A/N - This is going to be a three part mini-fic. I am writing this as a tribute to Orangeflavor, who did what I was beginning to think was impossible by moving me to such great levels with their Dragon Age One-Shot, The Last Rite. If you have not had a chance to read it, I would STRONGLY encourage you to do so. This was actually a challenge for me to write, as I usually do not write in present tense, and I have a propensity to be very long and drawn out. I attempted to follow Orangeflavor's writing style as best as I could so that the tribute feels like a cohesive addition to her one-shot: something that could be read along with it and make sense. It's also a challenge because of Feels. I am basing much of Kael's behavior off of my old malamute, who passed away many, many years ago. It's an honor and a great privilege to be writing this, and I am greatly looking forward to continuing and completing it.
"Kael?" His Woman turns Her head to look back at him.
The Mabari lowers his head in front of his chest, flexing broad, thick-muscled shoulders to try and shake the chill of winter that still clings to his bones with a heaviness that he doesn't understand. It begins to feel as though their patrols have grown longer than before, and that His Woman bests him each time. This, Kael does not mind. He loves Her and cherishes Her strength.
But then the one that She calls 'Gerald' passes him, too.
And then the furry-faced dwarf She calls 'Oghren' strides past him, as well.
Kael's flanks begin to quiver as he looks behind him, avoiding His Woman's gaze as She stares back at him with concern etching into Her features. He does not like to be the slowest. He does not like the way the earth jars so heavily against his paws with each step. He does not like how, sometimes, Gerald hears the Dark Ones before he does. It was not like this before. Hearing footsteps drawing closer to him, Kael slowly turns his dark eyes up to look at His Woman's face, reluctantly meeting Her gaze.
"Is something the matter, Kael? Did you hear something?" She says to him.
Kael's head lowers once again, and he huffs with defeat against the dirt path they traveled. The war hound wishes that he heard something. He wishes that it was he who trotted off ahead, spotting movement in the shadows and alerting the pack. He remembers doing these things.
"Seems like he's been slowing up lately…" Gerald says. The tall man looks between the furry-faced one and His Woman.
Dejection seeps into his stance, and Kael's shoulders slump with shame. He can feel His Woman staring down at him, and as Her shadow falls over him, Kael parts his muzzle with a soft whine. He did not like to slow Her down. With his eyes shut, he does not see Her hand as She reaches out to pet him on his shoulders. Her fingers curl and scratch in just the right way through his short, greying coat.
"Good Boy." She whispers to him, patting his side.
Kael wishes that this was true. Even though he knows it is not, it makes the heaviness of his body lessen. To show Her that he is still strong and still fast Kael lumbers forward in an uneven lope, pushing his bulky mass between the tall one and the dwarf. He feels their eyes on him as he forges ahead, his steps slower than they were in previous autumns. The grizzled mabari raises his head, and his nostrils flare wide to capture the scents around him. His nose is still good. A deep breath inward draws in a wisp from the breeze, and Kael's eyes narrow as he picks apart what he smells.
There is a pregnant wolf perhaps a few miles into the forest that has passed by not long before. She smells sweet and warm, but they are not his spawn in her belly. A sour tang assaults his nose within the next layer, and Kael grumbles and growls under his breath, the coarse fur along his spine bristling unevenly. He hates the smell of the Dark Ones. Though the scent is stale, and he knows the Dark Ones have not been here for half a moon, their smell makes him think of other times, before the heaviness, and before the aches…...
Their taint is strong in the air, and he knows they are in danger. Kael has never been under the ground before, but after he sniffs and snuffs and gets used to the darkness and stale scents on the air, it is not so bad anymore. His Woman, the scentless thing She calls 'Shale,' the beta She calls 'Sten,' and the new furry-faced one travel through the deep roads, always searching for dwarf smell.
"Kael?" His Woman whispers. She is a master off lowering Her voice so that only he can hear. Her eyes glimmer in the darkness, collecting the minimal lighting put off by lyrium, magma, and torches, just as his own do.
The thick muscled war hound briskly turns about, and he trots to Her side, standing in front of Her and staring out into the darkness. His fur bristles. He knows there are seven of them, and that they are just around the next shadowy twist in their path, waiting in the darkness to strike. Kael's heart pumps faster. Slowly, his lips curl back, and his maw parts.
Following his gaze, His Woman flicks Her eyes over, and they shine brighter than before. Her pack stills behind Her, and slowly they reach for their weapons to ready themselves for the upcoming battle.
Kael feels His Woman's fingers scritch and scratch against the sweet spot between his shoulders, and he relishes how they curl and get beneath the thick bristles of his hackles. He is a very Good Boy, and a very good lookout. He turns towards the spawn and lowers his head defensively to guard his neck, and with a bellowing snarl, Kael leads the charge against the spawn.
He hears Her behind him, roaring out her challenges to the Dark Ones, too.
Even though they are outnumbered, it is not long at all before the Dark Ones lie dead beneath their feet. Kael mauls two of the seven personally. He pants happily, his maw hanging open wide as his tongue lolls out of the side of his mouth. Blood coats his short, smooth, dark brown coat, but Kael does not mind.
"How convenient it is to have one creature with such a nose about. I imagine It would have a hard time surviving here if It did not," the scentless mass of stone says.
"You have done well, Hound," the deep voiced and dark skinned giant rumbles. Kael wags his nubby tail vigorously at this man's praise. The tone is so rich and fulfilling that he cannot help it—but even better is what always comes after it.
"Good Boy, Kael," His Woman said; She cups his massive head between Her hands and plants a kiss on his forehead, rewarding him with scratches to his thick neck and chest.
As they approach the den's gates, Kael can't help but feel relief. He keeps himself ahead of the rest of their pack as they walk, trying to make sure that they did not have to see him falter or grow tired. The heaviness in his limbs has only grown worse, and his paws ache sorely after such a long walk. But he makes it. Slobber dangles from the corners of his open jaws, and Kael sways his head about to look inside of the courtyard as they are welcomed back. His vision pulses and darkens. Shadows throb at the edges of his sights, and it seems to him that no matter how many times he blinks, he cannot get rid of the foggy haze that collects in front of him.
While the returning patrol settles in and prepares to separate, Kael tries to catch his breath. Limping, head still drooping, Kael forces a loud, gruff hack, trying to settle his erratic heartbeat and to rid the congested feeling in his diaphragm. It is not the first time that he has done this, and Kael knows how it worries His Woman.
Her head turns back to look at him. She looks at the thick drool collecting in his jowls, the way he is now more grey than brown, and the way he favors the leg he injured long ago.
"Kael, come, please." His Woman calls to him.
Though he wants to do nothing more than stretch out across the cool dirt and rest his eyes, Kael obediently pushes himself closer to Her. She stares at him in a way that makes the cropped rims of his ears try to pin. He has seen Her use this expression, back when the old woman traveled with them, and then when His Woman and he travel to the tower of nightmares to say their goodbyes to Wynne as death claimed her in the second winter after the Blight had ended.
He has not thought of the old woman in many, many moons. Kael plods and limps after His Woman, doing his best to keep pace, but finding himself grateful for every distraction a guard or steward presented.
"Commander," they would call.
"Tabris," they would say.
His Woman tended to them as any proper alpha would, and while She works, Kael sits just beside Her, or leans perhaps too heavily against Her leg. Just as he thinks that perhaps She intends to make him walk alongside Her well into the night, the elf that smells of musk, wines, and spices rounds the corner, dipping his head as he smiles roguishly.
"Meran," he coos.
Kael snorts at the scent His Woman releases, lowering his head and heaving himself to his paws. She intends to go somewhere that he cannot follow Her, and he knows this without being told. The rug at the end of the hall sings to him, calling his name adoringly with its plush looks.
"What's got into him?" Zevran says, and he points behind His Woman to Kael.
"H-he's—" His Woman sighs and shakes her head, "Let him be. Come on," She says.
The mabari lowers his hips with some difficulty to the rug beneath him and he turns his head to watch after the musky one and His Woman until they round the bend, disappearing to her chambers. The click of the door makes his cropped ears wiggle once, then twice. When silence follows, Kael lowers his head to the rug and lets his muzzle mush against the fabric. It smells of old tapestries, dirt from the east side of the barn, and of the same dust that he remembers smelling inside of the old woman's chambers.
And again, he thinks of her…..
"Meran, now I told you not to come all this way!" The old woman says. She clicks her tongue and shakes her head, but Kael does not think she is upset. She does not smell like it—instead she smells sickly sweet, and there is a lingering bitterness that enters his maw as His Woman and he steps forward.
The old woman is dying. He can smell it on her skin and in her breath. The massive war hound turns his head to look up at His Woman for guidance. He did not like this. It was not normal to linger where death waited. When death calls, one answers.
"You've told me a great many things, Wynne. But I couldn't obey that." His Woman speaks softly, seating herself at the edge of the old woman's bed. She reaches out to grasp her frail hands.
"Pah, you say that like you listened to any of my advice to begin with." The old woman laughs, but she does not have the strength to keep doing so for long. A wheeze enters her happy sounds, and soon Wynne is shuddering, sweating, and struggling for air as she coughs and hacks into her bony wrist.
Kael pushes his head up onto the bed and rests his chin against the smelly blankets. He stares up at the old woman.
"Is there anything that I can do for you?" His Woman's tone of voice is sad and thick with sorrow, but also respect. The old woman means something to Her, just as she means something to Kael, who finds himself beginning to think of the sweet meats she sneaks him and all of her spoiling praises. He will miss the old woman, too. Kael whines gently and shuffles forward, pushing himself up so that his barrel chest is resting on the bed beside Wynne, and his impossibly large paws stretch out towards her. Gently, he touches the bulge of her hip beneath the blanket with the bend of his furry toes.
"Oh, no… no, Meran, it's just time." Wynne says.
She turns her eyes to Kael's box-like head, and somehow the sickly old woman musters the energy and strength to reach up to place her gnarled, arthritic fingers on top of Kael's forehead, swirling and circling her nails through the thin fur.
"It's just my time," she says, the corners of her mouth beginning to pull up into the faintest of smiles, "I'm very proud of you, did you know that?" the smell of salt assaults his nostrils as the old woman's eyes water rapidly, and when the thick trails of tears streak down her face, the thickset hound leans forward and licks the droplets off of her withering, wrinkling cheeks.
"I know. It was an honor to have met and traveled with you, Wy—Kael, no, down," Meran chastises him, abruptly gripping his scruff and pulling his head back. He sulks, dipping his chin down apologetically and smothers his muzzle against the bed. He did not mean to be Bad, but he think the old woman is sad, and he does not wish for her to be.
"He's fine, Meran," Wynne breathes, head shaking as she reaches out to set her hand on top of His Woman's wrist. The two women look to each other for a time in silence, and it isn't until the old woman breaks it that the tension snaps in twain.
"Everyone has a Time, Meran. Make sure you're ready when it comes, and that you feel no shame or regret," she begins to cry again, but the corners of her mouth are pulled up into a gentle, peaceful smile. Kael does not know what to do. He looks to His Woman for guidance.
She is quiet, watching the life ebb out of Wynne with each breath, until the old woman exhales one last time, her lungs rattling inside of her chest, the sound of death gathering.
She grips Her pendant from Ostagar.
Kael chuffs as he rouses himself from his memories. He snorts to try and get the scents of stale carpets and drapes out of his nose, and to push the old woman out of his mind. The muffled noises from His Woman's chambers cease and Kael's slowly blurring eyes turn towards her door. His legs shift beneath him. It will not be long now.
Minutes later, the musky one pushes open the door. His tunic is full of wrinkles and it hangs from his lean shoulders crookedly.
Pushing himself to his paws, Kael groans tiredly and lumbers towards His Woman's rooms. They will stink of sex and pheromones, but he is willing to put up with both, as long as he can listen to Her gentle snores and feel the warmth of the crackling fire against his aching joints. The elf stands before him, staring down at his stoic, bestial snout with confusion and pity. Slowly he reaches a hand out to pet Kael. He tolerates this because he knows this is His Woman's mate.
"Ready for a snooze, old boy?" Zevran murmurs, squatting down so that his face is level with Kael's. The elf's eyes rove over Kael's features, and the mabari stares past him into His Woman's private rooms, ogling the cushion he had claimed and moved to the rug in front of the fire. The musky one looks him over appraisingly, noting the thick ridges of scars that mottle nearly his entire body. He looks at the bald swatches across Kael's legs, the grey fur collecting and spreading from his muzzle across his body. He looks at the murky films starting to form over Kael's eyes. Though he isn't paying attention, Kael can see the elf purse his lips with an unspoken, unpleasant thought.
"Good night, boy…" he murmurs gruffly.
Kael chuffs once, his head hanging low as he prowls past the elf and into His Woman's chambers where he can smell Her thickly in the air; a quick sweep of his gaze shows Her sprawling across Her bed, undressed and glistening in a sheen of sweat and wetness. She will fall asleep very soon, and so will he.
He reaches his pillow and slumps down on top of it with a heavy sigh. Aching legs stretch out in an effort to rid the pains and twinges of age and poor weather. As Her snores begin to sound out, Kael turns his eyes to the low banked fire, and he stares at the dancing flames. Sleep will not claim him, despite how he tries to soothe himself. The pain in his hips and the dull throbs across battle scars keep him awake long into the early hours of the morning. Soon, he hears His Woman sitting up in bed and yawning, waking from a restful slumber and dressing Herself for another day of work.
Dread begins to form in his chest, and the physical aches that plague him seep into his heart, too. He does not want to be a bad or lazy boy. Slowly, trying not to draw her attention to himself, Kael wriggles against his cushion, trying to turn his head away from Her and out of Her sight.
Footsteps sound behind him and stop.
The leather and steel chains and links in Her armor whine and clink as She stoops behind him and rests Her hand on his back. For long minutes, She squats behind him and pets him. He does not know if She is encouraging him to get up or if She is consoling him. Kael's eyes shut tightly, and the old, grizzled war hound hitches a paw up to hide his face from Her.
"Kael…." She breathes. Her fingers rub gently over his back, ending with gentle pats to his sides. Hesitantly, She rises to Her feet. "Be a Good Boy, Kael. Stay," the pitch of her voice rises, and it makes Kael think of happy times and of wrestling in fields of thick, green grass. She was telling him to Stay.
"You're a Good Boy, Kael… you've done so Good. You can Stay, Boy, it's okay…"
Slowly, his paw draws itself off of his muzzle, and he brings his head up to watch after Her as She starts to draw Her hands back, smiling down at him with acceptance. She still thinks he is a Good Boy. She still loves him, even though his joints ache and cause him pain. She still loves him, even though his ears do not hear like they used to, and even though he cannot run as long or as far. She still loves him, even though he is old and weary.
And that is all he needs.