W/N - I had a tough time with this one and went through a couple rewrites. This one takes a lighthearted tone before we get back to some of the darkness. I wanted to play around with some of the NPC's and introduce the Feast Day theme for some whimsical fun, paying homage to a few of the odd gifts. Just remember what Morrigan got. I also wanted to draw on how knights train and add a realistic element to that. At this point, the camp pretty much has an army and I want to give it that feel.

Other malarkey - I won the 2010 Winter Kendo Shiai! My final bout was against a fellow who is 6'1", 200 lbs of muscle, whom I defeated, 2-0. On the stupid side, I snapped the blade of my Iaito (training sword). New Year's was a wonderfest - Evan took me out to Morton's Steak House. We celebrated at sensei's too, pounding mochi and having Ozoni soup.

I hope you all had a happy new year and thank you again for all of your input and support. Onegaishimasu!

Warning: Some sensuality dedicated to hubs.

Camp

It was not a frequent thing where Alistair felt, in any way, a conquering hero. But today, on this fine, crisp afternoon, he stood up in the stirrups over his saddle and waved his gloved hand to the sentries at the entrance to the camp, a big smile on his face. "I know that we're not out of the woods yet, by any stretch of the imagination," he leaned over and told Alice, "but I've come to cherish each small victory as it comes."

At a slow walk, their horses' hooves clip clopping on the scrubby ground, they approached the sentries, who wore the Cousland livery over green and silver surcoats, poleaxes crossed to bar the way. Alice turned to him and nodded. "I think I understand. For months, we faced utter ruin every day, just hoping we would survive. For the first time…the first time in months, I feel hopeful. I feel as if we might actually…," she said, but her voice trailed off into silence.

"Live through this?"

"Something like that," she said with a wan smile. Then, she too, pushed up on her stirrups. "Ho there, guards! We have returned with the ashes. Make preparations to depart on the morrow, just after dawn. We march to Redcliffe."

The four men-at-arms, who had been with her since the horror of Highever, greeted her with a hearty, "Huzzah!" and raised their weapons to clear the path. By the time that they had passed the post, grooms were already rushing up and taking the reins of the horses and murmurs of the party's return were rising in the camp.

Alistair swung his right boot over the horse's rump and then bounced down on the soft grass as his mount began chewing on some tall weeds. A few moments later, Shale jogged up behind them, her gemstones glowing a bright green.

"Staring at those squishy horses' asses all day! Oh, the indignity."

The grooms led the mounts off to a shady area where combs and brushes, oats and hay waited. "Remember when our camp was nothing but collection of bedrolls and a smoldering fire? It was so…adventurous then…so outdoorsy," he said, pointing off at the tents and the soldiers drilling on an open field. Dalish archers fired into straw targets, dwarven axemen hewed at logs and Cousland pikemen marched in tight formation, turning right and left at sharp commands.

"It's quite the army we've built," Alice said, her lips pressed in an expression of pride. "Look over there," she said as she pulled off her doeskin riding gloves and tucked them into her sword belt. "I never get tired of seeing the mages ply their magic. And look at Sandal, hammering out runes for them," she added with a contented sigh. Alistair liked seeing her this way – not the crazed Furie that left a long path of bodies and heads for the ravens and crows to feast upon.

"The treaties that you found are paying off, Alice. We now have a force greater than any Bann in the kingdom."

"But only through constant drill can we forge a true army," she answered as she strode past the tilting field where lancers rode by, striking a shield on a swivel, known as a quintain. A Cousland knight charged, the hooves of his horse throwing up grass and dirt, the thrum of its gallop loud. His lance glanced off of the target, hitting high-right. The shield swung away and a sack of grain came around and smacked the knight in the back of the head. "Your aim is off, Ser Joseph!" she yelled. "Keep your arm flexible – you're committing to the attack too soon!"

The man pulled the reins of his horse and brought it to a halt and then raised the visor of his sallet helm. "Aye, my lady! Welcome back."

She waved a farewell at the knight and they continued on to the Warden's tent that bore the placard of a griffon argent, rampant. As they approached, Bann Armand, Fergus' chief councilor, stepped out. He was gravely wounded in the action before Ostagar, but it looked as if he was fully recovered. Armand stood tall and proudly and was dressed in stately robes of blue velvet, trimmed with ermine and wore a pleated blue flatcap with a jaunty feather.

"My lady…Prince Alistair, welcome back and congratulations on your success in Haven," he said with a bow and flourish. "The army has made great progress since your departure to find the Urn. Bodahn Feddic and I have procured fifty additional mounts, gathered three fields worth of elfroot and another troop of dwarves arrived yesterday. They call themselves the Legion of the Dead. And, by the Maker, they look the part. All tattooed like those Dalish over there and armored head to toe like little rocks, they are."

The sound of the word 'prince' tasted like a strange fruit on Alistair's tongue, sort of like that Qunari pear that Sten had split with him recently. The word was used with him more frequently since Leliana let the cat out of the bag in the Dalish camp last month, but he still winced whenever he heard it in reference to him. He looked over and saw several score of the dwarves, shod in black armor, drilling with spear and axe. "It's a sight to behold," he said. "We are stronger with each ally. Hey, isn't that the dwarf you beat at the Orzammar Proving?"

Alice put her hand over her brow and scanned over to where the Legion was drilling. "Uh, you're going to have to be more specific, Alistair. Everyone I defeated there was a dwarf."

"Oh…oh, right," he said, drawing out the word to hide his embarrassment. "The one there…with the thick beard. Oh, blast, they all have thick beards. What was his name? Sue Ellen…Seweryn, that was it." Alistair felt his cheeks flush red. How could he say such stupid thing in front of her? In the time since Alice practically ordered him to 'grow a pair' during the fiasco with Goldanna, he tried to show more of a spine, especially around his fellow Warden. However, there were still frequent times when it felt like cotton was stuffed into his mouth and brain when he tried to carry on a conversation with her. With the moment potentially approaching, it made him even more flustered.

A surprised smile grew on her face. "You're right, that is Seweryn," she said and then looked to Armand. "Did he come to join us?"

Armand nodded. "Indeed. He told me that you had defeated him so thoroughly in a tourney that he could not live with himself if he did not prove his worthiness to you."

Alice's eyes opened wide and she sucked in her lips as if shocked. "I'm flattered. I'll go and greet him and the other new arrivals later. I'd like to sit a bit and refresh after our journey. Do you have the latest scouting and agent reports?"

The Bann handed Alice a scroll that was bound in red cord and bore a crimson wax seal with the Cousland heraldry pressed into it. She pulled the tie and snapped the seal to unroll the parchment. "Alistair," she said after reading a few lines, "Our sources in Denerim say that Loghain will soon be on the move again. Several of the Bann refuse to acknowledge him as lord regent and have fielded a sizable force."

Alistair felt a heat rise into his face, but this time, it was the fire of justice. "This may be our chance to put Loghain in his place." He held the Teyrn of Gwaren responsible for, what he considered to be Duncan and Cailan's murder and the ruin of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden. "Could we put the army into the field by the time he marches?"

Together, they read further down the parchment and Alice put her hand to her chin. "Do we risk our fledgling force in open battle and try to weaken Loghain's grip or do we keep our cards secret for now and surprise him later?"

"I think we have to move to support the disgruntled Bann or this will allow Loghain to consolidate power," he said forcefully.

Alice put her hand on his chest and he felt a jolt of energy at her touch. "I like it when you have some oomph to your argument. We will have a counsel or war later this evening. I'd like to hear everyone's opinions. But, remember, we still have to get the ashes to Arl Eamon."

He nodded. It was true. Seeing Eamon helpless and withering away really broke his heart. He blamed the Arl and especially Isolde for much, but Eamon didn't deserve this. He remembered how he praised Loghain before the Blight and how he loved telling the story of the Battle of River Dane. It seemed like forever ago and so many things had changed. "Yes, you're right. That takes the priority. Eamon can stand as the bulwark against Loghain and hopefully galvanize resistance."

"Anything that we do that weakens Loghain and Howe, strengthens us." She then turned to Bann Armand. "Please prepare for the counsel, Armand, and make sure the gems and supplies that we brought back get to Bodahn."

"As you wish, my lady," he said and then withdrew with a bow.

Alistair pushed the tent flaps in and the walked in to find a seat. Alice plopped down on a bench and let out a deep groan. It had been a long ride back from Haven and both of them were about numb from the waist down. Already unarmored, she started to pull off her boots, but groaned again and just sat back. He chuckled and took a stool across from her. "I don't think I can feel my toes," he said as he slung his sack from over his shoulder and put it on a table. He had been waiting to get her alone since they set out from Haven. There were things he wanted to say…something that he needed to give to her. He snuck his hand into the sack, searching, hoping that she wouldn't notice. "I…uhhh…so-" he began, but a rap on the tent stopped him. "Come in."

Buuuuurrp! "Wardens, haha, that was an ass kicking expedition!" Orgren said, swooping his fist in an undercut. He took a seat next to Alice and poked her in the chest. "You have a flair for the dramatic, Warden, killing that dragon was awesome!" he added, clenching his fists in front of her. "If I still have any kind of caste when this is done, I'm going to make sure your story goes into the Shaperate."

Alistair forced a smile, but inside his mind was screaming, not now, Ogrhen, not now! He stood and put his hands on the dwarf's shoulders. "That's great. I believe Sten wanted to discuss that with you further."

"Did he, that big hulking mountain of Qunari meat? Well, let me at him. I'll talk his ear off!"

"Sten is the type who loves a good, spirited chat. Off with you, now. We'll see you this evening," Alistair said and ushered Oghren out the exit. He returned to his stool and sighed. "Now, as I was saying…,"

Rap rap.

Alistair rolled his blue eyes. "Yes?"

Bodahn Feddic clomped in with Sandal in tow. "Alice, those gems are magnificent! I'll be able to purchase enough armor and weapons to outfit the whole army. Old Tegrin has this connection in Orzammar and I know Gorim in Denerim too. I've got all of your Feast Day gifts wrapped. And, those runes you brought back…truly from the horde of a High Dragon!"

Sandal bounced like a rubber ball. "Enchantment!"

Alistair winced. He stood again and guided Bodahn to the exit with a firm hand. "Wonderful! I can't tell you how grateful we are. Have a good day," he said as he waved to Bodahn and held the tent flap up to let Sandal scurry. He turned and smiled at Alice and she let out a giggle. He was stunned. He had never heard that come from her. For months, the only mirth that she had ever shown was a bitter cackle at the demise of their enemies. He recalled that laugh and that sneer as she stood over the body of Prince Bhelen Aeducan and later the skinned bodies of werewolves in the forest and it still chilled him to the bone. It was nothing short of a miracle that they convinced the wolves to relent and lift the curse.

"Wow, you have a nice laugh. I didn't think you could do that sort of thing."

She paused and put her finger to her lips as if thinking. "Since we left the Temple of the Urn, I feel…I feel as if a great weight has been lifted from me. Seeing my father and knowing that he forgives me…. I cannot tell you how much that meant to me. For so long I felt like I was falling into an abyss. I didn't know who was the greater threat to Ferelden, me or the Archdemon."

"Oh, nonsense, we both know that the Archdemon is much less of a threat," he said in mock seriousness, looking down his nose at her. She didn't react and just stared back at him. Oh Maker, I ruined it. I'm such an idiot.

Then, a smirk ran across her lips and she threw his Grey Warden hand puppet at him. "I'm going to remember that," she said with a point of her finger.

Alistair sighed with relief. "Hey! That's my favorite puppet." He picked it up and set it back on the desk, propping it in a seated position. He gave it a glance and noticed something was wrong. "What…someone put lipstick…and breasts on my puppet! I'll bet it was that Zevran!"

Alice looked at the doll and studied it for a second before seeing the alterations. "Well, it is almost Feast Day. Pranks are sure to follow. I'm going to slip this chastity belt into his pack tonight."

"And what, pray tell, did you get Morrigan, I wonder?"

Alice looked away and her face blushed red. She coughed several times before answering. "I, uhhh, I got her a doll too. She mentioned somewhere that she, uhhh, wanted one."

"Oh, what kind of a doll?"

"It's uhhh, it's…hey," she said, pointing to a small red cone. "I got this from Sten. It's that incense that he was talking about." She pulled out a match and lit the top of the cone, which began to smolder and a trail of fragrant smoke wafted through the tent. "Mmmm," she said, closing her eyes and inhaling deeply, "he wasn't kidding about how wondrous this is."

Alistair let the musky aroma linger in his nose. It had an energizing effect that seemed to heighten his senses and bring clarity of mind. Now was the time. This was the moment. He reached into his sack once more.

Rap rap.

"What is it?" Alistair moaned in frustration.

Leliana and Brother Genitivi burst in. Leli practically oozed excitement. "Alice, we've come up with a splendid idea! When the war is over, the Brother and I are going to establish a pilgrimage to Haven."

"The faithful will want to see the ashes," Genitivi added.

Alistair forced another smile. "Well, I hope there will be enough of Andraste to go around then. I think it's a grand idea. We'll hear all about it tonight. Thanks for coming. Off with you, now."

Genitivi had a look of consternation while Leliana's mouth formed a big 'O.' "Well, I never…," she said as Alistair closed the tent flap in her face. He sat back down with a heavy sigh. It was now or never.

Alice's grin was ear to ear now. "You're working awfully hard for this."

"You don't know the half of it," he said. "Look, I'm not very good at this sort of thing. In fact, I've never done this before. I…I have something that I want to give you." He reached into his sack and his fingers wrapped around the object that he had so carefully prepared. He paid Bodahn some serious coin to have it perfectly preserved and Sandal even added some of that enchantment to give it that touch. He knew it would be worth it. "Uhhh, here. I hope you like it."

Alice looked down at the rose, plated in silverite and masterfully painted in deep red and green – a gift that would keep forever. Her eyes widened and her lips parted with a gasp. "Oh, Maker, Alistair…it's beautiful." She took the rose and turned it in her hands, gazing on the petals. "I…thank you so much."

He blew out a long breath. He played this scene in his mind for a month. Had it been a month? It was a feeling that crept up on him like the feet of a cat. He had seen her exhibit some horrendous cruelty, but she always found a kind word for him and never ridiculed his weakness…well, maybe once with Goldanna, but ironically, that gave him the courage to do this today. "It reminded me of you, Alice, beautiful and yet fragile," he said and moved over to sit besides her on the bench. "I picked it near the Brecilian Forest and Bodahn helped me to preserve it. Consider it your feast day gift."

She waved it under her nose. "It still has scent as if it were fresh."

"Thank Sandal for that. I had no idea there was a rune for smell."

Alice passed the rose under his nostrils and he inhaled the rich, floral scent that mixed with the musky incense. She reached out and stroked his cheek with long fingers that had more than a few calluses from swordplay. Her touch was electrifying nonetheless. He breathed deeply, afraid that this was just a mad dream. As a Templar, he was often haunted by visions of things that he wanted, but would never have. The things that Alistair wanted were never important, never possible…until now. He looked into her big gray eyes, eyes like a storm at sea. Her lips were still parted and she flipped her hair back with a brush of her hand. He could wait no longer or be forever a fool.

He ran his fingers through her raven locks down to the back of her neck and slowly pulled her to him. As their lips met, he could feel the warmth of her body on his and her hands cupping his face, tenderly at first, but then growing in urgency. Her breath quickened and she deftly undid bows holding her riding doublet in place. Alistair fingers fumbled around as he helped her out of the leather vest. "I've never done this before," he said as his face flushed with some embarrassment. "I'd never even seen a woman…you know…before the Temple."

Alice slid off her riding breeches and her linen shirt. His breath left him for a moment. She was exactly as he remembered her from the temple. It was something that he would never forget. "You might want to get used to it," she said as her small clothes slid off. He moved back for a moment to drink in the sight of her, sitting there, dreamy eyed, wearing only her riding boots.

He moved back in and put his hands on her waist. "The Maker may strike me down tomorrow, but I'll always have today in my heart."