The tavern was dark and cheap, the smell of spilled ale the most pleasant component in the stench that hung heavily in the air. Loghain the Grey Warden, formerly Loghain, Teyrn of Gwaren, formerly plain Loghain Mac Tir, wrinkled his nose, and then almost laughed at himself. Thirty years ago, a tavern such as this would have seemed luxurious to him.
He was wearing a simple doublet and a cloak, not the chevalier grey armour he had become famous for, and he'd made sure his overlong hair was covering his face; but still, it was best not to linger. The last thing he wanted was to be recognised. He wasn't a teyrn any longer, and he certainly wasn't the Hero of River Dane; hadn't been for years. However, having been the regent who'd almost thrown Ferelden into a bloody civil war was a harder shadow to erase. There was nobody else to blame, not Howe, not Cailan, not Eamon bloody Guerrin. They came to him now in his dreams: petty, blood-thirsty, eager, solemn, not even accusing.
Accusation he could have dealt with. Memory was harder to ignore.
Shaking off the unexpected melancholy, Loghain looked around the tavern, hiding behind his curtain of hair. All the traces and signs seemed to lead here, but nothing was ever certain. He looked again, closely, trying to see the faces underneath the grime. Several patrons had blond hair, but none of them—
Loghain didn't know what made him look closely in that dark corner, but the man sitting there had raised his head, his face half-hidden behind a mug of cheap ale, and his lanky blond hair, combined with that face, was unmistakable.
No, of course not Maric, Loghain told himself sternly. Maric was dead, gone these last six years. And even alive, the king had not looked this pinched and miserable for years, not since… Not since Rowan.
Loghain had never looked too closely at Eamon's puppet during the Landsmeet fiasco, and certainly not before that, when the whelp had been just another Grey Warden, but now there could be no question that the boy was Maric's son. A pity to see this expression on that face once more.
Well, last time it had been him who had pulled the king out of whatever hole his conscience and his grief had plunged him into. It looked like his duty to the Theirin line was not over yet.
Crossing the room quickly, Loghain sank onto the bench across from the boy and signalled the waitress for two more mugs. Best not face this sober.
The boy looked up from his ale and took a moment to focus. Then his eyes widened, and there was certainly nothing wrong with his reflexes, other than the amount of ale he seemed to have drunk. Loghain barely moved out of the way of his right fist, and pressed the boy's hands to the sticky table top just in time to avoid the left as well.
"Not in here," he said quietly. "Later; outside, if you want, but not in here."
The boy narrowed his slightly unfocussed eyes and tried to pull his hands free. "Why? Wh'd's't'matter?"
"You don't want to start a brawl in a port tavern," Loghain said dryly. "Not if you want to get out of it alive." At the boy's mulish look, Loghain shook his head. "Don't even go there."
The waitress made her way to their table just then, flustered and embarrassed. "Ser, my employer said not to serve the young man any more. His tab…" she trailed off, blushing.
"Hey!" the boy said angrily, if indistinctly.
Loghain sighed. "How much does he owe?"
"Thirty-two silver and four bits," the waitress whispered. She was eying them nervously, and Loghain realised that he was still pressing the boy's wrists to the table.
Securing both of the boy's wrists with his right hand, he reached into his purse with his left and pulled out a sovereign. "You haven't seen us," he ordered curtly, and watched her nod and scurry away. "Can you stand?" he asked, putting both his hand back.
The boy shrugged and listed to one side, looking like Loghain's hands were the only thing keeping him upright.
Sighing, Loghain stood and pulled the boy up by the back of his shirt, slipping a shoulder under his arm. They were about the same height; if the boy was taller his half-conscious state did a good job of hiding it. Nobody looked at them as they wove their way out of the tavern. Drunks supporting each other were hardly an unusual sight.
In the stinking alley outside, Loghain freed himself from under the boy's weight and propped him up against a wall. "Now," he began, but before he could continue, the boy's right hook caught his jaw and sent him sprawling into the mud of the alley.
"You said ou'sside," the boy explained earnestly, just before he collapsed, unconscious, next to the tavern door.
Loghain rubbed his jaw and looked up into the overcast sky. Maric, if you're listening, I hope you're having a good laugh.
* * *
The boy was heavier than he looked, as Loghain had discovered while hauling him to the inn where he'd rented a room. In that part of town, the dirty and stinking, never mind unconscious, young man attracted more than his share of surprised and even suspicious glances. At the inn, Loghain explained him as his wayward nephew without a second thought, before enlisting the help of a burly barkeep to drag the boy up the stairs.
Clean and dressed in some of Loghain's clothes he looked so much like his father that Loghain had to force himself to examine him closely without looking away even once. The same chin and nose, the same hair and, Loghain suspected, the same eyes when the boy was awake.
When evening came, Loghain lit a lamp on the mantelpiece and settled down with one of the books he had taken from the new library at Vigil's Keep. Silence had always been his closest companion, even when he'd been a child, and sitting there, reading and listening to the boy breathe, was a more peaceful night than he'd had in a very long time.
It was near midnight when the boy first stirred, and Loghain put his book away and walked to the bed. "I should have specified: 'later, outside, when you're sober'," he said. At the boy's wince he lowered his voice. "If you're going to vomit, there's a chamber pot to your left."
The boy obligingly rolled on his left side and proceeded to empty his stomach enthusiastically enough to make Loghain raise an eyebrow. He hadn't thought there was anything but ale in there, but apparently the boy had found time to eat as well. More fool him.
Eventually, when even the dry heaves had stopped, Loghain made the boy rinse his mouth, and then drink as much water as he could without turning green again. Then he settled back in the chair, put his hand on his sword hilt, and fell asleep.
He woke up in the mid-morning, to noises from the little adjoining bathroom. There was barely enough time for him to grip the sword more securely before the boy was in front of him, holding one of his own daggers to his throat.
"It is later and I'm pretty sure I'm sober now," he said, and Maker help him, the voice was so much like Maric's, too. "Shall we go outside?"
Loghain brought his sword up almost automatically, protecting his throat and studying the boy – no, the young man – in front of him. "Outside; not in here," Loghain said eventually, still hoarse from sleep. "And I'd rather talk to you first."
"I'd rather kill you first," Alistair said very calmly. "Like you killed my brother, and Duncan, and an entire army, even if I seem to be the only person in Ferelden to remember that little detail."
"No," Loghain said, not moving. "I will remember what I did for as long as I live. As will… others. I remember every man and woman I lost that day."
"Reeeeeeally," Alistair drew out. "That's interesting. Tell me – Loghain of the Grey Wardens – your blood mage didn't manage to kill Arl Eamon, but are there any other plots we never knew about? Any mysteries left? Nobody knows much about King Maric's death—"
Alistair was over thirty years younger, and even months of hard drinking had not managed to severely damage his muscles and his reflexes. Nevertheless, Loghain found himself on the floor, on top of the boy, his sword pressed to Alistair's throat, without any conscious decision on his part.
"Don't you dare," he snarled, the air suddenly too thin. "Not Maric; never Maric. If you had any idea what he—" Sanity returned, slowly, and Loghain sat back, taking a deep breath. "My crimes against Ferelden and against Fereldans are many," he said slowly. "But know this, Alistair Theirin: not a day has passed these past six years when I hadn't wished myself on that ship instead of Maric."
Alistair looked at him for a moment, his gaze expressionless, and then flipped them over easily, the dagger again at Loghain's throat.
"Maker's breath, how many times?" Loghain asked, letting his head fall back against the floor. "Everybody saw you come in here, and the blood would stain the floorboards. Wait till we're outside; you can get away faster there, and without any witnesses."
"Yeah, and you'll just let me kill you? How stupid do you think I am?"
Loghain closed his eyes. The eye colour was different, but that narrow-eyed expression was still Maric's. "We can duel first, if you want. Your… friend beat me once already, after…"
"Don't you dare talk about her," Alistair said. The dagger cut deeper and a drop of blood tickled as it ran down around Loghain's throat.
"You broke her heart, you idiot," Loghain growled. "That's how stupid I think you are. Do you think she wanted me at her side instead of you? And you didn't even stay long enough to find out why Riordan wanted another Grey Warden at the battle. You just ran."
The blood was trickling steadily now. "Do you think I wanted to leave her?"
"I don't care what you wanted," Loghain rasped. Speaking was difficult now, with the dagger cutting in so deeply. "The only one who cared about it was her, and you never even stopped to talk before you ran away."
"And she cared enough about my wishes to let you go through the Joining. You, of all people in Ferelden!" The boy was panting now, on the verge between fury and tears. "You turned your back on them, you killed them! Cailan, your own son-in-law, and—and Duncan and all those men! And she let you Join!"
"Do you think it was easy?" Loghain said. He'd never talked about this to anyone; never could have imagined he ever would. But now the words were pouring out of him, and it wasn't really Alistair he was talking to. "Do you think it was fun to watch Maric's son overwhelmed and overrun on the battlefield? I told him not to go; I asked him—" his voice caught, and it had nothing to do with the dagger. "It was all those books of Rowan's. Cailan never understood, he never listened. And Maric didn't tell him enough; Cailan thought it was all about the glory. Was there ever any glory on a battlefield?"
"You killed them," Alistair whispered into Loghain's ear. "You walked away and let the darkspawn slaughter the men who fought for you, for Ferelden. Slaughter the Grey Wardens. Slaughter Maric's son. They wouldn't have been overwhelmed and overrun if you'd waited for the Orlesians—"
"Do you have any idea how many Orlesian assassination attempts there had been, even after the new Empress was crowned? How many plots? They were after Cailan since he was in his cradle, and they never stopped. I don't even know if Maric's death…" Loghain broke off and took a deep breath, looking up in that almost-familiar face. "Maric was a great king. I made him a great king." He swallowed with difficulty. "Cailan was not worthy of that legacy. You could have been, but you ran!"
"If being a great king means having to make alliances with murderers and regicides, I'm glad I passed up," Alistair said, his narrow-eyed gaze steely. "You said you'd made him a great king – what was he before you did him that great favour? He was ever so grateful, too, I just bet."
"He understood," Loghain whispered, closing his eyes again. "Eventually, he understood." Alistair was still pinning him down and his anger and the heat of his body were causing the predictable reaction. This was so much more real than all those discreet blond prostitutes he'd found over the years; those had been paid to be quiet.
"Well, I don't, and I'm not going to," Alistair gritted out, leaning forward. Loghain fought to keep his body still. "You are going to pay for what you've done."
Loghain nodded, feeling the dagger dig in.
Alistair looked taken aback for a moment. "What?"
"You can kill me today, or you can let me go. To Orzammar. I'm going to the Deep Roads."
"Yeah, right, and it's not like this place happens to be on the road between Amaranthine and Orzammar," Alistair sneered.
"I was looking for you, you idiot!" Loghain snapped, and tried to sit up. It turned out to be a monumental mistake, and not only because of the dagger still at his throat.
Alistair's eyes widened. He reached down with his free hand and cupped Loghain roughly. Loghain bit his lip, trying not to moan or arch up into that touch. It had been so long, and the boy looked so very much like—
"Interesting," Alistair said. "That explains some of the rumours, I suppose. Though most of them were about you and Queen Rowan, not—"
"Leave her out of it!" Loghain said, or tried to say. Alistair tightened his grip and he fell back, panting.
"That wasn't in the history books," Alistair said. Both his hands were steady. "They just said you and Maric were as close as brothers. Good thing I never got to know Cailan that well, I suppose."
Loghain tried to keep his breathing even and his face expressionless. He wasn't very successful at either. "We weren't," he began, and didn't quite know how to say that his best friend had had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the delicacy of a charging bronto. "I never," he tried again, and ran out of words.
Maric's son smiled at him thinly. "No, of course you wouldn't. You made him a great king, and you wouldn't mar him reputation with something as sordid as an affair with his married best friend."
Loghain shook his head and gave into the insistent demands of his body, spreading his legs and finally, finally pushing up into Alistair's hand. "I never told him." He could see Maric's face as plainly as Alistair's now, the same blond hair and wide chin. "He never knew."
"He never knew what? That having made him wasn't enough for you? That you wanted to own him as well?"
"He wasn't a thing to be owned; you could just as easily try to own the sun." He remembered Maric's wry smile as sunlight caught in his greying blond hair. Maric's sure hands when he gripped his sword and Loghain couldn't help thinking if they would have been just as sure when gripping—
Loghain came back to himself, not even embarrassed when he realised he was panting, pushing insistently against Alistair's hand. He'd given up the right to embarrassment with all his other rights; and besides, Alistair was looking at him with a considering expression he'd seen so often on another face.
"Don't move," he said finally, and put the dagger aside. When he removed he other hand, Loghain bit back a whimper and tried to keep still. "Why were you looking for me?"
"I went to Gwaren first; I was recruiting for the Grey Wardens. Veterans; men and women that could be trusted. The order is being rebuilt in Amaranthine, with Fereldan Wardens," Loghain said, and closed his eyes again. He preferred the memories to the sight of the dusty ceiling. "And then I left for Orzammar, but I knew you were here, trying to drink yourself—" Well, that wasn't the wisest thing to say, under the circumstances. "I knew you were here."
"You didn't answer my question." Loghain didn't need to open his eyes to know that the point of the dagger was now resting against his stomach.
"Because you are a Grey Warden," he said eventually. "Because you are needed." The last part might as easily get him killed, but he pressed on anyway. "Because she needs you."
The dagger cut in deeper, just as he'd known it would. "She made her choice. She chose you. Imagine my surprise."
"You fool," Loghain said, angry enough to open his eyes again and stare at Maric's son; so similar in all the wrong ways. "Do you have any idea what you leaving cost her? She was being practical. You are like Maric, with the grand dramatic gestures—"
"Oh?" Alistair's other hand was suddenly there, and Loghain gasped, arching. "That would explain this, then."
Loghain shook his head, annoyed at the foolish boy, at his body so unexpectedly betraying him, but Maker's breath; it had been so long…
He wasn't even aware of having closed eyes, but he opened them, startled, as Alistair drew the dagger through the laces of Loghain's trousers in one movement. Surely he wouldn't… but there was the heavy clink of glass and the smell of lamp oil and he closed his eyes again as Alistair arranged his clothing to his liking.
"If you lied," he said heavily, and Loghain shook his head frantically, spreading his legs and arching up as Alistair plunged in, all pain and pressure and no finesse at all which was so right Loghain bit his lip and tasted blood.
He saw Maric's smile mischievously as he turned to him during a rousing speech, smile widening at his own dour stare. He smelled sweat as they sparred, in Arl Rendorn's camp, with Maric's thin shirt clinging to his body, outlining each curve, and later, much later, sparring again: two old fools embarrassing themselves in the privacy of the empty guard's training halls; Maric surprising him into a rare moment of laughter as he heaved him back to his feet, their bodies so close he could have reached out and touched that blond hair. In a moment of clarity he spared a thought for the boy who was pounding into him now, all fury and loss and pain, and wondered if Alistair knew that something he'd likely meant as a punishment was in reality a rare and impossible gift.
And then Maric was turning to him, silver glinting in the long blond strands he'd always wanted to run his fingers through. It's just a ship, Loghain; don't worry, I'll be back in time for the children's wedding. Take care of Ferelden while I'm gone, my friend.
Loghain bit his teeth together, but it was probably too late. He neither knew nor cared what the boy had heard, but he turned his face away to preserve a last shred of dignity; maybe not even his own.
He kept his eyes closed as Alistair grunted and slid out of and off him. "There is a cloak and a coin purse in my pack," he said, his voice sounding strange to his own ears. "It will buy you a good sword and armour, and food and shelter on the road to Amaranthine."
Alistair said nothing, though Loghain could hear him cleaning himself up. "You're very generous for a murderer," he said eventually, almost lightly.
"The Wardens need you. She needs you," Loghain said. "You might have become a good king, but you are a Grey Warden."
Loghain heard the muffled jingling of the coins. "And you I'm supposed to forget and forgive?"
"No," Loghain replied. He didn't want to open his eyes and see the wrong face. "That would be foolish. You can kill me here, or you can let me go on to Orzammar."
"To the Deep Roads." Alistair sounded supremely sceptical.
"I'm almost sixty," Loghain said wearily. "It's a miracle the Joining didn't kill me. How long do you suppose I could have gone on, with the Taint?"
"Does she know?" Alistair asked after a moment, sounding subdued.
"That I went to find you first? Not unless she has informants of her own."
Loghain could almost feel the boy's indecision. It almost made him laugh; were he in the same situation, he would have slit his throat without a second thought.
"I'm not like you," Alistair finally said. "I won't kill a Grey Warden."
Loghain opened his eyes just in time to see a shock of blonde hair disappear out of the door.
He lay back, heedless of the mess on his stomach, and looked up onto the ceiling again.
It wouldn't be long now.