A/N: This was written quite some time ago and it was posted on an LJ community, but since it was just sitting in my computer, I decided to upload it.
Like the summary states, this is pre-Ostagar. A friendship, or rather father/son piece, of sorts. My fem!Cousland PC makes a brief appearance; her name is Onora. Yes, I know, Onora, Anora... bit of a mixup. But she was my first PC, and I named her before knowing who Anora was. Sorry if it confuses you, but the name stuck and I couldn't bear addressing her otherwise.
Alistair let out a yawn, his whole body shuddering with the intensity of it. He knew he ought to be asleep by now, that they had a difficult day ahead of them tomorrow, but circumstances beyond his control were keeping him awake.
There wasn't much to do in the King's camp at this hour save stare at the fire and daydream, and he would have been content to do just that were it not for the cold weather. He yearned to crawl back into his warm bedroll and get some well-needed rest, but gazing at the clear, starry sky would have to do until it was safe to return to the tent.
Even in the dark of night, Ostagar bustled with life and the reason for that answered to the name Loghain Mac Tir. Every little detail needed to be calculated and executed to perfection in preparation for tomorrow, and while the soldiers slept, the unseen participants of the battle were rushing to meet all demands made by Loghain and the King.
He could hear them all the way from the camp, their toil sounding like nothing but the faint buzzing of a bee in the still silence of the campsite. Only the crackling fires and the mournful cries of the forest owls pierced the silence.
Well… That and Ser Blocked Sinuses, Alistair thought with a grimace.
As if on cue, a faint rustle was heard from one of the Grey Warden tents; someone was getting up.
Alistair turned to look at the direction of the sound and saw none other than Duncan exit the tent. He was clad in his nightclothes and, like Alistair, had a thick woolen cloak wrapped around his shoulders. His also wore his hair down, a sight very rare for the usually meticulous Grey Warden. He looked more like a member of his notoriously nomadic people right now, than an elite warrior.
"Woke you up, too, huh?" Alistair said, shifting slightly to make room for Duncan by the hearth.
"Hmmm?" Duncan droned, apparently still too groggy to make proper conversation.
Alistair pointed at the tent right behind him. The clarification was hardly necessary, because the sound coming from that particular tent could most likely be heard all the way down to the Tower of Ishal. Someone was snoring. Loudly.
Duncan sat perfectly still, his eyes slowly adjusting to the bright fire and his ears to the irritating noise. "Maker, who is that?" he asked, staring at the tent.
Alistair grinned. He was not getting any sleep, but he now had a powerful weapon in his hands; one he intended to use as soon as possible. The second he had realized who the noise-maker was, his whole day had been made. "Her Ladyship," he answered.
Duncan blinked, and it took him a moment to understand who Alistair was talking about, but when he did, his eyes bulged, as wide as saucers. "Onora? No, it can't be—"
"Oh, trust me," Alistair said, grinning wryly. "I'm sleeping next to the human saw; it's her, all right. Hard to believe someone so skinny can produce such sounds, but it's true," he said and broke into an imitation of someone using a saw, letting out a fake snore with every tug and push.
"You are aware of the fact that you snore, too, are you not?" Duncan asked, grinning.
"No, no, no, no, no… I snore," Alistair said, pressing a hand against his chest. "Like a normal human being. She rumbles. Like an earthquake. Do not diminish her feat by calling it a mere 'snore'."
Duncan simply shook his head in disbelief and wrapped the cloak tighter around him. If Alistair had been expecting a better reaction to his joke, he didn't get it. Duncan simply stared at the fire, unseeing, his mind obviously occupied with other affairs.
Alistair stared at him, waiting for him to say something, but the minutes passed in silence, and he didn't speak. Nor did he tear his gaze away from the flames.
"I think we ought to drug her," he went on, undeterred. Duncan turned to look at him. "Keep her asleep when the battle starts and set her tent up at the front lines. The darkspawn will run away screaming."
Duncan sighed. "Leave the poor girl alone, she's been through an ordeal; she hardly slept at all on our way here."
"Well, what did she expect joining the Grey Wardens would be like?" Alistair said with a derisive snort. "Sunshine and puppies? A few days away from her pretty castle won't hurt her."
"You're being unusually disagreeable," Duncan said, scrutinizing him. "You didn't speak that way about Daveth or Ser Jory. Did something happen between you two?"
Alistair shrugged. "Nothing specific, just… Arrogant nobles don't sit well with me, you know that."
"I don't recall telling you she was a noble," Duncan pointed out.
"Please, I can smell them a mile away," Alistair said, and that much was true.
Having spent his youth in Arl Eamon's estate, he had met, or rather seen, many nobles visit. They always stood out, of course, dressed in fine clothing and jewelry, but Alistair had a well enough trained eye by now to recognize one even if they had been clad in rags. There were signs everywhere; unblemished skin, delicate hands, clean fingernails, lustrous hair, and his personal favorite: the superiority complex. The hands were often the best indicator, but if all else failed, the expression alone spoke volumes of who they truly were.
"Her calloused hands don't fool me; I could tell she was a noble the second she looked at me," Alistair went on, snapping his fingers when he said the word 'second'. "It's that whole 'Die, peasant scum,' glare, y'know?"
"A little bitter, are we?" Duncan said, arching an eyebrow.
Alistair liked to think that wasn't true. He knew enough decent nobles, Arl Eamon being a prime example. Even the few within the Grey Warden ranks were people he liked and respected, but this girl fit the 'spoiled princess' description to a 'T.' She was rude when there was no reason to be, her eyes were colder than ice, and from what Duncan had just told him, she was homesick barely a few hours after leaving the safety of her castle.
"Hey, she's the one who went all 'Maybe we're too smart for you' on me," he said, in a poor imitation of a woman's voice. "I was perfectly nice and she was being shirty the whole day."
"Were you trying to be funny?" Duncan asked, giving him a knowing look.
"Trying? Trying? Ouch, thanks a lot," Alistair replied, scowling. "And yes, as a matter of fact I was. I was being friendly, and she kept putting me down for no good reason at all. She's mean. There, I said it."
Despite making an honest effort not to, Duncan laughed.
"I won't make a scene or anything," Alistair went on, a little put off that Duncan seemed to find this so amusing when he was genuinely upset. "But just so you know, me and Ser Gilmore? Not going to braid each other's hair and talk about commitment-phobic men."
"Ser Gilmore is a man."
"Really? He looks awfully," Alistair said, making an hourglass-shaped figure mid-air with his hands. "Feminine to me. Snoring aside."
Duncan sighed and leaned all the way back onto the ground. He crossed his arms behind his head and stared up at the clear sky. "She is not Ser Gilmore. I visited Highever to test him, but I ended up recruiting Onora instead."
Alistair snorted. "Oh, good call."
"You are judging her too harshly; she was perfectly polite to me when I met her."
"Maybe she likes older men, nudge-nudge, wink-wink," Alistair said, nudging Duncan's leg with his boot and winking repeatedly.
"By the Maker," Duncan said under his breath, and though he tried to look annoyed, Alistair noticed the slight tinge of red on his cheeks. "She is nineteen, Alistair. And I'm quite sure you are not supposed to actually say nudge-nudge, wink-wink."
"Ohhh, he's blushiiiiiiing," the Templar teased him.
Sometimes Duncan was too prim and proper for his own good, in Alistair's opinion. He had utmost respect for the man, and he understood that he was in a position of great responsibility, but loosening up a little from time to time would do him good. He was absolutely certain Duncan would have never thought of a young girl such as Onora that way, but then again, he doubted he would look at any woman in a different light if duty was part of the equation.
"Okay, here's what you'll do," Alistair said, his eyes shining with purpose. "After the battle tomorrow you'll bring her back a Hurlock head. It's a little butch, I know, but I have a feeling this one's not into roses and sweet-talking. Go for the macho approach, rrhhhh" he growled, in what he thought was a very manly, very intimidating roar. "Try to get one of the Emissaries, if you can. They have this whole funky headdress thing going on that makes them stand out. Oh, how she'll swoooooon…"
Duncan refused to comment and merely rolled his eyes.
"She's not my type, but she's pretty, I'll give her that," Alistair went on. "And she was nice to you, so there you go. You could do with a bit of fun once in a while, old man, go for it."
Duncan turned to look at Alistair. "Old man?"
"Did I say old man?" Alistair said, pretending to look surprised. "No, no, you're just… ripe. What are you now, seventy?"
"I am forty-three."
"Eh, close enough."
Duncan sat up, rubbing his sore temple as he did so. "All right, I think it is high time I ended this charade before you embarrass yourself any further. Onora Cousland—"
Alistair was about to go on teasing Duncan, but upon the mention of her name, he did a double-take. "Cousland?" he repeated, blinking. He knew the name, as did nearly everyone in Ferelden. "As in Bryce Cousland? The Teyrn of Highever?"
"The very same. Now if you'll just list-"
"She's a Cousland?" he hissed, feeling slightly faint. If Duncan had conscripted her, as Alistair feared he had, this would mean a great deal of trouble for the Grey Wardens. They had already been banished from Ferelden once, and if Bryce Cousland sought retribution for having his daughter put through mortal danger, he would go out on the warpath for Grey Warden blood. "Are you mad? That's as close as you get to recruiting Queen Anora herself! How in the world did you get her father to agree to this? Isn't she supposed to… I dunno, breed the spouse of Cailan and Anora's future heir?"
"Like I said, I wasn't expecting to be allowed to actually recruit her," Duncan said, with the patient air of explaining why one plus one equals two to a hyperactive toddler. "I was planning on suggesting it at the very least, which I did, but I needed another option to fall back on should her father refuse."
"Hence, Ser Gilmore," Alistair said.
"So how did you manage to convince them?" the Templar asked. "Please tell me you didn't conscript her…"
"I did not," Duncan replied. "I am no fool; Bryce Cousland would have been out for my blood if I so much as uttered the word. However, things took a turn for the worst that night and circumstances changed. It was the Teyrn's dying wish that Arl Howe paid for his treachery. Letting Onora become a Grey Warden was the only way she would survive."
"Dying-? Hold on, the Teyrn's dead?" Alistair said, his head spinning. "Maker's blood, Duncan, you couldn't have led with that? And what does Howe have to do with anything?"
"Mmmm," Duncan groaned, shutting his eyes as if willing the headache that was obviously afflicting him away. "I forgot you had no news of the north until we arrived. I was planning on telling you, but we crossed paths with the King as soon as we arrived, and then—"
"I'm not angry, just—I didn't know anything serious had happened in Highever. I thought it all went smoothly."
Duncan let out a humorless chuckle at that, as if to say things couldn't have gone more opposite than smoothly. "Bryce Cousland and Arl Howe's forces were scheduled to join us," he began. "I visited Highever at the Teyrn's request to test Ser Gilmore while preparations were being made. Arl Howe was a close friend of the Couslands, but the night before we were to depart, he staged a coup and murdered everyone in the castle. The Cousland family, the servants, the squires… everyone. Only Fergus, Onora's brother, was spared as he had left for Ostagar the day before. Howe has taken over the castle and the teyrnir, I assume."
"The entire family…?" Alistair whispered. "And… Onora? How…?"
"I promised the Teyrn I'd make sure she got away safely, but I could only keep her close if she became a Grey Warden. There was nothing I could do for him, or the Teyrna, but I could help their daughter."
When Duncan was done narrating the events that had led to Onora's recruitment, Alistair stared at the fire, at a loss for words. The more he had heard, the smaller and pettier he had felt.
Onora had indeed been rude to him all day long, but he didn't realize she had a reason to feel upset. After what Duncan had so aptly described as an ordeal, she had left her home in the hands of a treacherous murderer and had gone through the Joining without being given the time to mourn the loss of her loved ones.
And he had immediately judged her, without a moment's pause to wonder whether the coldness, emptiness in her eyes was anything other than scorn. The worst part was that he knew exactly how gut-wrenching the feeling of being alone in the world was. The day he was told he was being sent to the Chantry, he had reacted no better, and he hadn't just witnessed the massacre of his entire family like she had.
"Guuuuuuuuh," he groaned, burying his face in his palms. "Okay… now I feel like the biggest idiot on Thedas."
"You couldn't have known," Duncan reasoned.
"Yes, but… still. She saw her parents die and I've been a complete…" he trailed off, wincing.
"So now will you stop pestering her?"
Alistair half-glared at Duncan. "That goes without saying, I only— I thought she was just mean; I didn't realize she was going through something."
"Now you do," Duncan said. "Keep it to yourself, however. I don't feel comfortable divulging something so personal about her, but I want you two to get along; she's one of us now. You'll look after her, won't you?"
Alistair arched an eyebrow at that. "Er, sure, I'll help. But it's mainly your job, isn't it?"
Duncan, not someone graced with the ability to tell a convincing lie, merely nodded and stared absently at the fire again. "Mmmm, yes."
It didn't take a connoisseur of body language to be able to see that something was troubling the eldest Grey Warden. Alistair may have only spent six months in the man's company, but he already felt he knew him well enough to be able to tell when something was wrong.
His first instinct was to give Duncan time to let his thoughts ferment, let the silence stretch until he felt comfortable enough to talk, but the minutes ticked by and no words were spoken.
"Duncan?" Alistair asked tentatively.
Alistair decided not to waste time with pleasantries and got straight to the point. "Why couldn't you sleep?"
Duncan pointed towards the tent behind his back, where Onora was still producing enough noise to make the other occupants of the tent groan and shift in their bedrolls in annoyance.
The young Templar scowled at Duncan, as if to say he wasn't buying the excuse. Once again, he gave his superior the time to speak up, but Duncan simply tried to look innocent and stuck to his original story.
"I know everyone thinks I'm an idiot," Alistair began. "And hey, it works for me; no-one ever sees me coming. But seriously, did you think I'd fall for that?"
"Fall for what?"
"She didn't wake you up, Duncan, something else did," Alistair said. "You didn't even know I was talking about her until you came out here."
Unable to lie his way out of this, Duncan fell silent once again.
"Was it a dream?" Alistair prodded. "I didn't see any of the others stir."
A nod was all it took for Alistair to understand. If it had been a regular dream about the Blight, every other Warden would have woken up as well. But there were few, if any, Grey Wardens in the camp close to Duncan's age, and dealing with what a certain age threshold meant for their group was something they didn't usually discuss. It was barely acknowledged, as if not talking about it would lessen the pain of losing a brother to the taint.
Alistair had always resented the practice and felt that speaking up and joking about it would allow them to accept their fate much more easily. But now… now that it was Duncan's-
No… He's not… He has more time, he's still young, Alistair mused, contradicting his own thoughts.
Not that young, said a voice in the back of his head. It was the more sinister counterpart of his inner voice, the one that spewed all the bitterness, the resentment and every nasty feeling he had in moments of weakness. He's been a Warden for a long time, the voice went on.
He doesn't have long to live, but it's still too early to talk—
He had a nightmare the others didn't.
One dream is hardly—
Just the one, eh? What about all-?
Shut up. He's not dying; he can't be.
The hypocrisy of refusing to accept the truth when the Warden in question was someone close to him was all too apparent to Alistair, but his inner battle raged on. Not Duncan, anyone but—What a horrible thing to even think. So it's all right for someone else to die, as long as it's not—Shut up, shut up, shut UP.
"They've been getting quite frequent," Duncan said, running a hand through his hair.
"Have they?" Alistair said, making an attempt at casual laughter; it failed miserably. "I wouldn't say that. Your last one was what, a month ago? That's about as frequent as my dreams are."
"And hey, if this is really a Blight," Alistair went on, disregarding Duncan's interruption. "Then we'll all be getting them more often, it's not just-"
"Like I said, I'm forty-three. I'm getting-"
"Oh come on, you didn't take that seriously, did you? I was joking when I called you old man, you're not-"
"You and I both know," Duncan said, raising his voice. "That my last nightmare was before I left for Highever. And I had another one during the journey here."
"So what?" Alistair interjected, sounding a little angry now. He was all too familiar with the burning knot that formed in his stomach whenever embarrassment made him ramble on to no end, but he had never before experienced such a feeling borne of dread and desperation. "I had a nightmare last night, too. And another one two days before that."
"No, you didn't."
"I'm not lying-"
"Alistair, I've been a Grey Warden for nearly twenty-five years," Duncan cut him off. "Even if it's not my time yet, it's getting close. It won't be long before I head to Orzammar, just like those who came before me."
Alistair turned away, burying his face in his hands. "Don't talk like that, please-"
"Denying it won't make it any less true. And I'm perfectly at ease with it; I've lived a full life-"
Something about the fact that Duncan was comfortable with what the future had in store for him made Alistair snap. Without quite realizing what he was doing or why, he found himself reaching for Duncan's shirt and gathering a fistful in his shaky hand.
The gesture took Duncan by surprise, but not more so than it did Alistair. "Stop it, just—STOP," he snarled, and the tremulous voice that left his lips was alien. There was a stranger sitting by the fire next to Duncan; he looked like him, he wore his clothes, commandeered his limbs and tongue and his insides were ablaze. The fury and the sorrow crashed together and became a torrent of liquid fire, scorching everything as it sped across the stranger's innards.
You have no right, not a single bloody right to do this to me, he wanted to say, though he never voiced it, just glared at a shocked and rigid Duncan through a thin film of tears. He hadn't even realized his eyes had welled up until something warm and salty landed on his lower lip and trickled into his quivering mouth.
With that tiny tear came the realization of what he had just done. Duncan had yet to move or speak; in fact, he did nothing but gape at the younger man, but he might as well have run him through with a bolt of lighting, judging by the way Alistair suddenly let go, as if electrocuted.
There was little in his life he felt strongly about and most revolved around the Grey Wardens. Duncan was the reason he felt that way, the reason he had a life he actually was content and proud living, and he had just crossed every single line that defined his relationship with the man and, in turn, defined him.
Friends. Brothers in arms. Master and apprentice. And—
A different, more affectionate kind of relationship crossed his mind, but he willed it away as soon as it appeared. Duncan had enough in his mind as it was; he had not the time, nor the desire to fill the gaping holes in Alistair's travesty of a family. In a moment of weakness, he had forgotten all about his sacred oath to the world and to Duncan, all because he felt a connection to man who needed nothing but loyalty and courage from him.
He felt ashamed, not only for betraying the trust of the person he valued the most, but also for letting himself cry like a little boy, like someone who couldn't handle the repercussions that came with a Grey Warden's power.
He expected Duncan to get angry. He expected to get an earful for the entirely inappropriate way he had just acted, and even worse, he expected to be stripped of the honor of being a Grey Warden. He definitely deserved as much.
But Duncan didn't yell. He didn't even scowl. As soon as he got over the shock of what had just transpired, his face softened.
Alistair looked away, unable to bear the older man's gaze. His hand worked furiously at his eyes, wiping the disgraceful tears away. Sniveling, cowardly-
"I've known this would be my fate for a long time now," Duncan spoke, and even his voice was gentler. "And I've had enough time to accept it. So should you."
The Templar tried to stifle a sniff as he pulled himself together. He felt his face and ears burn. Duncan was right; of course he was right.
"I've had the distinct privilege of leading a group of fine men, but it's time I stepped down," Duncan went on, doing Alistair a great kindness by not mentioning his transgression at all. "It is Holden's turn now, and in time, it'll be yours."
That last comment sobered Alistair up faster than a cold bath ever could. "That's funny," he said with a snort, his voice still a little thick from crying. "I didn't know we were planning on demolishing the order."
"Is that why you fear my death?" Duncan asked. "Because you think so little of yourself that the prospect of replacing me scares you?"
"What, you were actually serious? It's not just sleep deprivation that's making you say things?" Alistair asked, looking at Duncan as if he had indeed gone mad.
"It is the natural order of things," Duncan said. "Once a generation becomes obsolete, its successors must step up and take the mantle."
"Obsolete, he says," Alistair said with a scoff, speaking as if he addressed an invisible audience. "Like the Duncan model is sooo Blessed Age."
"If you make an honest effort to lessen the jokes," Duncan said with a wry grin. "I don't see why you couldn't one day lead the Grey Wardens of Ferelden."
"And they say I have a weird sense of humor."
Duncan sighed. "Listen to me, and listen well, because it might be the last-"
Some of the anger still left from his earlier antiques reignited within Alistair as Duncan started speaking of mortality once more. "No, I bloody well won't listen, because you're talking like you're about to drop dead any moment now!" Alistair hissed. He was getting irritated again, but he had enough clarity right now to keep the noise down and their conversation as private as possible.
"I may have... one good year left," Duncan said. "And a lot can happen in one year, if we're indeed facing a Blight. There may be little time for idle chatter in the following months, so stop acting like a petulant child and listen to me."
Alistair didn't talk back. Feeling nothing like a petulant child, yet looking the part every bit, he turned away and frowned, mutinous and ready to snap again if Duncan gave him enough reason to.
"You're still young, so there's a great deal left to learn, but you have the makings of a fine leader, Alistair," Duncan said. He sounded so earnest, so sincere in his words that Alistair felt a shiver sizzle down his spine. "Perhaps even a K—"
"Don't you dare go there," Alistair interrupted, pointing a threatening finger at Duncan. He could handle the pep-talk, but the moment his heritage came into the discussion he had had enough. "Not that sodding bloodline business again. It's blood, nothing more. It doesn't give me any special power and it doesn't make me any different than anyone else. It just... is."
Duncan shook his head. "You are being too hard on yourself, as always. No-one is ever truly ready to lead, and some never even ask for the responsibility. And yet they accept it and try to rise above their fears.
You don't need to be a political or a strategic genius to lead men. You need inner strength, a sharp mind and a heart that's in the right place. You have all three. You just need to learn to believe in yourself more."
Alistair listened to Duncan's speech, thinking himself undeserving of the praise he was receiving, but also feeling it was all a little in vain. "Why should I?" he asked, shrugging. "No-one else does."
It was a simple statement, but it filled Alistair's body with an emotion he had never felt before. He dared not believe what his ears had so clearly heard, but even if Duncan hadn't spoken a word, his expression would have been worth a thousand.
Alistair turned to stare at him, shocked and more than a little touched. He had elicited many emotions from people before; anger, annoyance, disgust, amusement, exasperation, and once in a blue moon, he had managed to earn someone's reluctant trust. But faith?
This was entirely unexplored territory and he felt that if he did not tread lightly, the ground would open up and swallow him whole. Someone believed in him. Truly and whole-heartedly. It was a terrifying, but at the same time extremely rewarding feeling.
He was torn between yearning to hear more and wanting to run away and hide from all expectations. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, he was unsure), Duncan said nothing more on the matter.
The older man simply looked over his shoulder and grinned. "Ahh, looks like she's stopped," he said, looking at the tent where Onora and many other Grey Wardens slept. She had indeed fallen silent. "Excellent, I was getting a little drowsy. Goodnight then," Duncan said, getting up to his feet with a small groan.
Alistair felt his stomach clench and unclench uncomfortably. He didn't want Duncan to go, but he had no idea what to say to continue their conversation. There was still much he had to say; about the time Duncan had left, about his apparent 'future' and a million other things. His brain was in overdrive, trying to sort through the emotional flood currently wreaking havoc within him, and at the same time trying to come up with a good enough excuse why they should take even longer before resting for the battle tomorrow.
Duncan put a stop to any sort of thought process by doing something completely out of character. In a very rare display of affection, he gave Alistair's hair a gentle rub before turning away to return to his tent.
Brothers in arms.
Master and apprentice.
And… Don't think it, don't think it. Don't set yourself up for disappointment.
Unable to stifle the salvo of emotions surging up his throat, Alistair spoke up. "Duncan?"
Duncan turned around. "Yes?"
Alistair felt the need to say something profound. Something about how it was an honor to fight at his side, about how grateful he was for being taken away from the Chantry, about how his life now had true meaning and purpose. There was so much that needed to be said, but it all felt inadequate as it formed into words in his head. It was impossible to tell this man what he meant to him in a single sentence.
Swallowing hard, Alistair decided that he didn't have to. At least not right now.
"Will you let me know?" he asked. "When it's time, I mean. You'll let me say goodbye?"
Duncan smiled. "Of course."
Enough… Enough now. We don't need to say more, Alistair thought, and nodded to Duncan. "Goodnight," he said. "See you tomorrow."
"Aye, I shall," Duncan said. "You should get some sleep, too. You'll need it," he added, and made his way back to his tent.
While he knew that he did indeed need the rest, Alistair didn't think it would be possible to fall asleep after the conversation they'd just had. There was a lot to swallow and a lot to think about, and he would much rather do it in solitude; not crammed between a dozen other Wardens and certainly not next to the Amazing Human Saw.
Unfortunately for him, Ferelden weather reared its ugly head once more in the form of a raindrop splashing on his forehead. He groaned and looked up at the sky, only to see that the moon now hid behind a swarm of ominous, grey clouds. As an added incentive to get him moving, thunder crackled above him.
Resigned to the fate of a sleepless night, Alistair decided to head into the tent. He was about to enter it, when a doleful whine got his attention, instead.
He turned to the source of the sound. Unbidden, Duncan's words came into his head.
"You need inner strength, a sharp mind and a heart that's in the right place. You have all three."
It was that very heart that was making him hesitate right now, as he watched Onora's mabari hound struggle with his leash. She had tied him down by the Grey Warden tent before she retired for the night, but if left there, the poor animal would have to endure the coming storm.
Despite his talk with Duncan, he still felt a little bitter for the way Onora had treated him. He shouldn't really care what happened to her or her hound, especially since the dog had not once, but thrice tried to chew his arm off earlier that night, but…
Heart in the right place, my arse, he thought with a groan, as he approached the hound. More like brain in the wrong one.
True to form, the mabari started growling the moment Alistair came within a ten foot radius. The Templar hesitated for a bit, keeping as safe a distance as possible. The dog was tied down, but he wouldn't put it past him to rip the leather leash or just drag the whole tent along with him in a mad dash.
"Gooood puppy," he said through his teeth.
The dog didn't look the least bit mollified.
"I'm not going to hurt you…" Alistair muttered, taking a couple of tentative steps forward. "I juuu—" he trailed off and jumped backwards as the mabari made a lunge for him.
"Okay, fine," Alistair spat at the dog, pushing the wet hair away from his forehead. The quiet drizzle was already turning into full-blown rain. "You want to be left out here all night? Be my guest!"
The dog let out a whine, and relaxed his previously threatening pose.
"Oh, we're being cute now, are we?" Alistair said, putting his hands against his hips.
The mabari let out an excited bark.
"Don't give me that," Alistair said, frowning. "I tried to undo your leash just now and what do I get? You snap at me!"
The mabari hanged his head down in shame.
"Yeah, that's right! You should be ashamed. I was only trying to be nice and you tried to take a chunk of me with you. Did your mistress teach you to be like that?" he asked.
The dog cocked his head to the side, looking puzzled.
"Oh I'm sure she's perfectly sweet to you," Alistair said, approaching the dog again. "Apparently she was nice to everyone but me," he went on and reached out for the dog's leash. The animal didn't budge, just looked at him with curious, intelligent eyes. "You think it's the jokes? Should I just cut down on them?"
He didn't know whether the dog's happy bark was because he was no longer tied, or because he was actually answering his question, but Alistair took it to be a little bit of both and set off to bring the mabari to the kennel master. From what he had seen earlier on, the man had put up some makeshift covers for the kennels in case of rain, so Onora's hound should be relatively dry there for the night.
By the time he was done dealing with the mabari and was back into the Grey Warden tent, Alistair was soaked to the bone. Cursing under his breath, he made his way over to his bedroll, treading over sleeping bodies and trying not to step on anyone. The tent was uncharacteristically silent save for the sound of his footsteps, as if everyone was too ashamed to even make an attempt at a snore after Lady Cousland had outdone them all.
The champion in question was currently bent into a tiny, blanket-shrouded ball on the bedroll next to Alistair's. She had covered herself up to her chin, though he had the faint suspicion that if the blanket was any bigger, she would have pulled it all the way over her head.
His previous annoyance with her had mostly abated. After what Duncan had told him of her recent past, he found he couldn't really stay mad at the girl, or her hound for that matter. She had gone through enough, and having the other youngest member of the order taunt her mercilessly was not something she needed.
He felt his heart swell with pity at the sight of her, so young and yet so old already, bearing a cold voice that seemed to carry the weight of decades, rather than the blissfully ignorant voice of a young girl. He hadn't really seen it before, but right now it was apparent that she was barely over eighteen, still on the cusp of womanhood, yet clearly no longer a girl. She looked less guarded in her sleep and far more vulnerable than the rogue who had gutted Hurlocks like fish without batting an eyelash but mere hours ago.
It couldn't be easy, being thrown into a world so different from her own before she even had the time to deal with her pain. Not to mention being the only woman sleeping in a tent full of crass, unwashed men. And feeling cold, too, by the looks of it, he thought, watching her pull her legs up closer to her stomach in an attempt to curl under the small blanket.
With a sigh, Alistair decided that if he was willing to even entertain the thought of one day, possibly (and that was a big 'possibly') taking up a position of leadership within the ranks of the Grey Wardens, he might as well start treating those below him with a little kindness. Not that he didn't already, but… perhaps he owed her a little more to make up for all the taunting.
As soon as he was out of his wet clothes and into his last pair of clean ones, he went back to the entrance of the tent and over to one of the bulging trunks sitting beside it. Second good deed for the day, he thought wryly, as he pulled the trunk open. The Revered Mother would be proud.
He returned to his bedroll with a blanket in hand, pleasantly surprised to find himself yawning on the way there. But he should have suspected his troubles were far from over. In a typical twist of fate, the moment he had so much as hoped he would indeed get some sleep tonight, a new obstacle had presented itself.
Alistair stared down at his bedroll, half of it now occupied by Onora. He tapped his foot on the ground. You cannot weigh more than two ounces, he thought. How could you possibly need all that room to sleep?
Gritting his teeth, he knelt down and gave her a gentle nudge. She didn't stir.
"Oh come on..." he groaned, and gave her a stronger push. Perhaps a little stronger than he had originally intended.
Onora rolled away, back to her own bedroll and all the way over to one of the metal poles holding the tent up. Her head collided with it, resulting in a dull 'THUNK!' and a suddenly awake, very irritated girl. "Augh!" she yelped, jolting up.
Alistair winced at the little mishap. "Sorry!" he whispered, hoping she wouldn't lapse into a cursing fit and wake everyone up. Again.
Onora grasped her aching forehead, hissing in pain. She looked furious, all right, but kept her voice down. "Damn it, Nan, if I this is about Spike again, I swear, I'll-" She came to a sudden stop once she opened her eyes and took in her surroundings.
Judging by the look on her face, she had either been dreaming, or she had been hoping to wake up at home, back in Highever, Wardens, Blights and darkspawn nothing but an unpleasant dream.
Alistair sat down and looked at her apologetically. "Sorry, it's just- you were on my bedroll."
Onora stared at him, for a moment looking as if she was trying to figure out who he was. Not entirely strange, considering she had just woken up. "Oh, it's you," she said eventually, still rubbing the red, slightly bulging spot on her forehead. "Right, sorry," she said, crawling back over to her bedroll and rearranging her meager covers.
"No harm done," said Alistair. "Sorry about… the forehead and all," he added with a little trepidation. Onora waved a hand dismissively, apparently too tired to be her usual self and glare at him. Taking advantage of the moment, Alistair handed her the blanket he had gone to retrieve a couple of minutes ago.
She stared at it. "What's this?"
"I can see that," she said, arching an eyebrow imperiously. "I mean why are you giving it to me?" she asked, and took it.
Moment over, Alistair thought, holding back a sigh. "You looked a little cold, that's all," he said, and lied down under his own blanket.
Instead of looking grateful, Onora looked suspicious. She seized him up, watching closely as he made himself comfortable and got ready to go to sleep. Alistair pretended not to notice at first, but after a few minutes under intense scrutiny, he turned to look at her, feeling a little uneasy.
To his surprise, she was no longer staring at him through narrowed eyes. Curiously enough, she looked wary and embarrassed.
"I'm- I'm not going to... lay with you, if that's what-" she began, her cheeks reddening as she uttered the words.
Alistair nearly choked on his own saliva. "Wha-?"
Someone from the far end of the tent sniggered. Alistair would have recognized that lecherous chuckle everywhere, and suddenly felt his earlier dislike for Onora Cousland return full-force. Last thing he needed was his comrades overhearing Little Miss Grumpy Girdle turn him down. Especially when he'd never even offered anything.
"Shut up, Lloyd," he snarled at the source of the stifled laughter, then turned to Onora again, his cheeks now matching hers in color. "Bloody hell, I just thought you looked cold. I know where we keep the extra blankets, so I brought you one. There was no… ulterior motive!"
She didn't look entirely convinced.
Alistair sighed in resignation. They could spend all night arguing over this, and he really needed to get some sleep, so he decided to drop the matter. "Fine, be like that. Can I go to sleep now?" he muttered, yanking the covers up to his shoulder.
Onora narrowed her eyes again. "What, no jokes about the misunderstanding? No calling me 'your worshipness'?"
Itching for a fight, are we? Truth be told, he was rather fond of the little title he had invented for her this afternoon, but he wasn't about to indulge her and get into an argument he knew would be futile. "Nope. No jokes tonight."
Alistair rolled over, turning his back on her. It was hard to remind himself she was recently orphaned when she made an actual effort to be unpleasant. "Goodnight," he grumbled, set on trying to fall asleep as fast as he could before she could vent more of her spleen. He was about to follow through on this plan, when he remembered there was something he'd been meaning to tell her. "Oh, before I forget…" he said, turning around.
"What?" Onora said, looking over her shoulder.
"It's about your mabari. Er… Spot?"
You so don't deserve this, but… "Right. Well, it started raining," Alistair explained. "He would've been soaked sleeping outside our tent so I asked the hound master to take him into the kennels. Is that alright?"
Whatever Onora had been expecting to hear, that certainly wasn't it. Despite obviously trying to look cold and apathetic, this little tidbit of information had struck a cord with her. "Oh," she said, looking like a fish out of water; being rendered speechless was clearly not something she was used to. "Spike is- that's good. Yes..."
"Go talk to the hound master if you want to check up on him in the morning," Alistair said, stretching. "Now get some sleep. It's going to be a tough day tomorrow."
Onora nodded. "Right, umm... thank you. For… my dog and the blanket. And, er…" she hesitated.
Alistair gave her an encouraging grin. "Yes?"
"I'm... sorry. For misunderstanding before. And... in... general..." she trailed off.
Alistair had half a mind to let her go on, but it was clear that she was genuinely sorry for having been rude and harsh even though she struggled with her apology. He didn't need to hear her say the actual words. "Apology accepted," he said, ending her self-inflicted torture. "And you're most welcome. Can I just ask for one favor?"
"What is it?"
"Please, please, please sleep on your side."
"Er... why?" Onora asked, clearly puzzled by such a request.
"Just... indulge me," Alistair said, not elaborating. "As payback for the blanket? I got you a nice one: no mould on it and it doesn't itch as much as the others."
She looked confused still, but she nodded all the same. "...All right."
"Bless you," Alistair said, letting out a sigh of relief. He sank under the covers, suddenly very aware of the long day he'd had and just how tired he was. "Goodnight," he said once more, closing his eyes.
"Goodnight," said Onora.
He heard her shift for a little while, until she was in a comfortable enough position to sleep. Soon enough, the rhythmic sound of her breath joined that of the other occupants of the tent. As far as he could tell, he was the only one in there still awake.
His eyes slipped open for a moment. He could hear the gentle rattle of the rain outside, and he watched as every raindrop left a small wet spot on the canvas ceiling of the tent. He wanted to reflect on everything he and Duncan had talked about tonight, but he could already feel the lure of the Fade as sleep began to claim him.
With what little clarity he had left in his half-asleep state, he wondered what it would be like to lead these men some day. He certainly didn't feel ready now, and he some times doubted he ever would, but he allowed himself to entertain the idea at the very least. Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation talking, but at the moment, the idea didn't sound all that terrible. He didn't want to admit it, but Duncan's trust in him had bolstered his confidence in ways he had never thought imaginable.
Well, I made a good start at the very least, he mused, thinking about how Onora had softened after he'd persevered and been a little more understanding. She would make a good Grey Warden, a good person to have watching one's back, and perhaps even a good friend somewhere down the line. She hadn't exactly been inspired by his leadership qualities (or lack thereof), but he had instilled something in her, no matter how small. And that was a start, indeed.
It wasn't long before sleep claimed him. Duncan's words and parting smile were the last things he saw before his eyes slipped shut.
He slept better than he had in years.
A/N: I think the piece might have been stronger if it didn't include the scene with Alistair and Cousland, but hey, I wrote this last Christmas and at the time didn't feel like ending it on such a glum note.