As every step brought her closer to Amaranthine, Maebh's anxiety and anticipation grew. Living in Soldier's Peak was merely a rehearsal for this new post, the main event. Not only would she have a much bigger force and a household to manage, she would also have to deal with whomever they had granted the Arling. At least for now, she could do what needed doing without Loghain's constant hovering.
Just when she was worried that maybe she was walking with a bit too much bounce in her step, she would glance over and catch Renaud's eye and feel utterly lost.
Something had changed between them in Denerim, but she wasn't sure what it meant or how to proceed. There was one thing she was sure of: the whole business was highly inappropriate. It was improper for a commanding officer to fraternize with subordinates. Besides that, Loghain would be returning at some point. While she knew he approved of how her relationship with Alistair had resolved, she also knew that all those gains would be obliterated in an instant if he ever suspected how close she and Renaud had become. She wasn't sure which way to go. Following her heart had never worked out very well, after all.
On the fourth day of their journey she stopped holding his hand. On the fifth she stopped walking next to him. By the time they arrived at Amaranthine, she had decided to let him know that she could not be intimate with him again.
Mhairi was so excited when they arrived at Vigil's Keep that she requested permission to run ahead to announce their arrival. Maebh led the party along the overgrown path to the Keep, with Renaud taking the rearguard. Ghislaine walked next to Maebh.
"Mhairi certainly is enthusiastic!" Ghislaine said, using her staff to push away an overhanging branch.
"I'm still counting my blessings that I was able to convince Alistair to part with her." Maebh smiled. "He can be so stubborn sometimes."
Ghislaine laughed. "You say that as if there is any Fereldan who could not be described as 'stubborn'. Why shouldn't your king be the most obstinate of them all?"
"I wouldn't go that far. There are many who are more bull-necked than he," Maebh smiled ruefully.
"It must be an extra blessing Andraste grants you as infants," Ghislaine giggled. "Because She knows as well as I how you possess the trait in spades."
"Me?" Maebh asked, surprised. "Surely you jest. I'm constantly bowing and bending to somebody else's whims."
Ghislaine was quiet for a long time. "Of course, Commander."
"Did you have a point?" Maebh demanded, irritable. "Or was this just another round of 'Oh, you quaint little Fereldans'. Because I grow tired of that game."
Ghislaine rolled her eyes. "It also appears to be a national trait to disdain subtlety," she sighed. "I was merely wondering. When we were in Denerim you seemed to quite enjoy the company of our brother warden, but now you spurn him. Has something changed?"
"No," Maebh said, squaring her shoulders. "And I must say, Warden, that this conversation is rather inappropriate, all things considered."
Ghislaine was quiet again, looking at Maebh skeptically out of the corner of her eye. "But of course, Commander."
Before she had a chance to continue, Mhairi returned, crashing through the underbrush. "Commander!" she shouted, breathless. "Come quickly! The Keep!"
"Mhairi, calm yourself," Maebh tried to soothe her and handed her a skin of water. "Is something wrong at Vigil's Keep?"
She bent forward, bracing her hands on her knees and struggling to catch her breath. "Yes," she nodded. "They are under attack."
"By whom," Renaud asked, joining them. "Howe loyalists?"
Mhairi shook her head. "No. Darkspawn!"
It was worse than she expected. She tore through the waves of darkspawn as quickly as she could, desperately hoping that maybe if she was just fast enough she could save some of them. The bodies of Avice and Quennel were outside the main gate, splintered wooden practice weapons clutched in their fists.
There were a handful of servants who had the presence of mind to hide away in closets that she was able to lead to safety. In the hall she found the bodies of Marcel and Jacques.
Ghislaine had to take a moment after that, turning away and pressing her hands against her face. Maebh went to her, and placed her hands on her shoulders. "This is part of our burden," she said gently. "Any of us can die at any time."
Ghislaine turned a tearstained face to her. "But so many, all at once! Commander, is this what it was like for you at Ostagar?"
Maebh stopped and thought about that day. The stench of fear and blood and smoke. The desperate scramble to get to the top of the tower to let Cailan know that somebody was coming for him, that he wasn't going to die. The way her world was destroyed when she found out that she had failed, that her father had failed, that they all had failed and she didn't know where to go or whom to trust or what to do. Cailan's body on the cold ground.
"Yes, it was something like this," she said, not willing to think about it anymore.
There almost certainly had to be an excellent, or at least entertaining, reason to have discovered Oghren in the kitchen. But in the swirl of battle and the rush to try to rescue some of their comrades Maebh didn't have the time to ask. She was merely grateful to have an old friend at her side, one whom she had fought with enough to predict his strikes enough to coordinate. Falling into step next to Oghren was like swimming with the current, as effortless as breathing.
She got overconfident as they were heading back up the stairs across the main entry and let down her guard when he was unable to cover for her, and was stuck with an arrow directly in her bad shoulder. Cursing, she tumbled down the stairs as Renaud and Oghren rushed ahead and Ghislaine stayed behind to heal her as best she could. It wasn't long before she heard raised voices and Oghren's low tone cracking jokes. "What in the Maker's name," Maebh muttered, pushing herself to her feet and stumbling through the door.
She was met with a sight that turned her stomach. Dead templars. Again. A wave of nausea nearly choked her as memories of Uldred's uprising leapt, unbidden, into her mind.
She stopped and crouched, leaning her head between her knees and breathing deeply. Sooner or later, the dizziness would pass and she could think clearly again.
"It wasn't me," a voice somehow both comfortingly and terrifyingly familiar attempted to assure her.
"What?" she responded flatly, choking back another wave of nausea.
"I mean, I won't say that I'm sorry. Or that I couldn't have maybe done a little more, but you know how they get about magic and Andraste's toenail fungus, Maebh Amell? Is that you?"
She glared up at him.
"So it is!" he laughed with delight. "Where did you get that armor? It really doesn't suit you. Makes you look all... Templar-y."
She pushed herself to her feet. "It's Warden Commander armor. Because that's what I am." She straightened her shoulders and at the shooting pain, still not entirely sure that yet another ghost of her years in the Tower had managed to reappear.
"So you are," he smiled a half-smile and her heart thudded so hard she was sure he could hear it banging against the breastplate. "Well, isn't that interesting."
"You know this man?" Renaud demanded, furious. "He murdered them! All these men!"
"Yes, I know him," Maebh said feeling like she was in a waking dream. Or nightmare. "His name is Anders and-"
"I did no such thing!" Anders interrupted in protest. "It was the darkspawn. I mean, sure, I probably could have helped more than I did... but you know, after all these years I just don't feel the esprit de corps anymore."
"We should clap him in chains and send him back to the Tower as soon as possible," Renaud said, furious.
"Well, that seems a bit hasty," Anders pressed a hand to his heart.
"Your negligence led to the deaths of not only these men but my comrades as well," Renaud growled, pointed a dagger at Anders' throat. "I should kill you where you stand."
Unthinking, Maebh raised her arm to stop him and cried out at the sudden pain. "No, Renaud. Please, control yourself we may still be able to save some yet."
"Are you hurt?" Anders said quickly, all pretense at humor dropped. "I can help."
"I already did what could be done at this moment," Ghislaine said haughtily.
Maebh waved her off. "Ghislaine, you are quite capable of blowing things up but not much for healing. Don't be offended, the same goes for me." She turned back to Anders. "I've heard that you were somewhat talented in that area. If you could just dull the pain enough for the rest of the battle that would suffice."
Anders went to her and examined her injury. "I can't tell exactly what is going on here, with the swelling and the bleeding, but..." and his eyes went far away as the healing blue light spread over her wounded joint. "But I can patch you up Your High Commanderness enough to keep going for the next few hours. After that I must insist that you let me tend to this if you don't want to be permanently crippled."
"Whatever you say," Maebh rolled her eyes.
"I'm actually serious about this, you know," he grumbled.
"Let's get going, we've dawdled enough," she said, shrugging off his concern. And Anders fell into line with the rest, brushing off Renaud's glares and winking at Ghislaine.
In the end, the only one they were able to save was the seneschal, and even that had come almost too late. After the talking darkspawn was dead and all that was left was to clear the bodies, Maebh stormed upstairs.
She didn't know which door led to her room. Unwilling to ask and risk appearing foolish, she simply went from room to room until she found one that was larger and more ostentatiously furnished than the others. She wasn't sure if it was the master bedroom, but it was good enough.
"I want a bath!" she called down the hall at the servants cautiously peeping around corners. "Don't worry about heating the water, I'll see to that," she added before ducking into the room.
She had managed to wrestle the majority of her armor off before she realized she had no idea where her bags had ended up. So, clad in her boots and underpadding, she began rifling through the drawers of whatever Howe had formerly occupied the place. Eventually she found a gown that looked like it might be long enough and wasn't too ornate. "Better than nothing," she muttered to herself as the servants finished filling the bath.
A few moments of heat spells later and it was warm enough to use. Not willing to wait any longer, she finished stripping, got in the tub, and began scrubbing off the black darkspawn blood.
It was more pleasurable than she anticipated, not having to look for a stream or a pond to cleanse herself of the vile muck that coated every inch of her after such an encounter. Simply knowing that she would not be reeking and sticky the rest of the day overjoyed her so much, she found herself giggling in spite of the carnage that had befallen her fellow wardens.
She was ducking her head under the water to rinse the suds from her hair when she thought she heard the door open and somebody walk in. "This room's claimed already," she declared loudly after popping back above water and crossing her arms over her breasts.
"You don't want to share?" Anders drawled, swaggering into the bath area. "Such a shame. I had hoped that you still pined for me in your girlish heart, but fate is always so cruel to we mages."
"What do you think you're doing?" Maebh sputtered, pushing herself to the far side of the tub. "Get out."
"But we have so much to..." he paused and smirked at her, "discuss."
"Andraste as my witness, Anders," she grit out between clenched teeth, "I will deliver you to the Tower myself."
"Please," he stopped and held his arms out, "just hear me out."
"Fine," she sighed, slumping back and reaching for the soap again. "Say what you mean to."
He sat on the edge of the tub, drifting his fingers in the water. "Do you remember the last time we were together in the Tower?"
She scrubbed her scalp, getting every flake of dried blood out. "We were never together, Anders. I had a stupid crush on you. And you were more interested in redheads at the time, if I recall correctly."
"Still," he shrugged and that half-smile returned. "Perhaps I've learned to broaden my horizons."
"I cannot believe you're trying to seduce me right now." She rinsed her hair with a pitcher of water. "Renaud is already chomping at the bit to run you through. You should get out of here before he comes looking for me."
"Oh-ho!" He grinned and moved to the side of the tub she had leaned against, taking the pitcher from her and trailing his hand along the top of her exposed shoulders. "An illicit affair? If I didn't know better I'd think you were trying to make this more exciting."
"You're making yourself ridiculous," Maebh sighed and tried to ignore the apprentice-crush flutters in her stomach.
"It's a risk I am willing to take, if that's what I need to-" he stopped suddenly. "Oh, for the love of—Who's been healing this shoulder? It's a disaster!"
"I don't know, I injured it..." she trailed off, trying to remember when it was that she had first hurt it. "In the Brecilian forest?" The arm had been wrenched out of its socket by a werewolf. Wynne had done what she could, but she said there was more to be done than she had time or materials while they were in the field. She had made Maebh promise to get it completely restructured after they had defeated the Blight. But that was over two years ago. "It hasn't been a problem," she frowned.
"And people call me a liar. Such is the benefits of herodom, I suppose." He shook his head. "There is no way in Thedas this thing has been anything but agony for you. Well, that settles it," he said as he got up. "You simply can't send me back to the Tower until I finish healing it."
"Is that so?" she arched an eyebrow. "And who said you get to make that decision?"
"The fact that you won't be able to pull this gown over your head without assistance, perhaps? Not that I'd withhold such assistance, mind," he said, bringing her foraged clothing. "Planning your Satinalia costume early, I see." He stopped and looked at her. "This is a costume, correct? I can't think of any other reason a person would willingly wear such a hideous shade of orange."."
"I found it," she said through clenched teeth. "I don't know where my bags are." She grabbed a towel and wrapped it around herself as she was getting up and climbed out of the bath.
"Andraste's Antivan piercings, woman!" he sputtered. "What have you done to your leg?"
"I got shot up with arrows at the Temple of Andraste's Sacred Ashes." She absent-mindedly rubbed the back of her foot against the scars. "It never healed right."
"And your hip?" he pressed, holding her gown up so she could pull it on.
"Oh, that. That was the Archdemon," she said nonchalantly as he laced up the ties on the back.
"My dear, I do believe you have many reasons to keep me around for much longer than we thought," he said lightly.
She was about to protest at his presumption when the door opened and Renaud came in. His expression went from one of concern, to confusion, to sullen anger. "We have visitors, Commander," he said flatly. "They request an audience."
"Already?" Maebh asked, tying her hair with a leather strap. "What could they want?"
He shrugged. "They are flying the royal banners and await you in the courtyard," he said, voice clipped, before turning on his heel and walking out.
Maebh walked quickly down the hall, fists clenched. "Without so much as a hint of warning," she fumed to Anders. "If the court wishes to see me barefoot and wet-headed and in a pilfered gown then I hope they're happy! Because that's what they're going to get!"
"I doubt they'd recognize you otherwise," Anders quipped as she flung open the door.
"Here I am," she announced, approaching the party. "What do you want?"
The retinue of royal guards in blindingly shiny armor gasped and muttered at her impertinence, but she was far past the point of caring. Alistair emerged from the center of the entourage, sporting a wide grin. "Ah, Commander of the Grey! How are you finding your new accommodations?"
She planted her hands on her hips, frustration rapidly boiling over. "What in the Fade are you doing here? I just left Denerim a week ago. What could you possibly have to say to me?"
He shifted his weight, looking uncomfortable. The guards fixed her with stony stares but she steadfastly ignored them. "Well," he said, "there's been some changes. About the Arling."
"And you had to come all the way here to tell me about which Bann you've decided to elevate? I couldn't find out on my own soon enough? Alistair," she sighed and rubbed her temples. "It's not safe here. You shouldn't have come."
"I didn't know that when we decided to come. Anyway," he motioned to one of the guards and they produced an ornately carved wooden box. "After much consideration, Queen Anora and I have decided to grant the Arling to you."
The guard opened the box and presented her with a ring bearing the seal of Amaranthine and a banner with the coat of arms.
She stared at it, then at him. "You must be joking." She turned to Anders. "This isn't happening."
"I'm serious about this," Alistair pouted slightly. "We gave it a lot of thought. That's why I came to tell you personally, because Anora said if we sent you a letter you'd just pretend like you never received it."
"That's ridiculous, I would never-" she stopped herself when she realized he was right, and decided to change tactics. "I suppose this has nothing to do with Loghain's extended stay in Denerim?"
Alistair paled slightly. "Are you sure it is quite unsafe? I was planning on staying here for a few days. Or months, maybe."
"No," she said firmly, closing the box. "I have no idea how the darkspawn invaded in the first place, and besides that you should be with your wife." She handed the box back to him. "You can take this with you and give it to somebody more appropriate."
"There is nobody more appropriate," he insisted, pushing it back.
"You are even more foolish than your brother if you truly believe that." She pushed it back at him.
Anders laughed. "Just take it before they remember that you're an M-A-G-E," he stage-whispered.
"Your Majesty!" A particularly intense-looking Templar interrupted as she pushed her way to the front of the guard. "You must arrest this man. He is a dangerous criminal."
"I agree," said Renaud, emerging from the stables. "He is a murderer."
Anders sighed. "I thought we've been over this. I didn't kill any of them. I would hope that a Warden would know how to recognize darkspawn bites at this point." He shrugged. "But you know me. I'm an eternal optimist."
"You mean the mage," Alistair asked the Templar. "He doesn't look so scary..."
"He is an apostate who is wanted by the Tower. I must insist he be handed over to my custody," she said firmly.
"No," Maebh blurted. "You can't." Not the Tower. Anders could barely stand to stay there when the place was alive, and now it had become a tomb. She couldn't condemn him to that.
"Arlessa, Warden-Commander, Hero, whatever other titles you manage to ensnare," snarled the Templar, "Your authority still stops somewhere below that of the Grand Cleric's, mage."
Maebh clenched her teeth and glared right back at the woman. "I'm afraid you are mistaken." She squared her shoulders. "Because I'm invoking the Right of Conscription."
"Maebh, you cannot mean this," protested Renaud. "Who is this person that you are willing to ignore how he killed our comrades!"
"Don't be absurd," she scoffed. "And I do mean it. Anders, you're going to be a Warden."
"Don't I have some say in this?" he asked.
"You don't like it, you get to go back with her," she exclaimed, thoroughly exasperated. "This is your chance, take it or leave it!"
He stroked his chin a moment. "You present a solid case," he conceded. "Very well, darkspawn roasting it is!"
"Of all the impertinence!" gasped the Templar. "You must stop her, Your Majesty."
"I'm afraid I can't," Alistair shrugged. "It's out of my jurisdiction as well. Maebh, I hope you know what you're doing."
That makes two of us, she thought to herself. "If there's nothing else, I must insist that you go. Now," she said, ushering him to the gate. "I'll let you know when the Keep is secure. Maybe then my father will wish to rejoin us."
Alistair blanched again. "Are you sure I can't stay?"
"Positive." She hugged him and kissed him on the cheek, ignoring the glares of the guard. "Travel safe, Brother."
"Keep your wits about you, Sister," he said, pecking her on the cheek. "I don't know if all of your new allies are as trustworthy as you'd like to believe." He murmured before turning to go.
She hugged herself as she watched him go, hoping he was wrong.
She was trying to find her bags when Renaud caught up with her. "I would speak with you, Commander," he said, looking down his nose at her.
"So? Speak," she said, rubbing her still-sore shoulder.
"Privately," he said, glancing around.
Servants and guards were still scurrying in the aftermath of the invasion, "I don't know where..." The ancient keep jutted and sprawled and doubled-back on itself in a tangled web of hallways and stairwells and rooms accessible only through other rooms and she was sure that she would never find a place where curious ears couldn't listen in, if they so desired. "Where is private, here?"
Renaud grabbed her arm and pulled her into a closet. "This will suffice," he said, shutting the door and plunging them into darkness.
The confined space and the thick stone wall and solid wooden door made the space oppressively intimate. "What's on your mind?"
She could hear him fidget, his breathing heavy. It made her think of the night of the ball, of promises their bodies made that had gone unfulfilled. She steeled her nerves, and tried not to breathe in the scent of leather and spice that always seemed to follow him. "Your behavior has been most erratic," he accused.
She barked a laugh, and she could hear him freeze. "I've heard that one before. I must say, my behavior lately has been quite rational. Relatively speaking." Relative to Ostagar, and Lothering, and Orzammar, and the Circle Tower...
"You are mad if you think recruiting that apostate is a good idea," he fumed, interrupting her thoughts.
"Anders is a good man," she insisted. "He doesn't deserve whatever fate the Tower had in store for him. And furthermore, he's an excellent healer. In case you haven't noticed, neither Ghislaine nor I are particularly skilled in that area. We need somebody like him."
"But," Renaud protested, "he could have-"
"No!" she declared. "They had bound him in shackles. There was nothing he could have done until he was able to get a key off of one of them. He's going to be your Brother so you better get over this. And fast."
"How can you be so cold!" he burst in frustration. "So many of your Brothers and Sisters were killed here and you just go on as if nothing has happened?"
She sighed and felt her way to a shelf she could perch on, feeling weary. "The day before my Joining, there were nearly thirty Grey Wardens in Ferelden. Did you know that? All my countrymen." She tried to remember their names, their faces. All but Duncan remained a blur of beard and steel and loud laughter and jokes she didn't understand. "The day after my Joining there were two. Myself, and Alistair. Beyond that, nearly a third of the king's army were lost, including King Cailan himself. A man," she quavered, and pressed on. "A man I loved very much. I just cannot allow myself to feel it the same way. I'll go mad. I'm sorry that this upsets you."
She heard his footsteps, and he stopped right in front of her. She could feel the heat of his body. "Is that why you have spurned me?" he said softly, and she felt his hands brushing against her arms, feather-light.
She bit her lip. "I can't," she said, barely a whisper. "I can't do it again."
"Don't turn me away, please," he begged, pulling the tie out of her hair and running his fingers through it. "I cannot promise that no harm will come to us. But I can promise that I will do everything I can to make whatever time we have together worth the effort."
"But I'll fall in love with you." She felt helpless, drowning as he tore down her defenses and left her in the flood she had so carefully sealed away.
He embraced her, and held her tightly. She felt his heart beating through his chest and felt as he struggled with his own feelings of helplessness. "Let tomorrow worry about tomorrow."
She grasped his shirt in both hands and pulled until his face was level with hers. "This is wrong."
"You know that's not true," he replied.
"I'm your superior," she said.
"Rank has never stopped me before." Even in the darkness she could hear the smile in his voice.
"I'm an arlessa," she continued, "They'll make me marry."
"Marriage has never stopped you before," he said ruefully.
She paused, the one objection she was too ashamed to say caught in her mouth.
"My father will never approve."
"I don't care," he growled low, and proceeded to kiss her deeply.
She broke away. "You might die," she whispered in his ear, as if saying it any louder would make it more likely to come true.
He paused, held her face in his hands and pressed his forehead against hers. "Such is our fate. But I swear that so long as I draw breath I will be with you. If you will have me."
She melted against him, wrapping her legs around his waist and threading her fingers into his hair. He began unlacing the ties at the back of her gown. Impatient, she tried to shrug out of it and tore the bodice. He laughed quietly. "Still sans patience, mon belle dame."
"I don't care," she replied, tossing her head haughtily. "It's not my dress anyway."
His hands danced over her body in the darkness until they found the rip in the fabric. He paused, laughed again, and tore the dress completely in half.
She shivered in the sudden cold, as underneath she was completely naked. "Mon créateur!" he exclaimed. "You... the entire time we were out in the courtyard? With the king?"
She giggled in spite of herself. "I wasn't expecting company!"
"You are a dangerous woman," he nibbled at her collarbone, wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her close to him.
She could feel him hardening against her, just his own clothing in between them. She began to pull at the ties of his trousers, but stopped when a terrible thought occurred to her. "The door! There's no lock!" He broke away from her and she tried to think clearly. Willing a bit of blue light at her fingers, she looked around the room. "There," she pointed. "That armor stand, there's a battle axe."
Renaud grabbed it and stuck it through the door handle, before turning it at an angle so that it could not be pulled open. He tested it just to be sure. "I think we have our privacy, now," he turned and grinned.
She took a moment just to memorize him, hair tousled, shirt rumbled, trousers slung low on his hips. "Good," was all she could say.
He returned to her and she helped him out of his clothes. "I don't know how long I can keep the light," she sighed as he began to trail kisses from her neck to her breast.
"Are you tired?" he asked, lips brushing against a nipple.
"No it's just... hard to concentrate," she struggled to say as his hand trailed from her hip to between her legs.
It became a game. She tried to keep the light as long as she could and he tried to distract her. At first with delicate touches and kisses, whispered endearments, lips barely touching skin in a sensation that made her skin tingle and her body yearn for more. She retaliated by burning the light brighter as she ran her hands over his shoulders, arms and back, feeling the firm muscle stretch and roll under smooth skin.
He redoubled his efforts, and kissed the tender skin behind her ear as he slipped his fingers into her, stroking her so lightly she was sure she would climax if he gave her just a little bit more.
She reached between his legs and trailed a finger along his length. Which, she soon discovered, was quite a bit longer than she anticipated. The light flickered and she could feel him grin against her skin. "So that's distracting, eh?"
She wrapped her fingers around him and pressed him against her. "Not quite distracting enough, yet," she purred before relaxing her hold and guiding him into her. The light faded as he filled her, and she felt a rush of intimacy as they were plunged into darkness. She slid her legs up around his hips, feeling the faint sheen of perspiration on his skin as he grabbed her bottom with both hands and thrust deep into her. She moaned as he began to move within her, filling her more than she had thought possible, touching her in places she didn't know had wanted to be touched.
The light at her fingertips returned, unbidden, as her pleasure increased. The color changed from blue to purple sensations shifted, became more intense. Whether Renaud took this as a sign of encouragement or displeasure she was not sure, but it spurred him on to greater efforts.
The light changed from purple shimmers to blazing red as she reached her peak and cried out. Unable to hold back any longer, he buried himself within her and moaned low, trembling with his own release.
They remained there for a moment, together in the fading light as her will dissipated. He pulled away from her and kissed her forehead. "I will go find something you can put on," he said. "I apologize for my earlier impetuous behavior."
She laughed lightly. "No, it was quite alright. I didn't like the thing anyway."
He kissed her again. Then once more before getting dressed. And again before leaving. She returned the battleax to the suit of armor, wrapping the remains of the dress around herself.
"We can't do that again," she said to the empty room. "I mean it."