CHAPTER 21: The Wedding Present
The whole world smelled of summer, like a soft, sun-warmed haystack. Alistair's thoughts flowed slow as treacle.
"Wake up, sleepyhead, it's time to go." Loghain's large hand slid slowly up Alistair's nape to the back of his head and ruffled his hair.
"Pfft," Alistair wrinkled his nose, keeping his eyes closed and burrowing his face deeper into the warmth of Loghain's body. "Let's just stay here. 'Til forever. Or at least 'til next winter comes." When Loghain hmphed, Alistair opened one eye, focusing with an effort on a scrutinizing blue gaze. "I want it to be us," Alistair murmured, "Only us. Together. Look, we've got a bedroll, and plenty of ways to keep warm in it. There's a stream for water and Dog can hunt. We won't even have to get out of bed on most days. Luxury! Right?"
From Alistair's other side, Dog gave an eager bark, much too loud and active and wide awake for Alistair at the moment.
"Come on." Apparently unconvinced by Alistair's scintillating arguments, Loghain peered up at the morning sun, judging the time by its angle. Ever the seasoned general, he nudged Alistair out of bed. "Duty calls."
"Not again! So just where does this duty of yours lie now? In Montsimmard?" Alistair huffed. "Never thought I'd see the day when you of all people put Orlesians before Fereldans! Lucky them!"
"For your information, the only reason I was going to Montsimmard was because leaving Ferelden was the only way I could be out of your reach as Ferelden's king. The only way I could be sure you would do your own duty, without further ...distraction." The last word was a deliberately insinuating rumble, deep in his chest.
"You! Argh. You're so much more than just distracting!"
Alistair shook his head. "You're impossible too. So now you know I'm not going to be king, we can call that whole thing off, right? Right?"
Loghain rubbed his chin with a rasp of stubble, pretending to think it over. He managed to hold the look just long enough to bask in Alistair's partly-worried mostly-exasperated expression, before dropping the facade and snorting inelegantly. "Do you actually think if I had the choice I'd still walk of my own free will into some Orlesian's lair? I'd rather share a dragon's den!"
"Ohh, no need to go that far for shelter," Alistair replied airily. "We've got somewhere much closer than Montsimmard. Anora gave me a fortress."
"Or maybe it was a hold or a settlement. Likely both. It's in Howe's old lands. Probably a bit more friendly than your average dragon's den. Just south of Amaranthine."
Loghain's eyebrow lifted. "She gave you Vigil's Keep?"
"Well…" Alistair paused, "Not just me. Us, actually. The Wardens. Um. You, in particular, I suppose, considering you're the Warden Commander. Anyway, that place should be plenty big enough for a Warden stronghold. Not terribly far, either. Not more than a day's trip."
"How would you know?" Loghain grumbled.
Alistair beamed and rummaged around in his pack, pulling out a very familiar map case, which Loghain snatched from him with unseemly haste. Gotcha! Alistair thought with a smirk. Maps. They work every time with him.
Over the careful rustle of parchment and Loghain's delighted huffs and hmms as he verified that his entire collection was present and pristine, Alistair asked, "Anyway, want to go take a look? Unless, of course," he added with an after-you wave and a huge grin, "you're in a terrible rush to hand yourself over to the Orlesians."
Loghain returned his smile, slow and sly. "You've got a bloody nerve," he said fondly. His frown returned as he added, "So did the First Warden, trying to order a Warden Commander around."
Finally, he's seen sense! "Tower envy," Alistair declared with deadpan earnestness. "He'd probably love to get his hands on Howe's holdings."
"Probably!" Loghain snickered. "From what I heard about Howe, the size of his tower was the only thing about him to inspire envy. He did like compensating for his other shortcomings."
"Really?" Alistair beamed. "I'd like to see... Um, wait! Ugh. No! No I really wouldn't!"
Loghain laughed and threw a blanket at Alistair. "Best pack up. And get some clothes on. No use letting any travelling merchants ogle goods that aren't for sale!"
"Ha! Not much chance of merchants in these parts unless we hit the main road." Pulling his pants on, Alistair watched Loghain getting their scant campsite in order before leaving. "I suppose since you're staying around and all, there's still enough daylight left for a proper adventure!"
Far, far away on a mountaintop much taller than any human-made tower, Flemeth licked her lips after a hearty breakfast: first meals of the day were ever so useful for disposing of overly clingy one-night stands. She stared speculatively into the distance, in the general direction of their wind-caught murmurs, far as the Fade and just as indistinct at this distance. "'Share a dragon's den'? Well-well. Interesting idea, Mac Tir. I don't share my den with just anyone..."
She chuckled and shrugged. "Mmmaybe last time, back when you and Maric were still boys," she drawled. "You're a bit too weathered and tough for me now." She ran smugly appreciative palms down her own flanks, stroking newly-toned thighs armored in crimson leathers. "And Maric's brat reeks of heroics and helpfulness and -" her nostrils flared, "- cheese. Worse than your other pup."
Flemeth narrowed her eyes and focused on the smoky storm on the horizon. "Besides, I've got some tasty young things meeting me at Lothering, just waiting for me to sweep them off their feet and carry them away. So run along, lads, off to your Wardenly ever after, or whatever the Maker will make of you two. Me, I'll wait 'til both your bones are long-dry before I collect my own mementoes - and I won't even lift a finger to make them that way first."
Her smirk grew just a little too sharp for a human mouth. "Call it a wedding present."
"I guess this Keep is some sort of a 'congratulations on not having a royal wedding' present to me - er, to us, - um, or an 'I give you my blessing to elope with my father' gift. Does that even need a proper gift? Never quite got that part of courtly manners figured out. I suppose it's better than wasting all that parchment and wax on a royal decree, I suppose." Alistair scratched his head and shoved his helmet back down. "Ahem. In any case. Can't be far now."
Loghain peered ahead, just making out the silhouette of towers through the blue haze of distance. With Vigil's keep… We'll have a real bed tonight.
The farm at the side of the road looked abandoned, and the taint was suspiciously sharp with lingering heat and anger. That's three farmsteads blighted far too deep to plow over. Such a waste. I doubt either Alistair or I will see all these fields farmed properly in our lifetime.
"So, you know," Alistair bantered as they walked down the abandoned road, "I did ask Anora for her blessing. The Landsmeet just knows the official story, but Eamon got an earful, called me a catamite. Your catamite."
"Did he now?" Loghain grinned sharply. Defeat serves him right, the greedy manipulative sod.
"It's a weird word, cat-a-mite. Wonder where it comes from. I don't have cats. Or mites."
"Oi! You're allowed to be a flea-hound. Me, on the other hand… I take baths that aren't mud baths..."
"Shh." Loghain lifted his hand. It's quiet. Too quiet.
"...and I comb my hair! Properly! Every week, at least - What?"
Loghain nodded toward the abandoned farmhouse, the direction where the taint was growing hotter and hotter, more like a furnace with every step. Darkspawn. Moving closer. So much for bed tonight...
Even as the realization struck Loghain, Alistair winced, drawing his sword while Loghain strung his bow.
Alistair just had time to hiss, "Shit. Company!" before a hurlock rounded the corner of a ruined barn. Loghain nocked an arrow and drew, just as the mabari charged with a roar. But fast as the hound ran, the arrow flew past him, burying itself in the hurlock's throat.
But the hurlock was only the first of many. Alistair ran to join the warhound, sword a hissing blur of lethal speed, shield ringing with the clumsy blows of darkspawn blades. Arrows whistled past them both, felling other spawn running to join the melee.
As deadly as the two Wardens were, they both knew that more darkspawn were ahead. Two throats went tight with shared realisation, even as they continued to fight.
They've taken the Keep. It's crawling with them. Like in the bad days when the Archdemon led them.
But it wasn't Ostagar: it was over far too quickly. This was no entrenched horde, just a raiding party. Though the taint still stung with distant turmoil after the last darkspawn was put down: a disturbing hint that others were not too far away.
"Anora never said we'd need to clean darkspawn out of the place!" Alistair grumbled, as he wrenched his sword out of the last corpse.
Loghain shrugged philosophically as he started his usual post-battle arrow retrieval. "Think of it as paying our property tax early," he advised in his driest voice.
"Bleargh!" Alistair groaned, "next time you want men to fight for you, just stick to the good old-fashioned war cry!"
"Oh, I don't recall needing my war cry to motivate you before," Loghain purred, stowing the last arrow and turning for the road to the Keep. "If we hurry, there'll be at least one big bed left standing. Hope the bedposts are sturdy enough to withstand proper… motivation."
"Now you're talking," Alistair grinned and strode out beside him. "Keep up, old man. Better not tire out before we get our Keep back!"
Ours, is it? Loghain turned his senses to the Keep, thinking like a battlefield commander. The taint radiated malice from the courtyard, with concentrated pockets of pain to the left and the right of the Keep's walls. No darkspawn within shooting range. We'll need to move in closer. If we can catch them off-guard, we can use the element of surprise in our favor. No need to rush.
"Well, what are you waiting for? Let's go get 'em." Alistair pointed at the Keep's main gate, determined. "Hurry!"
Loghain heard none of Cailan in Alistair's rallying cry. Cailan's vanity, his insistence that others hang back behind him, to pay admiring witness to his triumphs, was a constant hindrance. But Alistair was his father's son more than he ever resembed his brother. Maric's vivid excitement drew others along with him to fight by his side, to take equal share in his victories.
"That's your plan?" Loghain smiled, just as he did with Maric. "That's all of it?"
"Yeah! Right through there. We storm it, kill everything that moves, be done right in time for supper."
"I've heard the horror tale, you know: last time you led, you ended up stranded with no pants." Loghain's voice was as dry as ever; only the corner of his mouth twitched. "Are you sure you want to chance it?"
"No pants? Yeah, good plan. That's always the plan from now on," Alistair grinned at Loghain, surprised to see that sly smirk turn into an answering smile. And then Alistair leaned in, slow and almost formal, for a kiss before battle, and Loghain tasted teasing on his lips, tasted a promise of victory, of better victories yet to come.
Loghain's warm chuckle vibrated in his chest, and his hair spilled loose down his shoulders. He held the image of Alistair in his mind, as he readied his bow and felt the warning throb of the taint against his veins. Whatever comes next, I'm ready.
"Follow me!" Alistair instructed, on a single breath, as he lunged forward.
And Loghain did.