It's been nearly five years since the archdemon was slain, ending the fifth Blight, and two and a half since Aedan defeated the architect. Alistair and Brenna (his wife) rule Ferelden and Leliana remains Alistair's chancellor. Zevran is still attached to the Grey Wardens in an unofficial role. Oghren leads Alistair's armies. The companions all lead busy lives and though Ferelden has enjoyed over two years of relative peace (thanks in large part to Grey Warden patrols and diligence), none of them rests easily. They constantly find themselves torn between their duty to Ferelden, family and their own well being.
A/N: For those of you who have not read my previous fictions, here is a quick explanation of Aedan's family. Aedan and Leliana have three children: Luke (adopted in The Hero of Ferelden), Riordan (their natural son born at the end of The Hero of Ferelden) and Grace (adopted in Gifts).
The Arl of Amaranthine
Someone shook his shoulder gently and Aedan roused himself. Raising his head from his crossed arms he squinted about, recognizing his study in the early dawn light. Apparently he'd been sleeping at his desk, again. Looking up he saw Luke standing next to him, his eyes glinting with amusement.
"Doing your paperwork?"
Aedan glanced at the reports and correspondence between his folded arms and blinked a moment before finding his voice. "Yes." He chuckled and sat back, rubbing at his eyes and scratching his jaw before stretching. "Did I miss breakfast?"
"No, it's still early; I was just too excited to sleep."
Aedan grinned at the excitement in his son's eyes. At eighteen, Luke was properly a man, though really, he'd made him one just before his sixteenth birthday when he'd put the boy through the Joining ritual in order to save his life. The memory of that day still haunted his nightmares. They had spent the last two had a half years together at Vigil's Keep, and when Aedan hadn't been underground he felt he had come to know the boy, the man. Though more reserved than himself, Luke had a happy and generous nature and was often the source of laughter among the Wardens. His youth bolstered the vitality of them all.
"Well, they won't be here until this afternoon, so we had best find some way to occupy ourselves until then." Aedan stood and clapped Luke on the shoulder, marveling again at his son's new found height. The young man nearly rivaled his own six feet and two inches now. "Let's get something to eat and perhaps I'll try and get a strike in against you this morning."
The cook looked up and smiled as two the Wardens entered the kitchen. Well used to the enormous appetites of her charges she welcomed visitors at all hours and kept a steady supply of fruit, sandwiches and sweet treats on hand. "Breakfast will be another hour, Commander, but I have some sweet rolls left from yesterday if you need something now." Aedan helped himself to a handful, splitting his bounty with Luke and looked up as the matronly woman spoke again, her tone eager. "I bet you two are excited, eh? That lovely wife of yours is a delight, Commander. And those two little ones," she clucked and sighed over the pot of porridge she stirred.
Aedan grinned around a mouthful of flaky pastry. Glancing at Luke, he included his son in his response. "We are. And of course, we'll be happy to see the King as well!"
A buoyant feeling chased the cobwebs from his mind as Aedan looked ahead to the afternoon. His wife, his beloved Leliana, and his two youngest children would be here. Again, it had been over a month since he'd seen them. It had been three months since he'd seen Alistair, his Brother and his King. Though Aedan counted all his Wardens as Brothers and many of them as friends, he and Alistair shared a bond almost closer than blood. Rolling his shoulders and flexing his arms he nodded to Luke and said, "Let's hit the yard, we'll want time for a bath before Leli sees us."
They shared a chuckle and walked to the armory. Along the way they met several other Wardens making their way to the kitchen. Aedan greeted each by name until he came upon his second. He paused to grasp Philippe's arm.
"Good morning, Philippe."
Philippe nodded and with a surreptitious glance at his hair said, "Did you sleep at your desk again, Commander?"
Aedan made an attempt to smooth his short hair and grinned at the Orlesian. "But that will be the very last time. As of tonight, I will no longer be responsible for the arling of Amaranthine."
"Right you are, Commander. See you in the yard." Philippe smiled and with a bow of his head, went on his way.
The armory held a single Warden, and he looked even more disheveled than Aedan. Striding toward him, Aedan took his arm and hugged him warmly. "Nate."
"Aedan. You're up early."
"As are you." Aedan stopped to consider his friend. "You're not packing your bags and planning to run out on me are you?"
Nathaniel grinned at him. "No. I think I'm here for the same reason you are. I needed something to pass the time."
Aedan clapped him on the shoulder. "Let's get to the yard then."
As they performed their warm up exercises Wardens filtered out into the yard in twos and threes and each of them offered a salute and a greeting. Though they had a schedule for training, Wyman, the Senior Warden, never felt the need to enforce times and places. These were dedicated men and women, if they didn't show up for practice there was always a good reason. Zevran walked outside with Kayley at his side and Aedan lifted his chin in a quick greeting to his long time friend and companion.
Wyman and Philippe stepped into the yard and all the Wardens made sure to salute their captains. Aedan grinned at the show of respect, over thirty Wardens crossing their arms in salute made quite a sight. Despite losses, they had come far. Wyman called the Wardens to order and began suggesting partners and drills.
As all the Wardens were actually in the keep, the morning's practice was lively and quickly evolved into an informal tournament. Aedan sparred against a variety of partners, even meeting Luke in his promised match and though he won, it was only by a point. Luke was fast, and Aedan had to grudgingly admit he was tired, so very tired. Zevran defeated him handily and went on to advance to the final round against Wyman.
Silence befell the yard as the two men circled one another. Both of them had sweat streaming down their faces and though only Wyman appeared to breathe heavily, Aedan knew Zevran was just better at hiding it. The Antivan rogue suddenly sprang into action, battering Wyman with a flurry of his dual blades and the warrior only just pulled his shield into place. Well used to defending against twin blades, Wyman pushed forward instead of stepping back and forced Zevran into a defensive posture. Then he swung low with his sword, again, making Zevran react as the elf danced away from the blade. But Zevran spun in mid air as he leapt above the low sweep and he struck out with both blades as he turned and Wyman could only duck -neither his weapon nor his shield in the right position to parry. Zevran managed to get behind him and went for a crippling strike next. Wyman was already off balance and he staggered forward from the blow to his armoured legs and Zevran pressed his advantage, using a back stab, his blade screeching against the warrior's plated back.
From his knees Wyman held up a hand and conceded the match. Zevran stepped about him, and held out an arm which the captain gratefully accepted. After he regained his feet both men threw an arm over each other's shoulder and clapped one another on the back.
"One day, Zev, one day." Wyman shook his head ruefully.
Zevran laughed as he replied, "And then I will have to retire in shame!"
The Wardens broke for lunch and Aedan headed straight to his room, stopping to order bathing water along the way. He glanced about his room and keenly felt the absence of his wife. Not only were there clothes strewn everywhere, wrinkled and balled up, and books lying open across his desk and on the unmade bed, the room just didn't smell like her. There was no vibrancy in the air, no piles of ribbons or trinkets and only a few of her dresses were in the wardrobe and even those had been pushed to the back. He sighed and rubbed at the scar on his forehead. He needed to bathe and then clean up or she would do it for him and he didn't want to watch her to do that. He wanted to watch her do other things. Chuckling at the inevitable course of his thoughts, Aedan started picking up.
He fell asleep after his bath, across the newly made bed, and didn't awaken until Luke once again shook his shoulder.
"Aedan, they're nearly here!"
Aedan's heart pounded and he barely bothered fastening his boots properly before following his son into the corridor, to the end, and down the stairs to the main hall. Once they passed down the steps and out of the keep, they both broke into a jog until they reached the main gates. The advance scout stood there chatting with Wyman and his captain broke off to salute Aedan. "Commander. They should be here in half an hour."
Aedan glanced at Luke and saw his own feelings reflected perfectly in his son's face. They grinned and then laughed at one another, and then both looked toward the road. As they waited many of the Wardens gathered about the gates and assembled ready to greet the King of Ferelden.
The afternoon sunlight caught the armour of the approaching soldiers and Aedan's spirits soared. He fairly bounced on his feet until the King's guard marched into view, followed by Alistair, Brenna and Leliana. Each of the women held the hand of a young child and Aedan knew they must have only set them down recently to stretch their little legs. He beamed at the sight of his approaching family and started forward, stepping through the gate and into the middle of the road.
The Captain of the King's Guard saluted him. "Commander."
Aedan nodded a greeting to the man and waited for him and his soldiers to pass before turning to face Alistair. "Your Majesty," he said with a wide grin and Alistair answered in kind, "Commander." And then they hugged one another fiercely and exchanged many thumping pats on the back.
"It is good to see you, Brother."
"And you, Aedan. It has been too long."
Aedan could only nod his agreement to this. He turned to offer a greeting to Brenna, stooping to kiss her gently on the cheek. "Welcome to Vigil's Keep, Brenna. I hope your journey was pleasant."
"Thank you, Aedan." She smiled and patted him on the arm.
Then Aedan turned to his wife and caught his breath. Her beauty always stunned him, particularly when he had not seen her for a while. His memory constantly failed to do her justice. He did have paintings of her, but they didn't smell like her or sound like her, they were not Leliana. "Leli," he said, "Aedan," she answered and he drew her against him, hugging her first, and then kissing her until his head spun. They were interrupted by small hands tugging against his pants and pulling his lips from hers, Aedan looked down into two sweet faces.
Grinning, he stooped and scooped up his son first, kissing the round cheeks and then hugging him gently. "How is my little warrior?" He kissed the boy again and then handed him to Leliana before stooping down to pick up his daughter. "Here's my princess!" More kisses to round cheeks were followed by Grace's high pitched giggles.
A hand reached over his shoulder to tickle under Grace's chin and Aedan turned to hand the little girl to Luke, who took her in his arms with much enthusiasm. "Hello, Gracie," he murmured and he kissed her softly on the forehead. Then he put her down and stepped forward to claim his own hug from Leliana. Aedan looked at his family, his smile so wide it nearly hurt, and whispered a silent prayer, 'Maker, if you took me to your side right now, I might die a happy man.'
Alistair took a hold of Brenna's hand as he watched Aedan greet his family. Though he smiled at his friend's happiness and he appreciated the picture of the five Couslands arrayed before him, he couldn't help his traitorous thoughts. Why did Aedan have three children, four if you counted his child with Morrigan, and he and Brenna had yet to conceive one? But in the face of the day and the overwhelming joy of seeing his dearest friend, his Brother, once more, it was hard to hold onto any bitterness and Alistair let it go willingly.
Turning to his wife he brushed her cheek with his lips and whispered, "Come, my love. I am sure they have refreshment waiting for us inside."
Alistair turned and stepped forward to greet both Wyman and Philippe. The younger Wardens all crossed their arms in salute before stepping forward for their personal greetings, many of them remembering to call him by name. Alistair grinned and shook hands and grasped arms. He enjoyed visiting Vigil's Keep for the sense of camaraderie that swarmed around him; they made him feel he belonged. Though he was here this time on official business, they still treated him as a fellow Warden.
Everyone moved inside and as promised, refreshments were laid out for the travelers and the next couple of hours passed in a flurry of assigning quarters and small talk as everyone settled in. Alistair glanced about from time to time, but did not see Aedan, Leliana or their children. This wasn't unusual, the family often disappeared for the first couple of hours, Rory and Grace would become over excited by the atmosphere and Aedan and Leliana always liked the opportunity to catch up quietly and privately.
Hearing Brenna exclaim softly beside him he turned to find his wife had found Luke and drawn the young man into a hug. Alistair grinned as he noticed how Luke towered over Brenna, but his face still held most of its boyish charm. Alistair held out his arm and Luke grasped it firmly. Nodding his head he said in his soft voice, "Your Majesty."
"Alistair, Luke, please. You know better than that." Alistair grinned at Luke and resisted the urge to ruffle his hair. They now looked eye to eye, Luke was a man!
"Aedan and Leli will be down soon, they're settling the little ones down for a nap."
Alistair nodded. "How is your training coming along, have you beaten Zevran in a match yet?"
Luke grinned and shook his head. "No one has beaten Zevran in a match yet, though Runir would have us believe it is possible. I nearly beat Aedan today though."
Alistair laughed. "Glad to hear it!" And he was… he was glad to hear Aedan had been in the yard with his Wardens and not underground killing darkspawn for a change. "How long has he been at the Keep?"
"Two days. We didn't see much of him yesterday, paperwork and all that."
"Aedan and his sodding paperwork; he should have been an accountant, not a warrior." Alistair smiled to soften his words though and Luke took it as intended, a joke and not a slight.
The room slowly fell quiet around them and Alistair looked up to see Aedan paused in the doorway. The Warden Commander waited for silence before he spoke. "Let's eat!"
A cheer and lots of laughter greeted his lack of formality and the Wardens bustled past him to the dining hall. Aedan waited for Alistair and they walked side by side, Aedan pausing again to let him enter the large dining room first. Alistair stepped in and looked toward the head of the table where four chairs stood empty, one of them just a touch bigger, a little more ornate than the rest. He raised a brow and turned to Aedan. "You got me a fancy chair…"
Aedan winked. "How do you know that's not my chair?"
"Because, Brother, you take great delight in pointing out I am King." And he did. Aedan never missed an opportunity to tease him about his royal blood and role as King of Ferelden. It was an old, old joke between them, but one that stemmed from their first bond of friendship.
Aedan leaned over and whispered, "It's just a little bit bigger than mine and you are three inches shorter, you know. I can't be looming over the King at the dining table."
They chuckled at one another and taking their hands of their respective wives, moved toward the head of the table.
Dinner passed as it always did at Vigil's Keep, in a cacophony of noise and celebration as food and drink passed up and down the table time and again. It was a far cry from the sometimes stiffly formal dinners Alistair and Brenna hosted at the palace and the warm atmosphere made him smile and relax against the back of his chair, which despite its ornate scrollwork was actually quite comfortable.
Aedan tapped his arm and Alistair looked over at his friend. "Shall we begin?" Aedan enquired.
Alistair gave a small nod and Aedan pushed his chair back and rose to his feet. The Warden Commander only had to wait a few moments for silence and soon every face had turned toward him, lips sealed, faces showing respect.
"Gentleman, Ladies," and Aedan paused to reward his three female Wardens with special smiles, "please join me in welcoming your King and your Brother to Vigil's Keep." He raised his glass and everyone else followed suit.
After drinking their toast, Aedan gestured toward him and stepped back. Alistair rose to his feet and looked over the assembled Wardens. "As much as I enjoy spending time with my Brothers, this time I am here for a special purpose." His eyes alighted on one Warden in particular and every other person in the room followed his gaze. Nathaniel Howe smiled and dipped his head just a touch. Alistair noticed that both the archer's hands rested before him on the table cloth and that his fingers had curled in on themselves. He grinned and gestured him to his feet. "Nathaniel, if you would please stand."
The Warden rose and at his beckoning, walked to the head of the table.
Alistair turned and favoured the man with a warm smile. "Nathaniel Howe, for your service to Ferelden and for your tireless efforts in the restoration of Amaranthine, I hereby restore to you your family heritage." Turning to face the rest of the room he announced. "From this day forward, let it be known that Nathaniel Howe is the new Arl of Amaranthine with all the rights and privileges therein."
Although everyone knew the purpose of the visit and had expected the speech, the cheer that erupted was no less raucous or heartfelt. Alistair waited for Nathaniel and Aedan to exchange a hug, both of them murmuring quietly to one another and then grasped Nathaniel's arm and then pulled the man into another hug, murmuring, "Congratulations, Nate."
"Thank you, Alistair. I will serve you with honor and distinction."
"I know you will, Nate. I know you will."
Though he maintained his smile, Alistair quailed inside. Nathaniel Howe more than deserved this honor, to his mind, but the Landsmeet would not be happy at him putting yet another Grey Warden into a position of power.