The wine was red.
Alistair was sure that if he asked Anora she would no doubt tell him just how long the wine had been saved, where the grapes had been grown and how it had been prepared. She would also have told him never to call wine 'red' out loud, least of all next to a noble of Ferelden.
This one was the only noble he could relax around though, with whom he could speak his mind. Sure, by now he could do the same with Anora, but they didn't have the same history as Alistair and his closest advisor.
The wine almost seemed to glow with an inner fire as the cheerful fire in the hearth before them shone through the glass. Castle Cousland was by now like a second home to the king, a sanctuary from the ever present demands of a king still struggling to keep a land together. Anora had proven a capable aid though...helping him aiding the kingdom in returning to its former glory.
Alistair smiled at the thought, strange what time could do to you. There had been a time when he'd despised her, his wife, but now they had a strong bond of companionship...at times Alistair almost thought he loved her. It was probably more due to their daughter, Tonya, then any real love...but Alistair couldn't help but smile at the memories of the intimate moments the two had shared as they took care of their offspring.
"I've never regretted my choice."
It always started like this, the same discussion, every year. Alistair didn't mind though.
The hero of Ferelden had left after a brief celebration of the slaying of the archdemon, to help Sten get home as far Alistair knew. He had taken both Leliana and Zevran with him, leaving Alistair to fend for himself. At the time Alistair had been a little miffed about the whole thing, but now he appreciated it, it had given him time to grow on his own.
But a year later, on the day, the man had returned. There had been much celebration, but Thomas had stayed with Alistair the entire day, choosing not to interact with anyone else, despite many insisting that he should join the celebration. The man had spent the entire day discussing what had happened with Alistair, explaining every deed and choice, even those he'd kept secret...it had been an eye-opener in many ways.
The man had been welcomed back to Highever with open arms, his brother more than eager to share the Teyrnship with his brother. And for twenty years he had spent his life ruling the ancestral lands with his wife Leliana, his desire to relive the tales of heroics finally sated...much to Alistair's relief as he'd missed the advice of his close friend.
"Oh?" Alistair asked, knowing Thomas would continue, as he always did. The main hall was beautifully decorated with a high ceiling and a vaulted ceiling. But right now there was nothing but the two of them, sitting on a pair of simple chairs next to a large fire, a small table with wine and cheese between them as they stared into the fire. There were none of the normally ever-present guards around. Not even Leliana was around to act the charming host.
On this day, it was only the two of them.
Thomas had aged. Despite not even reaching forty the man now sported patches of grey around his ears, in general his bronze-coloured hair had paled, as had his skin, becoming taut and thin. The blue eyes were undimmed though, if a little more introvert then they had once been. Alistair had to admit the same thing was happening to him, if not so extremely. Anora said it made him look distinguished...Alistair snorted at the thought. Him? Distinguished? Now that's a laugh...
"Yes, I know that I should, perhaps I did...just as the killing blow was landed." Thomas gestured at the fire with his glass, a tight smile on his lips. "Foolish youth, wanting to die heroically...there is more to life then that."
"I'm sure Bryce and Marjolaine would agree." Alistair replied, referring to Thomas' son and daughter, now nearing ten and eight respectably, making the smile on his friend's face a little more honest. "Have I ever told you how fitting I find those names?"
"Every year friend..." Thomas nodded, face solemn. "...every year."
Taking a sip of his glass Alistair watched his friend's face. Was it just him or was the eyes sadder than the times before? Or had it just been a gradual change...so slow that Alistair hadn't noticed it until now? Knowing it was his turn in their little script Alistair took a piece of cheese from the tray on the table, shoved it into his mouth and swallowed it before muttering: "You wish you could have done more for her...don't you?"
"Perhaps." Thomas shrugged. "But her child is her child and only that...I like to think I've given her anything she could have asked for." Alistair still couldn't help but shudder at the thought, Morrigan with a child that possibly carried a great evil within its soul...it could make any man afraid. But in twenty years nothing had happened, not even a letter.
Which was probably for the best.
"You're lucky Leliana has such a forgiving soul." It was what Alistair always said, in different guises, in fact he could hold the entire conversation with himself by now. He still watched attentively as Thomas chuckled though.
"She knew I did it for our sake, back when I told her she only said: 'she had you for one night, I for an eternity, it's a fair trade'." The man sipped his drink. "Maker I'm lucky..." Then he looked over at Alistair, a hint of worry in his eyes. "I'm still sorry for forcing your own marriage upon you...not giving you the chance to marry for love like me...it was wrong of me, I know that now."
Ever the same.. "You're forgiven, Anora and I...we know love with one another, if not for one another...I cannot complain." Alistair beamed with badly concealed pride. "Tonya has learnt how to read by now you know, she's turning to quite the scholar."
"I'm very happy for you." Thomas replied, as always with a hint of relief in his voice. "It is good that we that live...found what the ones that died fought to preserve."
Alistair nodded and raised his glass, as tradition demanded: "To Eamon."
"To the lady of the forest."
Perhaps it was odd to toast the witch as if she was dead, but Alistair had found his peace with it, and he could not deny Thomas it. "To all who gave it all." With a clink the two glasses met before the two old warriors emptied what little remained of their drinks.
Moving to refill the glasses Thomas sighed. "How fare Ferelden then? Did you ever control the panic of the bannorn after that large darkspawn raid?"
A little business in between the real subject, as the schedule demanded: "Caught and killed those beasts, many of the banns got to participate in the battle too, so they're too busy to pat each other on the back to be upset with how long it took to catch the monsters." Alistair chuckled. "I'm getting the hang of this king thing I think."
Thomas nodded, a look of satisfaction on his face. "Good."
Wait...good? Alistair frowned, that wasn't how it went, the man should be coming with some sort of advice...or a joke about Alistair's kingly troubles...never did he simply leave it like that. "Yes...good." Suddenly feeling awkward, something he thought for sure age had cured him of, Alistair placed his hands in his lap. "Of course there's always the trouble with the Orlesian trade...I swear one of these days I'm just going to toss their merchants out on their asses." He shot Thomas a meaning look.
The man simply shook his head. "That's your decision."
No advice, no joke, nothing. "And the wardens managed to anger the dalish with some recent conscription, I might need your help in the diplomacy with them..."
Another shake of his friend's head: "I'm confident that you'll do fine."
Cocking his head to the side Alistair found himself studying his friend more closely. There was something...haggard about him Alistair suddenly noticed, and his hands seemed to be shaking a little...without the man even being aware of it. Alistair felt himself go cold, afraid for the first time in years.
Thomas glanced at the king scrutinizing him. At first he didn't say anything...then a smile crept to his lips. "Ah."
"Yes...ah?" Alistair echoed, uncertainty digging into him like a dagger.
"I..." Thomas begun, then shot Alistair a worried look, as if fearing whatever he would find there. Turning to look into the fire the man held out his hands against it, despite the room being warm enough. "...feel it, it's time."
"Yes...I feel the call." Thomas explained, speaking calmly.
Alistair frowned, unable to understand. "That's...that's not right, I've been a warden longer then you and I don't feel anything."
His friend shrugged, smiling weakly. "I don't know Alistair. Maybe it's because I struck the final blow, or perhaps Morrigan's ritual took some years from me...I don't know. All I know is that I feel it, that the time has come."
"I..." Alistair shook his head, unwilling to accept it. "...that's...not fair."
"Don't look like that." Thomas chided, a smile in his tone as the king looked away from him, unable to look at his closest friend. "I've lived a great life, I have no regrets. Why would I when I live on given time? So much has been gained...I know my children will grow up, strong and surrounded by people that love them. What more can I ask for?"
"Duncan is gone, Eamon too...and now you." Alistair felt the bitterness well up. "That's three mentors I've lost, three of my closest friends."
Thomas chuckled. "I think your old enough not to need mentors anymore Alistair." He patted his friend's shoulder. "Don't look at what you've lost, but what you've gained, we've been over this before."
Alistair smiled, unable to help himself. "It's a hard lesson to take to heart when you hear the man you consider a brother is about to die."
"I...yes." Thomas replied, making Alistair's smile a little more genuine. For all his strengths,all his experience, the man still had trouble dealing with declarations of such personal nature. "I suppose it is...I won't ask you not to grieve then."
"Grieving does the body good." Alistair chuckled, surprised that he meant it, maybe wisdom really did come with age?
Thomas said nothing, glancing over at him Alistair found the man staring into the fire, eyes distant, no doubt lingering on some memory of old. Alistair felt a strong urge to reach out, to hug the man, or to empty the glass of wine so teasingly close. To just...do something that would distract him. He restrained himself though, not willing to interrupt the silence.
Before them the fire crackled, a lone burning flake spun through the air, glowing red before turning to ash.
No Thomas...it was hard to think of. Alistair of course knew his own time would come...but he'd never actually thought about Thomas also being called...and never before Alistair.
"Does Leliana know?"
"I haven't told her." Thomas admitted, bowing his head he smiled. "So...yes. She's too observant, and it's hard to hide your dreams from someone sharing your bed." He sighed and leant back in his chair. "We haven't talked about it...yet I know what she feels. I feel it with each kiss...she knows they are numbered..."
"I'm not." Thomas laughed quietly, smile wide as he closed his eyes. "Each one of them since the battle has been a gift, every moment of my life has been a kindness shown to me...my children...miracles." He shook his head. "How could I be sorry?"
"I suppose." Alistair muttered, heart heavy. "So what will you do? Search for Morrigan?"
"No." Thomas shook his head before turning to look at Alistair, his features softening at whatever he was seeing. "She deserves her freedom. No, I will head into the deep roads and test just how weakened the darkspawn have gotten, a fitting tomb wouldn't you say?"
Alistair swallowed and blinked, finding it hard to meet his friend's calm gaze. "I...guess Duncan would agree with you." He managed a weak smile. "Though many wouldn't see it as fitting a man of your status."
"Yes...I'm sure Anora will get over not getting to stuff me and put me in a mausoleum the size of a palace in order to further unify the nation." Thomas remarked in good humour, drawing a chuckle out of Alistair.
"She will miss you." Alistair noted, unable to maintain the amusement for long. "We'll...all miss you."
Smiling the man turned back to gazing into the fire. "I would ask you of something..."
"My armour and sword...put it away somewhere." He shook his head. "I cannot let such things be lost in the deep roads, nor would I want it put it on public display. Hide them somewhere...and should one of my children one day come for them...you may return them."
"It's the least I could do." Alistair muttered, knowing fully well how highly the man valued the old equipment. Each piece had an epic story behind it even before they had fallen into Thomas possession, and they had all aided him in slaying the archdemon. They were as much part of the man as his own heart...and he was entrusting his brother in all but blood to care for them. Right there and then Alistair resolved never to tell his wife about them.
"T-ta..." For the first time since they've started speaking Thomas stumbled upon his words, something caught in his throat. "...take care of Leliana and the children...please..." His head dropped, the calm exterior cracking. "...I...think she'll be fine...with time...but...she'll ne-" A deep breath. "She'll ne-" He looked away, a gasping sound escaping him as the hands in his lap bunched up into fists.
Alistair placed his hand upon his brother's shoulder, feeling the tension there, muscles taut as bowstrings. "I'll take her and the children to Denerim, she'll stay with us as long as is needed, she'll never find me wanting or busy." The tension instantly disappeared, a look of relief crossing the man's face.
"Did you really doubt I wouldn't do this for you? For even a moment?" Alistair smiled, not really knowing what else to do.
"No." Thomas answered, visibly slumping in his chair, as if all energy had gone out of him. "It's just...good to actually hear it."
Alistair sighed and leant back in his chair, the subject was wearing him down to nothing, a mere twenty minutes and he found himself wishing for nothing but sleep. Yet he continued, his duty to his friend demanding nothing else from him:"You wish to hold some sort of memorial? I could send messages for all the old friends."
"No, I'll look them up personally, Sten will have to settle for a letter though, it's too far for me to reach him...in time." Thomas grimaced, drawing a chuckle from Alistair. Death had never frightened the man, in fact he embraced the danger of death, but to think death as inevitable...it no doubt disturbed a man still thinking himself invulnerable.
He knew he shouldn't ask, but considering the situation...it was best to get it over with: "And Morrigan?"
"If she comes to you...a message if you will."
"Go ahead." Alistair nodded, knowing he wouldn't need ink and parchment for this.
"Tell her that I thank her for what she has given me...and that I have no regrets."
"You needn't have told me that, I knew that already."
The smile was weak, a shadow of the confident grin Thomas once had sported. "I know, but protocol demands these things, you know this."
"Ah...yes." Alistair nodded, a smile creeping up on him. Even at this time...a little humour. "So..." He sighed and gazed longingly at the half empty bottle of wine between them, getting drunk seemed like an awfully good idea. "...what do you wish to do now? Drink and reminisce?"
"Actually..." Thomas grunted as he got to his feet. "I asked Leliana to tune her instruments so we could tell Bryce and Marjolaine the many stories of our adventures at camp during our travels. I'm afraid my memory fails me on some accounts...plus you always tell them with such...flair."
Alistair forced a grin as he got to his feet, all too willing to give Thomas this favour, even though it would mean Alistair would have to hide his grief until the small hours of the night. "Even the racy ones?" He noticed the man's blank stare with some amusement. "You and your wife were quite loud at times you know...and not always in the tent either." Despite age having tempered him Thomas reddened. "I remember comforting a distraught Sten who once had stumbled upon quite a crazy little-"
Thomas held up his hands in surrender, a genuine smile on his lips. "Okay, okay...maybe we shouldn't tell them all the stories..." He shot Alistair an amused look. "You'll corrupt my poor children..."
"I always said I would become a bad influence." Alistair replied and draped an arm over Thomas shoulder as they begun to head for the dining hall. "I blame my parents, damn those flying dogs!"