He wandered the halls aimlessly, passing the occasional servant or guard without making even the most superficial attempts to acknowledge their presence.
Even so he could feel the stares that followed him, like their eyes were burning holes in the back of his head. It made his scalp itch, and he could feel a flush crawling up his neck at the unwanted attention.
He rubbed his nape with one hand, trying to dispel the uncomfortable feeling, and escaped through a set of balcony doors that he knew overlooked the sprawling city of Denerim.
The sights, sounds, and inevitable smells of the crowded city overwhelmed his senses and provided a much needed distraction to his dark, troubling thoughts. The rising sun set the Amaranthine Ocean ablaze to the East, and shimmered against the Drakon River that flowed lazily toward the fiery horizon. It would have been a lovely sight too, if not for the squalid neglect of the Alienage that lay across the wide sluggish channel. A direct contrast to the elegant, sprawling estate where he currently resided; making the beautiful artistry of its arched windows, marbled statues, and crenulated columns seem suddenly garish and inappropriately vulgar. It made him feel ashamed of the luxury he now enjoyed; the perfumed sachets amongst the linens, and the warm possets that comforted him beside cozy fires were now a cruel travesty of what life in the city entailed for those less entitled.
His nose was likewise assaulted by the filth of the population's runoff and of the accumulated middens piled high against the rough, dilapidated housing that were built tall and leaned precariously close together to accommodate the overcrowded slums. It was a physical manifestation of the foul, sick rot that gave credence to the city's implied depravity and corruption.
Like a boil, it had been left to fester for unknown centuries under Theirin rule; and for that he felt some filial guilt for his bloodlines' contribution or, most likely, their neglect.
Which was all the more reason for his dread at what Eamon, and those nobles within his circle of influence, had planned for him at the Landsmeet.
Even now they plotted behind closed doors without so much as a "by your leave", taking for granted that he would gladly claim his birthright as the rightful ruler of Ferelden.
Him, an unwanted bastard, a fumbling stable boy, a failed Templar, and Blight tainted Warden; a King? All he could see was disaster down that road. The looming responsibility of the entirety of a country was almost paralyzing; the fear had him sweating and stuttering at even the most innocent of inquiries from his "supporters". Obnoxious, self-important aristocrats who were already attempting to ingratiate themselves into his favor. Their insincere flattery was as obvious as their cold desires to hold some sway over him. They gave subtle digs and insinuations, voiced in sugary sweet eloquence; all designed to uncover even the smallest inference of a scandal that could be used to manipulate him later, in the aim to further their own ambitions.
And they said Orlesians were masters of the Game? Maker forbid he ever had cause to see their proficiency first hand!
But what alarmed him most of all, was the secret temptation he'd kept buried for as long as he'd known who'd sired him. Those long squashed childhood dreams of proudly bearing the name "Theirin"; recognized as the legitimate heir to the throne. How laughable it was, after all the years he'd been assured and forcibly reminded at every turn that such a scenario would never come to pass; now he was being strong armed into the crown.
Truthfully, it left him reeling. His head spun from the complete one-eighty his life had taken. He felt lost and confused in the dizzying rush of events, and he needed some kind of anchor…
"There you are!"
He spun about at those lilting words of surprised pleasure.
A flurry of red hair and green robes collided with his chest, taking his breath from him in a rush; and despite his anxiety, or maybe because of it, he embraced her tightly and sighed in relief.
"Hmm…" He buried his nose atop her wildly curling tresses, scenting the rose water from her bath, and felt his world stabilize; her slight form pressed close, grounding him against the chaos of his earlier thoughts. "How did you know that I needed this?"
Her frail arms wrapped about his waist, snuggling against his chest with a light laugh.
"Agatha brought out a cheese tart, and you were nowhere to be found." She tilted her head back to gaze up at him with laughing emerald eyes, resting her chin on his sternum. "Obviously, it was an emergency."
He couldn't help the full grin that stretched across his features, his heart lifting; practically soaring at her regard.
"How right you are my love," He chuckled at her mischievous smirk. "The combination of cheese and tarts should have had me running if I were in my right mind." He couldn't help but kiss those smiling lips, basking in the bright warmth of her; feeling his troubles melt, flowing away with her contented hum.
She pulled away first, reaching slender hands up to cup his jaw, stroking her thumbs gently over his cheekbones.
"Oh my heart, it pains me to see you so conflicted." Her fervent expression begged for him to confide in her all his troubles.
"I'm… unsure of what I should do," He leaned into her touch, taking comfort in her concern; closing his eyes and just feeling her love envelop him. "And Maker, it all just pisses me off!" He gave her a disgruntled look. "I have no idea how you can stand talking to all those fancy dressed, pretentious windbags…"
He trailed off as she giggled and wrapped her hands around the back of his neck, pulling him down for another kiss; halting his line of thought.
"Heh…" She was still grinning when they finally came back up for air. "I was raised in the Circle, remember? I have a gre~at deal of experience in conversing with pretentious windbags."
"As for everything else," Stepping back, she trailed her hands down his arms till her fingers laced with his. "Whatever you decide, know that you have my support."
She lifted both of his hands, brushing her lips across the knuckles; holding his gaze with a soft expression that had his heart clenching almost painfully.
"And my love…"
The bittersweet memory faded even as Alistair fought the onset of consciousness; squeezing his eyes shut to hold on to that moment of comfort. His chest still aching with pent up emotion.
He both loved and hated these dreams, as they brought back some of the happiest, and the saddest experiences of his life. He all at once dreaded his recollections of Her, and longed for the sight of her; as he was starting to forget those little details he'd once obsessed over. Like the exact shade of her eyes, and the way the sun highlighted all the different fiery hues of her hair. Images that were once sharp in detail, were now muted and blurred; a reminder of all that he had lost. The confusing mix of relief and pain left him somewhat disoriented upon waking.
A chill wind blew through their shelter, shaking loose the last clinging tendrils of sleep from his mind. Leaving only vague impressions of soft lips and loving words. Alistair sullenly opened his eyes to see night still casting dark shadows over the surrounding rocks that shielded them from obvious view. Their small fire making those shadows seem to dance sinisterly overhead as he recalled an entirely different sort of dream. One consisting of dark flaming pits, and wicked laughter…
He shook his head to dispel the memory, and its accompanying dread; concentrating instead on his unfamiliar surroundings, and trying to catch his bearings. The events of the last few days coming to the forefront of his thoughts.
They rested in a shallow depression in the rock of a cliff's base, with an overhang that provided some protection from the elements; as well as diffusing the rising smoke of their camp fire. Embla had confidently led them the short distance to their camp from the cobbled road that followed the broad rumbling river they had been following all day, and judging by her familiarity with the area he guessed she'd stayed here a number of times. That, and the kindling, and wood that had also been conveniently left at the site for future use.
The woman, herself, was at the moment standing a few paces away, at the edge of their shelter; her eyes scanning the deeper shadows past the reach of their campfire's weak, wavering light. Her pale form glowed in the combined illumination of both the golden blaze of the fire and the gleaming silver of the two alien moons; a vision of ethereal beauty, and at the same time hauntingly eerie. Like their surroundings, or even the woman herself; both strange, lovely, and somewhat wild.
She seemed relaxed, leaning against the rugged rocks with a knocked hunting bow held loosely at her side. The chill air that had Alistair shivering and huddling under the combination of both his bedding and hers, seemed to have little effect on Embla; something he'd noticed quickly in their travels. She had offered him the use of her own cloak and bedding during her watch, and wore no cloak or coat as they travelled the road to this "Markarth".
She was content to feel the cold breeze that often cut through him like a knife; and he'd even seen her scrubbing snow over her face and arms to wash off the day's sweat and accumulated ash. Which she insisted on the both of them applying repeatedly to their exposed skin throughout the day.
Alistair was sure he looked like he'd been rolling about in a cold hearth, as he'd found the idea of washing himself off with snow incredibly unpleasant (certain parts shriveled at the very thought!). Not to mention the fact that he hadn't shaved since Maker knows when. He was sure he looked like an ashy, scruffy git right about now.
He found himself sorely irritated at her ability to ignore the cold; as Ferelden's were well known for their own resilience in such poor climate, and she was so obviously putting the whole of his countrymen to shame! Even the Frostback's would feel balmy in comparison to this harsh land he found himself in. He took a moment to reminisce about the more pleasant weather of his homeland…
Even so, he was thankful for Embla's obvious expertize in travelling through these barbaric, windswept highlands; as well as her charitable provision of more appropriate cold weather gear. He didn't doubt for a second that he would have been entirely lost (and frozen solid) had he been travelling alone, not to mention the fact that he probably wouldn't have been here at all without her direct intervention.
Maker, but was he lucky! He didn't like to think about the odds of having someone of such an accommodating nature, just so happening to stumble upon him when he'd needed it the most.
Really the only issue he'd happened upon since first arriving in "Himmel-kant" (besides being here in the first place) was the fact that there was no easy way to communicate with anyone he'd met so far.
Though, they were both becoming quite proficient at charades. Which he found in equal parts both amusing and frustrating. Like those embarrassing times when he had to inform Embla of his need to relieve himself, or his unsuccessful attempts at lightening the tense mood between them after they'd set out from the village "Karthwasten", as she'd called it.
He'd worried a bit over Embla's suddenly wary glances, and strained smiles once they'd set out; but he figured it was just the normal caution a woman might show to travelling alone with a man she barely knew. He'd think her a fool if she hadn't been so prudent, and he most certainly wouldn't think of taking her for a fool (she had the look of a female who'd pummel him into the ground if he did).
I remember how nervous and watchful Neria was when we first…
He quickly cut off that line of thought before it could fully develop; and he must have made some noise, as Embla jerked her head in his direction. Suddenly alert, and body tensing at seeing him watching her. He could feel heat creeping up his neck and face at being caught woolgathering in the middle of the night …and staring. Idiot!
Not a good way to convey your supposed harmlessness, nug-nuts!
Clearing his throat loudly, Alistair staggered to his feet still wrapped up in his (err… and her) bedding. Trying to play off his gawking by rubbing his eyes and giving an exaggerated yawn as he slowly shuffled around the camp fire to stand beside her. A good arm's length away, he might add; not wanting her to think he was trying anything improper.
"Maker's cock, woman! See here? I'm a bloody gentleman."
Alistair grinned at her confused expression.
Ah! That silver lining again.
Chuckling to himself, he set his sights up to the night sky; taking in the strangeness once more. A sure way to distract himself, and a reminder that he was in fact not in Thedas. Or on any other continent that he'd ever heard of for that matter. It wasn't just the moons, what with the smaller one seeming to orbit the larger (weird, right?); but the absolute lack of any familiar constellations that told him that he was on some altogether "other" plane of existence.
As fantastical as that seemed, it was the only explanation that he could think of. And really, he'd been trapped in the fucking Fade! Anything could be possible he supposed.
Why, he was sure just the other day he'd seen a green woman with tusks and red eyes chatting up one of the locals (and no one but him even batted an eye)! Either that, or he was hallucinating, or still in the Fade. Or maybe both? He really wasn't sure how Fade… err stuff... worked. Really, he was still considering that he might indeed be trapped in some weird demon induced dreamscape.
Made him wish that bald elven apostate was around, as he'd probably now the difference.
Plus, the creepy elf would probably love this shite!
Though he was pretty sure he'd never be able to come up with all this crazy in his own head.
And I'm fairly sure demons are not that imaginative.
Oh, he could just see Morrigan cackling hysterically if she ever knew of his current predicament! He'd do the same if their roles were reversed, though he didn't think she'd ever be the self-sacrificing type. Plus that witchy bitch would probably pull something wicked and devious (along with that giant stick) out of her backside; just long enough to beat the locals into submission, or trick them in some way that would have them eating out of the palm of her hand. How unsanitary!
And speaking of witchy, though decidedly less bitchy…
Alistair sent a surreptitious glance out of the corner of his eye over at Embla, who had gone back to scanning their surroundings; reminding himself that she was, in fact, a mage. Though it wasn't like she made it obvious; as she took to carrying about a sword, daggers and a well-used hunting bow.
Where was her staff? Don't mages always use those?
Not to mention, the fact that he was used to mages wearing enchanted robes and such. Though that was usually Circle mages, and not so much for the average apostate.
Not that he had issues with mages, in general. After travelling all about Ferelden with Ner- with mages, he'd come to appreciate having them in company.
It was just that it all felt a bit… off?
His years of Templar training had made him sensitive to the feel of magic, though the skill was significantly dampened since he'd stopped taking lyrium; and he recalled that static-y, tingly feeling whenever he'd sensed a mage casting. Which he remembered being rather pleasant under certain conditions…
Anyway, it seemed to be something altogether different here. More powerful, maybe? More like a hot, sharp rush of awareness that had made him gasp and flinch like an outright pansy!
When Embla had cast her healing spell over him, that heated awareness had all suddenly coalesced, taking on something more visceral. Vibrating intensely and forming a soft pleasant tinkling sound; centered on the woman and the bright golden light emanating from her palms. He'd never seen such a healing spell quite like it before. Almost as quickly as she had started it was over. The sounds had lowered, the light and heat had dispersed itself to a generalized hum; making his hair stand on end as it rushed through him and away into the ether.
Alistair recalled the many times he'd been witness to the general use of magic, and in comparison, what he had known before seemed muffled. Less vibrant, dull, and cold. Like comparing the comfort and warmth of a hearth's fire to the dim glow of a candle.
It was all a very interesting (if incredibly disturbing) question that he'd have to set aside for later. Along with all the other accumulating questions he planned on asking. That is, whenever he was able to speak whatever passed for the native tongue around here.
With a somewhat resigned sigh, Alistair unwrapped himself from Embla's bedding and passed it off to her with an encouraging smile; waving her over to his abandoned bedroll. She'd made no indication that they were to have a set watch, but then he just figured she'd wake him whenever it was time for his turn. Though it looked to be well past midnight from what he could tell of the moons' position.
Wait… Were moon and sun positions even the same here?
Huh… Best to leave those thoughts alone for now, or chance a headache.
He wasn't sure exactly how far it was to this Markarth they were heading to. From the map she had shown him it really didn't look all that much farther off, but it seemed sensible to make sure his guide was as well rested as possible. He saw no reason why they both needed to stay awake, and he most definitely wasn't getting anymore sleep tonight.
She'd accepted her furs automatically, giving him a questioning look. Oh, he could tell she didn't like the idea too much, but he figured she would need to decide on whether or not to trust him at some point. Might as well find out now.
Alistair eyed her expectantly, as he wrapped himself up in his own cloak and bed furs once more; raising an eyebrow in an almost challenging manner. Which she noticed, if her narrowed suspicious glare was any indication, and looked to be mulling over her options briefly before giving a sigh and an accepting nod.
Embla wrapped her furs about herself in a similar fashion and eyed him up and down with a frown before giving him a disgruntled huff and unbuckled the long sword and sheath she had hanging from her waist by a simple baldric suspension. He took the rig and sword gratefully, aware of the sign of trust that she had just literally handed him hilt first.
It hadn't gone unnoticed that she had supplied him with just about everything for this trip except for a weapon (unless it ever crossed his mind to use a teacup as such). And though he could do some serious damage with just his shield, he appreciated having a blade between himself and whatever danger might present itself in this foreign land.
Alistair grabbed his shield, deciding not to bother with his armor; and took Embla's place against the rocks. He offered her back her sword belt and cross straps, but she motioned for him to keep it; and started adjusting the leather baldric to better fit his broader frame. A good sign that he would not be left weaponless for the remainder of their journey.
"Thank you…" He said quietly. Giving her a heartfelt (and greatly relieved) smile.
"Du er velkommen." She grunted with a nod, before moving to lay upon the bedding he'd left behind.
Feeling somewhat lighter after the exchange, Alistair turned his attention to the shadows; admiring the strange beauty of the heavens, and the silvery cast it set upon the barbaric landscape. He relaxed and scanned the rocky outcropping before him, and listened to the quiet rumblings of the river just beyond the bend. Comforted by the sounds of nature and the soft rumble of newfound trust.
Hah! She's totally snuffling like a newborn nug in her sleep! I definitely needed to learn the language quickly, if only to be able to tease her about this later.