.

the Blight never happened

.

There's a whistle and a dull thud, and then there is one less bandit at his back trying to put a knife between his ribs. Anders jumps and curses. He hadn't noticed the now-dead robber behind him.

"Thanks, whoever's there," he calls into the darkness. He belatedly hopes that it isn't another group of thieves simply picking off the competition before attempting to rob his own corpse dry. A spark leaps in his hand, carefully hidden for now, in the case of such an event.

"It was no problem," replies a man's voice before the owner steps into the light of the road lamps. Dark hair, and a scowl in both his expression and his voice. Expensive-looking leathers and a richly engraved bow. Probably someone rich enough that a mage-passing-as-a-commoner should know about them. "Those bandits are always waiting around the gates; I haven't had a clear shot at one before now. The rest will have scattered into the woods."

"Er... good. Well. I'm just on my way to Amaranthine, so..."

"At this time of night, without any travelling companions?"

"... I'm late," says Anders. It's not much of an explanation, but saying, 'I'm an apostate trying to get as far away as possible from the templars behind me before they wake up tomorrow morning,' probably isn't the best way to go.

The man seems to consider him for a while before opening his mouth to start another sentence – unfortunately, he is interrupted by the sight of a dozen bandits surrounding them.

"Doesn't look like they scattered to me," mutters Anders, backing up.

"You don't say," says the other man, sarcasm dripping from his tone. He raises his bow and notches an arrow, but Anders isn't sure what a single archer can do against twelve very angry bandits.

"You killed Bob," growls what seems to be the leader of the group. He raises his rather dirty-looking sword menacingly. "Boys, get the Arl. Two of you go for the other one."

Hmm, Anders thinks as a pair of knife-wielding men charge towards him. Freedom probably isn't worth dying at the hands of a few unwashed would-be thieves. He glances towards the archer currently firing into the mob stampeding towards him and makes up his mind. The spark in his hand explodes into a chain of lightning – the bandits shriek in surprise as the charge courses through their bodies. Ha! Hadn't expected a mage, had they?

"Get the mage!" roars the leader before an arrow flies into his throat – Anders looks round and sees a second arrow splinter in mid-air and stun three of his bandit cronies. Impressive shooting, there. He takes advantage of the nicely stunned group to cast a quick freezing spell and watches with satisfaction as another well placed arrow shatters the most annoying of the newly-created ice statues.

The rest of the bandits are easy pickings and it isn't long before the pair is standing in a circle of alternately frozen and numerously punctured bandits. The man – the Arl? – puts away his bow on his back and turns to Anders, frowning.

"You're a mage?"

"... kind of? It would be really, really nice if you didn't tell the Chantry that I was out here. I forgot to tell them that I was going to visit Amaranthine, and you know how fussy they are with signed permission slips and all that. Anyway, I'm Anders. Apostate mage at your service." Anders crosses his fingers and hopes that the whole saving-your-ass-from-bandits thing would work in his favour.

The man scowls a little more. "Since introductions are in order, I'm Nathaniel Howe. The current Arl of Amaranthine. Perhaps you should come to Vigil's Keep for the night."

Anders nods slowly, considering his options. No doubt there'd be a Chantry priest or templar waiting at the Arl's castle – which would be bad, if the Arl really did intend to turn him in. And escaping from a heavily guarded Keep once he did get turned in would be harder than simply knocking out – or killing, since he might tell Rylock about him once she caught up tomorrow and woke him up – the Arl right now and making a break for it.

Still, murdering someone who had just helped him out of bandit troubles twice in the last ten minutes did seem a little harsh. Worst comes to worst, he'd be sent back to Circle Tower and get another few years of solitary confinement (hopefully he wasn't on his final warning yet). At least he had Mr Wiggums.

"Fine," he says, following the Arl through the Keep's gates. "But there'd better be good food there."

Much to his surprise, the Arl does not immediately announce his apostate-ness to the nearest priest. Instead, he tells the guard that Anders is a merchant victim of the bandits outside who is welcome to use a guest room for the night as there are no other visitors this evening, and gives a servant orders to find him some more wearable clothes. (Hey, it wasn't his fault that his contact in Redcliffe only had clothes two sizes too small. And only in the most horrific of colours.)

In the few minutes that he spends with the chatty servant, he learns that the Arlessa is in Denerim visiting the court of King Cailan and will be back tomorrow evening, that bandits are a constant trouble for the poor travellers on the Pilgrim's Path, that the groundskeeper has found a mysterious tunnel in the cellar leading to the Deep Roads... Anders gives her a quick kiss on the cheek for her helpful efforts before wandering downstairs to the kitchens.

The Arl, now dressed in the usual nobleman getup, catches him halfway there and cordially invites him to a rather late supper, if he would like to join him. Anders says yes, because he is very hungry and eating a proper meal would probably be more filling than mooching scraps off the kitchen girls, even if he's a little unsure of this generous hospitality.

Anders makes small talk over the meal (very simple; just some bread and some cold meat from earlier, since the cooks had not had enough notice to produce anything more luxurious) and the Arl – Nathaniel, Anders begins to think – listens to him with a mixture of exasperation and amusement. He doesn't really say much in reply at first, though as the conversation goes on, Anders finds himself enjoying the man's company more and more. He drops in a few flirtatious lines now and again (when the wife's away...) and thinks that maybe Nathaniel returns them just as well. Well, at the least he's definitely not directly shooting him down, and Anders wouldn't be here today if he hadn't learnt to take his chances whenever he could. Still, there's something in the air around the Arl that seems distant, almost... sad, in a barely noticeable, sneakily subtle kind of way. It distracts Anders a little, and he finds that he has slipped and told some amusing anecdote about the Circle Tower.

"Don't worry," says Nathaniel, noticing his panicked expression. "The servants will have gone to sleep by now."

Sure enough, there are no servants waiting around the room ready to collect plates, and Anders hopes that there aren't any particularly mage-hating ones eavesdropping outside. He sighs. "Why am I not in chains and being laughed at by bucketheads on the way back to the prison?"

"I could hardly arrest a man who saved my life," says Nathaniel mildly, "as well as ridding the grounds of those thieves who have been plaguing Vigil's Keep for the last month."

"Think of it as repayment," Anders says. "That was a nice shot at the one behind me." Nathaniel shrugs, and Anders notices that his right shoulder seems pained. "Those idiots didn't get you at all, did they?" He gestures to the theoretical wound.

"No, it's nothing. Really."

"Hey, I'm a mage. Spirit healing was my first major," says Anders. "I could do something about it?"

Nathaniel raises his eyebrows and Anders takes that as a yes.

"Take off your shirt," Anders says, pointing at Nathaniel's shoulder.

"That sounded like you had ulterior motives," says Nathaniel in that fervent yet strangely deadpan voice and Anders laughs. He doesn't take off the whole garment, but does unbutton the top few buttons and rolls it down his injured shoulder.

"If there really is a templar hiding under the table waiting for me to incriminate myself, I'm not going to help out next time," says Anders. He gets up and stands behind Nathaniel's chair, putting a hand on the swollen gash and making Nathaniel wince. It's not too serious an injury, so Anders is confident that his healing powers are more than a match for it. A few hand waves and pulses of magic later, the skin knits together and the bruise vanishes.

There's a tension in the air and Anders quickly removes his hand from Nathaniel's skin. He recognises this particular tension from his experiences in the Tower and elsewhere, and for a moment he wonders where he's trying to get to with a married Arl while supposedly on the run from the Chantry.

"I should get to sleep," says Nathaniel. He pulls his sleeve back up his shoulder, and then stands up and faces him. "Thank you for the healing. Good night."

The way his eyes linger on Anders for that moment after he's finished speaking is almost an invitation, and Anders doesn't bother thinking any more before putting his hands around Nathaniel's neck and kissing him before he can resist.

The next morning, Anders slips out of Nathaniel's bedroom before anyone in the Keep could have woken up, and continues on his journey to Amaranthine.

.

A/N: Yet another idea for an AU epic sadly abandoned, except for this (not very fleshed out) scene and a few scraps. One questions: what's that Bob with the bandits?

I'm slowly recovering from last week's catastrophic weekend, although my throat burns whenever I drink anything vaguely acidic like orange juice, and I've finally figured out how to connect my laptop to the internet! :D So... if anyone has any particular Nate/Anders requests, go ahead and ask away! I need inspiration for more chapters.