arm to wave the man down.
The look on the man’s face when he saw him immediately made him regret the decision.
“What happened?” he asked, dreading the answer.
The messenger frowned, focusing on settling his horse to pace with the wagon’s oxen, then he answered, “Ostagar was lost. The army was routed and I’ve been ordered to Denerim to give word to the Queen.”
Alistair’s breath caught in his throat. “The King?”
“Teyrn Loghain believed him dead.”
Closing his eyes, his heart hammering against his ribs as he recalled that last conversation with Cailan, Alistair asked, “Anything else?”
“The Grey Wardens proved traitorous and the Teyrn cites them in the King’s death.” The messenger then paused before saying quietly, “He claims that you convinced them to kill King Cailan.”
It was ludicrous. Mad. Perhaps just enough that the whole of Ferelden would believe it. There were a dozen other tales that could be twisted around it involving the Couslands and the reason he’d been at Highever since their father’s death. Howe’s betrayal could easily be turned into saving the country by that vein of so-called reasoning.
Part of Alistair wanted to run and hide in the deepest hole he could find in order to escape it. Perhaps he could find a ship that would take him to the Free Marches. But Cailan’s words about duty rang in his head, warring with that old promise of Father’s, and he tried to think.
Loghain was behind them on the road, perhaps a day at the most. No doubt they would reach Denerim before him but what then? Cailan had said that Anora had agreed to back his claim but would she really go against her father? And what was to keep Loghain from simply tossing him into Fort Drakon before anyone could question a thing? He was still just an acknowledged bastard, with no political clout beyond his connection to the Couslands and his now possibly dead brother.
Looking at the rider, Alistair said, “Let me guess: I and any surviving Wardens are to be arrested on sight.” When the man nodded, he sighed. “Yet you’re not doing your duty and arresting me.”
“I’m loyal to the crown, not the Teyrn , ser. And I know when something’s wrong,” said the man in a low voice. “The Teyrn ordered his men to stand down before they would have entered the battle.”
“He…he what?” He almost couldn’t believe that. Loghain had helped construct the battle plan. Alistair had seen the plans himself during that discussion with Cailan and it could have worked. Cailan had set Loghain’s forces and the just arrived Redcliffe men up to flank the darkspawn with the Grey Wardens and the bulk of the army to draw them in once they’d figured out where the horde was coming from. And that had only been the major part of the plan that he’d seen. His brother had been good at strategy, good enough to help him when they were younger - good enough to get Loghain’s praise!
Shaking himself, Alistair found himself saying, “Ride on.”
“Ser?” repeated the rider, looking surprised.
“Ride. On,” he repeated. “Tell the Queen the same story you told me. If I can beat Loghain to Denerim, I might be able to stall him.” Alistair then frowned before he added, “And tell the Queen I’m sorry.”
The man stared at him for a moment then bowed in the saddle before he breathed, “Your Highness,” and spurred his mount onward. Alistair flinched at the title and watched the rider’s disappearing back before he turned to look at Andrew, who was white as a sheet. He then shifted in his seat and found Aedan staring at him, obviously having heard the majority of the conversation.
Then Fergus’ arm rose up from where he laid in the bed of the wagon and he called, “You have Highever’s support, Alistair. Whatever we can do.” As Aedan nodded in agreement, Alistair felt like the ground was opening up to swallow him.
“Don’t put yourselves in danger for me.”
“You’re family, remember?” pointed out Aedan, making him recall his words in that tunnel under Highever and Fergus’ as they’d left Ostagar. “Family protects family.”
Alistair closed his eyes at that and breathed, “Right.” He then turned back forward and looked ahead in the direction of Denerim. His brother might be dead…but he still had Fergus and Aedan. And Anora. They needed him now.
Much as he might hate it, he had a duty.
Chapter 13: 1st of Kingsway, Uncertainty - Natia
Poking at the dying coals of the fire with a long stick, Natia quietly noted, “Your King isn't going to make it.”
“No,” answered one of the men around the fire who had a fresh scar across his cheek from a darkspawn blade and wore the emblem she had been told represented Highever.
“There's nothing you Wardens can do for him?” piped up another, this one wearing a badge she didn't remember. Probably one of the minor Houses, she thought. No, Banns, the long legs call 'em Banns.
“Only give him a merciful death,” answered Jarriad, the white-haired elf looking even more somber than he usually did.
Silence followed that statement then one of the men dragged a hand over his face before speaking up. Natia struggled to remember his name but could only recall that it started with a T. He was a Bann, though, she remembered that and he'd come with the Redcliffe men who'd shown up only hours before the battle as the one in charge of them.
“I'll do it.”
“Bann Teagan,” began Jarriad - that was the name! - as he leaned forward, “there is no need for you to do such a thing.”
“He's my nephew,” answered Teagan sharply and Natia leaned back in her seat, more than a little surprised. Obviously Alistair and his brother weren't the only decent nobles that the humans had. No deshyr that she'd ever heard of would do such a thing for their family. Not unless they had something to gain. “It shouldn't be a stranger.”
“But can you really do it?” asked Natia, tilting her head curiously. Holding up her hands as several hard looks came her way, she continued, “Just saying, it's not easy killing someone you care about and even harder if it's a relative.”
One of the men snorted and snapped, “What do you know, dwarf?”
“I know I have a sister that I've killed for. Folks I liked too.” Flashing her most menacing grin in his direction, she finished, “And I've considered once or twice putting my drunk of a mother out of her misery.”
“Enough, Natia,” hissed Jarriad, his tone deadly serious, and she knew good and well when to shut up. He then rose from his seat to frown seriously across the fire at the Bann. “It would be a noble gesture for you, yes, Bann Teagan, but the matter remains that the King is tainted. We Grey Wardens are better prepared for dealing with such.”
The red-haired man looked distraught at the words then nodded despite the mutters that went up from the men around them. Lifting a hand, Teagan barked, “The Wardens have the right of it!” He then took a step forward, blue eyes narrowed as he hissed, “I will be there, however. Not to get in your way but so someone is there in the end that cares.”
Natia started to open to her mouth to say that she cared a little from the short but kind little introduction Alistair had managed to give her to the King but Jarriad's face said she should still be keeping her mouth shut. Shrugging, she poked her stick deeper into the fire and prodded a few of the coals back into life.
The Bann's blue eyes shifted towards her then he tiredly lifted a hand to rub his eyes before saying, “We should be done with it as soon as possible. To spare Cailan any further pain as he can't possibly survive the trip.”
It was a nice thought but she didn't imagine there was any chance of that. Tainted, wounded, betrayed by his wife's father, and his brother blamed for it. The King wasn't going to die alone but he was going to die not knowing if those he loved would survive the certainly inevitable civil war.
“And what are we to do, Bann Teagan?” piped up the scarred Highever man. “Half of us will be killed on sight for being traitors of one kind or another and the other have nothing to go back to!” Harsh murmurs sounded from the other gathered men at that and Natia cautiously reached for one of her daggers. She'd seen far too many crowds turn to violence in her life - a few of them spurred onward by herself or Leske at Carta orders - and wasn't about to die in one.
Teagan raised his hands and loudly called out, “I can promise nothing to any of you men. You know that. I can, however, give my word that if we reach Rainesfere safely, there will be safety for you there.”
There were still a few dark murmurs but the words seemed to settle most of the men and Natia relaxed slightly. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Jarriad was still sitting tensely nearby and asked softly, “It's enough for now, isn't it?”
“For now,” he answered soberly. “But who knows what tomorrow might bring?”
Chapter 14: 1st of Kingsway, Drowning - Cailan
Dying felt like almost drowning when he'd been dared to dive into Lake Calenhad. Every breath was hideous agony and he couldn't tell which way was up or down, which was the way to safety and survival.
Of course, there wasn't any safety or survival now. There was only the wound in his side, infected and feverish, and the taint in his blood. Even with a healer, he would never have a chance.
Outside of the makeshift tent, Cailan could hear talking and closed his eyes in agony as he heard his uncle say that he would kill him. Honestly he would rather drive the blade into his own heart than let someone he loved do such a thing. He couldn't bear to have them live with that on their conscience, even if it would be a mercy. Thankfully, however, the elder Warden Jarriad spoke up and dashed that happening.
The elf had been the one to explain to him the fullness of his situation when they had gotten their ramshackle little camp settled. He had quietly but firmly ordered everyone within out and sat down on the floor next to the cot Cailan was lying upon. When he had begun speaking, Jarriad's first words were an apology. His next were confirmation of what Cailan had suspected since they'd begun staggering away from Ostagar.
He was to die here, wounded by treachery, poisoned by darkspawn, and utterly betrayed by men and women he'd believed loyal.
Outside, he heard his uncle swear to the gathered survivors that Rainesfere would hold safety for them. Eamon wouldn't like that at all, would probably even try to convince Teagan otherwise. Knowing his older uncle, however, he would likely say something to push his younger brother even moreso towards his chosen action. It was the way with them.
Wearily, Cailan closed his eyes in a vain attempt to fight back sudden tears. He could not protect his own men nor the men and women of his country.
He could not protect his wife.
He could not protect his brother.
The agony of that reality was overwhelming and he involuntarily sucked in a breath, letting it out in a choked gasp that was half sorrow and half from pain lancing up his side. He was drowning again and again and Uncle Teagan could not merely drag him out of the lake by the scruff of his neck this time.
In the back of his mind, a tiny voice reminded him that he was supposed to be a King, to be an example for his men. He could not break down now, despite his own pain, when they needed him. But there was a memory there too, of Anora and him on that terrible night when he'd both burned his father's effigy and agreed to send his brother away. A night when she had opened her arms and welcomed him to grieve without judgement, to be his solid ground in the storm that had become his life.
There would likely be no judgement now but were no warm, loving arms and never would be again.
Cailan lifted both hands to cover his face as that realization hit harder than the reality of dying and he could no longer hold back a broken sob. Another tore its way out of his throat almost immediately after and he gave in to the sorrow as pain wracked his body, wishing vainly for a way back home.
Chapter 15: 3rd of Kingsway, Sentence - Teagan
Make sure these get into their hands, Uncle. I want...there are things I want them to know.
Teagan stared numbly down at the trio of letters in his hands, each folded and sealed with the mark of Cailan's signet ring. The ring itself rode in one of his pockets and seemed so much heavier than it actually was.
It was the last thing his nephew had handed him.
Bowing his head, he wiped hurriedly at his eyes then twisted to put the letters carefully into one of the pouches on his belt. As he did so, the dwarf exited the tent, her face ashen. Her green eyes lifted to meet his and she bobbed her head in acknowledgement before saying, "He's gone."
Teagan stared at her for a moment then managed a weary nod. He then noticed her looking curiously around their almost deserted camp, empty but for them and a handful of men and women who were preparing breakfast. "I asked for volunteers to build a pyre," he said quietly. "I ended up with more hands than we have axes for."
She opened her mouth for a moment then closed it, shaking her head before she moved to stand next to him. They merely stood there for a moment before she asked, "What are your plans now?"
"We'll head to Rainesfere and settle the survivors who aren't of Redcliffe. Then we'll head on to there with the rest." He paused before adding, "You both are welcome to continue traveling with us."
"Have to see what the boss says about that, long legs." She then frowned before saying, "Suppose I'll go give them another pair of hands. Seems the least I could do." Before he could say anything in response, she was gone, leaving him standing alone once again.
Wearily Teagan turned and entered the tent, finding Jarriad still there. The elf was leaning over Cailan's body, carefully folding his arms across the chest to hide the final wound to the heart that had killed him. After a moment he stepped back and said, "If we have any leather gloves, the men who carry the cot to the pyre will need them. I'd rather they avoid coming into contact with the taint as much as possible."
"Noted," said Teagan quietly, idly recalling he'd seen a few pairs floating around camp. He stepped up next to the other man then asked, "What are your plans, Jarriad?"
The white-haired elf frowned for a moment before answering. "Our mission is the same as it ever was. We must end the Blight. No matter what respect I may have once held for Teyrn Loghain, I will not let his current choices sway what must be done."
Jarriad just smiled bitterly. "I was one of his Night Elves," he explained. "During the war."
Teagan arched his eyebrows in surprise, having not expected that. "How did you end up in the Wardens?" he asked.
"I killed a man. Self-defense but humans don't make that destinction with elves, not even ones who are war heroes. Duncan conscripted me while I was rotting in a cell in Gwaren." The elf then shook himself and said, "That's the past, however, BannTeagan. Now we have the future to worry about."
"Very true. I plan to go to Rainesfere and then continue to Redcliffe to speak with my brother. You Wardens are welcome to travel with us."
Jarried frowned before saying, "You tread upon dangerous grounds, ser. Asking us to travel with you will likely bring a death sentence upon you."
Teagan shrugged and turned his gaze to his nephew's body, staring at it for a long moment. Then he slowly shifted his eyes back to Jarriad and said in a voice as cold as steel, "With what I intend to do, two Wardens traveling with us for a time will be nothing in comparison to the sentence I will bring upon my own head."
Chapter 16: 8th of Kingsway, Run - Anora
When the alert for the train of wagons heading towards the city reached the Palace, Anora was already prepared for their arrival. The messenger that had arrived in the blur of days previous had told her the message she was supposed to receive as well as the truth. It had hurt terribly to hear of Cailan's almost certain death but to know it was practically at her father's hand?
And he was blaming it on Alistair of all people.
If she hadn't grown up with Cailan and his brother, she might have fallen for it. But she had seen them together. They would do anything for each other and Alistair would never, never plot against his brother.
When the wagons entered the city and made their way to the Palace, she was waiting for them with the Palace staff at the ready behind her. They swiftly had the three weary men inside the building with the Couslands ensconced in the set of rooms they'd always been accorded and she'd sent a man riding to the Tower for the best healer they could spare. Anora had what few belongings Alistair had delivered to Cailan's old room and ordered him brought to her as soon as possible once he'd cleaned up.
He showed up, hair still damp and fresh clothes sticking to his skin, and stood there, hands clasped behind him with his head bowed.
Turning away from the window - watching for any alert that meant a sign of her father - Anora frowned at him. “Are we to be formal now, Alistair?” she asked quietly.
“Given that I'm not sure exactly where you stand, I figured it would probably be better to swing for formal than just barging in and demanding you keep to your word.” The words were so like him, so like Cailan, and her heart ached for her husband's absence.
“I promised Cailan I would support you.”
Alistair lifted his head then and she was more than a little shocked by the rage in his eyes. Never had she seen that much anger in his hazel eyes, not even during the worst of his few fights with Cailan or the one shouting match she'd witnessed with King Maric.
“Promises can be broken,” he growled. “Cailan broke one he made to Father in order to have me as his heir. And your own father broke one and good as killed my brother and your husband!” He paused then spat, “Can I honestly trust you?”
“Alistair...I have never lied to you.”
“You haven't, Anora, but there's always a first time for everything.”
She blinked at the words then shook her head, mentally scolding herself. This wasn't the fifteen year-old boy they'd sent away nor was he the young man who had come to Denerim with the Couslands at Wintersend every year after that. No, this Alistair was a completely different creature.
“I'm sorry,” she apologized. “I forgot how long it's been. Has Highever changed you that much?”
Pain flared in his eyes and he snapped back, “Watching the people who cared for me like I was one of their own for nearly a decade die at the hands of those we thought were allies tends to give one a different perspective.”
Anora flinched, regretting her question. The messenger had only briefly mentioned the fall of Highever to the Howes and she hadn't had time to fully comprehend the details of what that had meant for Alistair and Aedan with all else that she'd been doing to prepare. Of course, then, Highever had changed him.
Bowing her head, she said, “It seems I will be apologizing for a great deal in this conversation.”
Alistair heaved a sigh in response and she looked up to see him rubbing a hand across his face. “I should be as well,” he said and there it was in his voice, all the pain that was as much a match to her own. “I'm sorry, Anora. I just...the last few days...”
“Have been hard,” she supplied and he shook his head.
“Hard doesn't begun to describe it,” he answered, voice dropping to a whisper. Alistair then shook himself and straightened as he said, “I can grieve later though. Loghain isn't far behind us on the road and, as I'm sure the messenger he sent told you, he's laying Cailan's death on me and the Wardens.”
Nodding, Anora gestured towards the window. “I have men keeping watch for him, never fear.” She then frowned and asked, “What of the Couslands? Were they included in this supposed coup?”
“Just me. Fergus and Aedan are safe and that's the way I'd like to keep it. They'd fight tooth and nail to protect me.”
As Cailan tried, thought Anora. She tilted her head to the side, regarding Alistair carefully, then said, “You would rather have them safe.”
“I've been protected for most of my life, Anora!” he snapped. “It's about time I protected someone else.”
“Then you have a plan?”
Alistair shrugged then answered, “Parts of one, I suppose. Most of it's me running.”
Anora blinked. “Running?” she repeated. “Alistair, you don't have to run.”
“Do you really think your father is going to let a little thing like Cailan's last request keep him from whatever end he has in mind?” Shaking his head, he went on, “I learned early that he hated me, remember? It made me always wonder why and question what it was about me that had led to this man, this supposed best friend of my own father, to hate me. So I watched him. I learned a lot about Loghain by just watching how he interacted with you or Cailan or anyone else he came across. You're rather like him, you know, but nicer.”
Nodding slightly because she had heard herself compared to her father many times in the past, Anora asked, “And what did you learn?”
“Mostly that he's rather like a mabari. Once he's latched on to something he thinks is the right choice or course, he won't let go. So whatever prompted him to do this, he's not going to give up easy, Anora. He'll fight us for every inch and if he can get me out of the way, he will.”
Alistair's assessment of her father - and herself - was rather exact. Neither of them gave up easily but, as her father had a goal now, she had one as well. With a chilling smile, Anora said, “And what have I latched onto?”
“Making me King, which is really a terrible idea in my personal opinion,” he answered, eyes a little wider than normal. He then shuddered as he added, “You're rather terrifying when you smile like that.”
Stepping across the room now, Anora reached out to grab his arm. “Cailan believed in you,” she insisted. “He pored over every report Bryce sent of your progress at Highever, smiling like a proud father when there was something impressive or amusing. If anyone knows what you're capable of, it is my husband.” Was, corrected some tiny part of herself but she shoved it away. If she looked too closely at the proper way to reference her husband now, she'd be useless as with it would come the full realization of his absence.
“Now,” she continued, “you need more of a plan than just running away.”
Alistair tilted his head to the side curiously. “I take it you have a few ideas?”
“Perhaps,” answered Anora, summoning her most mysterious smile. Then, impulsively, she stepped closer and lifted a hand to touch his face. As he blinked down at her, she quietly said, “You are dear to me, Alistair. Remember that.”
After a moment, Alistair brought his hand up to grasp hers, bringing it down so it hung between them. “And you are dear to me, sister,” he intoned softly.
It had been a long time since the first time he'd called her that but somehow, given the current circumstances, the word seemed to suddenly mean so much more. Smiling, Anora squeezed his hand then led him over to the chairs in front of the fire, gesturing for him to sit.
They had little time and so much to do.
Chapter 17: 9th of Kingsway, Family - Aedan
“I'm coming with you,” insisted Aedan as he stared at Alistair. Before his friend could start the protest he knew was coming, he continued, “You'll need someone with you!”
“And I'll have it,” said Alistair quietly, his voice firm. “One of Cailan's most trusted men, who he left here in charge of guarding the Palace and Anora. We're leaving in a few hours, getting out of Denerim as quickly as possible.”
His friend shook his head. “No, Aedan, you need to be here. You and Fergus need each other a lot more than I do.”
From behind Aedan in one of the bedrooms attached to the main room of the Highever suite, Fergus called out, “Don't you use me as an excuse, boy!”
With a chuckle, Alistair called back, “Not fair as I recall you using me as an excuse once or twice, Fergus.”
“Stop it!” snapped Aedan, his patience suddenly run to its limit. Staring at his friend, he exclaimed, “Stop deflecting, Alistair.”
“I have to,” answered Alistair quietly, “or I'll go mad.” He seemed very small suddenly, even though he was slightly taller and broader than Aedan, as he shook his head. “And I can't let you put yourself in danger for me. Not now. Not when Highever needs you.”
“Highever has Fergus!”
Swinging out at arm, his friend snapped, “And what can Fergus do from a bed? You heard what that mage at Ostagar said about his wounds. He needs you, Aedan, to help get Highever back.”
Shaking his head, Aedan asked, “And how are we to do that without you?”
“Anora will help you.”
“Anora,” he sneered skeptically.
Suddenly Alistair was in his face, hazel eyes blazing as a hand closed over the front of his tunic and jerked him up onto his toes. Aedan blinked at his friend in shock, hands coming up to brace himself against Alistair's shoulders and about to push back when the he spoke.
“I grew up with her here in the Palace, while you and Fergus only saw her rarely,” growled Alistair, “so don't pretend that you know her. Who do you think taught me how to be so politically savvy? Who made sure I knew exactly what I could expect from others because I'm bastardborn? My father and brother did their best to protect me from it so who taught me, Aedan?”
“Anora,” he answered softly. “Alistair, I'm sorry. I didn't...”
Aedan suddenly stumbled back as his friend released him and turned away, leaving him staring numbly at his back. As he reached out, Alistair shook his head, and Aedan let his hand fall slowly back to his side.
“You didn't think she cared? She's been my sister for much longer than her marriage to Cailan.”
Silence rang between them for a moment then Fergus called out, “You're an idiot, little brother.” As Aedan turned to glare at the bedroom, his brother continued, “And don't glower at me like I know you are right now. You know I'm right.”
From behind him, Alistair snorted. “Well, he is right. You are an idiot.”
That made Fergus laugh and Aedan rolled his eyes before turning back to his friend. Shaking his head, he held out a hand and said softly, “I'm sorry. Collective apology for everything lately.”
“Apology accepted,” said Alistair as he turned and reached out to take the offered hand. He then surprised Aedan by pulling him into a sudden hug. “Don't worry, I'm well aware that brothers have a tendency to stick their feet in their mouth.”
Abruptly Aedan was holding tight to his friend, terribly afraid to let go because Alistair was his brother in everything but blood and now he might stand to lose him. “Yeah,” he said after a moment, “well come back so I can work on correcting that bad habit. I'll never get anywhere with Fergus around as I learned it from him.”
Alistair snorted then Aedan found himself being pushed back. As he looked up at his friend, Alistair clasped his shoulder and said quietly, “I'll do my best.”
The promise was a weak one and Aedan could feel there was something deeper in the words because his friend's voice broke ever so slightly. A weak promise was still a promise, however, and in their current situation it was probably the best Alistair could do.
“Be careful,” he pressed. The words I don't want to lose a brother were on the edge of his tongue but Aedan held them back. Alistair had lost a brother and he'd gotten his back. It just didn't seem right to say those words when Cailan was gone.
Alistair just nodded and then left, the door closing quietly behind him. Aedan stood staring at the doorway for a long moment then he turned to go stand in the open door of Fergus' room, just looking blankly at his brother for a moment. “He's gone,” he finally managed to say flatly.
Fergus nodded then closed his eyes. “May the Maker watch over him.”
“Over us all,” corrected Aedan. “I think we're going to need all the help we can get.”
Chapter 18: 9th of Kingsway, Faith - Osanna
She ran, practically flying through the halls of the Palace, rushing past others without really seeing them. There was a single goal in her mind and she must reach it before he left.
As she burst into the stables, Osanna was breathing hard with a pain lancing up her right side. She pressed onward, however, and when she saw Alistair's tall form standing near one of the back stalls, her flight was made entirely worthwhile. The sight of him also lent her a rush of energy and he just barely turned around in time to meet her.
Lifting her hands, Osanna cupped his cheeks and searched his face, trying to find all of the answers she was searching for. The years she'd spent in the Palace had taught her of the gossip circles that swirled through the different groups of servants. So when the rumors of the aftermath of Ostagar had begun making their circulation, she hadn't quite known how to respond.
Especially the one that said Alistair, her Alistair, had betrayed his brother.
The boy that had left the Palace years before had grown up into the man before her and she could still see him. There was fresh pain etched into his face, though, and it made her heart ache to see it. Even worse to know that that pain wouldn't find an easy end.
“Osanna,” he breathed and suddenly arms coated in leather and steel instead of the cloth she remembered curled around her. Despite that difference, it was the same embrace as it had been five years previous when his father had died - all quiet desperation that screamed of an ache that couldn't be healed.
“Oh, child,” she gasped, “what happened?”
Alistair just shook his head. “Too much and we don't have time. Loghain's been spotted on the road, riding hard ahead of most of his men.”
Just the mere name of the man made anger rear up into life and snarl in her heart. Osanna had never liked the dark Teyrn, not since that first night when she had arrived with Alistair. Over the years since then her dislike had only grown but she had come to care for his daughter during that time. And when Anora had come to the Palace to stay, Cailan had suggested her to his new wife as the woman to head her personal score of servants.
It was that position that had allowed her to find Alistair now as Anora had known where he was.
Cursing in her native tongue, Osanna rose up on her toes and gently pulled Alistair's face downward. As he bent to accommodate her, she noticed that his eyes were closed and he was breathing hard. Tears suddenly came to her own eyes and she forced them shut as she pressed a kiss against his forehead, feeling his arms tighten around her.
“Be safe,” she breathed shakily. “Oh, my son, be safe.”
Alistair's breathing hitched and as Osanna settled back down onto the flat of her feet, she saw him blinking back tears. Fighting against her own, she moved one hand down to the chain around her neck and drew out the amulet she'd worn since she'd been a young girl. “My mother gave me this to protect me before she died,” she said softly as she pulled the chain over her head. Reaching for one of his arms, she brought his hand between them and placed the amulet inside before closing his fingers over it. “She said Andraste would follow and protect me so long as I wore her flame.”
“You haven't followed the faith since before I was born,” he noted with a weak smile and Osanna nodded before curling the fingers of her still raised hand against his cheek.
“No. I have always believed, however, that her faith protected me. And now it will protect you.”
Abruptly the man standing nearby spoke up quietly. “Alistair. We have to go.”
“Go,” she breathed, dropping her hands and stepping away. As Alistair merely blinked at her, standing there looking ever so lost with her amulet in his hands, she flung out her hands and snapped, “Go.”
The man growled through his teeth and reached out to grab at Alistair's arm but the younger man was already moving, turning towards the saddled horse. Osanna stepped further back as they both rose into their respective saddles, her eyes catching his for a brief moment before they were gone.
As the sound of the hooves pounded into the distance, she sank to her knees with both hands clasped over her heart and prayed for the first time since the death of her daughter so many years before. “Lady Andraste, protect him, please,” she breathed aloud. “He's all I have left.”
Chapter 19: 9th of Kingsway, Hunter - Leliana
"Oh, this is beautiful !"
Leliana glanced up from the book she was reading and called across the room, "I take it your designs came to fruition?"
Marjolaine smiled widely in response - though the joy behind it was twisted and dark like the dankest dungeon, something she had been noticing more and more lately - and held up the note that had been slid under the door of their little house in Denerim. "One of our spies in the Palace had come with news. Our pawn has been spotted on the road and their would-be Prince is fleeing the city."
Arching a russet eyebrow, she asked, "How is his fleeing within your plans?"
"Dear pet, without the boy fleeing, the game would be over all too quickly," replied the other woman. She then moved to toss the note onto the coals of the fire and added, "I have a mission for you."
Sitting up, Leliana folded a ribbon between the pages of her book and let it rest on her knee. "You want me to follow them."
Marjolaine nodded with a smile and reached out to caress her cheek. She resisted the urge to pull away from the touch which she had once welcomed and smiled back.
"Wise pet. You will follow and observe for now but, should the need arise, I may have you play the helpless maiden. Would it not be sweet irony to lure the boy into a relationship and then to dash all of his dreams?"
Leliana didn't see the point in such a venture as she'd never taken pleasure in the suffering of others but she didn't voice such. She'd learned her lesson the first time she had spoken against one of Marjolaine's ideas. The scar had faded considerably but it was still enough there to serve as a reminder.
"Very well," she said as she rose.
"Oh, don't look so put out, pet," purred Marjolaine from behind her as Leliana turned to gather the ready satchel that held her essentials and her bow. "Just think, it will be all over soon and we can leave this dog-ridden pit for the beauty of Orlais once again."
Nodding, Leliana murmured, "Of course." Turning to smile at her teacher, she added, "I do look forward to seeing Val Royeaux again." Her heart was not in the words, however, despite the fact that she did long for what had been her home for so long. She longed for freedom more and there was none of that with Marjolaine or in Orlais.
With a smile, Marjolaine moved forward and kissed her lightly, lips ghosting over hers as she breathed, "Play the game well, pet, and we shall indeed see it again. Now go, you have a would-be Prince to chase."
Without another word, she left the little house and slipped through the streets of Denerim, heading towards the Palace to catch up with her target. All the while Leliana tried hard not to think of how cold that kiss had been and how it had felt less like their normal parting than a harsh goodbye.
Chapter 20: 10th of Kingsway, Confrontation - Anora
She stood waiting, staring out the window of Cailan's office down onto the city and watching as her father's men took up the square in front of the Palace. Behind her she could hear Osanna bustling about the room, the older woman humming an old Anders lullaby quietly. It was a tune Anora had heard often over the years as both Cailan and Alistair had been wont to fall into humming it themselves, often without quite noticing.
Despite the ache it caused in her chest due to recalling the both of them, one lost permanently and one (hopefully) momentarily, it was also comforting.
Then there was a sharp knock at the door and Anora flinched, knowing who was on the other side. Instantly the tune stopped and Osanna quietly asked, “Would you like me to send them away, Your Majesty?”
“No, I need to have this conversation.” Turning, she smiled at the older woman and added, “But thank you.”
Bowing, Osanna merely smiled and Anora turned back to the window because she didn't think she could face her father yet. As the door opened, she closed her eyes as she heard his voice, her heart aching as it jerked in far too many directions. Here was her father, the man she had looked up to for so many years, who she was far too alike in some respects (though always the best, as Cailan had warmly pointed out several times). And here, was the man who had murdered her husband, had killed all too many of their men and women with his actions, and who had placed all of that blame onto the shoulders of her brother.
“I would speak to my daughter alone.”
“And I, ser, will leave only at Her Majesty's say,” snapped Osanna back.
Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Anora called out, “It is fine, Osanna.”
“Of course. I will, however, be just outside.”
As the door closed behind the older woman, her father said, “I will be taking her into custody when I leave.”
The fact that that statement, out of anything, was the first thing he said to her made Anora turn in disgust. “You,” she said firmly, “will do nothing of the sort, Father.”
“She's the boy's former nurse and obviously suspect in being involved with his plans. Surely my letter about what happened reached you.”
“Then you know I speak the truth.”
Do I? Anora wanted to snap, to rage and scream, but she dragged the words down and buried them within herself. If she wanted to help Alistair and keep him alive, she had to keep her temper in check.
Folding her hands, she stated firmly, “I trust Osanna deeply. Should you wish to question her, you may, but it will be done here in the Palace. She will, as well, remain in her place.”
The seeming permanent frown that had etched itself onto her father's face over the past few years seemed to deepen as he said, “You put too much trust in the woman.”
“She's earned it.”
Silence hung between them for a moment then Loghain began, “There is a matter we need to speak about. Regarding the boy.” Anora arched an eyebrow in response, not entirely trusting herself to say anything just yet, and waited for him to continue. “Before the battle, Cailan told me that he had made the boy his heir and that you were backing him.”
“I did,” she answered proudly. “We both signed it here in the office and sealed it before he left for Ostagar.”
It is only those two words but Anora heard so much more in them. He expected her to destroy that agreement, to break the last promise she made to her husband, and all for what? A lie that she doesn't even know the real reason for.
“What really happened at Ostagar?” The words were sudden, surprising both of them, and he stared at her for a long moment before answering quietly.
“You know what happened.”
Her temper snapped despite all of her wants and careful plans and, like a mabari lunging forward in battle, she snarled, “Don't lie to me, Father!”
Loghain blinked, surprised, then said, “I have never lied to you, Anora.” Laughter burst out of her at the words, frenetic and a little mad, and she shook her head.
“Oh, Father, you don't even know the tales you have told over the years,” intoned Anora sadly. Shaking her head, she smiled at him bitterly. “Did you truly think that you could make me believe that Alistair had betrayed Cailan?”
“Father, you did not raise a fool and I find it insulting that you think my intelligence so low!”
He remained quiet for a moment then said very softly, “You're obviously still grieving. Listen to yourself, Anora. You're in no shape to run the country now.”
For a moment she didn't quiet believe the words he had spoken. As they finally settled, all too solid and utterly absurd, Anora chuckled darkly. “I assure you that I am in full control of my senses, Father. I am the Queen of Ferelden, recognized fully in that right by the Landsmeet. Until they say otherwise or this debacle with Alistair is settled, I will remain in that position.”
“And you,” she interrupted to state firmly, “will remain as the Teyrn of Gwaren. Nothing more.”
Loghain scowled before saying, “Let me help you.”
With a shake of her head, Anora turned her back on him and worked to ignore the ache in her heart. “I think,” she said quietly, “that I've had enough of your help, Father.”
An instant after her shout, the office door flung itself open and they both turned at the intrusion. Her guards and Osanna stepped inside first, followed immediately by a pair of her father's men and Cauthrien. “Is everything all right, Your Majesty?” asked the older of her guardsmen, his eyes flicking immediately to her without looking once at her father.
Regaining her composure, Anora nodded and said firmly, “Yes, Odrick, everything is fine. My father was about to be leaving.”
“Anora,” hissed Loghain, “I urge you to think about this with a more careful eye.”
“I have and will continue to consider all options, Father,” she answered with as much finality as she could put into the words. He stared at her for a moment in response then shook his head sadly before leaving, one of his men closing the door behind them. Odrick glanced after them then stepped forward with a concerned look on his face.
“Your Majesty,” he said in a low voice, as if he feared being overheard, “are you truly all right?”
Smiling, Anora nodded. “Yes. Thank you, Odrick, for asking.”
“We're loyal to the crown, Your Majesty.”
“And we've heard the...rumors,” piped the other guard, a younger man who she seemed to recall was one of the younger sons of a Bann. “That and before the Captain left, he told us we were to be vigilant. Said dark times were ahead.”
Dark times. Anora mused over the words for a moment and could exactly picture them coming from Captain Bernard, the man Cailan had left with her and who she had now entrusted Alistair to. And the man was all too right to use them.
Nodding half to herself, she lifted her chin and said, “We will do our best to ensure that those dark times do not occur. Odrick, please send one of the pages to Captain Angus as well as Captain Warner and another to the Couslands. Tell them to ask if the Captains and AedanCousland would join me here in an hour to discuss something of great importance.”
The guardsman nodded sharply and both turned as one to leave. As the door closed behind them, she could hear Odrick shouting for two of the pages and knew that her orders were in good hands as they were loyal men. Then there was a gentle touch on her arm and Anora closed her eyes wearily.
“He wanted to take you for questioning.”
Osanna snorted before saying, “Of course he did. I am a threat in his mind, much as Alistair has always been. This is something I have known for years.” She then asked, “Do you have a plan? Or is that what you intend to construct with these men?”
“Alistair and I discussed several options while he was here. But...” After she trailed off, Anora let her shoulders slump as she opened her eyes to look at the older woman. If there was anyone that she had left to be honest with, it was this woman. “I'm afraid.”
“Of what may be coming or going against your father?”
Osanna nodded then said, “I will tell you something you probably know already, a thing I told Alistair when he was small. It is alright to be afraid." She lightly touched Anora's chin, just enough to bring the Queen's attention to her, and finished, "What you must be wary of is letting that fear control you."
It was something she already knew but hearing the words again steeled something in Anora's heart. Nodding, she straightened her posture once more and allowed herself one nervous smoothing of her skirts before she forced her hands to stillness. Fear and uncertainty and grief would have to wait until later to rear their heads.
She had a kingdom to defend from the unknown machinations of her father and a brother to save.
Chapter 21: 12th of Kingsway, Quiet - Bernard
The boy was too quiet.
Not that Bernard could blame him for his silence as he had lost everything in one fell swoop but it still unnerved him. Ever since he'd joined the army, he'd been surrounded by noise. That hadn't changed when he'd risen through the ranks to Captain, when he'd been invited into Maric's Shield, or when he'd taken over command of the Palace guard at Cailan's insistence.
Silence always allowed him too much time to think. And nowadays thinking brought him back around again and again to parting words and where they'd led him.
Protect Anora, had been his King's last orders, spoken before he'd left Denerim with all of Bernard's fellows. He'd had a sickening feeling then as he'd watched them go that he would never see any of them alive again.
Protect Alistair, had been the parting words from his Queen, quiet but full of purpose as sharp as the edge of a sword.
Sighing, Bernard looked back at the boy and found his attention drawn to the pauldron with its dual mabari. That would certainly have to go if there were going to be discreet. Then again, he noted as he looked at the young man, he wasn't entirely sure how they were going to manage that. He remembered seeing King Maric as a boy and had served under Cailan as King long enough to have seen Alistair briefly a few times.
The Theirin features were strong in each of them and anyone who knew them would instantly recognize them in the boy. They were either going to have to avoid towns entirely or he was going to have to leave the boy alone in order to refill their supplies when needed. Neither option was a particularly good one.
"Where are we going?"
The boy's question was softly spoken but it was such a surprise to have him break the quiet that Bernard jumped slightly. Turning to look at Alistair, he arched an eyebrow before he answered, "I've got nowhere specifically in mind, lad. South is our only destination for the moment."
"Brecilian Forest then," said Alistair with a sharp nod. His gaze then focused on the trees beyond Bernard before he said quietly, "Too far south is dangerous. There's probably darkspawn pouring out of the Wilds now that we no longer hold Ostagar."
Bernard frowned before asking, "You actually believe the Wardens, lad? About the Blight?"
All he got was a nod in response for a moment then the younger man sighed heavily. "Cailan believed the Warden Commander was telling the truth," he said after a moment. "He'd ordered the men at Ostagar to put a heavier guard at the Tower of Ishal on his word. If Loghain..." Alistair trailed off, his eyes suddenly angry and he snarled something under his breath.
"There's no guarantee in war," Bernard intoned gently. That brought that angry gaze flashing towards him and he held up a hand in a semi-warding gesture. "It's the truth, lad, and you know it as well as I."
"There's no guarantee in anything. That's the truth I know," Alistair spat bitterly in response, all of the anger seeming to rush out of him as his shoulders slumped slightly.
While that was true, it certainly wasn't the viewpoint he'd expected from a young man just crossing into his twentieth years. Then again, as he recalled, the lad had experienced some terrible things during those few years. His father's death followed by the massacre at Highever, the death of his brother, and the prospect of a life on the run...really he shouldn't be surprised at the bitter commentary.
"I'll give you that, lad. I'll give you that." Bernard then tilted his head back to regard the fading daylight as well as the swiftly blackening clouds and said, "We'd best find ourselves some shelter. Looks like there's going to be a storm tonight."
As he urged his horse ahead, Alistair commented dryly from behind him, "If we die in the Forest, I'm going to haunt you. Just so you know."
"Duly noted, Your Highness," he called back, unable to resist a smile as he got the distinct feeling that there would be less quiet from now on.
Chapter 22: 13th of Kingsway, Nightmares - Alistair
He is twenty and standing in the middle of Ostagar in front of his brother's tent when the ground opened up from underneath them, darkspawn pouring out from the depths revealed below them to destroy everything.
He is twenty and running through the halls of Highever, sword in hand and words of warning on his lips, only this time to arrive too late. Everyone was dead and he was faced with only the shapeless features of Howe's men to take out his anger upon.
He is fifteen and standing in Denerim, his hand wrapped around a torch, and thrust the burning brand into the dry kindling of the pyre. Only when he looked up, it was Cailan on the pyre, not the ragdoll effigy of their father.
He is seven years old, running down the stairs of the Palace, tripping, falling, tumbling forever it seems. And when he looks up where he lays on the ground, he sees his brother disappearing into nothing, blue eyes staring back as if in betrayal.
Alistair woke with a scream in his throat, fingers scrabbling for his sword as his limbs flailed in an attempt to get him upright. He staggered, nearly tumbling over, then managed to get the blade free of the sheath. As he blinked, the black edges of sleep replaced by the haze of sunrise and the low burning embers of the campfire, he remembered.
He was on the run. Painted as a traitor. Fratricide.
And his brother was dead. Of betrayal. Regicide.
The sword slipped from suddenly numb fingers and Alistair dropped to his knees, a keen rising in his throat. He lifted both hands to fist them in his hair as he doubled over until his forehead touched the night chilled dirt as tears blinded his eyes. "Please," he was vaguely aware of begging, though he wasn't sure who he was speaking to.
Osanna's own disbelief in the Maker had influenced his own religious views over the years. Oh, he made the motions like Anora and Father had told him to do because it was proper and expected by the populace but he'd never believed. He had never felt the need to because he'd had everything he needed in Osanna, in Father, Cailan, Anora, Aedan, everyone he dared love. Now...
Now he almost wanted the Maker and Andraste to really exist if only to hear him. He didn't care if they answered. Didn't care if anything happened because of it.
He just wanted to scream his pain to the sky and have someone, anyone there to listen.
"Please," Alistair begged into the dirt as his tears made mud out of it, "please give him back. I just...I want my brother back." Slowly sliding down sideways onto the ground, he curled up as much as he could and wished hard to be back home. He just wanted warm, loving arms around him again, where there was comfort and safety and nothing bad could ever happen.
But there was only the cold ground there to provide little comfort.
Chapter 23: 14th of Kingsway, Allies - Natia
“You can't keep those men in Rainesfere! I forbid it!”
Natia lifted her eyes from sharpening one of her daggers to look at Jarriad across the hall. The elf was watching the door of Arl Eamon's office just as unobtrusively as she was and shook his head at her as he noticed her watching him.
“Rainesfere is my bannorn, Eamon!” she heard Teagan snap harshly. “You can advise me on what to do with it but the matter stands that I am in charge. Should I choose to house these men for a time, then it's on my head.”
“A bannorn under the auspice of Redcliffe! Think, brother, what might happen if Loghain discovers what you are doing!”
“After what I saw at Ostagar, Eamon, I couldn't give a rat's arse about what that traitor might think.”
Unable to repress her snort at the bann's words and the Arl's indignant sputtering in response, Natia mouthed across the hall, I like him. Jarriad just smiled in response and she got the feeling he liked the younger Guerrin too.
“Teagan! Teagan, come back here!”
As the office door flung open, Natia turned her head to see Teagan storming out with his brother right behind him. When the elder Guerrin reached out to grab the younger, he spun out of reach with one hand falling to rest on the hilt of his sword.
“Do as you will, brother,” Teagan snarled through clenched teeth. “I, however, will not see good men and women suffer and my people agreed with me. Disown me if it will make you feel better.”
Eamon's eyes slid over her and Jarriad for a moment then he hissed, “Think about this.”
“I'm not a boy running around on daydreams anymore, brother.”
“Yet you still think like one!”
Oh. Natia slowly rose to her feet as she sensed an unconscious shift in the dynamic of room. The feeling coiled tight, like a spring, and when it released it was all beautiful fury as Teagan lashed out with a gauntlet clad fist and caught his brother in the mouth. Eamon went sprawling and the younger Guerrin followed him with a snarl, more predator than man suddenly.
“I have had enough,” he spat. “As when I explained all of this to you earlier, I have had weeks to consider my actions and promises. I watched Cailan die, Eamon. Our own blood died out there of betrayal of the worst kind that I saw with my own eyes and you want me to keep my head down. Maker, brother, I knew you were a politician but I didn't think you such a coward.”
The Arl wiped a hand across his bleeding lips before hissing, “You fight the battles you can win, Teagan. Now isn't the time for it.”
“I'd rather fight the one's that need fighting.” Teagan turned away as he said those words and looked at Jarriad as he said, “Wardens, Rainesfere will welcome you as well if you need shelter.”
Arching her eyebrows, Natia started to open her mouth but the elf beat her to it in saying, “We appreciate the offer, Bann Teagan, but there is a task we must undertake on our own. With you and the others safe, it is well past time for us to be on our way.”
The younger Guerrin nodded. “The offer will stand so long as I hold the bannorn,” he said sharply and then he was gone, striding off purposefully from the hall. Natia watched him go for a long moment before she turned to look at the Arl, who had finally dragged himself off of the floor.
“Get out of my arling, Wardens, before I see you thrown into my dungeons as the traitors they claim you are,” he said sternly before he retreated into his office, slamming the door shut behind him.
“Well,” she stated, “now what?”
Jarriad frowned darkly as he answered, “Now we have to deal with these treaties that the Commander left in my care. Kinloch Hold is the closest so we might as well take care of recruiting the mages to our side if possible.”
As she followed him towards the way out, Natia grinned and reached out to elbow him lightly in the thigh. “At least we got a good ally in the Bann. That's a good starter.”
“Agreed. Alas, I fear finding allies will be harder from here.”
- - - - - - - - -
The dialogue about battles (one's you can win vs the one's that need fighting) is lifted from dialogue from The American President.
Chapter 24: 15th of Kingsway, Pursuit - Bernard
As he worked to saddle the horses, Bernard frowned as he tightened the girth of Alistair's gelding. There had been a twinge between his shoulder blades for days that hadn't gone away and he'd been taking the second watch instead of the first lately to try to figure out why. Now he was beginning to truly expect that they were being pursued by someone.
Looking over at where the younger man was scuffing up the spot where their fire had been, he bent to make sure the girth was tight while peering at a spot at the edge of their camp. He was no woodsman, of course, but even he could tell when ground had been disturbed and someone had trod right there at some point during the night.
Whoever was hunting them was good, very good.
He wondered, however, what their intentions were. If they were an assassin sent by Loghain, they surely would have struck by now, having had plenty of opportunities to kill both of them.
Shaking his head, Bernard called out, "Alistair, bring our saddlebags over here." He turned to finish working on his own saddle so when the young man approached, he stepped towards him to take his own saddlebags and breathed, "Keeping moving normally, lad, but be wary now. We're being hunted."
To the boy's credit, he only had a momentary pause then Alistair grinned and pulled the saddlebags from where he'd tossed them over his shoulder. As he handed them off, he commented, "You're going to break your horse's back with this lot."
"Nonsense," scoffed Bernard as he took the offered item and flung it over his mare's back. She snorted and shifted at the weight but settled to picking at the grass as he tied the bags down to the saddle. "She's a hardy Fereldan lass."
Alistair shook his head in faked amusement, hazel eyes blazing with one question: what do we do?
Smacking his mare's shoulder to draw another snort out of her, Bernard handed the boy the reins of his gelding and said, "Mount up, lad. I want to ride a little further south into the forest before we head in another direction." As Alistair took the reins, he briefly squeezed his wrist and hissed, "We'll be alright."
He turned towards his mare then only to find himself eye-to-eye with the point of an arrow. Inhaling sharply, Bernard reached back to grab at Alistair's arm as he realized they were surrounded by a group of hard-eyed Dalish hunters. While he'd been worrying about the one pursuer, they'd apparently been hunted by another.
And this one he was even less sure about the intentions of.
Chapter 25: 15th of Kingsway, Coercion - Alistair
Alistair could feel that something was wrong the moment they stepped foot into the Dalish camp. There was the presence of something sickly in the air, like it was a living thing itself that sought to drown all that opposed it. And it wasn't just from the obviously sick elves that he could see lying on cots on the other side of the camp.
Something was obviously wrong.
The leader of the group that had found them barked out what sounded like an order in Dalish and they came to a halt. He turned then, fixing the two humans with a hard gaze, and said, "Don't try anything, shemlen. We don't take kindly to strangers."
"Really? I never would have noticed," replied Alistair, his smart mouth getting ahead of him like it had the tendency to do when he was nervous. Instantly Bernard's hand wrapped around his wrist and he flushed before saying,"You have our word. We won't move an inch."
The elf arched an eyebrow, the vines tattooed around his eyes writhing with the motion, before he barked out something else then turned on his heel. As he stalked across the camp, Bernard leaned forward and hissed, "I wasn't aware you had a death wish, lad."
"My mouth likes to get ahead of my brain sometimes."
"Ah. I suppose that is a family trait then."
Alistair flinched because it was as he clearly remembered Cailan and Father periodically making absolute asses of themselves. Then he tried to shake the emotion off and turned to asked quietly, "They weren't who you were talking about hunting us, were they?"
Instantly he could tell he'd surprised the captain just a little bit with that assessment, which made him scowl. For some reason his age and circumstances of birth seemed to make people think he was simple or something of that sort as they rarely ever expected much of him. They just seemed to forget that he'd been raised in the Palace and taught by the same teachers as his brother as well as by those who'd taught the Cousland children. Sometimes he was certain they thought he'd been raised by dogs.
It was rather disappointing that the older man might be among those people.
"No," Bernard replied finally. "I didn't even realize the Dalish were there until they were upon us."
Frowning, Alistair said, "It must have just been one or a few following us then, right? Otherwise they wouldn't have let the hunters capture us."
"One would assume."
A snort came from one of the hunters to Alistair's left and he turned to look at her, arching an eyebrow at her amused expression. She noticed him watching her and smiled knowingly before she tilted her head towards the place where they'd entered the camp. As he turned to look, he saw that another pair of hunters was returning and between them marching a lithe human woman with short red hair wearing well-used leathers. Like them, the scabbard on her hip was empty and judging by the way she kept glancing at one of the hunters, the extra bow slung over his shoulder was hers as well.
Bernard grunted in surprise and asked, "She was hunting us?" Alistair looked back at the female hunter for an answer and got it when she bared her teeth in the mockery of a wide smile. She then called out something to the pair and they veered towards the group, falling into the loose circle the others had made easily as they pushed the woman into the center.
Taking a step away from her, Alistair glanced towards Bernard then asked, "Who are you?"
"Is my name truly important at a time like this?" she replied, her voice soft and obviously Orlesian accented. Alistair flicked his eyes towards her bow, still slung over the hunter's shoulder, and thought of the stories Teyrn Cousland had told of his time in the country as well as those he'd found in the Highever library. Tales of bards and spies, intrigue and betrayal, and of the overarching back-and-forth competition that the Orlesians called the Great Game.
Bernard moved a step forward and, despite not having a weapon, protectively positioned himself between her and Alistair. "Given that I'm sure you know who we are as you were following us," he growled, "it is very important."
Blue eyes narrowed then she replied, "Leliana." She then cocked her head at him and continued, "You have some skill to have noticed me, Bernard of Alamar."
The captain just smiled coldly then his head snapped to the side as the leader of the hunters returned with a dark scowl on his face. He snapped out an order that had the group around them dispersing then said, "Our Keeper seems to think he can get some use out of you shemlen."
Alistair blinked then asked, "And what exactly does that mean?"
"You shall have to speak to the Keeper." The hunter smiled menacingly and added, "He told me to inform you that to refuse might be contrary to your health."
"Killing us would just bring a worse reputation down on the Dalish," pointed out Bernard.
The hunter arched an eyebrow haughtily in an obviously silent question of Do you truly believe we care before he turned and started walking in the direction he'd come from. Alistair frowned and said, "Captain, I don't think we have a choice."
For once Bernard didn't scold him for using his title and simply nodded. As he started to move after the elf, he turned to the woman and said firmly, "You try anything and I will gut you. That is a promise."
She coolly looked back at him in the face of the threat and nodded her head before saying, "I did not mean either of you harm in the first place, Captain," as she moved ahead of them after the elf. Alistair frowned after her, highly confused as to just what she had been pursuing them for if not to kill him.
As he and Bernard moved to follow her and the elf across the camp, he wondered aloud, "What's worse than death?"
The older man frowned in response before answering, "I get the impression we might be about to find out one thing that might be, lad."
Chapter 26: 17th of Kingsway, Wise - Fergus
"This feels like a glorious dream."
Chuckling, Fergus pressed his cheek to his wife's bare shoulder and asked, "How so?"
Oriana just smiled as she answered, "This. Us. I never dreamed of wedding a man like you. Especially not as an arranged marriage."
"Ah," said Fergus. "I've surprised you."
He smiled and asked, "Was it a good surprise?"
Oriana kissed his forehead and replied in a near whisper, "The best."
Smiling, he closed his eyes. When Fergus reopened them, his heart sank as he saw not the stone ceiling of his own room at Highever but the plastered ceiling of the Palace in Denerim.
"I should have never left," he murmured as he lifted his still good hand to his face. "Oh, Ana, I should have been there."
There was a noise from the direction of the door then Aedan quietly said, "Then I might be mourning you as well."
Fergus looked over at him and hissed, "They might be alive for it as well. Ana, Oren, Mother, Father...I and all the other men could have kept it from happening."
"At that moment," pointed out Aedan in one of his infuriating I'm-right-and-you're-wrong tones. As Fergus directed a glare at him, his little brother held up his hands defensively. "You had the same lessons as me and more, Fergus. Logically it is mad to face a foe you know is greater than your own head-on. And Howe is just enough of a bastard and a coward to work around that by attacking when Highever's strength was gone. If you had been there, he never would have struck that night. He would have just waited for another opportunity and possibly have killed all of us."
Suddenly feeling weary right down to his bones, Fergus closed his eyes and asked quietly, "When did you grow so wise, little brother?" There was no answer for a moment as Aedan crossed the room to sink onto the end of the bed with a heavy sigh.
"I'm not half as wise as I should be."
"Wiser than I at the moment."
"Oh, I'm sure that'll be amended the moment that healer Anora sent for gets here. They'll put you back together and I'll fade back into the shadows again."
"Shadows?" repeated Fergus, opening his eyes to arch an eyebrow. That certainly sounded nothing like Aedan. "What in the Maker's name are you talking about?"
Aedan flicked a hand out as he said, "I mean what's been going on since we got here. I've either been here with you discussing Highever, talking to Anora and her Captains about how to stall everything that's bound to happen sooner or later, and skillfully avoiding every one of Loghain's men who try to back me into a corner. I'd really rather not be dealing with all of that and be the blade at your back." He paused to shrug helplessly. "I've discovered recently I'm absolute rubbish at real politics."
For the first time in a little while, that drew a real laugh out of Fergus and he shifted his good leg under the blankets to nudge his brother in the spine with his foot. "Now that," he drawled after a moment, "I could have told you years ago."
"Oh, shut up."
There again was a shadow of the little brother he'd been missing since their reunion, seeing him really only when Alistair had visited before his flight from the city. He knew, of course, that it would be a long while - years or more - before either of them were anywhere close to what they once were but that was something. And he would take every little bit that he could get.
Chapter 27: 18th of Kingsway, Misconceptions - Leliana
"We have to end the curse."
"I am not arguing against such," she said quietly in response to Alistair's hotly spoken words. Glancing behind them to where the captain moved more slowly, favoring his wounded side where one of the werewolves had bitten him the day before, Leliana continued, "But it still stands that we should go ahead ourselves and leave him here to rest."
Alistair scowled before growling, "I'm not leaving him."
Sighing in frustration, she snapped, "And would you rather have him possibly killed by the elves? I'm sure the leader of those hunters would take great pleasure in putting down a human threat to his clan."
"We can't just leave him out here!"
"The captain is an able man," she said, attempting to go for logic against his passion. It seemed to be the wrong tactic, however, as instantly Alistair was eyeing her with a serious frown. That was one thing that she had learned since being thrown together with the pair she had been tasked to follow - all of the information Marjolaine had gathered about the younger son of Maric Theirin was vastly wrong. On first glance he had seemed to be the overly naive young man that she'd once described him as but that image had been quickly banished.
He was rather quick witted and obviously well taught given what little she'd learned of his grasp of history, politics, and strategy. She'd already known he'd had good teachers from the information they'd gathered but Marjolaine had immediately assumed he had learned nothing from them as he had done little. Alistair also knew very well how to use the sword that was his weapon of choice as well as the buckler he'd picked up in the forest and how to do so in a cohesive group. A skill that he had picked up during his years in Highever she assumed.
That he had also showed a remarkable knowledge for Orlais as well as guessing that she was a bard was what had cemented her realization that her mentor had been a fool. She wasn't sure where Marjolaine had gotten her information on him but whoever had gifted it had obviously never had more than one conversation with the young man.
"And how," began Alistair, bringing her back to the present, "do you know anything about the captain?"
Smiling, Leliana answered sweetly, "I have my ways." He arched an eyebrow at her then scowled as she spoke again. "I know that he was one of your brother's most trusted men and has been for many years since he arrived in Denerim. I also know that he has a very checkered past."
Alistair snorted at that. "He's from Alamar. Almost everyone who lives there has a checkered past thanks to the raiders at Brandel's Reach." He then looked back over his shoulder at the man and added quietly, "To be honest, I'm more afraid of what might happen if we leave him alone than what I know probably will if we take him back to the camp."
"It's at least a full day's trip to get to the camp and back and probably more to convince the Keeper to come here. Judging by what that forest spirit said, we're probably going to have to lie through our teeth to do that. In that time, something we missed here in the ruins could attack him or he could possibly succumb to his wounds or he could actually turn before we get this mess fixed." He flung up his hands in exasperation as he finished before tacking on, "And those are just the immediate things I could think of happening!"
Leliana pursed her lips as she rolled all of those possibilities through her head then said, "Bringing him with us will only make the journey longer with his injury. Or longer still if he turns on us along the way." She could tell she was getting somewhere but he still wasn't wanting to relent. Tilting her head, she asked, "Why don't you want to leave him?"
Alistair jerked as if she'd struck him and turned his face away, though she could see that his jaw was clenched tight by the muscles of his neck visible above his gorget. Silence answered her for a long moment then he finally turned back and his eyes were full of fury...yet none of it was aimed at her. Every inch of it was aimed at himself.
"I left my brother to die at Ostagar. I left my best friend alone to deal with politics and his wounded brother who's as much family to me as he is. I left the woman who's pretty much the only mother I've ever known on her knees in a stable, praying for the first time since before I was born. And I left my sister alone in Denerim to suffer through her grief which she can't show or seem weak to the enemies on her doorstep. So tell me, Leliana, why I don't want to leave behind the one person I've got left as I seem to be making a pretty good habit of leaving people behind!"
He was breathing hard by the time he was done and Leliana came to a halt, reaching out as she did so to stop him as well. Alistair just stood there looking ahead of them for a moment, obviously trying to get a hold of his emotions again, and then closed his eyes. "I'm sorry," he apologized quietly. "You didn't deserve that."
"I asked you."
"Which doesn't excuse me losing my temper."
Leliana just nodded and left it there, choosing instead to turn their attention back to the matter that had started the argument. Turning to look at the slowly approaching Bernard, she asked, "Why don't we ask the captain what he wants to do?" Alistair immediately flushed as he realized they'd been talking about the man without asking his opinion on the matter and walked away from her. She stayed where she was standing, merely watching him stop and speak softly to the older man because she was only an interloper here.
Watching them gave her the answer before Alistair had even turned back, as Bernard was too far gone in agony to keep his voice down when he spoke, asking them to leave him and tie him up if they could. Was it her imagination or was there more of a growl to the man's voice now? Or perhaps it was merely the pain making it so and not the curse burning in his veins.
Shaking her head, Leliana called out, "There was that room near the beginning of the ruins that still had a door. I believe I can find a way for us to secure it to keep both you inside and anything else out." The captain merely nodded wearily in response and Alistair clapped the man gently on one shoulder before he moved to walk beside her again.
After a moment he murmured, "Thank you."
Smiling, she said, "You have a very strange method of dealing with someone who was hunting you."
Alistair shrugged. "You already said that you weren't intending to harm either of us, which means that you definitely aren't employed by someone that wants me dead."
"At least not immediately."
"Point. Hmm, maybe I should rethink that thanks..." He flashed a grin at her while he mocked tapping his chin thoughtfully before adding, "Anyway, my point is, you didn't have to help us. If you'd wanted to, once you got your weapons back and we were out of sight of the camp, you could have just taken off but you didn't. That counts for something."
He was correct in that assessment but she merely smiled and said, "If I am a bard, it is my task to keep an eye on you, yes? Why would I have disappeared once you knew I was there?"
Alistair just cocked his head to the side and replied, "Throw us off. Knowing he's under watching eyes will keep a man more off balance, especially if there's a possible threat on his head. Plus you could slip away a lot more easily if you needed to send a message to whoever employed you."
Leliana pursed her lips at his assessment. "You've thought about this."
He frowned and slowly nodded before saying, "Of course I've thought about it. Assuming you are a bard, which I'm pretty sure you are, it's the sort of thing I should be assuming about you. Especially given the current political situation and the possibilities of who could be employing you."
"But you think I'm at least somewhat trustworthy."
"Like I said, you could have disappeared and you didn't."
Suddenly she could see a little bit of how he'd been described as naive. Honestly, Alistair was lucky that it was her that had come after him and not Marjolaine. Her mentor would certainly have used his trust against him. She, however, was not going to not only because most information she'd been given about him had been wrong but because of the feeling she'd had since leaving Denerim.
The feeling which told her she tread on a knife-edge and Marjolaine grasped the hilt, ready to turn the blade either direction.
Shaking herself, Leliana said quickly, "Now that we have a plan for the captain, let us discuss how we shall convince the Keeper to travel back with us."
Alistair nodded solemnly and as they fell into conversation, she realized that over the past few days she'd failed in one of the main lessons she'd learned during her early days. She had begun to care about the fates of those she stalked and did not want to see them torn asunder by whatever plans her mentor had.
It made her a terrible bard but perhaps, just perhaps, it made her a better person.
Chapter 28: 22nd of Kingsway, Power - Aedan
Straightening his tunic as he walked, Aedan smiled at the pair of guards standing by Cailan's office door as he approached them. The older one, Odrick, inclined his head in return while the young, whose name continually escaped him, smiled back while he lifted a hand to knock at the closed door. It opened to reveal a familiar face twisted into stern lines that softened immediately upon seeing him.
"Young Cousland," greeted Osanna, her voice warm. "Come in. Her Majesty has some news for you."
"Oh?" queried Aedan as he entered the office. "Good news, I hope."
The older woman smiled but her eyes spoke volumes. And the expression in them said that whatever Anora had to tell him was decidedly not good news.
Nodding to Osanna, he turned to look at the large desk across the room, behind which Anora looked all too small. As he strode forward, she looked up and smiled as she greeted, "Aedan. I was just about to send one of my pages to get you."
"Osanna said you had some kind of news for me."
Anora's smile instantly turned brittle before fading entirely and she nodded as she reached to pick up one of the many papers from the desk. "Yes," she said after a moment. "The messenger I sent to Kinloch Hold asking for a healer returned early this morning. This letter was all he had to show for it."
Stunned, he reached for the closest chair and sank down into it as a black pit opened in his stomach. As he'd feared since he'd been shoved into the position, there was no easy escape from responsibility and politicking. "Fergus needs a healer from the Circle, though. It will take him months to fully recover otherwise!"
"I know," she said gently as she extended the letter across the desk.
He took it and quickly skimmed the very short missive, which was signed by Commander Greagoir, who he knew had been the Templar in charge of the Hold since he'd been a boy. Then Aedan frowned and rubbed his fingers across the rough parchment and looked up at Anora to see her sitting with her hands neatly folded on top of the desk.
"Something's wrong," he said after a moment. She nodded and flicked two fingers, inviting him to continue in a way that reminded him of his teachers back at Highever but more polite. "The letter's got all of the courtesy it should as a response to you but it's all wrong. The parchment's wrong and the edges are all hacked off instead of neatly cut. I've seen letters from the Hold before that Father got in response to queries he sent and none of them were like this." Looking back down at it, he then frowned and added, "And the Templar seal is missing from the Commander's signature."
"Which means something's wrong at the Hold."
"Also correct," said Anora. "Unfortunately, we have no forces to spare."
Aedan blinked for a moment in surprise then hurriedly said, "But...we've got to. Fergus needs that healer. I need..." He forced himself to cut off that sentence, closing his eyes as he worked to regain control of himself as his voice had started to go shrill. Breathing a little harder than normal, he reopened his eyes and looked at Anora. "There has to be someone."
She smiled sadly and shook her head. "There isn't unfortunately. Given that my father has settled his men on our doorstep, I need every man I have here in the city to ensure peace and that he doesn't take over as long as I can."
"I can go."
"Which leaves me with one less powerful ally."
"Powerful!" scoffed Aedan then he frowned at her as she shook her head. "I'm not powerful, Anora."
Anora just laughed and looked at him in amusement. "Of course you are," she said gently. "You are a Cousland, Aedan. And that stands for a great deal." Rising from her chair, she turned to walk to the window that looked out over the city and waved a hand behind her. "Come."
A little confused, Aedan let the letter fall to the desk and rose to move to stand beside her. They stared silently out at Denerim for a moment, the silence only broken by a faint noise from the office's little anteroom where Osanna had retreated. Then Anora reached out to touch the glass and softly said, "There are some in this country who will certainly believe my father's lies. They will also believe those that might be told of what happened at Highever."
He let out a low hiss and she nodded, the reflection of her eyes in the glass turning to regard him.
"We must stand together to tell the truth, Aedan. You were witness to what truly happened at Highever."
"But not Ostagar," he said quietly.
Anora nodded after a moment then smiled, saying, "My messenger heard some news while he was on his way back from the Tower." She turned to look at him as she continued. "Bann Teagan survived the battle."
"But...it was my understanding that the Redcliffe forces were with the King and...oh." Aedan blinked then stared at her as he breathed, "You think he saw something. Knows something. Something that will confirm what we heard about your father retreating from the field."
"That is my hope. So, you see, Aedan, I have you for Highever and perhaps he for Ostagar. I need you both."
He frowned at the words for a moment then closed his eyes as he shook himself, trying to brush off the uncertainty and fear that had been bogging him down since coming to Denerim.
Fergus needed him to be his eyes and ears. Alistair needed whatever help he could give him, even far away. And Anora needed someone she could trust.
As he reopened his eyes, Aedan took a step back from Anora then bowed deeply as he said, "Highever is at Your Majesty's command."
Anora's hand reached out to touch his shoulder and he looked up to see her face graced with a smile like cold steel. And he knew, like he had known under Highever that he and Alistair and Fergus would bring Howe to justice, that he and Anora and all others on their side would see Loghain pay for the things he had done.
Chapter 29: 25th of Kingsway, Plots - Bernard
"I don't trust you."
The woman sitting across the fire from him inclined her head, as if he had merely commented on the weather. She then flicked her eyes up at him, bright blue staring at him behind stray locks of red hair, and replied, "And so you should not."
Scowling at the affirmation, Bernard cut his eyes towards the young man sleeping to his right, her left. "And what of him?" he asked. "Do you want him to trust you?" He left the rest of the words he wanted to say unspoken, not wanting to speak of betrayal so soon after the one that had already been done.
She pursed her lips and he watched her, wondering what was going through her head. Was she perhaps debating telling him the truth, the reason for why the Dalish hunters had caught her stalking them? Or was she going to lie, a skill he was sure she was adept at?
"I was sent to watch."
"And?" he pressed, knowing that wasn't the whole of the story. When Leliana looked curiously at him, Bernard scoffed. "I know a half-truth when I hear it, lass."
For some reason that made her smile and she bowed her head, shaking it before she spoke. "Ah. I forgot for a moment who I was speaking to. It was surprising, you know, to look into your background and discover your past offenses. One would not think that the King of Ferelden would allow a pirate and admitted thief into the Royal Guard."
Shrugging offhandedly, Bernard said, "What can I say, I live to impress."
"And lie," noted Leliana with a sly smile.
"Now that's the mabari talking about kaddis." When she looked confused, he chuckled and explained, "I believe you Orlesians have a phrase about throwing stones at glass heads?"
Bernard leaned forward then so he could rest his elbows on his knees and said seriously, "The hard fact of the matter is, lass, that I was tasked by my Queen to guard Alistair's life. As far as I'm concerned at the moment, you're a threat to that no matter how much of a help you might have been with the Dalish."
Leliana blinked and started to open her mouth then closed it as he held up a warding hand.
"I do thank you for your help. After getting wounded, I wasn't in any state to help Alistair and as able as the lad is, I don't think he would have gotten through that as well alone." Wounded was a simple way to describe the infection that had burned through him, that had turned his vision red, and had him thinking of cool forest underfoot and the hot rush of blood across his tongue. He hadn't fully turned, he could recall that much, but it had been a close thing.
"He's lost much," she said quietly and Bernard nodded slowly. Leliana then sighed, closing her eyes, as she asked, "What if I spoke the truth?"
"I make no guarantees, lass. I'm willing to listen, however."
She flinched just the slightest bit, enough that he noticed, and then nodded her head. And then the stories began to spill from her lips. He learned of her teacher, Marjolaine, and the incredibly complicated relationship they had. Learned of the elaborate plan that had been formed and given to the master bard, to either bring King Cailan to heel at the foot of the Empire or to destroy him if he didn't prove pliable. Of the carefully constructed lies that had been fed to TeyrnLoghain to make him doubt the actions of his son-in-law.
By the time she was done, Bernard was clenching his hands into fists to keep them from shaking or throwing something in a rage. Rising to his feet, he cursed aloud and kicked at the log he'd been sitting on. It shifted just enough to make noise and Alistair shifted on his bedroll but, blessedly, didn't wake. Forcing himself to calm down and take a deep breath, he turned to look down at the young woman.
Leliana was looking at him like a lost child, seeking an answer and perhaps a way out. He wasn't certain he could give her either but...he could promise usefulness. And his sworn oath that he would defend her own small part in the plot if she indeed wanted to shift sides.
"Here is the question," he finally said. "What do you want, lass?"
Silence answered him for a moment then she whispered, "Freedom."
He nodded at the answer then very gently said, "You can stay. For now."
"Thank you, Captain."
"Don't thank me yet, lass," he added sternly as he retook his seat and stared into the fire. "I reserve the right to change my mind."
Leliana smiled and quietly intoned, "Then I will do my best to be useful."
Chapter 30: 30th of Kingsway, Discussion - Teagan
"You shouldn't have ridden here alone, Bann Teagan," commented Fergus from where he sat in the Cousland rooms, his left leg propped up in a chair with an obviously needed cane propped nearby. Other than his heavily wrapped wrist, the leg was the only remaining sign to show that the new Teyrn of Highever had been injured at Ostagar.
Smiling, Teagan sank into the chair placed opposite of Fergus' and said, "I am wise enough to know better than that." Glancing at Aedan who stood behind his brother and then towards the door, he asked, "The men at your door are trustworthy, yes?"
"They are," answered the younger Cousland, his tone clipped and sure. "They're a part of the Royal Guard who were left, good men that Captain Bernard assigned to us himself before he left with Alistair."
"Good," said Teagan as he reached into his tunic, drawing out two carefully folded letters. Extending them across the table to Fergus, he continued quietly, "These are the last correspondence the King wrote. I am here to deliver one of them."
The Couslands just stared at him for a moment then Aedan leaned forward over his brother's shoulder as Fergus flipped the letters over to reveal the names written on the front. Then the younger sucked in a breath and intoned softly, "It'll be a long time before Alistair gets to read that."
"Hopefully not too long. I also have this to give to him."
Tugging at the thin chain around his neck where he'd hung it upon reaching Rainesfere, Teagan drew the heavy ring out from where it rested against his skin. Fergus' mouth fell slightly open in surprise and Aedan gasped, "Is that..."
"The King's signet ring," Fergus confirmed quietly. He then leaned forward, grunting as he had to shift his leg to do so, and Teagan extended the ring for him to get a closer look at the thick silver band that bore a russet stone engraved with the Theirin arms. The younger man's eyes then widened and he caught the elder's gaze. "That isn't the new ring."
"No," confirmed Teagan.
Aedan frowned and looked between the two of them and the ring before asking, "Do either of you care to tell me what you're talking about?"
Fergus cocked his head to the side and Teagan smiled before leaning back in his chair, moving his tunic aside to drop the ring back out of sight. As it settled back to the spot that was now familiar to him, he spoke.
"When Maric drove out the Orlesians, a great deal of the wealth the Theirins had gathered was found gone. It was either destroyed by Meghren when he had possession of the Palace or taken by him and his followers. One of the things that was thought lost was the original Theirin signet ring."
"Stolen?" Aedan asked.
"Truly lost," replied Fergus. "It was thought that it was lost with Vanedrin. Brandel, Cailan's great-grandfather, had a replacement cast at some point but it was shoddily made and was subsequently lost when Moira was killed. Maric, if I recall, had another made sometime after Cailan was born but it was a gold band with a blue stone."
Nodding at the adept explanation, Teagan said, "Several years ago Cailan and Alistair managed to find their way into a sealed off section of the Palace so long unused that it had been forgotten. Someone had been using the section as their own personal hiding space over the years, though we were never sure who as there were both Orlesian items as well as several things we'd thought lost. Cailan actually discovered the ring while the boys were helping to dig through the items and when he was crowned, he switched to the original ring and had the other reset into a smaller ring as a gift for Anora."
"I remember when he gave her that," the elder Cousland murmured. "He actually sought me out when Father and I were in Denerim, ring in hand, asking if I thought it was a good gift." Shaking his head, he said, "I take it you have more information to share, as well? With all of us?"
Frowning, Teagan bowed his head and replied, "Yes. So far as I'm aware, Anora is going to call a small personal council soon with us, her Captain of the Guard, and the captain of the City Guard so I can relate all that happened during and after Ostagar, though none of them are to know of the ring. With two scribes there to make a physical copy of my words as well as her housekeeper as a witness."
"Osanna," said Aedan with a firm nod. "She's Alistair's old nurse. Though I'm not sure having her there is a good idea as Loghain's been trying to have her in shackles since he arrived."
"For?" asked Teagan, confused as to why the older man would want to arrest a woman who obviously didn't have any involvement in matters.
"We," answered Fergus, "have assumed simply because she's connected to Alistair. I know that Anora told her where Alistair was so they could have a quick goodbye before he had to leave the city but other than that none of us were aware of his or Captain Bernard's plans."
Aedan nodded solemnly. "Better to have deniability," he stated firmly. Then he wrinkled his nose and added, "Maker, I hate politics."
Teagan just smiled at the younger man and noted, "So do I, lad, but I'm afraid we're going to have to play the game to the best of our abilities and hope that Loghain doesn't stack the board."
Chapter 31: 3rd of Harvestmere, Realization - Alistair
The Southron Hills were an outright mess, half tainted by the Blight spreading out from Ostagar and the Korcari Wilds and half plagued by bandits and scattered refugees. Stupid bandits who apparently thought a well-armed trio were people they wanted to try and rob.
Tugging his sword out of the man's gut with a disgusted noise as Bernard disappeared to make sure there weren't any more bandits, Alistair looked over at Leliana as he asked, "Are all of these people addled in the head?"
"One expects so," was her reply as she continued to carefully work a pair of arrows free of a dead woman's back. One snapped and she cursed vehemently in Orlesian, her words making him burst out laughing despite the fact that they were surrounded by the dead. Looking up at the noise, Leliana elegantly arched a brow and asked, "You know Orlesian, Alistair?"
Nodding, he replied, "Father insisted that Cailan and I both learn it. He said it was so we could be polite but I think part of it was so we'd know if anything underhanded was said about us. ArlEamon's wife, Isolde, is rather fond of doing that sort of thing around me." Frowning thoughtfully, Alistair added, "You know, I don't think anyone ever told her that I knew what she was saying. Probably wouldn't have stopped her but still. Cailan always got so mad at her..."
He trailed off as he realized that there would never be another instance of his brother being frustrated with the woman. Leliana seemed to sense the shift in his mood because she was suddenly at his side, tugging at his arm as she said, "Come. Help me move the bodies."
They worked quickly to collect the corpses into a pile and as they hauled the last one over, she asked, "Do you speak anything else?"
Alistair blinked at the question before replying, "Osanna, my nurse, she taught me to speak Ander when I was growing up. A lot of it was because she couldn't speak much else when she came to Ferelden so her teaching me helped her to learn. Other than that I know a bit of Antivan that I picked up from Oriana when I was in Highever."
"That was the elder Cousland's wife, yes?"
He just nodded, feeling unable to answer around the lump that had formed in his throat at the thought of all those lessons. Oriana had always liked to tease him that he could probably speak Antivan fluently one day if he tried but his accent was always going to be atrocious. She'd added a moment later that that was alright as his accent was better than either Aedan's or Fergus', which made him laugh.
Closing his eyes against the sudden sting of tears, Alistair let out a shaky breath and said, "We were supposed to have another lesson the day after the attack happened. And I was going to..." His voice broke then and he hurriedly began fumbling at the buckles of one of his gauntlets, trying to get it off so he could wipe at his face. A slim hand stopped his motions half-born, however, and then Leliana was pressing a soft cloth to his face. Lifting his free hand to cover hers, he finished slowly, "I was going to teach Oren some more Ander."
"You do not have to speak of them, Alistair."
"Sometimes I'm afraid I'll forget them if I don't," he replied thickly. "I know that's silly..."
"It is never silly to think we might forget those we loved."
Alistair blinked at the sadness in her tone and lowered the cloth to look at her. Her normally aloof nature had gentled and, for a moment, he saw the young woman who had lost a great deal underneath the bard's exterior. Without quite knowing what he was doing, he reached out with his other hand and touched her cheek gently, murmuring, "I'm sorry."
Blinking at him, Leliana asked, "For what?"
"For whoever you lost."
She stared at him for a moment then stepped away from him, shaking her head as she said insistently, "It's not important. Especially not for you to worry about." Leliana smiled bitterly then and turned away. "I am still the enemy, Alistair," she added as she walked away from him, leaving him next to the pile of bodies.
Frowning and wondering what her insistence on calling herself his enemy was, Alistair shook his head and decided to let it lie for the moment. Glancing over his shoulder at the bodies, he nodded to himself and got to work gathering wood to make a makeshift pyre over them.
Stupid they may have been but that didn't mean they had to leave their bodies to rot.
That night around their shared fire, he couldn't help but watch her where she sat across from him doing maintenance on her leathers. It had started as him trying to suss out her reasons for how she'd acted earlier and had ended up...well, it had ended up as something else entirely.
He'd become distracted by the sheen of her hair where it fell across her face, the light of the fire making the red gleam and glow like the heat of a blacksmith's forge. How her hands were certain in their quick, simple motions, always where they needed to be to make this subtle stitch with needle and cord or that firm motion to rub oil into the leather to keep it supple. The graceful curve of her neck as she bent her head over her lap, focused and intent on her task.
As realization bloomed, he honestly wasn't surprised. He'd always - once he'd noticed girls and later women - veered towards the less out-rightly feminine. Even before then his childhood playmates that were girls had always been the tomboys, the rough-and-tumble girls with broad grins and more than enough attitude and brawn to combat any boy. The first girl he'd actually shown interest in had been one of them, the daughter of one of the Palace Guards, but it hadn't gone anywhere.
No man, her father had said sternly to him, wants his daughter with a bastard. Not even a King's. It had been an embarrassing reminder of what he was and had hurt even more than one of Loghain's scathing remarks.
He hadn't actually kissed a girl until he was in Highever, a skinny and knobby-kneed fourteen year-old. She was a blacksmith's daughter and wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty nor was she ashamed of the callouses she'd earned helping her father in his forge. Alistair had been so taken by her that he'd told Father of her, making Maric laugh before he'd asked warmly to hear more. And she'd been the one he'd run to when he was back in the city with his grief and pain but by then she was already betrothed to someone else.
His first had been at seventeen. Marget was several years older and one of the Cousland soldiers that he'd trained with day-in and day-out during that time. It had been more awkward than anything else but he'd learned the way of things between men and women. She'd called it off herself when Fergus took him on as his squire a year later, citing that she couldn't be a distraction to him and didn't think her employers would be too kind to her if they found out.
And now, he mused, at twenty years old, he found himself falling for a Fereldan-blooded Orlesian bard.
"Maker," cursed Alistair as he closed his eyes and lifted a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. "This can only end in tears."
Chapter 32: 9th of Harvestmere, Goodbye - Anora
How she had let the letter sit in the desk for two days wasn't a question Anora could rightly answer. She'd wanted to crack the seal as soon as Teagan has placed it in her hands, longing to hear her husband's voice again even if it was only in her head. The letter had been passed to her during that first meeting, however, and she knew that reading it would make her useless for the rest of that day as well as the meetings they had planned later.
So she had waited ever impatiently, feeling like the hours in the days were mocking her as they dragged onward. Now, though, all of the important business was done for now and Anora sank gratefully into the great desk's chair. Almost instantly, however, she was tense and sitting ramrod straight as her eyes fell automatically to the desk's bottom drawer. It had been one of the first things Cailan had shared with her after they were wed - besides their marriage bed, of course.
There was a false bottom to the drawer, one so well-made that she hadn't actually believed it to be there until he'd shown it to her. She had been thankful once that they'd had little use for it and had pondered replacing the drawer. Now she was glad Cailan had talked her out of it as it was the one place she could count on things to remain safe in as the only others who knew of its existence were now dead. And after the Occupation, no one would dare destroy the desk that had been a gift to its triumphant King years ago.
Sighing, Anora leaned down and opened the drawer, retrieving the records ledger Cailan had kept after King Maric's passing and a sheaf of blank parchment from inside. Placing both on the desk, she then leaned back down and sharply popped the heel of one hand against the false bottom near the front of the drawer. There was a dull snap in response and the bottom popped up enough that she could slide her fingers underneath it.
Inside the hidden space of the drawer were only three things: Cailan's final letter, the two replies to Cailan's formal letters from the Empress that had survived her burning that odd third one, and the heavy leather scroll case stamped with the royal seal that held the papers naming Alistair as Cailan's heir. Anora stared at the case for a long moment before she finally reached for the letter.
Leaning back with it in hand, she found herself shaking in equal amounts of dread and anticipation. For as much as she wanted to know what he had written, there was a stark finality that made her heart ache because these were the last words she would ever receive from her husband.
Tears welled in her eyes at the thought and for a fleeting moment Anora fought them. Then she remembered the loyal men at her door, currently following orders to let no one disturb her, and let go. As she cracked the wax seal stamped by the ring that Teagan now safeguarded, the first tear rolled down the curve of her cheek.
More followed as she unfolded the parchment and saw the jerky lettering within that practically screamed the agony he had endured in his final hours. Then she read the first word of the letter and couldn't help the sudden sob that tore its way out of her throat, wracking her body with its intensity.
If she had ever been prone to doubt Teagan, the salutation alone would have assured her of the letter's origin. There, cast in that pain-chased hand, was the nickname he had called her for several years since learning the word. Not even Alistair knew of the name, though he would have been able to translate as it was an Ander word Cailan had learned from him.
I wish that there were some way I could give you these word in person but I cannot. My wounds are too much for me to survive without the aid of magic and we cannot make it to the Tower or Denerim in time. Even if we could, I am tainted, which will only degrade my health further according to the Wardens who survived. Hence comes my writing of these letters - this to you and one for Alistair - which I have entrusted to my uncle.
The first thing I must do is apologize to you, Kleinod . I could not keep the promises I made to you, both that I made when I left and those we spoke at our wedding. It claws at me that I will not be there for you and, perhaps worse, that I leave you nothing but memories to recall me by. Remember in these days that follow that you are the strongest woman I have ever known and that I have faith in you always.
Second, as I'm sure my uncle has already told you, your father never joined the field at Ostagar . I cannot even begin to imagine his reasoning or what he saw that we on the field could not but can only hope that decision does not doom a country I can no longer protect. My only thought is that I revealed my naming of Alistair as my heir to him but that seems an absurd reason. Not only in my own death but that Alistair will still need the backing of the Landsmeet no matter what I have officially claimed. Whatever his reason, my love, I know it will never be enough to excuse his actions.
I know that you will do everything you can to protect Alistair and to succeed I must tell you this: his birth mother is not who we thought. And the truth is far more damning than being the mere bastard son of a maidservant. While she is a Warden, she is also an elf, an Orlesian by birth, and a mage . It is as though Father made it deliberately as hard as he possibly could.
Startled by the information, Anora let her arm fall to her lap and focused her eyes on one of the office's windows. She felt suddenly breathless, like all of the air had been stolen from her lungs.
Alistair, a half-elf? The son of a mage? The very idea was so absurd that she almost didn't believe it. Yet...it would explain some of Alistair's quirks. His fascination with the arcane that had such a mystery origin. How he had a tendency to hear things he shouldn't have been able to. It could also explain his excellent night vision as she had heard that elves could see far better than humans in the dark. He certainly didn't have the build of an elf as he'd grown into a slimmer broad-shouldered echo of her husband.
Shaking her hand, Anora turned her attention back to the letter and picked up where she'd left off.
I wouldn't be inclined to believe it if I hadn't already been a little suspicious of Father's story. He never kindled a romance with any of the eligible ladies of the court and we were never really in Redcliffe enough to woo a servant girl. And Father never would have taken a woman against her will despite all the rumors I heard that was the way of things. That and your father is the one that told me all this as some sort of proof that Alistair couldn't be my heir. Not a very positive view for a man who led a group of city elves during the war though I suspect part of that is the threat of Orlesian blood on the throne.
That is why I needed to warn you. I doubt he will use it but you need to be prepared if he does.
Though I have little else to write, some part of me feels that I must keep going. These are the last words you or Alistair will have from me and it feels wrong to leave the both of you with so little. I wish with all that I am that there was a way to see you again, even if it were only to touch you one last time. Yet these words are all I shall have as my epitaph.
Anora , my Queen, my heart, you were and have always been the only woman I have loved. A jealous part of me hopes I am the last in your heart but that is a cruel wish. Instead I hope that one day there is a man who loves you as deeply as I have and that he too can experience the devotion of the finest woman in all of Thedas . Be well, Kleinod , and do not lose what makes you you searching for revenge. I love you.
Your eternally devoted husband,
Sinking bonelessly into the chair as tears blurred her vision, Anora tucked the letter against her heart and quietly sobbed as she allowed herself to mourn the loss of her husband for the first time since the messenger had delivered the news to her.
Chapter 33: 11th of Harvestmere, Recruit - Jarriad
He couldn't drag his eyes away from the broken young man who sitting on the other side of the shattered remnants of the Circle library. Originally when they had found him trapped at the top of the Tower he'd thought him older, taller, a templar of some years. Now, seeing him sitting in the wreckage of the books without the plate of his Order, Jarriad could see all too clearly that he was nothing but a boy.
A broken boy attempting to realign the shattered fragments of his life.
Grimacing, he tried to turn away but couldn't as he watched the young man lean down to pick up another book. As he carefully leafed through it, head bowed, before he set it aside, he knew exactly what he was going to do. It was a hard certainty because he'd been there before.
Even with all the years between, Jarriad recalled all too well his young life spent in Gwaren's alienage. He still remembered the sickly scent of his father's blood as it poured from between his fingers while his mother and sister screamed even as they were carried away. And he remembered waking up the next morning, exhausted and half-broken in spirit, to find their bodies dumped on their doorstep like simple trash. It had nearly broken him when the guards had come for the bodies because he knew there was no burial for elves.
If it hadn't been for the rebellion, he'd have died in the alienage. Instead of escaping the city, learning the skills of stealth, the feel of bowstring and arrow beneath his fingertips, he'd have probably been killed as well. He'd found a purpose there and after it had been gone, when he'd wallowed again into the worst places, Duncan had given him another.
Perhaps he could help the boy do the same.
"Boss," came a soft voice from his hip and Jarriad looked down to see Natia there, her eyes focused on the young man going through the books. She eyed him for a moment and he could tell how she was assessing him because it was similar to his own manner. They shared a kinship through stealth and subtlety despite the fact that she used blades while he preferred the bow. "You gonna ask him?"
"I am certainly contemplating it." Smiling, he waved a hand towards the boy and asked, "What is your assessment?"
"I'm just a Duster, Boss."
"You are a Warden and my second. Thus I would have your opinion of our possible recruit."
Natia pursed her lips for a moment then said sharply, "He's wounded deep, Boss. Scars like that, they don't heal easy or quick."
Nodding, he said quietly, "I am well acquainted with such wounds, Natia. What else?"
"Well, he's a templar, so he's got to have some skill. Least that's what I figure since you topsiders put so much store in 'em guarding mages. Plus it'd be right nice to have someone to distract the darkspawn while I stab them in the guts."
Jarriad smiled at her commentary, resisting the urge to note that she was a topsider now as well, and asked, "And what of the two mages?"
Wrinkling her nose, the dwarf answered, "Girl seems alright if a bit skittish. Heard a rumor she'd been locked up for helping a blood mage escape but not sure if I believe it. The other one's shifty."
"He's apparently an escape artist."
"Oh?" she chirped, suddenly interested judging by the brightness in her green eyes. "A sneaky mage? I think I might like 'em. How many times has he escaped?"
"Yeah, Boss, nab 'em."
Jarriad chuckled then asked, "What is the guarantee he won't run on us?"
"We're offering freedom, right?" she replied. "Wardens can't be touched by any authority but Wardens. Means they'd both be free of this place."
Inclining his head, he glanced towards the doorway closest to them and said, "Why don't you go and offer them the recruitment speech then? I'd rather have their acceptance than have to invoke conscription." Honestly he was more than a little wary of putting the Rite to use despite knowing the way of it as Duncan's second. He was only the unofficial Warden Commander of Ferelden with everyone else gone and people such as Greagoir and Irving would be aware of that.
The last thing he needed to do at the moment was step on toes.
Grinning brightly, Natia chirped, "Aye, Boss!" As she snapped off a sharp salute and disappeared as silently as she'd come, Jarriad shook his head with a smile. She was certainly an interesting character and he could see why Duncan had recruited her.
With the slight smile still on his face, he started across the room towards the young man and when he looked up, Jarriad began, "Ser Cullen, if I could have a word with you?"
"C-certainly," came the stammered response as the young man stood, running a hand through his reddish blond hair nervously. The boy looked much better than he had only five days previous when they'd liberated the Tower. There was still something tired hanging about him as there were dark circles under his eyes but he didn't look half-crazed anymore. "How can I help you, Commander?"
"Just Jarriad is fine," he said with a kind smile, working to hide the ache the title caused. Duncan was the Commander, not him, and he didn't think he'd ever warm to the title if the position stuck. Folding his arms behind his back, Jarriad rocked backwards on his heels and asked, "Have you not been placed back on duty?"
Cullen ducked his head at that, cheek flushed with clear embarrassment and his eyes heated. "Commander Greagoir doesn't trust me," he breathed out after a moment.
"Which frustrates you."
"Yes!" exploded the young man. He flushed darker then and mumbled an apology before he spoke in a breathless rush. "I just want things to be the way they were. This...not doing nothing it...it does things. I think too much."
He didn't have to ask about what because he knew from his own experience with pain and the guilt of being the lone survivor.
Nodding, Jarriad said, "You seek a purpose."
"I...yes." And suddenly the boy was looking at him in wide-eyed understanding, an expression he's sure was on his own face when he'd been years younger. Only it had been a young man who'd only been a few years his senior who'd been the one he'd shared his grief with and who'd first given him purpose.
"I am going to make you an offer, Ser Cullen," he began firmly, holding up a hand to still any comment as the young man's mouth opened. "But before that there are things to be said. Should you choose this path, it will be hard. It will be dark and unforgiving and most often done without the thanks of others. Like your current Order we work together often but that will also include working with those who are unlike you."
Jarriad smiled as he paused. "I will be honest and tell you that while many think the Wardens a noble thing, we are anything but that. We fight a war few are capable of even comprehending and that involves taking on both the noble and those that much of society shuns. This will include mages, Ser Cullen, and if you cannot work with them, I cannot take you on."
Cullen started to open his mouth then he shook his head, bowing it as he let out a harsh breath. When he looked up again, there seemed to be something changed in the boy's hazel gaze.
"Not all mages are bad," he breathed and the words made Jarriad relax in a way he hadn't even known he was tense.
"Those would not have been your words five days ago."
Pain erupted across the young man's face and for a moment he'd thought he'd gone too far. Then Cullen nodded, saying, "Aye, ser. I was...more than a little mad then." He then straightened as he continued, "I remember now the mages we tried to help. We tried to get them out, we honestly did, but the others...they..." He trailed off, eyes haunted, and Jarried stepped forward to gently touch his arm.
As the young man's wide eyes locked on his own, he nodded and softly said, "I know."
Cullen sagged, sudden thanks blooming on his face as he gasped, "Everyone's thought me mad."
"And it feels like you're going so," Jarriad uttered quietly, "when everything goes quiet and there's nothing to focus on. When there's only the pain of what you've lost, of what you've gone through, and it seems like there's no way forward." As the boy looked at him in surprise, he nodded just slightly. "I've been there, many years ago when I was barely past being a skint-kneed boy. And yet here I stand."
"Now," he continued as he stepped back and extended his hand, "can I trust you to act as a templar should, to protect his charges and defend them against all that would come against them?"
"Even themselves?" breathed Cullen, obviously thinking of magical circles, of illusions and blood and death that seemed to go on forever.
"Should it come to that."
"I...do you really trust me to do this?"
Jarriad just smiled and leaned forward slightly, saying, "It isn't a matter of whether I trust you, son. Not really. It's a matter of whether you trust yourself."
Silence reigned for a moment after that then Cullen's hand grasped his own and he could feel the calluses that spoke of the young man's use of a sword.
"I'm willing to try."
"And that's all you need to survive this, I promise you that."
The young man smiled - an honest smile that was the first that didn't seem to have an aura of pain lurking behind it - and Jarriad nodded before relinquishing his hand. Tilting his head towards the doorway, he said, "Go ahead and get to gathering your things. I'll speak to the Commander about you and the others joining us."
"Others?" repeated Cullen. He then paled and breathed, "Amell?"
"And a lad. Anders, I believe. Will there be an issue?"
"I...no, ser. I don't think so."
"Good. I'll see you tomorrow then, Ser Cullen. We leave in the afternoon."
Turning on a heel, Jarriad left the library and made one solitary glance back towards the young man who was still standing there next to the stack of books. Before he'd passed through the doorway, however, Cullen had straightened with a determined - if fearful - look on his face and strode off on his own path. Smiling to himself, he went to go find Natia and see how much luck she'd had with her own recruitment.
Chapter 34: 15th of Harvestmere, Travel - Bernard
I've been rather remiss on posting new bits of this since I haven't been working on it in a while, so I didn't want to go through all of the chapters I already have completed. Not to mention that Meryell's story has become my focus this year.
I will try, however, to keep up with our wandering friends here as I do want to finish their story. So, for now, enjoy this chapter.
Frowning down at the map he'd brought with him from the Palace, Bernard asked, "You're certain any further south would be a death trap, Alistair?"
"Not certain but..." The younger man paused as he raked his fingers through hair that had been short but was steadily growing longer. Normally Bernard would have recommended he keep it but Alistair was different than the usual man. Longer hair only made him look more like his brother, which was something they were trying to avoid enough with his obviously Theirin features. "I overheard a few of the Wardens at Ostagar talking. They mentioned sections of land in the Korcari Wilds having been tainted beyond saving by the darkspawn , which just doesn't sound like something we want or need to encounter."
"It is best to be cautious, yes?" asked Leliana , who was sitting on the opposite side of the fire than they were, carefully putting fletching on several new arrows. She then tilted her head sideways at Alistair and hummed, which made the young man twitch.
Snorting, Bernard said, "I'm assuming she's come to the same conclusion I have. You need a haircut, lad." As Alistair blinked and lifted a hand towards his hair, he kindly added, "It makes you look like your brother."
He expected a response from the boy but certainly not the one he got. Alistair's eyes went wide with an expression that was a mix of horror and fear and he looked hurriedly between the two of them. "Shears?" he asked, his voice a bare whisper.
For a moment there was silence then Leliana put her arrows aside with a soft clack of the wooden shafts and reached into the bag at her side to pull out a small pair of shears. Instead of the somewhat aloof expression she usually wore - at least, that was the one Bernard always observed - she looked all too gentle. Extending a hand, she softly said, "Come. You'll only make a mess doing it yourself."
Alistair stiffened then nodded, not glancing at him once as he got up from their side of the fire and walked to hers. The young man stood for a moment, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, then he sat down in front of the bard's perch on a log. As Leliana scooted forward and began running her fingers through his hair in an attempt to straighten it, she said primly, "As you were, Captain. We still need a way to our next destination."
Next destination. As if he really knew where he was going .
Shaking his head slightly at the words, Bernard tilted his head back down towards the map. He'd never really formed a concrete plan before they'd fled the Palace; there hadn't been time . With the capture by the Dalish , his own recovery from very nearly becoming a werewolf, and the bandits that had been plaguing their trail all through the Southron Hills, he hadn't had any further opportunities to sit down and get a real look either.
Now they couldn't go further south because of supposed...tainting, was it?
Leaning over to tap a note on the map, he finally said, "There's not very many major villages in this part of Ferelden. Of course there's Lothering but it's a fair straight shot up from Ostagar. If the horde there followed the road and the trail of those fleeing the battle, that probably isn't a good destination for us." Running a hand through his own hair, which was also getting shaggier than he usually wore it, Bernard continued, "Of course, that effectively cuts us off from Redcliffe, which might provide refuge for us. Arl Eamon..."
"Never liked me," Alistair noted quietly. He glanced up at the young man, who was staring off into the dark of the night as Leliana clipped small sections of his hair away with deft precision. Hazel eyes flicked towards him then and Alistair forced a smile. " Cailan always said it was just because he didn't know me but I'm pretty sure Eamon never forgave Father for loving a woman besides his sister."
Leliana scoffed at that, saying, "It is perfectly natural for one to find love again after it has been lost." Her voice then softened as she moved her focus on his head. "And it is cruel to take one's ire out upon a child."
Alistair just shrugged slightly, not putting enough movement into it to jostle her ministrations, and grumbled, "I was used to it. Loghain never held back the fact that he hated me."
She tutted softly at that but said nothing, though her eyes turned over to catch Bernard's. He was a little surprised that she allowed him to read her but, then again, he'd accepted her offer of aid, hadn't he? Perhaps it wasn't so surprising after all.
What he read in her gaze was the same anger at the Teyrn's action that burned in himself. He could give the man his due as a general but he loathed men who looked down upon those weaker than them. And the child Alistair had once been, reminded constantly of his supposed place in the world despite the father and brother that had obviously loved him, certainly fit under the weaker category.
Turning his attention back to the map, Bernard sealed a hand over his mouth to still the rather unsavory comments he wanted to say aloud. The boy was obviously already in a state over his hair and he didn't want to add to that.
"We go north then," he finally stated, dropping the hand to tap two fingers on the Bannorn . "We're almost directly south of South Reach right now and can stop there or one of its outlying villages to restock our supplies."
"And after that?" asked Alistair.
Leliana let out a hum before Bernard could reply and said lightly, "There is much land in the Bannorn , is there not?" She then smiled and winked at him. "Plenty of places for us to hide ourselves for a while."
Inclining his head towards her, he replied, "The lady has the way of it." He swept his hand across the whole of the Bannorn , from Lake Calenhad all the way to Denerim , and said, "Fields and forest and a bevy of hills to get lost in. We'll be able to hide there well and perhaps have a bit of a breather to get a handle on things. Figure out our next definite move."
"Be easier if we knew what was going on," grumbled Alistair. "It doesn't help that we've been avoiding people."
Bernard started to open his mouth but Leliana beat him to a response, flicking the fingers of her free hand hard against one of Alistair's ears. As the young man yelped and jumped, she sharply said, "We avoid people because you are very obviously who you are."
With a huff, he crossed his arms and turned to glare up at her until she forced his head back around to continue clipping at his hair. Alistair then looked grumpily at Bernard and said, "I can't help that. We've already covered up the pauldron on my armor. It's not like I can just change my appearance at will."
"You can't," he gruffly noted before nodding to the young woman perched behind him. "But she's a bard. She knows how to hide in plain sight and charm the pants off a man with a look."
Leliana laughed merrily, one of most honest sounds he'd heard out of her since she'd joined them, and tilted her head respectfully towards him. "Perhaps a few pretty words to get a little bit more out of him," she intoned playfully. Then she brushed stray hairs off of Alistair's shoulder before leaning forward to peer at the side of his face, reaching around after a moment to turn his face towards her. The young man blinked at her, obviously confused, but she seemed to see something that pleased her and leaned back with a nod. "It will be difficult but I think he can be taught. Surely someone gave you instruction about the Ferelden court, no?"
" Anora did. Father and Cailan wanted to protect me from it and she wanted me able to stand on my own," replied Alistair shortly. He then frowned and tilted his head back to look at her from upside down. "What exactly are you going to be teaching?"
"Why, to hide in plain sight! If you succeed, even those who know you best would not be able to pick you out standing right in front of them."
"...when do we start?"
"We start now."
Bernard just watched the pair of them, his attention seemingly fully on the map but really mostly on them. He was no bard but he knew how to read people ...and they were both smitten . Leliana hid it better than Alistair - though it was likely that she was more strongly ignoring it than the young man was also - but he could see it. Despite the start of her involvement with them, he'd already deemed her honest and it had taken balls to tell him the whole sordid affair revolving out from her mistress' hand.
The boy could do worse for a pairing than a girl with obvious wit and skill at politics. Landsmeet would have a fit at her being an Orlesian bard but that could be dealt with by reminding them that some of their own kin carried the blood.
He'd let that whole matter sort itself on it's own, however. If it worked out, it worked out. If not...at least they found something good for a little while.
Turning his attention fully to the map, Bernard picked up the string lying nearby as well as the short stick of charcoal that he'd been using to make notes ever since fishing them out of the belongings of one of the many bandits they'd had to kill. Who knew that such an annoyance would end up useful to their travels?