torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
November 2012 - October 2013

Disclaimer: I, personally, have never killed a dragon. Some dialogue elements, and large parts of the events, are taken directly from DA:O. Beta by Kestrelsan, whom I cannot praise enough. Do not archive without permission. Note: chapter 13 and 14 contain some not explicitly negotiated consent play, and a bit of poorly negotiated exhibitionism and corresponding involuntary voyeurism.

Chapter one

0.

"Duck!" Alistair shouted. When that didn't work, he put a hand between Jory's shoulderblades and pushed him down. Daveth had already crouched down behind the remnants of an old wall. Zin was on his feet, of course, and firing arrow after arrow at the darkspawn, and they were firing back, which was the reason Alistair thought ducking was wise. Fire arrows buzzed about their heads like hornets.

Coming up again, Daveth leaned on the crumbling masonry and fired, too. One more genlock fell, and Zin spared a look for Jory and Alistair. "Well? Are you going to cower there all day? Let's go get them!"

He ran forward, and Alistair followed, muttering darkly under his breath and shoving Jory along. As soon as Jory realized he got to charge uphill at terrible monstrous creatures, to do him credit, he started moving of his own volition, apparently quite prepared to cut the darkspawn in half, at least if they would stand still long enough. "Another test?" he said as he went, and Alistair just shook his head, because that really wasn't what this was all about.

One genlock went down with an arrow in its eye. "Gotcha!" Daveth crowed from somewhere behind them. Alistair rammed the nearest one with his shield, shoving it forward onto the welcoming points of Zin's daggers.

"Get the other one," Zin called, spinning to behead a hurlock whose gorget could have fit better. "Andraste's scorched toenails, this is what we're here for."

When all the darkspawn lay dead, Alistair had to push Jory into motion again, since the man seemed to have gotten stuck in some inner monologue of horror, staring at the corpses. Zin was already moving, with Daveth at his heels. "This really isn't the best place to get separated," Alistair said. "I hear if people get lost out here in the Wilds, they're never seen again."

Jory threw him a nervous look. "Is that what's happened to our scouting teams? They say in the army camp that there's several of them haven't reported in, and you saw that poor man we met before--"

"The whole point of being a scout is knowing where you are," Alistair said. "Also where your own army is and where the enemy is. They're just not back yet to tell us where they are. But you're not a scout, we're not a scouting team, and the four of us should stick together. Or would you rather go off and face a group of darkspawn on your own?"

"No," Jory said and hurried on.

Alistair kept one eye on the three recruits and one eye out for more darkspawn, and wondered if that made him look cross-eyed. Then he wondered if that was one of the prices the Grey Wardens paid to be what they were. Then he bit his lip so he wouldn't laugh, because that probably wouldn't impress the recruits at all. Jory already had his doubts about this whole warden business, that much was clear, which was fair enough since Alistair had doubts about him. He just didn't seem quite right; Alistair tried to imagine a Jory-the-warden in the not too distant future, but he couldn't do it.

Much easier to see the disreputable Daveth as one, oddly enough. The doubts Alistair felt about Daveth had nothing to do with the man's commitment, nor his honesty -- he'd certainly been frank enough about his career as a cut-purse. Alistair just thought Daveth was too scrawny and unhealthy-looking; everything about him spoke of a past where he'd been ill-fed and too cold, and now he was shorter and slighter than he ought to have been. Maybe not sturdy enough to make it through.

The third one, though, that was the real problem. This... Zin. (And what kind of name was Zin, anyway? Was it short for something?) There was certainly nothing unhealthy or underfed about him. He was as tall as Alistair himself, more or less, and though he was lean, he was also well-muscled and strong, moving with athletic ease in his fancy light plate and switching from bow to daggers and back again effortlessly, as if he didn't even have to think about it. Someone, somewhere, had trained him well.

He'd moved up in the lead of their group as if the leadership wasn't even in question, certain that everyone would follow him and do as he said. And everyone did. Alistair did himself, though he couldn't have explained why. He was the real Grey Warden here, after all, in charge of these recruits up until their Joining. Possibly afterwards as well, Alistair thought uncomfortably. He... didn't like to lead. It made him feel awkward, remembering all the lectures in his youth about the dangers of putting himself forward.

Zin, on the other hand, obviously never even questioned that that was his role. Between the air of authority, the better-than-average equipment, and the crisp accent, Alistair would have pegged Zin as nobility; the Grey Wardens could recruit from every walk in life, after all.

Against that theory were the facts that Zin had a terrible haircut and a tattoo on his face, and used language that could set a chantry on fire. He also unlocked chests and picked pockets with a cool confidence that Daveth could only dream about. Alistair didn't know you could learn that sort of thing in a noble home. No one had offered to teach him at Redcliffe Castle, that much was certain. (No one had offered to teach him much of anything, there.)

Zin was calm and friendly, fearless and blunt. He also had a look in his eyes sometimes, when he thought no one was watching, that Alistair had only seen a few times before in his life -- once on a veteran warden ready to leave for his final walk in the Deep Roads, once on a woman in Redcliffe who'd come home after a trading trip to find her house had burned down with her children inside.

It wasn't a look that Alistair had wanted to see on anyone ever again. It also made him wonder about Zin's chances to make it to the Joining, let alone through it. This little excursion into the Wilds wasn't exactly harmless, after all. It required the recruits to be cautious and sensible.

"Don't you ever comb your hair, then?" Daveth asked.

"No," Zin said cheerfully. He ran a hand through his ragged, tousled hair, and Alistair wondered idly if his own would look like that if he grew it out; they had no particular physical resemblance otherwise, but Zin's hair was nearly the color of Alistair's own, perhaps just a shade lighter. Zin had bright blue-green eyes, though, and a slightly flattened, once-broken nose, and then there was that odd, asymmetrical dark brown tattoo on his face. Alistair tried to imagine the arl's son, back in Redcliffe, in about ten years or so, telling his parents he wanted to tattoo his face. Alistair couldn't imagine that the arl would approve. As for the arlessa, well, he thought it was entirely possible that Lady Isolde's head would explode.

So maybe he wasn't a noble, maybe he just sounded like one. He certainly had the skill to have stolen that equipment from someone. Maybe--

A familiar tingle went through Alistair, a sensation that was unease and certainty at the same time.

"More darkspawn," he said abruptly, and the recruits were alert at once, Daveth nocking an arrow and taking careful aim, and Zin doing the same, firing two times, three, and then launching himself with alarming speed at the hurlock who was about to stab Jory in the back. Those wicked daggers flashed, and then Alistair was in the middle of his own battle and had very little attention to spare for observation.

He did notice, though, that Zin got in the killing blow more often than not; those daggers were more precise and more deadly than Jory's massive swings and even Alistair's own swordwork. Which was nothing to sneeze at, if he said so himself, and getting better every day. At any rate, Zin would definitely be an asset to the wardens.

Well, as long as he didn't get himself killed before he made it that far, Alistair thought, seeing Zin charge straight at a genlock with a crossbow. That was the vaunted rogue subtlety, was it? Then Zin caught the crossbow bolt with his daggers and cut the genlock's head off.

Show-off, Alistair thought, with something almost like the beginning of fondness, and put his sword through the nearest hurlock.

Zin knew how to skin a wolf, too, which Alistair hadn't expected. (He hadn't really expected to be attacked by wolves, either, but at least it made a change from the darkspawn.) Daveth looked at the animals uncertainly, as if he knew something ought to be done, from his childhood so close to the Wilds, but not how to set about it; Jory was about to walk away without another thought; but Zin dropped to his knees and began the work, as neatly as you could do something like that, and offered to teach Daveth as well. He didn't offer to teach Jory, Alistair noted with a faint grin, even as he set to skinning himself.

"Is this... expected of a Grey Warden?" Jory asked hesitantly, taking off a gauntlet to slap at a midge on the back of his neck.

Alistair shrugged. "Duncan taught me. It's a useful thing to know."

Jory didn't look convinced. "Can you really eat those animals?"

Zin was the one who answered. "Oh, fuck no."

Alistair winced. That was another thing. Zin had a mouth on him that... well, he talked like Alistair would have expected Daveth to talk, if anything. Daveth had the street accent, but Zin had the vocabulary of a particularly foul-mouthed gutter brat, and regularly used the kind of expressions that the sisters teaching Alistair in the abbey school had done everything to stamp out.

Barracks language, Alistair supposed it was, though he certainly hadn't heard it in the templar barracks; everyone there was either very pious, or pretending to be. (Alistair himself fell firmly into the second category, but after the abbey school and the monastery, he could fake it with the best of them.)

"I see," Jory said, clearly not seeing at all.

"Wolves aren't food unless it's an emergency," Zin said. "They taste festering foul." Alistair wondered how he knew that. "But it's a shame to waste the pelt." He grinned and wiped away a smear of blood on his cheek with the back of his hand. "Fetch a decent price if you sell them, too."

"I wouldn't imagine someone like you ever being short of ready money," Jory said in the ponderous tones of someone who isn't used to it trying to be funny. Zin's face shut down completely, and he didn't answer, just looked down and went on working.

"The mayor of our village offered a reward for killing wolves for a while," Daveth said into the heavy silence, with unexpected tact. "Then we were overrun one bad winter and he had to stop because he couldn't afford it."

"Considering what things look like here, I'm surprised he could afford it to start with," Alistair said. "Or were wolves more scarce when you were a child?"

Daveth shrugged. "Don't really know, do I? They told us not to go out in the Wilds, the grown-ups did, and mostly we listened. There was one fellow in the village who'd show you where three of his fingers had been bitten clean off by a wolf. Makes a real impression on a child, that sort of thing."

"I bet you asked him for the story until he was tired of telling it," Zin said with a shadow of a smile. "We were always pestering the guards to tell us tales of their adventures, with plenty of blood and gore."

Well, that did sound like a noble's child, pestering the family guards. But he could just as well be the son of the housekeeper. Or perhaps he was talking about city guards, or...

"Nah," Daveth said, "I don't reckon he ever got tired of talking about himself. Reckon that wolf was the only exciting thing that ever happened to him." Jory made a disapproving face, but Alistair suspected that Daveth probably had the truth of it.

When they moved on, Zin paused for a moment to pick a flower and tuck it in with the pelts. That gave Alistair pause, because of all the things they were here in the Wilds to do, flower-picking was pretty low on the list. Zin caught his look and grinned a bit more convincingly. "I met the kennel-master back at Ostagar," he said. "He's looking for these flowers to make something for dogs that get the darkspawn taint."

"He's got at least one dog sick," Daveth put in, "maybe more."

"I'll get him to show me. Seems useful."

Alistair looked down at Zin's mabari, panting happily at Zin's heels. The sleek brown coat was already stained with blood.

"I thought your dog was supposed to stay with Duncan," Alistair said.

"Yes, Duncan probably thought so, too," Zin agreed. He patted the dog's flank. "We're used to hunting together. We've done a lot of that."

"Wolves?"

Zin shrugged. "Sometimes."

That, more than the accent, was what made Alistair think Zin was a noble. A man might steal arms and armor, trying to pass himself off as something fancier than he was, but no one stole a mabari. You could spot the people who'd tried by the missing hands.

They rested for a while in a secluded little glade that could have been quite pleasant, Alistair thought, if it wasn't for the reek of dead darkspawn and stagnant swamp water. He shared out the hard biscuits and strips of dried meat that he'd brought along from the camp stores. None of the recruits balked at the quality of the food, they just sat quietly together for a while, gnawing and slapping midges.

Jory swallowed the last of his biscuit with a sip from his waterskin. "I spoke to some of the other knights in camp," he said. "They said the king says this might not really be a Blight." He looked over his shoulder as if he expected to find a hurlock there.

"The senior wardens say it is," Alistair said. "If Duncan says it's a Blight, I don't need the archdemon to come over for tea and slaughter and tell me personally it's true." He didn't particularly want it to, either. The darkspawn they met out here in the Wilds provided enough stink and ugliness to last him a long time. An archdemon would be a lot bigger, a lot uglier, and a lot smarter, and he'd be happy to leave that to more experienced wardens.

Jory's brows drew together. "But doesn't the king listen to the wardens? He shows them great respect. If the wardens say it's a Blight, surely he ought to know."

"Maybe he's just not very bright," Daveth said. Jory drew himself up in outrage, biscuit crumbs on his chin and all, and looked as if he'd like to challenge Daveth to a duel.

"Maybe he's trying not to start a panic," Zin said, slipping the last of his dried meat to his dog. "Everyone in the Ostagar camp looks scared enough as it is." One corner of his mouth crooked up. "Though it's true that Cailan's not known for his devious ways."

That made Jory huff even more, and he looked from Daveth to Zin and back again. "You're talking about the king," he said. Alistair wondered if he'd challenge both of them. Then there was a sound of raspy breathing coming from thin air, Alistair's skin prickled, and they were under attack, fighting back to back rather than arguing amongst themselves.

They collected some more blood from the darkspawn once the fight was over. Alistair grimaced, because it wasn't a pleasant task, and he'd rather have been skinning wolves. He tucked the vial away where it wouldn't break and kicked the darkspawn into the pile with the others. Looking up, he found that Zin was watching him. "What do we need the blood for?" Zin asked. "It's kind of a weird thing to send us out to get. Weird and disgusting."

"You'll see," Alistair said, and he'd hated it when Duncan said the same thing to him, back when he'd been the bewildered recruit. "No, really, I can't tell you, but you'll see."

Zin didn't look any happier about that than Alistair had been. He didn't ask any more questions, though, not about that. Instead he petted his dog, which would have looked better if they hadn't both been spattered with blood, and plotted out the best course for them to take to the old warden outpost and its old warden treaties, the treaties they'd been sent to collect.

Alistair wondered about that. There had to be a reason why the wardens hadn't used the treaties earlier, but Duncan hadn't told him. The mages knew about their obligation to the Grey Wardens, he'd picked up that much, and Duncan had been by Orzammar before he'd gone to Highever looking for more recruits, so probably the dwarves knew as well.

It only made sense that the people who'd signed the treaties would have their own copies as well. But maybe the dwarves and elves and mages were reluctant to honor their obligations fully, and pretended to have lost their copies. Or maybe they actually had lost their copies. Or maybe...

Alistair shook his head. Maybe the king and his advisors wanted to win this battle against the darkspawn, which apparently they had trouble really believing was the start of a Blight, purely with their own army. But they had some mages called in already. The mages had come at the call of the king, not the wardens, but it couldn't make a difference, could it? Not that Alistair particularly wanted to be surrounded by more mages who'd look at him funny for his templar background.

The midges gave them less trouble as long as they moved; it was when they paused to look around that they got bitten. Or attacked. Or both. Alistair was so intent on checking for darkspawn that he completely missed the strange girl until she was standing next to Zin. At least, that had to be the reason; she couldn't have just popped up out of nowhere.

She was dark-haired and pale-skinned and dressed in what looked to be the rags of Chasind clothing, showing a lot more skin than Alistair thought was really seemly. Apparently the midges didn't bother her. She carried a mage's staff over one shoulder and looked as if she owned the ground she walked on, the air she breathed, and anything else she fancied.

Alistair, Daveth, and Jory drew together, all of them united in sudden distrust. Zin, on the other hand, made polite conversation until the girl unbent enough to say, "You may call me Morrigan."

Zin smiled. "We're looking for a cache of documents that used to be here. Do you know what happened to it?"

Of course she did. She'd probably stolen it, Alistair thought resentfully, taken the papers to stuff in some crack in her miserable hut against a winter draft. But what she said was that her mother had taken the treaties, and Zin immediately said that he wanted to meet her mother, then.

"Do you really think this is a good idea?" Alistair said. "She could lead us into, well, anything."

"She'll put us in the pot and eat us," Daveth muttered. "I know the stories."

"You can wait here," Zin said. "But our only chance to get those blighted treaties back is to actually go looking for them where they are now."

Since none of them particularly wanted to be left behind, they trudged along. Jory seemed to be content to follow Zin, but Daveth wasn't happy at all, and neither was Alistair. He didn't trust this Morrigan as far as the mabari could throw her, and the way Zin spoke to her as though she was a highborn lady he'd met at a party really annoyed him. She was a mage, an apostate in rags hiding out here in the Wilds, but she carried herself like a queen -- a particularly ill-tempered and supercilious queen.

She brought them to meet her mother. That sounded like such a nice, wholesome thing to do, except that they were trudging through a swamp infested with darkspawn and midges, and the mother was probably just as respectable and trustworthy as the daughter. Alistair didn't quite share Daveth's belief that they would end up in the pot, but he had to admit, Morrigan looked at the lot of them as if she'd like to squash them under her dainty booted foot, except for Zin, and she did rather look at him as if she'd like to eat him.

Well, she couldn't do that. Alistair didn't even want to imagine how he'd explain to Duncan that he'd lost one of the recruits to the dubious appetites of a swamp witch.

Morrigan's mother was completely unruffled when her daughter brought back four men and a muddy dog. All Alistair wanted was to get the treaties and then leave as fast as possible; Daveth, next to him, was tense and trembling like a deer about to run. Jory tried for stolid common sense, and Zin, blast him, kept on making conversation. With this old woman who showed less skin than her daughter but was just as ragged and twice as peculiar.

"Those documents belong to the Grey Wardens," Alistair said. "Give them to us and we'll go."

"Unless they decide to put us in the pot instead," Daveth said. He was the one who'd grown up in the Wilds, after all, Alistair thought uneasily. Maybe his fears weren't as fanciful as all that.

Jory shifted from foot to foot. "At least then we'd be warm."

"That's more sensible, but not sensible enough." Morrigan's mother shook her head. "They'll cling to their beliefs, no matter what they see and hear," she said, dismissing Alistair, Daveth and Jory with a cool yellow glance. "I suppose such steadfastness can be called commendable. And what about you, young man, what do you believe?"

"That you're crazy and dangerous," Zin said promptly, and Alistair wondered if it was too late to drown him in the nearest pool of water, or at least pretend he wasn't with them. Not that he didn't agree, but this probably wasn't the best time to say so. The old woman looked more amused than anything else, though. "And I believe you have something we need." At least he was trying to turn the conversation in a halfway useful direction. "Those treaties are very important to us."

"Oh, yes," Morrigan's mother agreed. "More than you know." She went to get them, and was pleased enough with Zin's thankyous that she told Morrigan to guide them back to the Ostagar camp. Alistair could have done without that, since Morrigan spent the whole way back looking at him like she was pondering what kind of frog to turn him into.

He'd rather have gotten lost on his own. But at least they had the treaties.

0.1

Every single Grey Warden in Ferelden was in the king's camp at Ostagar, and by now Alistair knew all of them by sight, if not by name. That made him realize again how few they were. Duncan was right, Ferelden needed more wardens. Alistair eyed his three recruits. Well, it was a start, anyway.

As soon as they turned over the fresh darkspawn blood, Duncan and the mage assigned to help the wardens went to make the very last of the preparations for the Joining. Alistair shepherded the recruits over to the old temple, as private a place as could be found in the middle of an army camp, where the Joining ritual would take place.

"I don't like this," Jory said. "All this secrecy and mystery-making, and now there's a ritual, too? Becoming a knight wasn't half as much trouble as this!"

Zin snorted. "Of course it was, unless you were knighted on the battlefield, which I doubt, since we haven't had any battlefields lately except for this one. Didn't you spend a night in vigil, and have all kinds of talks with older knights and chantry priests about your sacred duty and so on?"

"That was different," Jory said, trying to look dignified.

"He doesn't like it because of me," Daveth said. "Doesn't think the likes of me fit in with a grand ceremony, ser knight here doesn't." Daveth grinned like a fox. "Or he's just plain scared."

"I am not!" Jory and Daveth started squabbling in earnest, and Alistair was so intent on making sure they didn't come to blows that he almost missed Zin's attempt to sneak off.

He grabbed Zin by the arm. "This really isn't the best time for personal errands."

"I need to talk to the kennel-master," Zin said. "Seems more useful than standing here listening to those two have another Maker-damned argument."

That might be true, but it wasn't why they were here. They had more important things to think about. Alistair nodded to where Duncan was coming towards them, balancing the Joining chalice in his hands. "You can do that later," he said.

"Good, you're all here," Duncan said, setting the chalice down on a table Alistair had dragged in for the ritual. "The time has come for me to tell you about the Joining."

As Duncan began to explain the history of the Grey Wardens and the purpose of the ritual, Jory's ruddy face grew steadily paler and paler. The idea of drinking darkspawn blood, of deliberately exposing himself to the taint in order to master it, clearly didn't appeal to him at all. Daveth looked grim but determined at the idea. Zin's face showed nothing. Alistair wasn't going to break into Duncan's careful speech about vigilance and sacrifice, but he wanted to grab Zin by the shoulders and shake him, just to make sure he was awake and alive for what ought to be the most important moment of his life.

But Zin looked like a wood carving of himself, and Jory kept muttering under his breath, "Drink the blood of those creatures, I never, this isn't right, they can't really expect me to do that, this isn't..."

"Daveth, step forward," Duncan said, and Daveth squared his shoulders and stepped up and drank from the chalice.

Most of the time, Alistair liked being right about things; he thought most people did. At least, he'd never met anyone who liked being wrong. But being right was a lot less fun when it meant looking at Daveth's slow, choking death. That's how it took them, mostly, the ones that couldn't accept the darkspawn taint at the Joining: their throats closed up and they couldn't breathe. At least, that's what Duncan had told him.

Jory's death was even worse, though. Seeing Daveth collapse, Jory stopped muttering and started to back away, and when his name was called, he would have fled if his back hadn't been against the unyielding stone of the old temple already. Alistair winced as Duncan killed the man, quickly and efficiently and with an apology. Oh, that wasn't good. Duncan said he had seen recruits through many Joinings, in many ways, but Alistair didn't see how you could ever get used to something like that. Bad enough when the Joining itself killed them. Alistair fervently hoped he would never be called upon to cut down someone who decided to change his mind in the midst of it all. He wasn't sure he could do it.

Their third recruit, after seeing the two worst possible outcomes of this ritual, stepped forward when his name was called. Zin looked eerily unafraid, as if he honestly didn't care whether this would be his death or not. He drank from the proffered chalice and made a face at the taste, which Alistair remembered as, yes, disgusting. Then he folded up, all six lanky feet of him, with a thud and a clank, but at least he was still breathing.

One out of three. Alistair would rather have kept Daveth, to be honest, but there was nothing for it but to make the best of what the Maker had decided.

0.2

Alistair hadn't really imagined himself going into battle at Duncan's side, because there were more senior wardens with more right to such a position, for one thing, and Duncan would probably be with the king, for another, but still. He'd been pretty sure they would at least be on the same battlefield.

Instead he found himself sent off to one side to light a signal beacon, and it wasn't that he didn't understand how important the beacon was, how crucial to the battle it would be to have Teyrn Loghain's men charge from cover and take the darkspawn by surprise. Alistair got that. He did. But he was trained to fight, not to light fires. He didn't like being shuffled aside on an errand while other men, good men and women both, were fighting for their lives.

He also didn't like the rain in his eyes and the way Zin looked as he took charge yet again, fearless and fey, leading Alistair and a nervous mage and Zin's huge beast of a dog that was apparently called Serpent, of all things, into a huge stone tower that was inexplicably filled with darkspawn and disaster.

At least it wasn't raining there.

Chapter two

0.5

Alistair woke up with a sharp-eyed old woman staring down at him, her grey hair wet as if freshly washed. This was Morrigan's mother, he realized, the one who had preserved the Grey Warden treaties from destruction by either damp or darkspawn, and handed them over without protest.

"Get dressed, young man," she said, not unkindly. "You need some fresh air." She turned and went out the door, and the faint breeze when she opened and closed it made Alistair realize that she was right. He was in a small room, and it was stuffy, peat-fire stuffy, overheated and dark. Fresh air would be welcome; his head was pounding.

He sat up and realized to his embarrassment that he was naked on a low, wide bed, and Zin was lying next to him, equally naked and still unconscious. No wonder the old woman had told him to get dressed. Alistair found his things next to the bed, and he felt much better once he was dressed again, down to the last piece of armor. He even equipped himself with both sword and shield, because being without his weapons didn't seem quite right.

Alistair hunted around for something to cover Zin's nakedness with, a blanket, a sheet, anything. Though a blanket would probably be too hot, as stifling as the hut was. It just didn't seem right to leave Zin lying like that, as if on display. As he had been himself, he realized with a shudder. Zin bore no marks of wounds, wasn't wrapped in any bandages, and neither did Alistair himself carry any signs of the injuries he knew must have been there.

There wasn't a blanket in sight, either.

Finally Alistair gave up and went outside, because it was better than just standing there, staring. This was indeed the hut Morrigan had led them to before. It was built along the edge of a narrow strip of dry land; a higher part of it, one he hadn't seen from inside, stood on stilts in the water, and only a few paces separated the front door from one of the shallow, treacherous Wilds lakes. Morrigan's mother stood as still and calm as one of the ancient statues that littered the area, and stared out over the water as if she just happened to be turned in that direction by some long-ago sculptor.

Alistair tried to remember how he had ended up here. They'd been in the Wilds, yes, but then they'd gone back to Ostagar, hadn't they? Morrigan had guided them back until they were close to the gates, and then...

Well, and then. He didn't have any clear memories of the time after that. Alistair thought he must have hit his head at some point. Or maybe he just didn't want to remember. He retained a very distinct picture of Daveth dying painfully from the Joining, just as he'd feared. He remembered running across the high bridge over the gorge at Ostagar, with people shouting all around. He remembered a room full of dogs, which was such an odd mental image that he'd have to ask Zin about it when the other man woke up.

Mostly it was all fragments: Jory's face twisted with fear, darkspawn and their heavy breathing, dead bodies in unnatural positions, an ogre picking up a man in a bright robe and shaking him like a rattle. Zin's daggers, shiny bright and then dark with blood. Being somewhere very high and seeing fire down below. Rain.

Nothing would hold still and grow clear in his mind. Even here, just outside a stuffy little hut somewhere out in the Wilds, everything seemed to be covered by a thin grey film, dusted over. He couldn't even bring up a picture of Duncan's face, though he tried, or Cailan's. All he got was a thick feeling in his throat.

"Will Zin be all right?" he asked abruptly. "I mean, the other man in there." He waved a hand at the hut. "Will he..."

"He was more badly hurt," Morrigan's mother said, "so he will sleep off the healing longer." She turned her head and looked at him, her eyes just a shade darker than Morrigan's unsettling gold. "But he has been completely healed, just as you are. The damage to your bodies is undone, is it not?"

Alistair frowned. "I can't remember everything," he admitted. "It's all... fuzzy, in my mind. Is it supposed to be like that? Fuzzy?"

"It's your mind," the old woman said. "You can tell better than I what it should be like."

"The other wardens," Alistair said slowly, and then, with more urgency, "Duncan! Cail-- The king! The army!" He looked at the old woman in the faded clothes, who held herself with more dignity than any arlessa he'd ever seen. Not that he'd ever seen more than one, but still. "Can you tell me what happened?"

"For all the good it will do you, yes," she said dryly. "They are all dead." Alistair stared blankly at her. "Your signal went unheeded. The men who would have flanked the darkspawn forces marched away instead, and the rest of the army was cut down by the darkspawn. Some of the ranged fighters may have managed to escape, but if this Duncan was in the thick of the battle, he too has undoubtedly perished."

"No," Alistair mouthed. He felt numb, the blow so hard it took away all ability to feel anything, even pain. They couldn't be gone. Not all of them. But the Grey Wardens had been close by Cailan's side, and Cailan had been determined to lead the charge himself. From the absolute front of the front lines, he remembered Duncan saying, half laughing, half troubled.

Duncan was dead. Cailan was dead. All the Grey Wardens, Rask and Grigor and Brendan and... and the better part of an army, full of people whose names he'd never known. All of them, all gone.

And Loghain had ignored the signal, marched away, and left them there. Left them to die.

Hatred against Loghain rose inside him like a filthy tide, murky and unstoppable. It turned his stomach, but he couldn't stop it. He'd never wished another person so much ill, before.

"Here is the plant you asked for, mother," Morrigan's voice said from behind him. "Shall I -- oh, that one awakened first, did he?"

"As I told you he would." The old woman walked around the fire to meet her daughter and take something from her hand. "I take it you saw the battlefield?"

"Yes. 'Twas not a pleasant sight." Morrigan sounded disdainful. "The darkspawn are--"

"I can imagine it," the old woman cut her off, voice dry and seemingly uninterested. "There's no need for you to go into detail, girl."

"What?" Alistair asked, though he had a feeling that he'd rather not know, really. "The darkspawn are what?"

"Celebrating their victory, of course," Morrigan said with a quick sideways look at her mother, almost smug.

"Victory." Alistair scowled. "Celebrating Loghain's treachery, more like. I -- I can't believe--" He looked at Morrigan, who was very clean and tidy for someone who had just seen a battlefield, though he didn't think she'd been all that close. "Are they really all dead? All the other Grey Wardens, all the soldiers..."

"Yes," she said briskly, as if reassuring him, "they are all quite dead, I'm sure."

Alistair clenched his teeth together and stared fixedly at a tree in the distance. He could feel his eyes burn, and then glaze over with the rising heat of tears; he tilted his head back to keep them from spilling over. "And you're heartbroken about it, I can tell," he said, but his voice began to blur.

"I will see if the other one has awoken," Morrigan said and went to the hut.

Alistair wanted to stop her, because Zin was lying naked and helpless in there, but he didn't trust himself to speak right then. Morrigan's mother had saved them; it was unlikely that Morrigan wished them any immediate harm. All she could do to Zin was ogle him, and while that thought didn't sit well with Alistair, he was also reasonably certain that no one had ever died of a little ogling. It wasn't like being ambushed by hurlocks or anything.

When Zin stepped out of the hut a little while later, Alistair felt a relief so strong it nearly made his knees buckle. Zin was alive. They were abandoned to their own devices here in the wilderness, the last remnants of the once-proud Grey Wardens, but at least it wasn't just him. At least he wasn't alone.

And Zin was a natural leader. He would lead them out of here.

0.6

Alistair walked along, his attention mostly on his own feet, keeping half an eye on Zin and Morrigan, who were up ahead, carrying on a mostly-civil and halfway civilized conversation about, of all things, herb collecting. Apparently Zin took an interest, or at least could sound as if he took an interest. It sounded as though he was still concerned with using those flowers from the Wilds expedition to protect his dog against the darkspawn taint.

Serpent had bounded along at Zin's heels, but now he dropped back to pad next to Alistair instead, whining hopefully at him, wanting a stick to chase, or maybe a piece of cheese to nibble on. "Sorry," Alistair said rustily, "you're out of luck."

He wished he could be as cheerful as the mabari, or at least that he could throw a stick for the mabari and cheer himself up that way. But Serpent's happiness, Alistair supposed, was because he still had his person and his purpose, and so all was right in his doggy view of the world, no matter where they were or what their destination was.

Alistair, on the other hand, felt entirely set adrift. He'd wondered all his life if he was really in the right place, doing the right thing, and it wasn't until Duncan recruited him into the Grey Wardens that he'd found the stability and certainty that his life had been lacking. When he woke up after the Joining ritual, still alive and with a new awareness burning in his veins, he'd suddenly felt at home in a way he'd never experienced before.

And Duncan... Duncan had been...

He stopped himself before he could scrub at his burning eyes with a well-armored hand. That was all he needed, to accidentally scrape his face raw with splintmail gloves. Instead he looked up and blinked intently until the urge to cry had passed. Well, mostly passed. Sort of passed. The grief was still caught in his throat. He tried to listen to the conversation up ahead instead, which had taken a new direction; Zin was trying to describe the sea to Morrigan, and Morrigan was trying not to sound impressed.

When they came to the next exit from the imperial highway, Zin took it, leading them down into a small wooded dell that had obviously been used as a campsite many times before. Alistair and Serpent collected deadwood for the fire pit, although it was hard to get Serpent to let go of the sticks he collected. Zin was no help, either; he just laughed, watching Alistair and Serpent have a tug of war over a particularly appealing fallen branch.

Morrigan lit the fire, and Alistair tried not to shudder, watching the flames leap from her hands. He really wasn't sure that Zin's decision to take her along was a good one, although her magic was, as Flemeth had said, useful. Useful, but disturbing to look too closely at.

None of them were precisely good at cooking, but Morrigan could manage an edible stew, and Zin made a hot drink with herbs that was better than just plain boiled water, anyway. Maybe he really did take an interest in herb collecting. Alistair ate, and drank, and slipped a few of the gristlier pieces of rabbit out of his stew to Serpent; Serpent was the one who'd caught the rabbit, anyway.

Morrigan retreated to a corner of her own, hanging a blanket from a branch for privacy, although Alistair could have assured her he had no intention of staring. He really didn't want to see more of Morrigan than he had to, dressed or undressed. Not that that outfit of hers left much to the imagination. Alistair stayed where he was, and Zin came to sit next to him.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Zin said abruptly, looking as if he was about to have teeth pulled. "Duncan, I mean. Ostagar. Things."

"No. Yes. I don't know." Alistair stared into the fire, scratching behind Serpent's ear. "I'm not sure I can, yet." His fingers tightened, and Serpent whined in protest. "And you don't have to... I mean, you barely even knew him."

"He seemed like a good man," Zin said, sounding a little distant. "Stern but fair. He reminded me of my... never mind. I understand what a loss it was to you."

"I can't think about it too much right now," Alistair said. "I'm sorry. I know I'm not being much help to you like this." He slid off the log he was sitting on and settled on the ground instead, with Serpent's solid warmth along one side and the log at his back. Zin shifted closer, and Alistair could feel the press of a knee against his shoulder. The fire heated his face. Being surrounded by friendly warmth, like this, was strangely comforting. "I'm sorry," he said again.

"You don't have anything to apologize for," Zin said steadily. There was less distance in his voice now, more resolve. "Between them, it's Cailan and that fucker Loghain who made a mess of things."

Alistair choked. "Zin!"

"Well, they did," Zin said. "The whole blighted strategy was messed up from the beginning, but if Loghain had come through, at least the people on the battlefield would've had a chance."

Alistair stared at the flames, seeing a rain of burning arrows in the rising sparks. "Like all the other wardens," he whispered. "Like Duncan. I can't believe there's just the two of us left now."

"No," Zin agreed. "Being left alive is." He shrugged; Alistair couldn't really see it, but he could feel it. "A responsibility." The bleak certainty in that word was almost worrying. "Flemeth was right, it really is up to us to do something about all this. Everything that needs something done about."

Alistair made a soft noise. He knew Zin was right, but the thought was enough to make him wish he were floating face-down in a Wilds swamp. "I... yes. I suppose it is."

"Fucking right it is. There's no one else. So we'd better get started." There was that resolve again to go along with the certainty, bleakness all but pushed aside. Alistair wanted to lean against the steadiness of Zin's voice.

"Yes," he agreed again, because there was no way he could disagree with something so decisive. Zin would know what to do -- Zin did know what to do. Alistair knew he had to be ready to combat the Blight, too, but his recent losses lay so heavily on him, he had a hard time thinking beyond them. "I'm sorry," he said again. "I know this can't be exactly easy for you, either."

"It's hard to lose people you care for," Zin said. He leaned forward, arms propped on his thighs, one elbow almost hitting the side of Alistair's head. "I can understand your feelings."

Alistair nodded; there was something in the way Zin sounded that made it more than just words. "I... later, when we have the time, I'd like to do something for him. Duncan. Put up a memorial or something, if I can find the right place to do it. I think he said once that he came from Highever."

"Really?" Zin sounded surprised. He drew a deeper breath. "Well, I guess we can ask around."

Alistair glanced up. "We?"

"I'll come with you," Zin said. "To Highever. I have reasons to go there, too." His hand found Alistair's shoulder and squeezed a little too hard, even through layers of metal and leather and cloth. "There's just a few things that need to get done first."

1.

"No, I'm not going to tithe anything. I don't believe in your fucking chantry," Zin said sweetly to the revered mother, and Alistair grabbed him by the back of the neck and dragged him away.

"So sorry," Alistair said over his shoulder, "normally we don't let him go out and meet people, but he seemed better today..." Zin laughed in his grasp, but didn't fight it.

Morrigan was laughing, too. She gave Zin an approving look as they came out on the steps of the Lothering chantry and caught their breaths. "That was quite refreshing," she said. "Seeing that look on her face certainly made this whole day less dreary."

"Glad to be of service," Zin said with a mocking bow. "I can't believe she wanted money for a festering blessing before she'd even say anything useful to us. She could teach dockside whores a thing or two."

"Zin!" Alistair clapped a belated hand over Zin's mouth, looking worriedly at the templar on the other side of the door to see if he'd heard anything. "You can't go around talking like that, saying things like that to people. And I can't believe you asked Ser Donall for a reward! We'd just told him his friend was dead, and you ask him for money?"

Zin plucked Alistair's hand from his mouth, gripping it firmly. "You bet I did. And I would again. Look, there's just the four of us so far," Serpent whuffled, sounding pleased to be included, "and we have armies to raise, a tyrant to overthrow, and oh yes, a Blight to defeat. Revolutions don't come cheap, Alistair, and I don't think saving the world does either. Armies definitely don't. Do you know what it costs to maintain armed men, to keep them trained and fed and make sure they have decent gear?"

"Er," Alistair said, because he didn't, really. It wasn't as if he'd ever had to do it.

"Andraste's rotting eyeballs, did you never look at Duncan's records for the wardens? Fighting men are expensive as fuck. We're going to need every copper we can lay our hands on. So if Ser Donall's handing out cash, I'm going to take it, if Ser Bryant slips me the key to a cache of valuables, I'm going to take that too, and if the revered mother thinks she can charge me for some divine hand-waving, she can kiss my arse."

Morrigan went on chuckling quietly to herself. Alistair frowned, and tried to overlook Zin's blunt language for the gist of what Zin was saying. "I suppose," he said slowly, "we're going to have to do a lot of traveling. And eating while we're traveling."

"And the way you eat," Zin said, "it won't come cheap. We'll need better equipment. For all we know, our armies will need better equipment."

"We don't have armies," Alistair said.

"Yet." Zin grinned, apparently not angry at all now that he'd made his point. "I like to think that we will."

"Yes," Alistair said slowly, thinking about the treaties, starting to think about what those treaties might actually mean. "Yes, that would be... good."

"Good," Morrigan said briskly. "Now, if you fools are quite done standing around holding each other's hands," Alistair jumped and jerked his fingers out of Zin's grasp, "perhaps we should begin these tedious chantry board tasks to earn some of that money."

1.5

Alistair found himself left to his own devices in the middle of Lothering, while Morrigan was tracking down a shy young woman who wanted to buy traps and Zin was off... well, probably picking someone's pockets, but Alistair wasn't going to ask. He would have talked to the giant man who had introduced himself as Sten of the Beresaad, trying to get a better sense of what they'd let themselves in for when Zin had picked the lock on that imprisoning cage, but the man had already left Lothering ahead of them, waiting for them to join him at the next stop off the imperial highway. And, well, that was probably for the best. Seeing a murderer walk free amongst them would probably have upset the people of Lothering, who had enough to be upset about already, Alistair thought.

Maybe he should have been more reluctant to travel with a self-confessed killer who looked as though he could snap their necks between his fingers. But he was already traveling with Morrigan. Alistair was quite prepared to trust this stranger more than he trusted her, though he made a mental note to be cautious of Sten's temper, which was obviously more uneven than it seemed, just to be on the safe side.

He wandered around a bit, listening to what he could overhear of frightened gossip, nearly got his boots stuck in the mud in several places, petted three stray dogs, and tried to cheer up everyone he met, though he only really succeeded with the family of elves who had been robbed, when he told them the robbers had been killed and some of their stuff might still be there.

At least, Alistair didn't remember Zin taking a pet lamb to bring along. He shrugged to himself. He didn't remember seeing a lamb at all, to be honest. It was probably in someone's cookpot already, down in the refugee camp. Those refugees weren't going to let food on the hoof just walk around unclaimed.

Eventually he ended up behind the chantry in a small scrap of garden that someone had worked very hard on, once. Now there was just one spot of color in among all the dusty green: a rose, flowering on a thorny old rosebush in one corner. Alistair walked over and stared down at it. "Being beautiful won't help," he told it. "Everything here is going to end up..." He couldn't make himself say it. Couldn't help but hope that something would be saved from Lothering, that there would be something more here than just wreckage and blood and darkspawn filth in a few days' time.

Alistair pulled off a glove and reached out to touch the rose. The petals were velvet-soft under his fingertips. He couldn't leave it there, he just couldn't. It wasn't like a lamb that would at least get eaten and serve some purpose that way. Quickly and resolutely, Alistair broke it off where the narrow stem of the rose joined a thicker branch. He didn't even scratch his fingers on the thorns. He sniffed the rose, smiled a little at that delicate, fresh scent, and tucked it away very carefully.

Then he lengthened his steps back around the chantry and across the stone bridge to where he'd agreed to meet the others, just outside the Dane's Refuge, the only open tavern in all of Lothering. Morrigan was already waiting, standing disdainful and aloof, ignoring the man who ogled her from the corner of the building and ignoring Alistair, too, until Serpent and Zin came bounding along.

"Well, let's go inside," Zin said, pushing the tavern door open. "Someone round here must be willing to take this stuff off our hands and sell us--"

The next moment some of Loghain's guards were on them, all brash talk and sharp weapons, and despite the urgings of a pretty young woman in chantry robes, it became clear that Zin was more than ready to take out a few frustrations on these very suitable targets. Alistair wasn't about to argue with that. These men worked for, were loyal to, the man responsible for Duncan's death. He couldn't find any forgiveness in his heart. Rather to his surprise, the young woman joined the fight on their side.

No one else in the tavern tried to interfere. The owner just gave them a resigned look, and after the fight was over, he came out from behind the bar with a bucket of sandy dirt and covered up the worst of the bloodstains.

The young woman in chantry robes wouldn't stop talking to them, though. She wanted to come with them. After listening to her explain that her name was Leliana and she'd had a vision and the Maker wanted her to help them, after hearing Zin cheerfully accept her company, Alistair found himself sharing a look of well, we could accidentally leave her behind somewhere with Morrigan, of all people.

He hung back as they finally left the tavern, and caught at Zin's arm. "Are you sure about this? You don't think she's, well, several canticles short of a full chant?"

Zin shrugged, glinting a smile at him. "She can handle herself in a fight, and she wants to help. Which makes a nice change from all the people who just want to slaughter us out of hand."

"I can't disagree with that," Alistair admitted. When, a few moments later, they were jumped by a ragged band of refugees who wanted to take them down for the reward, he disagreed even less, seeing the woman find high ground and fire arrow after arrow with great accuracy from the bow Zin had lent her, even though her mouth was twisted with sadness.

Alistair could understand why she looked like that. These weren't Loghain's soldiers, opportunist robbers or soulless darkspawn. These were just hungry people who sought a way to feed themselves and their families. Their bad luck that they'd attacked two Grey Wardens, a fierce apostate, a mabari war dog, and a skilled archer who was looking less and less like a chantry sister, now.

As usual, Zin threw himself into the fight with reckless glee, and came out of it looking only slightly more dishevelled than he had to begin with. Unshaven, uncombed, he looked more as if he'd just gotten out of bed than stabbed several people in the kidneys. Alistair watched Zin clean his daggers on the grass and wondered if he was really as unconcerned as he appeared.

"We should leave," Zin said. "Staying here any longer is just asking for trouble." His mouth twisted a little. "More trouble. Let's go outfit Sten."

"And feed him, surely," Leliana said. "I -- I don't think anyone did, while he was imprisoned in the cage."

"How kind and merciful the chantry is," Morrigan observed airily.

Of course, things were a bit more complicated than that. On their way out of Lothering, they met a dwarf merchant being menaced by darkspawn; Alistair felt a chill, realizing just how close the village was to being run over. Part of him wanted to go back and place himself in the service of Ser Bryant, stand side by side with the templars and try to defend what could be defended, here.

But Zin was moving on, and Alistair would follow Zin. He wasn't even sure when he'd made that decision; probably a long time before Zin had stumbled out of Flemeth's hut and they'd made their first tentative plans to defy the odds, reveal Loghain's treachery, stop the Blight. Morrigan's mockery aside, he knew of the two of them Zin was the one who could come to a decision and stick to it, get things done, make things happen. Alistair knew he shouldn't even try. Zin had the kind of determination that kept both himself and other people moving, and he could be a bit high-handed, the way he always expected other people to do what he said, but at least that was better than the unsettling blank carelessness he'd shown signs of before the Joining.

There'd been a new determination in Zin since he'd shouldered the responsibility of using the treaties, of gathering an army, as Flemeth had suggested, to stop the Blight. Alistair supposed it made sense, from that point of view, that Zin had taken Morrigan along, had said yes to Leliana's request to join them, had freed Sten from his cage. They weren't an army, by any means, but maybe they were the start of something bigger.

1.5.1

Alistair was so deep in his own thoughts that he barely even noticed when they had to leave the highway, which was blocked by broken carts, crates, and masonry, to take a detour through a ravine that... yes, Alistair thought, surfacing as a woman ran up to them, that was a perfect spot for an ambush, no wonder people had been attacked here, it was...

Then, of course, they were ambushed.

"The Grey Wardens die here!"

Right.

Alistair cursed under his breath and wished they'd had the time to meet up with Sten. Another fighter on their side would have been more than welcome. He worked his way around to the woman whose hands sparked with lightning and put all the templar training he could remember into dispelling her magic, and then put all the sword training he could remember into cutting her down before she could try again. Getting a lightning bolt in the face never improved anyone's day.

He and Zin and Serpent dealt with all the attackers down in the ravine, Leliana and Morrigan handled the archers on the ledges, and in a surprisingly short amount of time, Zin was standing over the leader of the ambushing party, looking down with a thoughtful expression on his face as the elf explained in accented common that yes, Loghain had hired him to kill them, but never mind that, he would make a fine addition to their group.

He was actually batting his lashes when he said that.

"You can't seriously be considering taking him with us," Alistair said. "He's an assassin." An assassin who would flirt while lying tied up at someone's feet. This couldn't be good. "Loghain's assassin."

"An Antivan Crow," Leliana said. "The Crows are quite skilled, and experienced in dealing with political complications." Alistair made a face. The assassin hadn't struck him as all that skilled. On the one hand, that was certainly just as well, under the circumstances. On the other hand, that might not make him such a useful addition, no matter what he claimed.

"He'll likely poison you before the week is out," Morrigan said, not sounding all that concerned.

Zin's mouth quirked, and he reached down and hauled this Zevran to his feet. "Come on, then," he said. "You left something out of your list of accomplishments, so I have to ask: can you cook?"

"Why yes," Zevran said with a bright smile. "I can cook."

"Before the day is out, then," Morrigan said.

Alistair shook his head as they moved on. They needed more people, of course they did, but they needed more reliable people. This Zevran certainly didn't inspire any trust in Alistair. He really wondered what Zin was thinking. Surely Zin couldn't have believed in that brazen flirting and Zevran's repeated promises of harmlessness.

... Right?

When they finally found Sten, he was sitting on a fallen log at the next campsite, staring at the wood gathered in the empty fire pit, while the dwarf merchant and his son that they met earlier were fussing about their carts nearby, with the occasional nervous look. He raised his head and looked steadily at them. "Picked up some more people along the way," Zin said, gesturing at the others. "You know how it is."

"Yes," Sten said, to Alistair's surprise. "I appear to have done the same."

"We ran into more darkspawn," Bodahn Feddic said nervously. "Just a couple, but... but this, ah, this gentleman kindly came to our aid."

"I did not," Sten said. "I killed the darkspawn. You happened to be there."

Alistair noticed that Sten had a bandage around one arm, and he could see the darkness of blood in the center of it. "Do you need healing?" he asked, glancing at Morrigan.

"No," Sten said flatly. "No magic. But I need a sword." One of the larger branches in the fire pit also had blood on it.

"You can have a sword," Zin said. "And some armor. And a poultice for your arm. And some food." He clapped his hands together briskly. "Someone get the fire started."

A spark immediately leapt up among the logs in the fireplace, and Bodahn Feddic's son looked delighted. "Enchantment!"

Chapter three

1.6

"Here, try this," Zin said, aiming a spoon at Alistair's mouth as soon as Alistair came back from walking the perimeter (and peeing against a tree).

Alistair dodged. "Why?" he asked suspiciously. "What is that?" He glanced over at the campfire and stiffened, feeing himself bristle like an annoyed mabari. "Don't tell me you let that Zevran fellow be in charge of the food."

"He can cook," Zin said, elated. "He wasn't just saying that."

"He's an assassin!" Alistair said. "He tried to kill us and now he cooks for us? Doesn't that strike you as a really bad idea? Even Morrigan warned you to keep an eye on your food and drink."

"That would be the same Morrigan who's sitting over there, scarfing down stew like she's a brand new Grey Warden?" Zin grinned. "Besides, Leliana knows more about poisons than Zev does, and you never said you felt worried about her doing the cooking."

"Oh, you're at the nickname stage already." Alistair glowered, but he was hungry. "Fine, give me the stew. I want my funeral pyre to be by the shore of Lake Calenhad."

"I already ate," Zin said, "so if this is poisoned, someone else will have to deal with making the arrangements." His eyes gleamed. "Leave a note on your chest before you go to sleep, just in case."

"This is really good," Alistair said reluctantly. Maybe also a bit indistinctly, because his mouth was full.

"Told you."

Serpent came up to sit at Alistair's feet and cocked his head hopefully. He'd taken well to the flower treatment, once Zin worked it out, and was healthy and sleek and bigger than ever, though he bit darkspawn every chance he got. Alistair had to respect that. He was also a terrible mooch.

"I'm eating this," Alistair said. "Go catch yourself a squirrel or something." Serpent inched a little closer, until he was sitting on Alistair's feet. He was heavy. "If you try to take my food," Alistair said seriously, "I'll snap at you. That'll show you how it feels."

"You'll just get fur between your teeth," Zin said. "Not that I ever tried it or anything. C'mon, boy, get off the nice man's toes. He won't give you anything if you squash him, he'll just get sodding cranky."

"And flat-footed. Um, I've been meaning to ask you." Alistair spooned up some more stew. "Serpent just seems like a very odd name for a mabari. What made you choose that?"

Serpent growled, and Zin looked amused. "The first time I met him, he was just a blob of a puppy, like a Feastday loaf with stubby little legs." Serpent barked. "Yes, you were, don't deny it. I'd been reading about dragons, and this one dragon hunter kept going on about their splendid beauty and fearsome serpentine grace. And there he was, the least graceful thing I could imagine. So I called him Serpent."

Serpent growled, and Zin scratched his leg. Alistair tried to get that to make sense. "Not Dragon?"

"Of course not. Dragon would be a really strange name for a mabari." Zin grinned. Alistair shook his head and kept eating. Nobody else was falling over dead, and the food really was excellent, so he supposed Zevran had at least one redeeming feature.

1.7

"You," Morrigan said, eyeing Alistair with disfavor, "are never allowed to determine which road is the correct one, ever again."

"Zin asked me," Alistair said defensively. "I said I could be wrong."

"And you were. Oh, I am so surprised."

"Oh, sweet Andraste farting, this again? It was clearly an error in judgement on my part," Zin said. "Though I'd like to point out that none of us knew which road to take. That's why I asked Alistair. Figured he might make the best guess at the road to Redcliffe from here."

"I'm sorry," Alistair said, because apologizing to Zin was easy, it was Morrigan who put his hackles up. "I always get turned around in the foothills of the Frostbacks. Everything looks the same here."

"No harm done, my friend," Zevran said cheerfully. "I'm sure walking for two days in entirely the wrong direction provided us with a great deal of healthy exercise."

Alistair glared, because he hadn't been apologizing to Zevran, but before he could say anything, a mule came around a bend in the road and ran past them at a fast clip, eyes rolling. Moments later an elf came running after it; he dodged them more elegantly than the mule had, but made no attempt to stop, either.

Zin and Alistair looked at each other, and Zin shrugged. They continued in the direction the mule and elf had come from, and it wasn't long before they came upon a small camp containing a human merchant, a cart, a ragged tent, and a campfire the merchant was just trying to light.

The merchant wasn't lost, just stranded until elf and mule returned, not to mention a bit on the cold side, and he could give them clear directions, sketching a simplified map on the back of an old trade manifest while Morrigan lit the fire. He also had some bread and cheese that he shared with them in return for some of their dried meat. The bread was on the old and dry side, but toasted over the fire with the cheese melted on top, it made for a good meal. Alistair would have finished all of it, if Zevran hadn't rescued a portion to set aside for the mule-chasing elf.

While they were eating, the merchant trotted out a litany of complaints, or, well, half-hearted grumbles, about everything that had gone wrong for him on this trip, choosing a lonely road through the mountains, carrying goods he couldn't sell, not that there was anyone here in the mountains to buy them, and now that Blighted mule had run off on top of everything and it would probably take hours to chase it down...

"Hours which you will spend by a warm fire," Zevran pointed out. "You're not doing the chasing yourself, after all."

"Of course not!" Felix the merchant said huffily. "That's why I have an elf. I mean a servant. I mean, er. Not much of a running man myself, you understand."

"Clearly not," Zevran said.

The mule came back, looking as though it had never had the least notion of bolting in its life, and started munching on some grass. The elf came back, out of breath and limping slightly, though he cheered up when he could sit down and eat a hot meal.

Felix the merchant got a speculative look in his eyes, one that Alistair didn't trust one bit. "My good luck, finally, meeting you," he said. "I don't suppose you'd consider... helping a fellow out?"

Alistair had never expected Zin, of all people, to fall for something that sounded so very much like a merchant's scam. But Zin just nodded as Felix got him to take a supposed control rod for a golem (for free, so at least that was something) and sketched in more details on his little map, adding the road that supposedly led to this Honnleath place.

"A golem," Zin said. "That could be very useful."

1.8

Alistair pored over Felix's map. "This golem," he said. "It's... We'd have to go back south."

"Not that far," Zin said. He was lying on his back in the grass, digesting a supper of rabbit and wild onions; it would have been a peaceful sight if Serpent hadn't been digging a hole to the underworld right next to him, spraying dirt all over. "We have to go back south anyway, since we got lost on the way to Redcliffe."

"Since I got us lost, you mean," Alistair said. "Don't be afraid of hurting my feelings. Morrigan already took care of that, my feelings are pure scar tissue by now. Anyway, that's just what happens when I try to lead people."

"Since you got us lost, then," Zin said with a teasing grin. "But this will just be a small detour. And we could get a golem."

"...Yes?" Alistair was starting to get the feeling that he was missing something.

"You must have read the stories," Zin said, staring dreamily at the sky. "Golems were blighted fantastic warriors, fierce as fuck, holding the gates of the dwarf cities..."

"There weren't a lot of books about golems in the monastery," Alistair muttered. There'd been a small library, yes, but most of the books had been meditations and prayers, and stuff about the nature of Andraste and the will of the Maker and the duties of mankind -- not very interesting reading for a child. He wouldn't be all that thrilled with it now, either.

"Also, they're made of stone or metal and they don't eat." Zin raised himself on one elbow. "Imagine if we could have an army like that fighting the Blight. Strong and cheap."

Alistair frowned doubtfully. That sounded good, yes. In fact, it sounded a little too good to be true. "I don't think anything the dwarves make is precisely cheap."

"Got this one for free, didn't I?" Zin sat up fully, brushing dirt from his chest. He looked thoughtfully at Alistair. "I can't really picture you in a monastery. Didn't you tell Leliana that it was so quiet there, you used to scream just to see what would happen?"

"Yes," Alistair admitted. "Usually what happened was that I had to scrub out the cooking pots. Or the store room shelves. Or whatever else needed scrubbing. I don't think they were sorry to be able to send me off for templar training."

"Aw, I'm sure they missed you," Zin said. "And did you try screaming in the templar barracks?"

"No, I got enough of that in the practice yard." Alistair shifted his shoulders, muscles twinging with remembered strain. "The training was pretty harsh. But I liked it." He'd been good at it; he'd gotten praise for it. It had definitely been a better fit for him than the monastery. "They didn't have any books about golems either, though. Where did you read all this?"

"I found a book about dwarven history," Zin said, "by accident really, but I got so sodding fascinated by the golems, I had to find out more about them." He shrugged. "Not that there's much. They're mostly in the background, it's not like I discovered any great stories with golem heroes."

Alistair tried to imagine any kind of accident that would involve finding a book about dwarven history. "Sounds like you grew up in a library," he said, picturing a book falling on a tiny Zin's head. "Except for the way you talk."

Zin made a sound that could be interpreted as agreement, or even amusement, if you didn't look too closely at him. Alistair was looking closely, though. Whatever Zin was remembering about growing up, it wasn't a happy memory.

2.

The village of Honnleath was overrun by darkspawn, and they found themselves in the middle of an unanticipated fight. Alistair growled his distaste at seeing the village green swarming with genlocks. They were getting better at fighting as a team, though. Alistair was always in the thick of the fighting, more often than not with Sten not far away, while Morrigan and Leliana kept their distance and rained down lightning and arrows. Serpent and Zevran ghosted around the edges of the battle, the one hamstringing his opponents, the other cutting their throats. Zin should have been with them, Alistair felt, but instead Zin just rushed in among the fighters, only managing through sheer agility to stay mostly unscathed as he slashed left and right with those wicked daggers of his.

It reminded Alistair of Cailan's insistence on leading the army from the front line. Not that Zin was a king, and not that their little group was anything like an army. Alistair was well aware that they needed a fighter more than they needed a figurehead. The way Zin risked himself still struck him as slightly reckless, though.

Once all the darkspawn were dead and they had leisure to look around, Alistair saw to his relief and confusion that very few of the dead bodies belonged to the villagers. He also saw that the centerpiece of the village green wasn't the usual statue of Andraste, as he'd first thought. It was a golem.

The golem didn't move when Zin spoke the words that were supposed to activate it. Alistair felt even more relieved, truth to tell. Maybe golems were supposed to be amazing fighters, but all he could see was a huge stone statue, a thing. And it stayed inert, which was the way huge stone statues should be, if you asked him. Zin frowned, looking disappointed.

"There's a door over there," Alistair said, pointing. "It's ajar -- I think some of those darkspawn came from inside. Maybe we should find out what's there."

Zin kept frowning. "We're not far enough into the mountains for it to be the Deep Roads, surely."

"The Deep Roads go everywhere," Morrigan said, "not merely in the mountains, though we are close enough to those. They are as likely to surface in some peasant's root cellar as anywhere else. And whatever the darkspawn were doing doing down there, we are unlikely to discover it by standing here talking."

"Point," Zin said, his frown lightening. "Let's go see if anything else needs killing, then."

Going down into the cellar, of course they found more darkspawn. They also found lots of bookshelves, a small shrine, giant casks... Alistair shook his head. "So whoever lived here was a very devout and possibly very drunk scholar?" He sniffed suspiciously at the mug of something that Zin had decanted from what seemed to be a still. "I don't think this is safe to drink, though."

"I thought we could use it to wash out wounds with, especially if we get hurt and Morrigan isn't with us," Zin said, digging out an empty flask from his pack.

"I've told you often enough that I'm no healer," Morrigan said defensively.

"But it's a pleasure to be tended by your hands, regardless," Zevran said, then ducked the tiny lightning bolt sparking his way.

"We waste time here," Sten rumbled. "There are more darkspawn ahead."

"Thought I was the warden here." Zin stowed the filled flask away and straightened up. "One of them, anyway."

Morrigan sniffed. "But the other warden so rarely has anything useful to say."

"That way," Alistair said helpfully, pointing. He ignored Morrigan, since that was the only way he'd found of dealing with her. "I think there's an emissary with them, too."

"Oh, joy." That snarky comment didn't stop Zin from charging headlong at the emissary in question -- really, he was the least stealthy rogue Alistair had ever met, but while Zin made a target of himself, Zevran slipped around and stabbed the emissary in the back before Alistair could bring up the first thing about mage-smiting or magic-dispelling.

After that, everything else was just mopping up. Alistair cut the head off the last genlock and turned to stare at the magical barrier across one end of the room, wondering if he would have dispelled that, too, if he'd managed to get the words out. Maybe having Zevran along would be useful for more reasons than just his cooking.

The villagers huddled behind the barrier were happy to be saved, even if the saving was accidental. Alistair wondered who the local bann was, and if he'd even have known or cared that some of his people had starved to death in a cellar, trapped by darkspawn. Only one man looked grumpy, and that turned out to be because his daughter was lost somewhere deeper in, because this wasn't just any old cellar, of course not, it had been the lair of some mage who hadn't liked visitors much.

Mage to the arls of Redcliffe. Huh. Alistair scrunched his face up, trying to remember. That must have been Arl Eamon's father, then... no, couldn't have been, Rendorn Guerrin had been too busy with the rebellion to take any interest in magic tricks. Unless this mage had fought in the rebellion as well. He seemed to have been the type of person who valued his comforts, and Alistair had grown up on stories of the rebellion. Every guard in Redcliffe castle had one, seemed like; the ones who weren't old enough to be there had stories about parents, uncles, aunts. Comforts had not featured heavily. But then the man said his father had been a hero in the war against Orlais, so that meant the rebellion after all. The comforts must have come later, and Maker knew the people who fought in the rebellion deserved their comforts, afterwards.

Alistair tried to work out the timeline in his head and gave up just as Zin cheerfully offered to go into the mage's laboratory and find the little girl. That made him tense up, because mages who didn't like visitors had a lot of interesting ways to discourage them. They couldn't just leave the girl to her fate, though, he thought just as Morrigan muttered under her breath that they should do just that. She fell silent when Zin looked at her reproachfully.

Down they went. This mage hadn't been big on dusting, that much was clear. At least they found some interesting things on the way; Zin had an eye like a magpie for any stray shiny things lying around. Some large and disturbing thing that was nearly all mouth tried to eat him? Not a problem, Zin stabbed it in the back while Sten swung at its front, and then he sifted through the ashes of its remains.

"I could swear I saw something... ooh, a ring. Here, you wear it." He tossed it to Alistair, who resisted the urge to ask if this meant they were married now.

The ring did make him feel better, though. Stronger, more certain in his movements. If this was magic, it was a kind he liked.

So it turned out that the reason the mage hadn't been big on letting strangers come into his secret laboratory was that he kept a nearly naked woman down there. She looked like a cat at first, which was confusing, but a lot less awkward, only she could talk, and none of them really believed in cats that could talk. Except for the little girl, Amalia, who was all starry-eyed at the idea and wouldn't listen to reason, not that children that age were very big on reason, as a general rule.

Zin tried to talk circles around the cat, and around the girl, and Alistair could see that he was trying to get the girl to step away, but she stayed in petting range of the cat all the time. "Very well," Zin said at last, exasperated, "I'll set you free."

Alistair blinked in surprise. Zin stomped up to the fiendish mage puzzle that kept the cat-thing trapped and kicked at a few things in rapid succession, and just like that, something popped loose; Alistair felt as if he'd had his head underwater without noticing and then pulled it out again. Little Amalia finally noticed that something was strange about her playmate and ran off, just as the cat turned into a woman-shaped creature with horns who really wasn't wearing a lot. At all.

If there'd been time, Alistair would have been embarrassed, but Zin attacked gleefully -- of course -- and the rest of them had no choice but to do the same, especially when unpleasant things made of fire rose from the stone floor and breathed scorchingly at them.

Those things could be cut down, though.

"You lied to that demon," Morrigan said once they were done, sitting on the stone steps to catch their breath. "She believed your promise to free her."

"Yes, because I'm going to be frank and honest with a demon that turned into a cat so a child would like her," Zin said. "And let the demon possess the child and have its freedom to roam the country, tra la la. No, wait, I'm not."

"Deals with demons never end well, 'tis true," Morrigan said grudgingly.

Sten made a huffing noise. "How could they?" He rubbed at a patch on his arm that had been a raw red burn before Zin had talked him into accepting Morrigan's healing as well as a poultice. "Demons do not mean well."

"This Wilhelm must have been a brave man," Zevran said, "or an utterly foolish one, to keep such a creature trapped at his whim. One does not want to speculate about what he wanted from her, of course."

"Oh, I can hear you speculating from here," Zin said. So could Alistair, and he thought Zevran's speculation was probably correct, as disturbing as that thought was.

"She was very decorative." Zevran checked the edge of a dagger with his thumb. "And very dangerous. That is an almost irresistible combination for some men. Not quite as many women, but some. For the men, it can be an aphrodisiac."

Alistair blinked at the thought. He could see that this mage had felt that way, but he didn't see how people in general could be, well, stimulated by having a demon around, even if the demon looked like a half-naked woman. Maybe it was the templar in him, but he found the idea revolting, quite apart from the embarrassment. He wouldn't want a demon of any kind around, himself.

Although when he thought back to certain incautious things said in the templar training barracks, he had a feeling that some of his fellow trainees back then would have given a lot to see a half-naked woman, even if she was a demon.

"Certainly, but such men are fools," Morrigan said, "allowing their lust to override their common sense, what little they might have of it."

"Nearly all men can be that kind of fool," Leliana said musingly. "Danger and beauty, and the temptation to believe that they can control it..."

That might make all the difference, perhaps. Alistair certainly had no illusion that he would be able to control a demon. Kill, yes, he might manage that. At least the group of them had managed, just now. Control, no.

But Leliana wasn't talking about demons. She probably knew from personal experience just how to use her beauty to make a man believe that she wasn't dangerous to him. Alistair wondered what that would be like. A bit less blatant nudity, he'd bet. At least, his cheeks heated, at the start.

Leliana made him nervous, with her sidelong glances and her charm that sometimes seemed completely natural and sometimes carefully constructed. Morrigan made him nervous, too, but also annoyed, with her sharply dismissive remarks and skimpy clothing. Zevran made him annoyed and sometimes a little nervous, with his brazen arrogance and his relentless flirting. Everyone else seemed to take it more calmly than he did, which was also annoying.

Zin, in particular, acted as though pretty-boy elven assassins batting their lashes at him was perfectly ordinary. That made Alistair nervous as well. He wanted Zin to be reliable, someone who could be trusted, a steady and level-headed leader. What if Zevran distracted him? Not that Zin seemed to flirt back. Not when Alistair watched him, anyway.

Which might be... a lot of the time. And seeing Zevran flirt with Zin might make Alistair a bit annoyed. A lot of the time.

"You three are disturbingly alike at times," Zin said, and the cellar vault rang with indignant protests. He laughed and got to his feet. "Come on, we have a golem to collect."

Alistair had been hoping that Zin would give up on the idea, after hearing about how the golem had killed the mage Wilhelm. But Zin, being Zin, didn't have the common sense of a butterfly, and once they'd made it out of the cellar he made straight for the golem and spoke the new command phrase they'd been given to wake it, and the golem shuddered to life.

It was big, it was alive, and it was sarcastic. Alistair really did not want to bring it along (even if it was kind of funny to hear it was called Shale). Especially since the control rod didn't work. A sarcastic golem with free will, great, when the only thing they knew about it was that it had killed the last person to command it. But, "You're welcome to come with us," Zin said with a bright grin, so that was that.

Shale stomped a chicken to death on the way out of Honnleath. "Now that was unnecessary," Zevran said with reproach in his voice.

"Birds are evil," Shale said.

"Yes, yes, I'm sure." Zevran stared down at the mangled pulp of blood and feathers. "But these particular harbingers of evil are good to eat. If you feel you must slay them, perhaps you could stomp down only on the head, and leave the rest for us?"

"The head does make the annoying squawking noises," Shale said thoughtfully. "But it's difficult to aim for it."

"I'm sure a skilled warrior like yourself can manage it," Zevran said. "I have just the right spices for chicken, too."

Morrigan rolled her eyes. Zin leaned on Alistair's shoulder and laughed so hard he nearly choked. Alistair just shook his head. "You invited them all along," he said. "Are you having second thoughts yet?"

"No," Zin said, "no," and then he looked at Shale's feather-fringed foot and completely lost it.

2.5

The fire was almost hypnotically soothing. Alistair had decided to stay up on watch. Shale might claim not to need sleep and so they didn't need anyone else to stay on guard all night, but Alistair wasn't prepared to trust the golem just like that. Zin apparently did, but Zin was insanely trusting, or whatever you called someone who was perfectly willing to leave an assassin in charge of the food.

Or maybe not so trusting after all, Alistair thought as Zin came and dropped down to sit beside him on the log. Maybe there'd be two of them keeping this informal watch together.

"I know you wanted to go to Redcliffe," Zin said abruptly. "It's just..."

Alistair shrugged. "You're in charge." He glanced sideways at Zin. "We went right past the road there, though. At least if the map Felix drew for us can be trusted. Seems like we'll have to do a lot of extra walking."

"Yes." A shadow flickered over Zin's face, or maybe it was just a log shifting in the fire. "There's... We do need to talk to the mages, and I promised Sten I'd look for his sodding missing sword, he thinks he lost it near there." He looked at Alistair. "I did tell you about Sten's sword, right?"

"Sten told me about Sten's sword, actually," Alistair said. "He has a carrying voice. And if he ever gets that sword back, we'd better strap it to his wrist or something, because Maker knows what he'd do if he lost it a second time."

"Mm. I just thought Redcliffe might take some time, for various reasons, and, well, you heard the same rumors I did in the tavern two nights ago. If there's a survivor from Ostagar hiding in the east part of Bann Loren's woods, he probably doesn't have much time." Zin scrubbed a hand through his hair. "In fact, I wish we didn't have to sleep, like Shale, and could go right now."

"Those are the woods that go almost all the way up to the lake shore, aren't they," Alistair said, trying to map it out in his mind.

"Yes. Look here." Zin dragged out the same old trade manifest Felix the merchant had given them. Other people had added to it, fellow travellers at taverns or campsites, the Feddics sketching in which route they would take and where the party could meet up with them again. "This is where we are now. Here's Lake Calenhad docks, where you can get passage to the mages' tower. And this is where this Ostagar survivor was last seen." Zin sighed. "I don't know if it's even true, what I've heard. But if he's out there, I don't think we have a lot of time to find him."

"We'll find him," Alistair said. There had to be a reason why this man was talked about and hunted, something he knew, something to do with Ostagar. Alistair wanted to know what that was.

Zin smiled tiredly and pressed his shoulder against Alistair's. "Yes. Somehow. I don't suppose you're any good at tracking in the woods?"

"Not unless you're talking about tracking darkspawn," Alistair said. "But I thought you said you'd done a bit of hunting, you and Serpent."

"Not this type of hunting," Zin said wryly. "And with any kind of bigger game, it was the huntsmaster who would... Anyway, I suppose we'll do our best. And I think Morrigan might be better at finding people in the wilderness than anyone else in this company, except for Serpent. I'll ask her."

Alistair's brows drew down. "Yes. Do you... Do you trust her, really?"

That made Zin smile. "I think she's going to keep helping us, yes. She probably has her own reasons for it, but she clearly doesn't mean us any harm."

"Doesn't mean you any harm, maybe," Alistair said. "I think she'd be thrilled if I tripped over a rock and broke my neck."

"Oh, no," Zin said, eyes glinting with laughter from underneath his ragged hair. "Just think how boring her life would be then." He rose and stretched, yawning. "Well, I'm off to sleep. Don't stay up too late, you'll regret it tomorrow."

Alistair was already regretting it at midnight, when his body told him louder and louder that being horizontal would be so much better. He glanced towards where Shale stood, an unmoving sentinel. Shale didn't say anything, but Alistair could sense some particularly sarcastic golem thoughts directed his way.

He gave up, and went to seek his bedroll.

Chapter four

2.5.1

They were almost too late to find the Ostagar survivor. Well, completely too late from his perspective, since he was stabbed before their eyes, bleeding out during the fight they had with the guards who did the stabbing. There was nothing to be done, once they could turn their attention to him; Morrigan shook her head briskly behind the man's back.

Alistair recognized him. He'd seen this man guard Cailan's tent, and he knew the man should have been guarding Cailan's person. He guessed the man was hunted because of what he was supposed to be guarding even now. But no, apparently the man didn't even have the key to Cailan's private chest any more, though he coughed out where it was, begged them to find Cailan's arms and armor and private papers, and to do the proper thing for Cailan's body. He left a bloody handprint on the arm of Zin's light plate, then fell back and died.

"I don't like the sound of this," Alistair said. "Of course someone should get those things and those letters, and it should probably be us. But it won't be easy."

"The darkspawn will have taken any valuables for themselves, surely," Leliana said.

"And disposed of your king's body as they pleased," Morrigan put in. "Even if you could find his remains, 'tis not likely you would recognize them."

Alistair grimaced. That was the part he wasn't looking forward to. There'd be bodies, a lot of them. Enough time and rain had passed that the worst of the stench would be over, but the dead soldiers wouldn't have made pyres for themselves. "Still," he said, trying to look on the bright side, what he could find of one, "there'll be a lot of darkspawn to kill in a place like Ostagar."

"It's where the darkspawn army was last seen," Leliana said. "I don't think we could take on a whole army."

"Oh, I'm pretty sure between us, Alistair and I could make sure we're not walking into a whole army," Zin said, finally standing up, having closed the fallen man's eyes. "Advantages of being Grey Wardens, and all that."

"I was under the impression that we were going to the Circle Tower next, no?" Zevran sounded very neutral about it, nothing but simple enquiry in his voice. "And then back towards Redcliffe."

"The dead at Ostagar are dead." Sten stood with legs braced apart, still and steady as a statue, but there was a trace of impatience in his eyes. "They are in no hurry."

"One certainly hopes not," Zevran agreed. "If this Arl Eamon is ill, as the rumor says, perhaps we should first try to find a cure for him. Unless you disagree, my warden."

"No, I don't disagree." Zin stretched and shook his shoulders and arms, a fighter's movements, staying limber and easy, Alistair thought. "Tower first, we're so close. Come on, let's go."

2.6

"Mm, cookies," Zin said, intercepting the plate that Sten was about to hand over to the templar at the Lake Calenhad docks. "I love these, the kinds with little currants in."

"Yes," Sten said, sounding rather regretful.

"Hey!" The templar wasn't pleased. "Did you just try to bribe me? Because if you did, you're not very good at it. I'm not going to take you over to the tower in my boat just because you didn't give me any cookies. That's not how it works."

"'Tis not your boat," Morrigan said. "That dreary man we met by the inn will talk forever about this boat of his and his resentment at having the templars taking it away and taking over his job for him. Which you are not doing very well, I might add."

"I'm here to make sure no one gets across to the tower," the templar said. "And no one is getting across to the tower." He folded his arms over his chest and made his armor clang. With the dark, still waters of the lake behind him, he might have made quite an imposing figure. If he'd been somebody else. "Not if they're eating all their cookies in front of me without sharing, anyway."

"Those are mine," Sten said reproachfully and tried to take the plate back from Zin, who danced away and kept munching. "This is dishonorable behavior."

"Oh, very well, I suppose it is," Zin said. He stopped moving, and held out the plate so Sten could share. They stood side by side, eating cookies and looking at the young templar.

"Maybe I could come to an agreement with the lovely ladies," the templar said. "Ladies admire a man in fine plate armor, they say." He scratched his neck. "At least, the older templars say that."

"Oh, we are just speechless with admiration," Leliana assured him. "That purple... skirt thing, it really goes well with your complexion." She even managed to make it sound like a compliment, Alistair noted with an admiring half-smile.

"I am not speechless," Morrigan said. She looked the templar up and down. "He looks strong and healthy. I'm certain I could find a use for him, if you don't mind rowing the boat yourselves. He may be less sturdy when I am done with him."

"I, uh, that sounds bad," the templar said nervously. "Is it bad?"

"It may not be fatal," Morrigan said dismissively.

Zin dusted cookie crumbs off his hands. "We don't have all day," he said, though he sounded a little regretful about that. "Take us across to the tower now, or whoever's in charge will be really unhappy when it comes out that you didn't." He grinned. "Also, I may cut your ears off and feed them to you."

"All right!" the templar said hastily. "You can come across, I suppose. Don't want Greagoir getting angry with me. Or, um. You." He looked as though he would have retracted his ears into his head, if he could have figured out how to do it. "But you won't all fit in the boat." He pointed. "I'm not just saying that. The boat is really too small."

"We're not all going," Zin said. "Sten, Alistair, you're with me." Alistair tried to stir himself into a semblance of life and interest. "The rest of you had better stay at that inn over there. Leliana, you're in charge of the money, see if you can't bargain the innkeeper down a bit on the price of rooms. I don't know how long we'll be, but something's clearly wrong out there at the tower, so start with one night for now. Don't get any beds for us."

"And what if this Greagoir just throws you out?" Morrigan asked. "I do not believe the templars have ever been known for their gracious hospitality."

"Hey," the templar said.

"Then we'll come back and sleep on your floor," Zin said. He turned to the templar. "Let's go."

The boat rocked alarmingly as they got in and seated themselves. Alistair thought Shale would probably have gone straight through the planks and continued down to the lake bottom. Just when they were about to leave, Serpent leaped in with a cheerful bark, nearly overturning them. Zin put a hand on the dog's back, keeping him still, and the boat set out across the still waters, moved rather jerkily by the templar's inept rowing.

Alistair stared at the water, dark and smooth, and thought about the Ostagar survivor in the woods. Well, survivor wasn't the right word any more, he was dead now. Thinking of him as a dead survivor seemed wrong, though. And maybe he'd been a deserter; maybe he should have stayed at the king's side, and died there, instead.

Memories of the very last hours in Ostagar hadn't grown any clearer for Alistair now than they had been when he'd woken up in Flemeth's hut. He knew he would have been able to look down from the tower and see the battlefield, but he had no idea if he'd done it. Zin's memories were much more coherent -- Zin had described a bit of what they'd seen in there, and explained some of the mysteries that Alistair's mind presented him with, like the dogs, and what had become of the mage in their company, torn apart by an ogre.

Maybe he'd remember more if they went back. Maybe they could even find the place where Duncan died.

When they got out of the boat again, at the tower, Zin gave the young templar one cookie, and he looked very grateful not to have his ears cut off. The templars guarding the doors should probably have stopped them, Alistair suspected, but instead they just shrugged, and so Zin, Sten and Alistair stepped inside, with Serpent at their heels.

3.

Alistair had never been so glad in his life not to be a templar. Being addicted to lyrium and having to wear an ugly metal bucket on his head would have been bad enough. Being assigned to this tower would have been infinitely worse. Well, he supposed it didn't always smell like this. Probably wasn't always decorated in great gobbets of flesh, the origins of which he was carefully not thinking about right now, mixed with a tasteful scattering of dead people in bright mage robes or templar silver and purple. Probably wasn't always full of demons and abominations popping out round the corners and behind every closed door, either.

Alistair glanced at Wynne. It would be full of mages, though. Should be full of mages. And a lot of those mages probably hated and feared the templars. And a lot of the templars, Alistair knew that much, hated and feared the mages. Yes, everyday life in the tower must be ever so comfortable. Full of fellowship and good cheer.

Now it was just full of death, which wasn't an improvement. Meeting the handful of survivors down on the ground floor had been a surprise, if a welcome one, and Alistair was glad that Wynne had decided to join them. He remembered her vaguely from Ostagar, mostly as one of the group of mages he'd tried to stay away from. It was useful to have someone along who knew these winding chambers.

That wasn't all she knew, of course. When Alistair heard her whispering under her breath, he realized she was naming all the dead people to herself. Mages and templars alike.

"This would never happen in Seheron," Sten said disapprovingly, cleaning his sword on a brightly-colored robe hanging out of a broken chest and leaving a dark smear of blood across the gold and green. The qunari would make fantastic templars, Alistair thought. Well, except for being qunari. And probably not wanting to get addicted to lyrium, either. But they'd never have any doubts, dealing with mages.

All the mages he'd met so far in his life had been just... people. Except for Flemeth, he wasn't so sure about her. But the rest of them? Some were nice, like Wynne, some were not even remotely nice, like Morrigan, but he didn't hate and fear them just because of what they were. They could do a lot of damage, but so could he, given the right weapon. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword, and the triggers to a holy smite hung in the back of his mind, like crystals, like metal.

He was dangerous. The mages were dangerous. Everyone could be dangerous. Zin, with his sword and dagger and wild grin, was an unholy terror. They met blood mages and abominations, and that was wrong, and demons, and that was terrifying, but also templars who were possessed or otherwise completely in the demons' thrall as well. Righteousness was obviously not the shield the chantry claimed it was. Or maybe these templars had never been all that righteous to begin with.

None of it seemed quite right to Alistair. He knew he should be on the side of the templars -- that he could easily have been one of the templars, one of those nameless men who'd been charmed into attacking them, and oh, but it felt wrong to cut them down, these men who could have been his brothers in a different life -- but Zin had placed them firmly on the side of the mages. Or had he? Alistair frowned. That wasn't really the two sides here, was it, templars or mages? More like... blood mages and abominations against everyone else. It wasn't as though the dead had chosen their fate.

That young woman down on the second floor -- that young blood mage -- had talked as though this was a battle of mages against templars and the chantry. But all the mages weren't blood mages, trying to free themselves from chantry supervision in this radical way. Wynne certainly wasn't siding with them. And that terrified man hiding in a closet, what did he say his name was, Godwin, he wasn't a blood mage and certainly didn't give the impression of wanting to be one, either.

Alistair shook his head. He couldn't figure out what the sides were, precisely, except that he was against demons and anything trying to kill them. Sten and Serpent were both fierce fighters, each in their own way, but Wynne was old and not as fast as the others, and it seemed her magic was more of the helping and healing kind than the demon-hurting kind. Alistair was resolved to put his body between her and danger as much as he could. He wished he could do the same for Zin, too. It wasn't that he thought Zin was weak, it was just... well, if any of those demons tried to lay a demony finger on Zin, he'd slice them into little demon pieces. Because he couldn't stand the thought of anything hurting Zin, because Zin... because Zin was their leader, that was it. Yes. That was the important thing here. He'd protect Zin with his last breath, if need be.

Which was harder than it sounded, since Zin was always at the head of their little group, ready to rush into danger, to do the wildest and most reckless things imaginable. Alistair's mouth quirked. If it weren't for Zin's impulsiveness, they'd hardly be here, would they? They could just have waited for the right of annullment, for reinforcements, and the templars would have gone in and...

And killed everyone. Alistair remembered the children Wynne had fought so hard to protect, the confused little boys, the little girl with pigtails hiding behind a robed apprentice who couldn't be older than sixteen herself. No. Just... no.

Alistair shook his head. He still couldn't untangle the greater issues in his head, but he was pretty clear on being against demons, and for little children getting to stay alive. Zin had managed it in Honnleath; maybe he'd manage it here, too, somehow. Anything else could be sorted out later.

3.0.1

"Right," Zin said. "Uldred's dead, the demons are dead, your First Enchanter is right here, a little the worse for wear." His grin was slightly manic. "I need troops against the Blight."

"Yes," the Knight-Commander said in a voice that probably made brand new templars wet themselves, "you made that quite clear when you came here. But I cannot make you any such promises. The templars are dedicated to watching over the mages. You will need to speak to--"

"Wait," the young templar Cullen said, the one who'd been trapped in the force cage just by the stairs to the Harrowing chamber. They'd collected him on the way down, giving him water and letting him walk between Alistair and Sten, which was apparently where he felt the most comfortable. "You can't just... The remaining mages were exposed to vile blood magic. Any of them could have a demon inside. It's not safe."

The First Enchanter made a scoffing sound. "Nonsense, child. The tower has been cleansed, and we should be grateful that there are survivors at all. This young man and his companions did a very brave thing."

"But!" Cullen started to look a bit wild-eyed. More wild-eyed, rather, Alistair corrected himself. "Of course he'd say that!" He looked at Knight-Commander Greagoir. "But we can't know. We can't trust them."

"I trust Irving," the Knight-Commander said. His brows drew down, and he threw a quick glare at the First Enchanter. "At least, in this. You would do well to do the same."

"But!" Cullen looked appalled. "But ser, all the mages who turned, who were corrupted--"

"And all the templars who were charmed by some desire demon or other," Zin said, "don't forget those." He walked over and looked Cullen in the eye. "No one was safe in there. But I saw the First Enchanter resisting Uldred's threats and attempts at mind control. Frankly, I trust him a lot more than I trust you, right now."

"There, there," the First Enchanter said, "it's entirely understandable on both your parts that you'd feel like this. But the decision here rests with the Knight-Commander."

Zin spun around on his heel. "And what does the Knight-Commander think?" he asked with exquisite politeness that sounded rather disturbing, coming from him. "Personally, I feel matters are in better order now than they were when we arrived here."

That made Knight-Commander Greagoir frown even more, and Alistair could understand that, because this was the man who'd been in charge of that particular chaos, and it would be better not to taunt him with it. What he said, though, was, "I see no reason to doubt the word of the First Enchanter. Of course we will watch the remaining mages carefully for signs of blood magic or the influence thereof, but I believe the tower has been cleansed through the efforts that you and your companions made." He looked displeased, but all the same he went on to add, rather grimly, "Thank you. And as for you, Ser Cullen, perhaps you'd better rest for as long as you need, and then join in the efforts to restore order to the library."

Alistair blinked, because surely looking for survivors was more important than picking up books. Then he blinked again, and thought the Knight-Commander was more considerate than he looked, of both his templars and the possible survivors. Cullen wasn't likely to mistake a book for a demon, after all.

3.1

Wynne had to show her travel authorization papers, signed by both the Knight-Commander and the First Enchanter, to the templars on the inside of the tower doors, to the templars on the outside of the tower doors, and to the templar in charge of the boat. They were out of cookies, so Alistair supposed it was lucky he could read.

"Doesn't that drive you crazy?" he asked Wynne as the boat began to move. "Having them check on you every step you take?"

She looked gravely at him over the bundle she held in her lap. "The restrictions exist for a reason. After what you just saw in the tower, can you doubt that mages are dangerous?"

"Well, no," he said, because that had been more than obvious. "It just seems a bit excessive."

Sten snorted. It was clear that he did not think it excessive at all, rather the opposite. "Mages should be leashed," he said.

"People shouldn't be leashed," Zin said. "And whatever you're thinking about saying in reply, don't. That heavy mail is going to make swimming very difficult for you."

"Swimming? You can't go swimming in Lake Calenhad," the young templar at the oars said. "Very, very bad idea." He shook his head, looking worriedly from Zin to Sten and back again. "Very bad."

"Perhaps we should all calm down," Wynne said, looking from Zin to Sten as well, probably thinking, as anyone with a shred of reason would, that there was no way that scruffy-looking rogue was going to throw nearly seven feet of heavily armed qunari off the boat. "Before we do something we regret."

Alistair patted her hand. She hadn't seen Zin and Sten share a plateful of cookies earlier, of course, but still. "It will be so nice to travel with a sensible person for once."

Zin looked offended. "I don't count?"

"You," Alistair said, "most definitely do not count."

Nor did he himself, he realized, because no matter what it looked like, his money would have been on Zin.

3.5

"This place is beautiful," Zin said.

"It likes dead humans in its scenery?" Shale asked dryly. Not an unwarranted question, since the man who had tried to sell them the same book he'd sold to all those gullible, and now probably dead, mages in the tower was currently a smear of blood all over the grass, and so were his companions, except for the one Morrigan had frozen and Alistair had hit so hard she'd shattered. The bits would probably start bleeding once they thawed out, though. Alistair made a face at the thought.

"I was looking the other way," Zin said with a light-hearted grin, gesturing at the small lake, the trees, the high cliffs. "I think we should camp here for tonight."

"With all those corpses piled up behind our backs?" Morrigan didn't look pleased by that idea. "Ugh."

"No, I think we'll be more comfortable without those." Zin quickly ransacked the merchant's wagon, taking all the tents and bedrolls and blankets he could find, as well as all the food. He tracked down the pair of oxen in a nearby little copse and hitched them up to the wagon; Alistair blinked a little, since that was not a skill he expected Zin to have. Then he enlisted Shale, Sten and Alistair to help him move the dead bodies into the wagon, slapped the nearest ox on the rump, and sent the equipage off down the rutted trail that paralleled the imperial highway they could see to their left.

Almost all of Ferelden had that, Alistair had come to notice: simple dirt roads next to the highways' marbled magnificence. Their own wanderings followed the dirt roads, mostly, as earth was much softer and more comfortable to walk on than stone. The old imperial highways only had entrances and exits in the places where the long-ago builders had chosen to place them, which might correspond to a current settlement, or it might not, though there was usually a campsite. And between those places, travellers were trapped on the road, unless they chose to jump off the edge and possibly break something.

Most merchant caravans followed the dirt roads as well. Those entrances and exits were much too narrow and steep for an ox cart or a larger wagon pulled by a team of oxen or mules. Bodahn and Sandal were an exception to this, and chose the highways where they could, because they had handcarts, though large enough that they called them wagons, and pushing those was definitely easier on a flat, even surface.

"Someone's in for a nasty surprise somewhere," Alistair said, squinting at the vanishing ox wagon.

"You have to be kidding," Zin said. "Someone's going to get a wagon and a good team of oxen to pull it for free. Some random goods, too. I'd call that a good surprise." He shrugged. "Okay, so they'll have to deal with the dead bodies, but I think the material gains are going to outweigh the inconvenience."

"Oh." Alistair felt like an idiot. "I didn't think of it that way."

"And people used to call me spoiled."

"They did?" Alistair eyed Zin. "When you grew up?" Zin didn't say anything, and Alistair found himself babbling on to fill the silence. "But they don't say it now?"

"Now I get to say it to you," Zin said with a fleeting grin. "Makes for an interesting change."

"I'm not, though," Alistair said. "Spoiled, I mean. I just, I didn't think..." He looked over his shoulder. "Morrigan's not listening to us, is she?"

That won him a faint whuff of laughter. "No." Zin stretched, arms above his head, then turned to where Morrigan already had the fire going and Leliana and Zevran were squabbling about what to put in the cookpot. Zevran hadn't poisoned them yet, Alistair admitted, and he was a much more reliable cook than Leliana, whose downright inspired meals were balanced by the ones where she completely forgot what she was doing. "Mm, food. I hope Zev keeps an eye on Leliana. She might poison us all by accident one of these days."

"Whereas if Zevran does it, it's bound to be on purpose," Alistair said, a little sharper than he'd really intended. He just, well, he didn't like all the suggestive remarks that Zevran made. To Zin. Or to anyone else, really, particularly to himself, but it bothered him more about Zin. He didn't like the way Zevran kept looking at Zin, as though Zevran had discovered something rare and wonderful that no one else could see. Because he hadn't. They could. Or at least... well.

"Of course," Zin said with a grin. "Zev would never do a thing like that by accident. I'm going to try out the temperature in that lake." He was already stripping out of his armor, wiggling to get at the straps. "There's plenty of time before the food will be done. Want to join me?"

"Here?" Alistair, who had been about to reach out and help Zin with the buckles, froze. "You mean in front of everyone?"

Zin laughed at him over one shoulder. "I'm not about to go around the lake for a bathing spot when we've got this right here. Everyone here has seen naked men before, I'm pretty sure." He stood on one leg to pull off a boot. "And if not, it's about time and they should just think of it as an educational experience." Zin braced a hand on Alistair's shoulder to get the other boot off. "Come on, you're all sweaty, a bath would do you good."

"Is it naked warden time?" Zevran had given up all pretense of watching the cookpot and was staring openly at Zin. "Don't let me interrupt, by any means."

"Oh, I think he might poison us by accident," Alistair muttered, "if you distract him enough."

"That's not what I'm trying to do." Zin pulled away and walked towards the shore, completely naked. Alistair took in everything about that naked figure, the wide shoulders, the long legs, the shifting back muscles, the high, round-- He stared quickly down at his own toes.

Alistair walked over to the campfire for something to do, and sat down on a rock. He wasn't looking at Zin. He certainly wasn't staring under his lashes, like Leliana, or blatantly ogling, like Zevran. There'd be no reason for him to do such a thing. He'd been through templar training and then the Grey Warden fellowship, and men had bathed naked together all the time, and no one had thought twice about it, certainly not him.

There was no reason for him to look. There was no reason for him not to look. Alistair was giving himself a headache.

"That young man has no shame," Wynne said, sitting down next to Alistair and pressing water out of her hair with a thin, raggedy blanket.

"He certainly has nothing to be ashamed of," Zevran shot back. "But my dearest Wynne, I am devastated that you chose to take your own bath behind my back, as it were. Do you perhaps require some assistance in making certain your magnificent bosom is dry? I would be happy to help."

"No, I do not require assistance," Wynne said tartly. "Leliana, my dear, I don't think quite that much parsley root will improve the stew."

"Oh! Oh, of course not."

"I don't believe that is actually parsley root," Zevran said, rescuing the bag of dried roots from Leliana's hands. "My apologies. Perhaps dinner tonight will be better if we all turn out backs on the lake."

"Is that an Antivan superstition?" Sten asked disdainfully, coming up to them just in time to hear that, and Zevran started laughing.

Alistair stayed where he was, sitting and doing nothing. He had taken off his heavy chainmail shirt, and the soft breeze from the lake did nothing to help with the way his undershirt stuck to his sweaty body. He'd really like to take off his boots, too, and the rest of his mail. Well, he'd really like to take everything off, but not here and now.

He would have liked it much better if he and Zin could have just gone somewhere more private for a bath, just the two of them. Now everyone was staring at Zin -- Maker, Zevran practically had his tongue hanging out of his mouth -- and Alistair was stuck in sweaty, disgusting clothes, and... oh, Zin was coming back out of the lake again. Naked. Well, of course he was still naked. Completely naked, walking towards them, with drops of lake water rolling off his skin. Alistair tried to swallow, but his mouth had gone completely dry. Maybe being alone with Zin wouldn't have been such a good idea after all.

Reason or no reason, the way he felt about naked Zin was apparently very different from how he felt about naked anybody else.

"Anyone have a spare towel? Blanket? Something?" Zin called.

"I'm afraid this is a bit damp," Wynne said, handing over her thin blanket with her head averted, "but please wrap yourself up in it while we find something else. You'll catch cold."

"I never catch cold," Zin said, but he did wrap the blanket around his hips, and Alistair relaxed a little. "Is dinner ready yet?"

Chapter five

3.6

The pace of their travels slowed a little when Wynne joined them, at first, because no matter how strong and spry she claimed to be, she was still easily twice the age of anyone else in the company. Their way back south around the lake, to Redcliffe, went by shorter stages than usual, and Alistair could tell that Zin was keeping a close eye on Wynne to see how all the walking affected her.

Morrigan noticed it, too. "That old woman is as tough as a soldier's boot-sole," she said dismissively. "There is no call to coddle her."

"We're just being kind to her," Alistair said. "I realize that's probably an alien concept to you."

"We?" Morrigan raised a brow. "I believe that is our warden being, as you say, kind to her. You are hardly doing anything, Alistair, except following him, as you do so love to do."

"Don't we all?" Zevran said philosophically. "You must admit, my dear Morrigan, that is quite an inspiring rear view." He cocked his head at Alistair. "Don't you agree, my warrior friend?"

Alistair sputtered. "That's not... that's not what I... This really isn't what we were discussing," he said, trying to recapture his dignity. "Morrigan doesn't think anyone should be nice to Wynne."

"But whyever not?" Zevran said, accepting this change in topic with his usual aplomb. "Such a pleasant older lady, and remarkably well-preserved, particularly in certain areas." He made a suggestive gesture at chest-level that drew a very cold look from Morrigan. Zevran met it with a smile. "Of course she cannot compete with you in youth and beauty," he went on blithely, "but you are a woman of quite extraordinary appearance."

Morrigan huffed something about empty flattery, but Alistair thought she wasn't entirely displeased. And it was true: he could admit in the privacy of his own head that Morrigan really was as lovely as she was ill-tempered. He thought he would have found Leliana's cheerful prettiness much more appealing, though, if he'd... well, if he'd been looking.

But he wasn't looking. At them. Alistair could also admit, if only to himself, that there was only one person in the company that he had eyes for, that way.

It wasn't until he saw the sails of Redcliffe's windmill in the distance that Alistair realized he should really say something to Zin about his parentage, before anyone else did. It was bound to slip out sooner or later, somehow. "There's something I should probably tell you," he said, but his confession was interrupted at "my father was King Maric" by a man running up from the village below.

"Have you come to help us?"

Zin sighed, and looked at Alistair in a way that made it clear they'd talk more about this royal revelation later. Then he turned to the villager. "Probably."

The villager was a nervous, high-strung man who talked non-stop as he led them down a steep path towards the village chantry. As it turned out, Redcliffe was under nightly attack by undead who swarmed from the castle, and no one knew if the arl was alive or dead. Bann Teagan had come to visit his brother, and instead ended up trying to organize the villagers to stand against these attacks. Though to judge by the bleak look on their guide's face, things weren't going all that well.

Everyone started to squabble about the best thing to do. "Of course we must help these poor people," Wynne said.

"Because they are too weak to help themselves?" Morrigan said scornfully. "'Tis not our fight."

"This will not help us defeat the Blight," Sten rumbled.

"But we are here, and we can help," Leliana said.

"This arl will no doubt be grateful for our help, if we assist his villagers and his brother," Zevran put in. "And the gratitude of a powerful man will be a useful thing to have on our side. We do need his help in return, no?"

Alistair was tempted to jump into the conversation, but instead he kept his eyes on Zin, who was walking briskly along, head held high and with something tense about his mouth. When they were almost at the chantry, Zin looked back over his shoulder. "Shut up. All of you."

3.6.1

"Of course, you're Bryce Cousland's younger son!" Bann Teagan said. "I saw a lot of the teyrn and teyrna the summer they were staying with Bryland, though they hadn't brought their children with them that time."

"No, we were left behind with Nan," Zin said lightly, "who promised to be very stern with us, and gave us cookies for a snack every day."

Bann Teagan laughed. "That's very stern, indeed! Now, I've put two men in charge of the defenses..."

Well, that settled the matter once and for all. Not that there hadn't been plenty of clues: the good equipment, the crisp accent, the references to a huntsmaster and a library, having guards to pester. And a mabari of his own. Zin was a noble, even with that tattoo. Alistair bit his lip. He wondered how different it was to grow up in a castle when your view was from the top down and you had no doubts about your place there.

3.7

Alistair had always liked Redcliffe, despite the pervasive smell of fish. It wasn't exactly pretty, but it was comfortable and cheerful, and you could sit on the docks and have a good view of the lake and watch for the really big fish. Which didn't sound very exciting, but that was the thing about Redcliffe, it was nice, not exciting. He liked the way so many of the houses were built on poles driven into the lake bottom, and connected by narrow pier-like walkways rather than ordinary streets and alleys. When the water was high, after the spring rains and the mountain thaw, the whole village seemed to float on the surface of Lake Calenhad.

Things were very different now. Everyone was pale and grim, the chantry was full of frightened children and their grandparents, the smith was drunk off his head, the mayor thought they were all going to die, the innkeeper only thought about his profits at a time like this...

Zin didn't look too happy about suddenly being revealed as a teyrn's son and thrust into a position of responsibility for Redcliffe's fate, but he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, and then it seemed to Alistair he was everywhere at once: putting some heart back into the mayor, persuading the smith to repair the militia's armor, finding a lost child, bullying the innkeeper into joining the militia, discovering a spy and talking him into defending the village as well... Sten looked on approvingly. Alistair's head was spinning as Zin stormed into the abandoned village store and decided the barrels of lamp oil would be perfect for setting the undead on fire. He hoped Zin was right.

"Or we will just have flaming undead," Zevran said, "and it will be like fighting giant torches."

"Don't be so negative," Zin said and went to thump the locked door of a dwarven trader the mayor had mentioned. When no one answered, Zin simply picked the lock and went inside.

Alistair had a feeling this was not the best way to enter a private home, but it was Zin, so he followed just in time to hear Zin offer Dwyn the dwarf some intimate favors if Dwyn would join in the fighting tonight.

"Tempting," Dwyn said, and Alistair considered just knocking him into a wall, because -- well, because that was no way to speak to a Grey Warden, "but not tempting enough."

"And I could put in a good word for you with Bann Teagan," Zin added. "He's going to be very pleased with everyone who helps out tonight, and so will the mayor."

That was apparently just the right kind of incentive for a trade-minded dwarf. Dwyn agreed to fight, and they were off again, Zin looking rather manic by now as he somehow found the time and inner resources to be halfway nice to the sour-faced revered mother in the chantry, persuading her that no, giving the knights of Redcliffe chantry amulets wasn't misleading and deceitful, it was a way to help them fight better. Leliana wasn't best pleased with that idea, but Alistair clapped Zin's shoulder as they trudged up the hill to where the knights were waiting.

"Good work," he said. "Those men need a bit of encouragement." And at least Zin hadn't been rude to the woman to her face, the way he'd been to the revered mother in Lothering.

"And you," Zevran pointed out, "need something to eat and drink. May I suggest that when you have spoken with Ser Perth, we go and find out what the aptly-named Bella can serve us, besides ale?"

"Some food and rest would be welcome, before we face what is to come tonight," Wynne said. "This village is rather... steep, isn't it?"

"Yes, and I believe we have run up every hill at least three times. I would be happy to offer the support of my arm, dearest Wynne."

Wynne looked at Zevran. "Where would you place this arm, exactly? ...No, don't answer that."

4.

It wasn't until much later in the night, when the fighting was finally over and the village lay quiet, that Alistair had time to really think about what he'd heard in the chantry when they'd first come to Redcliffe. He went in search of Zin, and found him at last down on the lake shore, perched on a rock.

"So you're a Cousland," Alistair said.

"So? You're a Theirin." Zin didn't look at him, just kept staring out at the lake. On the other side of the narrow inlet, Redcliffe Castle loomed at them, waiting.

"No, I'm not," Alistair protested. "The king seduced a maid, or maybe the other way around, I don't know. What I do know is that I was an accident. I'm just a bastard that nobody should care about."

"You look a lot like Cailan." Zin sounded eerily detached. "I can't believe I didn't notice before. I can't believe everyone at Ostagar wasn't talking about it. Put the two of you side by side and it's so obvious you were brothers."

"Half-brothers," Alistair muttered. "And it's not as if we knew each other."

"He knew who you were," Zin said. "He asked for you by name, that you'd be sent to the tower of Ishal. You and me."

Alistair felt as if he'd taken a hit to the stomach. He sat down on the same rock, with his back to Zin. "No. Duncan picked us out, when the king decided he needed wardens to light the beacon."

"I was there at the meeting," Zin said. "I heard it myself."

Alistair shook his head silently. He'd thought Duncan was the one who'd decided to keep him out of harm's way, decided to protect him somehow, and it had made him both angry and happy, pleased and frustrated. To have it be Cailan... that changed everything. Duncan hadn't been trying to give him any kind of special treatment because of who he was, then. But Cailan had. Cailan had known. Cailan must have known.

Cailan had never acknowledged him with so much as a glance.

"You're trying to sidetrack me," he said. "That's not what I came out here to talk about."

Zin shrugged. Alistair could feel the motion against his own back. "I don't know how Teagan could tell. I look a lot less like my father than you look like your brother."

Alistair hunted for a memory. "Wasn't Fergus Cousland with the army at Ostagar?" Then he nearly bit his own tongue off. "Of course he was. You mentioned once that you were looking for your brother. I remember now, he was--"

"Yes. Out scouting." Zin could have been talking about the weather. At least, if there had been a sudden cold snap. Alistair remembered Zin looking towards the gates every time someone returned, remembered Zin questioning the injured man they'd found out in the wilds. "At least that's what Cailan told me. He never came back before the battle, that I could discover."

"He could still be out there," Alistair said.

"At the bottom of a swamp, as Morrigan would no doubt point out."

"But how did you come to join the wardens?" Alistair couldn't make sense of it, and he wanted to get away from the topic of Fergus Cousland, who probably was at the bottom of a swamp. Which... was marginally better than being gnawed on by darkspawn on the battlefield, Alistair supposed. Morrigan had finally taken the time to tell him just what had happened to the king's army after the darkspawn had won; Zin had told her to leave Alistair alone, but it was his own fault, really, for having asked again after she'd deflected him the first time. She hadn't said that much, but enough to give his mind many vivid images to play with. In case he ever ran out of nightmare material. "If your family already had one son with the army..."

"Rendon Howe was a friend of our family," Zin said, still in the same calm, cold voice. "You know, the Arl of Amaranthine? He came to our home and was made welcome and he betrayed us. Fergus left just hours before Howe's men slaughtered everyone in the castle. Duncan got me away." After a moment he added, "My nephew was six years old."

"Maker, Zin. I'm sorry." That had been the completely wrong thing to ask. No wonder Zin had been so desperate for information about his brother. Alistair reached back and fumbled until he gripped Zin's wrist, slid his hand down until he could clench their fingers together. Zin's hand was cold.

"I'm going to kill him," Zin went on, as if saying that the sun would rise tomorrow.

"Yes," Alistair said. That, he understood. Zin was going to kill Rendon Howe, just as he himself was going to kill Loghain Mac Tir. And they'd gather an army, and save Ferelden from the Blight. All in a day's work. No difficulties here. The sun really was going to rise tomorrow.

They sat for a long time on that rock by the shore of Lake Calenhad, back to back, leaning against each other. Alistair kept his grip on Zin's hand until Zin's fingers didn't feel so cold any more.

4.0.0.1

Alistair had never liked the arl's wife, Lady Isolde. Well, she'd never liked him, either. When she came running from the castle in the morning, he was glad to see she was alive, of course, and gladder still to hear her say that the arl himself lived, ill though he was. But she was nervous and evasive, feigning outrage when Zin tried to get her to explain exactly what was going on, as if the idea of people asking her questions was more than she could bear. And Bann Teagan, who was usually more level-headed, agreed to her bizarre request that he come with her into the castle. Alone.

When the bann and Lady Isolde had left, accompanied by a rather nervous-looking guard, Zin turned to face Alistair. "Were they always like this?"

Alistair shrugged. He didn't really know what to say. "I haven't really seen much of them since I was a child," he said. He didn't remember Teagan being such a pushover for Lady Isolde, but then again he might not have noticed, back then.

Zin bounced Bann Teagan's signet ring in the palm of his hand. "So there's a secret passageway into the castle. Which Teagan didn't use to sneak in, and which no one else has used to sneak out. And Isolde was lying to us about something."

"She was afraid," Leliana said, and next to her Zevran nodded vigorously. "Very much afraid."

"And she will throw this Teagan to the wolves," Zevran added, "whatever the wolves may be in this case. But he went willingly, my warden, so please do not blame yourself."

Zin grimaced. "Who else is there to blame? I suppose we'd better go in and try to rescue him from his own gallant folly. And Sten, don't think I didn't hear you there."

"I was not trying to be quiet," Sten said. "This is a foolish plan."

"More foolish than plan," Zin agreed, "but it's all we've got, so let's go."

4.0.1

The secret passage took them to a dungeon, and they split up to search the cells. Alistair hadn't ever been down here before. He had no idea Redcliffe Castle had such a lot of room for prisoners. It was a relief to him that nearly all the cells were empty, but near the end of one row, he and Zin found some foul and blackened creatures, more of the undead they'd fought the previous night, trying to get into one of the cells. They cut the undead down, and inside the cell they discovered a man, a mage in tattered and stained robes, cowering against the back wall, though he came forward readily enough when he saw that they were living people.

The mage, as he was absurdly ready to tell them, had come to the castle to poison Arl Eamon at Teyrn Loghain's behest, but Lady Isolde thought he was there to teach Connor, because as it turned out, the arl and arlessa's son was a mage, and Isolde wanted to hide that. So she'd wanted an apostate, and Teyrn Loghain had given her this mage, this blood mage, on the run from the tower and quite desperately willing to do anything to survive.

"You poisoned the arl?" Alistair said, dumbfounded. All these revelations were fairly stunning, but he thought a confession of attempted murder of an arl of Ferelden wasn't something to be taken lightly.

"Teyrn Loghain told me to!" The mage blinked uncertainly at them both. "I didn't know anything about the arl before I came here, and -- well, he seemed like a nice man, once I did meet him, but Teyrn Loghain is a war hero, and he's, well, he's Teyrn Loghain. I thought he had a good reason. And," the man's voice faltered, "I was in trouble and he said he could get me out." He sighed. "And instead I ended up in worse trouble than I even thought possible."

"If Lady Isolde found out that you'd poisoned her husband, I'm betting she wasn't pleased," Alistair said. Lady Isolde had always been very possessive of Arl Eamon; he couldn't imagine that had changed.

"No." The mage rubbed at his forehead with the back of one grubby, bruised-looking wrist. "No, she wasn't. And she thinks this is all my fault, the undead, the demon -- she thinks I summoned the demon, and I didn't."

"Demon?" Zin asked sharply. "What demon?"

"Connor is possessed by a demon," the mage said. "I don't know how he managed that. The demon is responsible for all the rest of it. I just poisoned the arl." He didn't seem to have a problem with admitting that particular crime over and over. Maybe it seemed like a minor thing to him now, compared to everything else that was going on in the castle. "I think the demon is keeping him alive somehow. I don't know how, though. Lady Isolde tortured me so I would confess my guilt, but I d-don't know anything, any more than this. I wish I could do something," he waved a hand, "anything, to make up for what I've done."

Zin's eyes narrowed. "You could come with us," he said. "Try to protect whoever's still alive in the castle."

The mage's eyes went even wider. "I think Lady Isolde would have me killed on sight if she found me out of my cell," he said. "And, and, I'm not really up to fighting demons. I mean, I want to help, I want to do something good, but."

"But not if it's dangerous?" Alistair said. Then he looked at the mage again: smallish, dirty and ragged, and those bloodstains weren't on the outside of the robe, they'd soaked through from the inside. He supposed if he'd been tortured, he wouldn't feel like taking on a demon, either.

The mage slumped a bit where he stood. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

"Run, then," Zin said. "If you won't come with us, then run away somewhere you can make things better on a smaller scale." He rubbed at the back of his neck. "I don't think you can fix this, anyway. Go do something useful with yourself."

Zin unlocked the door, and the mage stumbled out, a hollow-eyed, filthy wretch. Alistair put a hand on Zin's arm. The mage looked utterly pathetic, but still. "You're just... you're going to let him go. Zin, he poisoned the arl, and he's a blood mage."

Zin looked at him. "Yes, but look at him. He's covered in blood, and he's not doing anything. Hasn't done anything." He looked at the mage, who was pale and shaking, but looked back. "Or have you? Were you lying to us just now? You didn't seem to be doing anything to protect yourself against those undead, but then I don't suppose they could get at you through the bars."

"No," the mage whispered. "They couldn't reach. And the arlessa's guards p-put magebane in my food." He cocked his head, listening; the others were still going through the other cells, talking as they went. "Oh, Maker. Is that -- is that Senior Enchanter Wynne?"

"Yes," Alistair said. "That's right, you must have lived at the Circle tower before. Say, did you know an enchanter named Uldred by any chance?"

That question made the mage back up against the bars of the cell door. "I know who he is," he said. "Is -- is he here?" His eyes showed white all around, like those of a spooked horse.

"No," Zin said. "He's dead."

The mage, Jowan, that was his name, slumped against the cell door and closed his eyes. "Thank the Maker." He looked up again, fresh worry in his eyes. "I realize that must sound odd to you! But he was, ah, he was not a nice person. At all."

"Yes, we kind of noticed that when he turned into a giant demon thing and tried to kill us," Alistair said. "That's really not the best way to make new friends." Then again, Uldred had made abominations, not friends.

Jowan passed the back of one hand across his mouth. "I... it seems a lot has happened while I was down here." He looked at Zin. "You'll really let me go?"

Zin looked back. "You'll really do something good with your life? Something to make up for what you've done here?"

"Yes," Jowan said fervently. "Oh, yes." He took two steps, then looked back over his shoulder. "Connor's a nice kid," he said. "I mean, when he's himself. Try to..." He never finished the sentence; instead, he ran.

Alistair watched him go. He turned to Zin when Jowan's tattered robe fluttered out of sight. "Are you sure that was a wise idea?"

"Magebane doesn't work on blood magic," Zin said. Alistair blinked, because he was the templar out of the two of them, after all. As if reading his mind, Zin said, "I know poisons. Magebane drains a mage's mana. But blood magic doesn't use mana, it uses, well, blood. So a blood mage can still cast blood magic even if he's stuffed to the gills with magebane."

"Oh," Alistair said. He looked down the hallway, where Jowan had already vanished, and Wynne and Leliana were coming out of the last cell on the left, shaking their heads. "But... he was all over blood."

"Yes," Zin said, "he was."

4.0.2

"You let him go?" Wynne frowned. "I don't think that was the wisest choice you could have made. Jowan's a blood mage, Zin. He used blood magic to escape the tower."

"Did he kill anyone?" Zin asked.

"No, he did not," Wynne said. "But he stunned several templars, including the Knight-Commander, as well as the First Enchanter, another young mage who was helping him, and a chantry initiate he had suborned."

"Suborned," Zin said, poking at a heap of refuse in a cellar vault. "What does that mean, suborned--" The heap of bones in the far corner of the vault rose up into a disturbingly well-armed skeleton, swinging a rusty sword.

"Look out," Alistair said and blocked that swing with his shield. Wynne took a step back and called up a glyph for protection; Zin sidled along the wall and stabbed the skeleton in the back. Well, in the spine.

"Disgusting," Shale said from the next vault over, and there was a loud crunch. "At least they aren't squishy."

"That one still has bits sticking to its ribs," Leliana said, sounding revolted.

"He had persuaded her to betray her vows," Wynne said, little bolts of magic leaping from her staff. "She believed herself to be in love with him, but when she saw him using blood magic, fortunately, she came to her senses. Seeing your beloved with his hand dripping blood has rather a sobering effect, I believe."

"I thought blood mages could control people's minds," Zin said. He ducked under another swing. Alistair had hacked off one of the skeleton's arms, but not the one with the sword, unfortunately. "Wasn't that why we used that litany thingy back at the tower, when Uldred was trying to turn everyone's heads inside out?"

"Yes," Wynne said grimly, "they can."

Alistair was so appalled, he nearly missed his cut at the skeleton's other arm. "You mean he made her be in love with him? That's horrible." He turned to look at Zin. "Maybe he made us let him go just now, did you think about that?"

The look he got back from Zin was equal parts exasperated and annoyed. "If I were a blood mage," he said, "and thought it was fine to use blood magic to mess with people's minds, I'd've done it before they tortured me. Well, actually," he ducked again and came up in a cross-weapon lunge, cutting the skeleton's head off, "I'd've sent someone else to do the poisoning and never gone into this castle to start with, but that Jowan fellow didn't look all that bright."

"Maybe Loghain's guards delivered him here," Alistair said. "He might not have had a choice about that." A loud clang echoed through the dungeon, followed by what had to be qunari curses. "I knew that sword was too big to swing around down in these vaults."

"Point." Zin spun on his heel to meet the next attacking undead head on. Sometimes Alistair suspected that Zin had been trained by a warrior who wielded dual weapons, rather than another rogue. "Anyway, if he controlled that initiate's mind, she wouldn't have cared if he did blood magic or wore bright orange underwear or whatever. Would she, Wynne?"

"I don't know," Wynne said with a frown. "I suppose an exceptionally strong-willed individual, seeing something that went counter to her most fundamental beliefs, might have..." She shook her head. "No, I've never heard of such a case, it's true. Irving said the girl seemed genuinely shocked. He was rather upset himself."

Wynne tapped the butt of her staff against the floor, and a tingle of magic ran through Alistair; his muscles felt less tired, and he attacked the next skeleton with renewed vigor. This one carried a huge broadsword, and suffered from the same problem as Sten: there simply wasn't a lot of room, and most of the swings were half-hearted at best. Alistair took it down easily enough, and then looked around to see how the others were doing. All of the undead seemed to have re-died, or whatever you called it. Shale was stomping the remains of one into bone flour. Sten fussed over his sword.

"I'm tired of cellars," Zin said decidedly. "Let's go up."

Chapter six

4.1

"I'm not about to kill a child," Zin said with an impatient gesture. "Doesn't anyone have any reasonable suggestions?" Isolde drew breath to speak, and Zin rounded on her. "Not you. This whole blighted mess is all your fault."

She drew herself up. "You cannot speak to me like that! Yes, I have been foolish, but this is about my son, and my son's life! I would do anything to protect him!"

She cut a fine figure, Alistair noted, silhouetted against the fire in the great hall, with wisps of her fair hair coming loose and catching the light. She'd fit better in cleaner surroundings, though. The hall had been untidy and smelling of old food when they'd arrived there, chairs standing crooked and plates left out on the tables. It was clear that no one had worked to keep order in the castle for a while.

Now there was blood as well, tramped into the fine blue carpet, and though Alistair had done his best to only disable the guards that were magicked into attacking them, he didn't think everyone in their company had done the same. A few dead bodies lay along the wall; fresh corpses in this castle of the dead.

"So you hired an apostate to teach him magic in secret," Zin said. "Only this apostate had already been hired by Loghain to poison Eamon, so obviously some people already know Connor is a mage, or Loghain wouldn't have known. The big secret isn't a secret, your husband is poisoned, and Connor, not getting any proper training, does something to tear the Veil, and makes a deal with a demon."

"It was all the mage's fault," Isolde spat. "He summoned these evil things! He made Connor like this!"

"You tortured the mage, which did nothing to help the situation even if it made you feel better, and in the meantime, nearly everyone in the castle was taken over and killed. You were protected because Connor loves you. The walking dead in the castle attacked the village, killing even more people." Zin pinched the bridge of his nose. "I understand that you didn't want Connor to be taken from you. But do you even have any idea of how many people have died because of your decision? None of this would have happened if you hadn't tried to hide Connor's nature."

"That's... true, actually," Teagan said slowly.

"You have a responsibility to the people of Redcliffe. You're their arlessa. You're supposed to take care of them, not endanger them."

"I didn't mean for this to happen," Isolde said. "But Connor--"

"Connor is now an abomination," Teagan said. "Death would be merciful."

"No!" Isolde shrieked.

"Oh, Andraste's floating ribs." Zin tilted his head back. "Doesn't anybody listen to me?" he said, apparently to the ceiling.

"'Twould be possible to confront the demon in the Fade," Morrigan said, "and kill it there without harming the child."

"Thank you," Zin said. "That was actually helpful."

"The Fade?" Isolde looked doubtful. "Is that not the realm of dreams?"

"I thought the demon was in Connor," Bann Teagan said, "not in the Fade."

Morrigan looked impatient. "The Fade is the true home of the demon. It is only partly here, just as no doubt Connor is partly there. 'Tis different for mages, and a great deal more dangerous."

"But the demon can be killed there," Zin said. "So let's kill it."

"Yes," Wynne said with a thoughtful air. "But going into the Fade isn't easy. It would require several mages, and a great deal more lyrium than we have at present."

"You could find those things at the Circle tower," Alistair said, pleased to be able to make a contribution for once. He was tired from the fighting, and felt slow and confused. He really didn't want to kill Connor, though; this alternative Morrigan had suggested was something he'd never heard of, but he was definitely willing to try it, and happy to see that Zin seemed to feel the same.

"So we could. And it's not that far." Zin turned to Bann Teagan. "Provided someone's willing to sail us across the lake, it shouldn't take that long, either."

"I can arrange that," Bann Teagan said. And he did, in less time than Alistair would have thought possible, finding them not one of the small fishing boats, as Alistair had thought, but one of the larger vessels at anchor outside Redcliffe, and a sufficient crew to man it, and food and water for the trip. Efficient and practical. He seemed relieved to have something to do that fell into his sphere of competence.

4.2

"I'm glad you're doing this," Alistair said in a low voice. It seemed only natural to speak quietly here, out in the middle of Lake Calenhad, under the stars. They had a clear sky for once, and a brisk wind; the sailing vessel was cutting swiftly across the water. "I really hope we can save Connor."

"Yes," Zin said slowly. "I hope so, too. I hope I didn't make a really stupid decision back there."

Alistair frowned. "What do you mean?"

"If Connor loses control to the demon while we're gone, if more people die at Redcliffe, it will be my fault." Zin sighed. "Because I can't bring myself to kill a child. Everyone was saying it was the only way, Teagan, Wynne, even you. And maybe I should have. Maybe this is a fool's errand."

Alistair thought back. "But none of us wanted you to kill him. We just couldn't think of another way." He half-grinned. "I never thought I would say this, but I'm really grateful to Morrigan."

"You should get some sleep," Zin said. Wynne had already claimed the one tiny cabin and the one tiny bunk, saying she wasn't going to learn how to fall out of a hammock at her age.

"And you shouldn't?" Alistair tipped his head back and looked up at the stars. The sight almost made him dizzy. The sky seemed very high, but at the same time, the stars were so very close. "I wonder how many mages are needed for this ritual. It might be pretty crowded, going back."

"Would've been even more crowded if I hadn't persuaded everyone except Wynne to stay behind." Zin's face lightened for a moment. "Not that I think the sailors or the owner of the boat would've let a golem on board."

"With the way Shale made the docks creak? No, probably not." Alistair bumped his shoulder companionably against Zin's. "Also, that means you've got four people keeping an eye on Connor, one of whom is a mage. Four people and a golem. Five people, if you count Bann Teagan. And there's Serpent, too."

"And if one of them gets hurt?" Zin asked bleakly. "Also, I notice you didn't mention Isolde."

"Well. I kind of got the impression you didn't really take to Isolde."

Zin gave a tiny choke of laughter. "No, really? What gave it away?" He slumped down even more, a warm and heavy weight against Alistair's side. "I wasn't expecting to have to make decisions like this one," he said quietly. "Battlefield's one thing."

"You know we'll follow you," Alistair said. "I'll follow you."

"Yes." Zin turned his head and rested his forehead against Alistair's shoulder. "I know." His voice was so quiet it was almost inaudible. "I don't think I could do this without you."

Alistair bit his lip, feeling his pulse in his throat.

4.3

The mages agreed to come. The trip back across the lake went smoothly. Connor's demon hadn't harmed anyone while they were gone. Zevran and Leliana had taken over the castle kitchen, sweeping out the debris and starting a big pot of stew to feed everyone who was still alive and in need of sustenance. Shale was trying to decimate the castle's pigeon population. Sten and Serpent sat in the shade of the tree in the courtyard, apparently exchanging war stories. Morrigan was unaccountably absent while the circle mages prepared their ritual.

Wynne went into the Fade and freed Connor from the demon. Isolde burst into tears. First Enchanter Irving stroked his beard and looked pleased. As well he might, if this was even half as complicated as it had looked from the outside.

Alistair searched the entire castle for Zin, once it was all over. He finally came up on the highest battlement, completely deserted now that the castle had so few guards left. Only it wasn't completely deserted after all; Zin was there, sitting with his back against the parapet, eyes closed. He looked completely wrung out, but also happy.

Tip-toeing away again as quietly as his armor would let him, Alistair realized that the feeling inside him wasn't anything like what he'd thought it would be. He felt like he had something really important to say to Zin, but he wanted to make sure he had the words to say it. The closeness he felt, the deep bond, that was one thing, but the way Zin made his heart beat faster and the back of his neck heat, that was something else.

And the tenderness deep inside, such a shy and stubborn feeling. Alistair shook his head, bemused. He'd never imagined himself feeling like this. Oh, he'd imagined there would be a girl one day, although girls made him feel unaccountably clumsy and awkward. But this was something quite different. Zin wasn't a girl, for one thing, and he was irreverent and shameless and completely intent on getting his own way, and scruffy, and... well, and very pretty. And strong-willed, and kind-hearted, and he had a smile that made Alistair's heart turn over in his chest.

Alistair sighed. He hadn't expected to fall in love with the man.

4.4

"Surely you cannot believe that these ashes exist," Morrigan said. "Much less that they could cure a man who has been poisoned with some unknown substance."

"Andraste's ashes are the holiest thing in this physical world!" Leliana broke in. "They are said to cure any ill!"

"Since no one has seen them, I do not see how anyone could know that." Morrigan shook her head. "Wishful thinking, most likely."

"If you two would do less arguing and more walking," Zin said, "we'd get to Denerim faster."

They were following a dirt road by the side of the stone highway again. On the left, they had wide grasslands, and in the distance, the patchwork of fields that made up most of the Bannorn. When Alistair looked to the right, all he could see was the raised stone of the highway. Up ahead, a road from the Bannorn came up to one of the highway's sloping entrances, so there had to be an exit on the other side not too far away. These crossings were rare, and it made Alistair wonder yet again what the ancient builders had been thinking. The highways were like walls, and maybe the imperial road planners had wanted to join some distant parts of their empire together, but in doing so, they had cut other, closer parts off from each other.

There was at least one place in the north, Alistair had heard, where several banns had joined together and hired stonemasons to demolish part of the great North Road, making a gap wide enough for another road to cross through, building ramps for traffic on and off the broken highway, and making it possible for both trade caravans and everyday travellers to come and go between the northern coastlands and the Bannorn without the added difficulty of getting their goods and wagons and animals across the barrier of the highway somehow.

The highways were very impressive, but Alistair had a feeling that they hadn't been built to be practical. Not for the people who actually lived in the land they crossed.

No wonder the Bannorn sometimes felt like a country unto itself, neatly boxed in as it was by the north and west highways. No wonder, Alistair thought wryly, that the Bannorn sometimes acted as though it was the entire country, when it couldn't see past its marble borders.

"Is this really necessary?" Sten asked.

"Yes," Zin said as if Sten's tone meant nothing to him. "You and Shale, at least, had better stay out of Denerim, though. You're much too noticeable. We're aiming to just get in, get the information we need about the ashes from this Brother Genitivi, and get out."

"I think you must consider the possibility that someone might recognize you, as well," Wynne said. "My lord."

Zin grimaced. He'd been even-tempered enough about everyone finding out his family name, but any attempt to adress him by his title made him unhappy. Alistair thought Zin would rather not be reminded. Now that he finally knew what had happened to Zin's family, he could certainly understand that.

"Wrong season," Zin said. "The nobles won't be in town. I'll keep my head down."

Alistair snorted. "Of course you will. You're so quiet and discreet."

"Hey, I can be," Zin said. "Just you wait."

"But don't hold your breath," Zevran said. "Just as a word of advice."

4.4.1

"There's something I want to ask you," Alistair said, scuffing his right foot against the ground. "Since we're going to Denerim and everything."

"Yes?" Zin said, a bit indistinctly since the food was finally done. Off in the distance, Alistair could hear Zevran mutter something about fire spells and cooking not being as compatible as some people thought.

"My mother had a daughter," Alistair said really fast. "I mean, before she had me. And she lives in Denerim. And I thought..."

Zin swallowed. "You want to see her, don't you."

"I... yes."

"Sure, why not," Zin said. "As long as you know where to find her. Denerim's not a small place."

"I know where the chantry records in Redcliffe say she moved," Alistair said, relieved. "I thought I could look at the chantry records in Denerim when we get there to find out if she's still living in the same place."

"I knew the chantry had to be good for something," Zin said. "All right, Denerim, one scholar, one sister. Got it. Did you eat yet?" Alistair shook his head. "Well, get something." Zin pushed him towards the fire. "It turned out pretty decent after all."

"Oh, good," Alistair said. "I'll just, um." He turned to his pack and busied himself with it for a moment, tucking the rose away safely again. There'd be a better moment, when he could get Zin alone without being interrupted by dinner.

He filled his bowl with stew and came back to sit next to Zin on the overturned log. Across the clearing, Morrigan went after Serpent, staff raised, and he hid behind Sten; she said something, but Alistair could only catch the words "...insufferable, mangy, flea-ridden beast!"

"I think he put a hare in her pack again," Zin said. "Puppy love."

"Mm." Alistair poked at the stew. "I've been meaning to ask you. What do you have against the chantry, anyway?"

"Nothing," Zin said after a moment of silence. Alistair looked at him. "Well." He shrugged. "I think the tithes are outrageous, for one thing. The chantry asks for a lot of money, and they say it's to take care of people's souls, but it's still up to their liege lord to take care of their bodies, and let me tell you, bodies are expensive. All those Exalted Marches, who do you think paid to have the soldiers outfitted? It wasn't the chantry."

"I can't say I ever really thought about it." Of course Alistair had studied the Exalted Marches, both in the abbey and during his templar training, but it had been first about their religious necessity and then about their military strategy, never about the, well, the finances. But if his time at Ostagar had taught him anything, it was that armies marched on porridge, not faith. He supposed someone had to pay for the porridge. And the weapons.

"Mother Mallol used to say everything had a purpose, and the chantry was working to fulfill the purpose of mankind. I don't know what happened to her; I couldn't find her among the dead in the Highever chapel." Zin's mouth twisted a bit. "She and I always argued. I just can't believe that Andraste led a rebellion and freed slaves so that we could have a chantry that charges money for dictating everyone's place. I don't think that's what she wanted at all."

Alistair blinked. "You don't think that's what Andraste wanted."

"Well, do you?" Zin said. "Look at the way the chantry treats the Chant of Light, twisting every word of some verses to mean what they want, and deciding that other bits are unsuitable and have to be rejected. You know there was a Canticle of Shartan, before the Exalted March on the Dales?"

"You realize the chantry wouldn't be happy with what you just said," Alistair said slowly. "I know you're a teyrn's son and all, but..."

"Why do you think I always argued with Mallol?" Zin stole a chunk of carrot out of Alistair's bowl, and Alistair frowned, because they didn't find carrots all that often.

"Give that back, you heathen." He grabbed for Zin's wrist, but Zin popped the chunk of carrot in his mouth before Alistair could stop him.

"So I don't really like the chantry," Zin said. "I think the tithes are too heavy and the chantry interferes in too many things in people's lives. And I don't think Andraste wanted that. She found the Maker in her own way, and I don't think we're going to do it by just repeating her words over and over. If they are her words."

"If you get burned alive for heresy," Alistair said carefully, trying his best not to picture it, "you won't be able to stop the Blight."

Zin looked challengingly at him. "Are you being a templar again?"

"I'm being practical!" Alistair said. And that was usually Zin's role, too, so it felt a little strange. "You can't say things like that. Not where anyone can hear you. Maybe you could when you were back in..." Back in Highever, where everyone knew him, and the priest was either very open-minded, or wary of Zin's status. But Alistair felt pretty sure Zin wasn't ready to talk about Highever like that. "Well, maybe you could before, but you can't now. Not here."

"I know," Zin sighed. "I know." He licked his fingers clean of gravy. Alistair watched Zin's tongue curl around his fingertips, felt the tips of his ears heat, and applied himself very vigorously to his bowl of stew.

4.5

Zin eyed him quizzically. "It... reminded you of me." He looked down at the rose in his hand, and then at Alistair's face again. "Really. I make you think of a flower. With thorns."

"Um. Yes?" Alistair swallowed hard. Honestly, part of the asymmetrical tattoo on Zin's face had always made him think of a thorny vine, something wicked and sharp. And the lush beauty of the rose itself, well. There was something that came out in Zin's rare, genuine smile, as opposed to his brash grin. In the shifting colors of his blue-green eyes, in his inability to be anything other than kind to children. Something beautiful, something as velvet-soft as a fresh rose petal. And there was no way Alistair was saying any of that out loud. Ever. "I just wanted you to have it. That's all."

There was more he wanted to say, more he wanted to do; there was so much more he wanted, but he was caught in the look Zin gave him, and any eloquence he might have pretended to deserted him completely. He'd had it all planned out, too: if Zin said this, Alistair would say that, and if Zin said this, Alistair would... but people never really reacted the way you planned, anyway. Planned, hoped, prayed; Alistair didn't know what to call it, the thoughts he'd had about Zin, the feelings he knew he had to share somehow. Keeping silent would just be dishonest.

"Thank you," Zin said. "You... wait. Did you say you'd had this since Lothering?" He looked at the rose in his hand, still as fresh as the moment Alistair had picked it. "Why is it not a mess of dried petals at the bottom of your pack?"

"I don't know," Alistair said. He shrugged when Zin looked at him. "I honestly couldn't say. I've... been careful with it?"

Zin just shook his head. "I don't think that would have worked for anyone else." He turned the rose over in his hand. Alistair tried to put a name to the expression on Zin's face. Startled. Happy. A little cautious. "Listen, I need to know what this means to you. Does it change the way things are between us?"

"I." Alistair felt like his tongue was tying itself in knots. "Maker, I hope so." Now that he'd actually done it, given Zin the rose just like he'd imagined doing for so long, he felt almost paralyzed with fear and delight. He had no idea what to do next.

Zin, being Zin, grinned. Now he just looked happy. "So if I kiss you now, you won't run away screaming?"

Kissing. Alistair's mind latched onto that idea. Zin's mouth. He put his hands on Zin's arms, and when had they ended up standing so close to each other, anyway, he could just lean forward and... hold Zin closer and... press their lips together, gently, feeling the soft pressure in return... it made his head spin, just that one sweet touch, mouth to mouth. "That... that wasn't too soon, was it?"

Except, of course, that this was Zin. Zin grabbed him back and wrapped an arm around his neck and pressed close in a way that Alistair swore he could actually feel through the armor. "Soon, are you kidding," Zin said. "Don't stop." Then Zin's mouth was on his again, press of lips not quite so soft any more, those lips moving and parting and oh, tongue, Zin's tongue in his mouth. Alistair pushed back with his own tongue and the thrill of that touch went through his entire body, leaving him shaking.

They kissed again and again, and Alistair was very glad that he was leaning against a tree (wait, leaning against a tree? When did that happen?), because his legs felt unsteady. "Zin," he tried to say, "Zin."

Zin pulled back and looked at him, eyes darker than Alistair had ever seen them before. "We should take this to my tent," he said. "More comfortable. Also horizontal."

"Zin," Alistair tried again.

Zin leaned in and nipped at his earlobe. "Less talking, more fucking."

"Zin!" That word, in Zin's deep, purring voice, shook Alistair to the core. Because it was so crude, of course. Not because it sounded sexy. He gripped harder at Zin's shoulders. "I, um. I don't think I'm ready for that," he said shakily. He leaned back against the tree trunk and closed his eyes, waiting for Zin to laugh and walk away, to find some more experienced and less inhibited partner.

Soft touches against his face. Alistair tried to seek out that warmth with his own mouth before he could even think about it, but Zin was faster. Zin kissed his cheeks, his jaw, his closed eyelids. "Then I guess we stay here and make out for a while," Zin said. He licked at Alistair's neck, sucked at Alistair's earlobe, and Alistair groaned. "Fair warning though, if I come in my smallclothes, I'm making you wash them out."

Alistair sputtered. "If you -- if you--" Zin kissed him silent. Or at least wordless. He didn't spill himself in his smallclothes, either, but it was a near thing. Alistair had never imagined kissing would be like this, so intense, such a full-body experience. He'd never imagined broad shoulders under his hands, a man's muscular body in his arms, stubble rasping against his chin. He could never have imagined anyone like Zin.

"I really like it when you nibble my ears," Zin panted, doing things with his tongue at the base of Alistair's neck that should probably merit at least a small lightning bolt from above. "Of course, I'd like it even more if we could get out of all this blood-stained metal. I want to feel your skin, babe, taste you all over."

"Babe?" Alistair wasn't sure he could pull off outrage right then, but he tried. "You're calling me babe?"

Zin bit gently at Alistair's earlobe. "Vision of delicate loveliness? Flower of my most ardent desire? Sweet delight of my heart?" He nipped a little harder. "I read a lot of Orlesian love poetry once when I was sick and bored."

"I don't think I'm all that delicate," Alistair said, a little overwhelmed.

"Not with shoulders like these," Zin agreed. "A fair and innocent babe grown to lovesome perfection -- I think that was from something by Gilles de Cherneau."

"Babe." Alistair shook his head. "I suppose you think it's just right for me, do you."

"You bet your sweet arse," Zin said unrepentantly. "Oh, the things I want to do to you. And the things I want you to do to my arse." Alistair made a choked noise into Zin's hair. That, that right there, that was... a little too much for him to think about right then. Though he had to admit that he'd noticed that part of Zin. Zin was all lean, wiry strength, but parts of him were... unexpectedly well-rounded. Like his mouth, Alistair thought quickly, his lips were so soft and plush, nothing to do with the curves of his shapely arse at all. Oh, Maker. He was going to be struck down by lightning where he stood.

They were finally interrupted by Serpent, who pushed them apart with a cheerful whuff and stood between them, wagging his stubby little tail. Alistair only just had time to smooth down his hair and straighten his armor before Sten came stomping dangerously close, in search of a tree for reasons of his own. "I'll go see if there's any of that tea left that Wynne was brewing before," Alistair said hastily. "Sounds just right on a night like this. Warming."

"I know what would warm me right up," Zin groused, but the smile he turned on Alistair shone clear even in the darkness under the trees. "You go have your tea, babe. Don't worry, we're going to have a lot more talks like this one." His tongue flicked out over his lower lip, and Alistair didn't groan, that would have been undignified and wrong, but honestly, if Sten hadn't been just over there, Alistair would have grabbed Zin again and--

Well.

Instead he went back to the fire and had some tea. It was too strong and too hot, and his hand shook a little, spooning out some honey, so it ended up too sweet as well. Alistair drank it anyway and watched Zin have a slow, quiet conversation with Sten. It seemed everyone else was having an early night, so Alistair crawled into his tent as well after an airy good night that could have been directed at everyone and no one.

At least he'd get a full night's sleep. Alistair had finally accepted that they had no need to post guards and work out a schedule now that Shale was with them. He didn't really think that the golem would kill him in his sleep, either, but he was still grateful for the illusory protection of a layer of tent canvas between his sleeping form and that stony gaze.

He took off his armor, every heavy piece of it, hitting the canvas wall with his elbow several times in the process. Alistair tried to imagine, for a moment, two people stripping out of their armor at the same time within the close confines of a tent. No. No, that just wouldn't work. Though Zin would probably help him...

He swallowed hard and slumped down on his bedroll, staring at the holes in his socks. That was another thing about taking your clothes off in front of somebody else. They'd see, well, things like that. Socks with holes in them. Alistair rolled himself up in his blanket. He could hear the low sound of Sten and Zin exchanging a few slow words.

Zin. He'd kissed Zin. He'd finally given that rose to Zin, and it had gone nothing like what he'd imagined, and he'd kissed Zin. Alistair reached out and dragged his second blanket, the worn and dirty and holey one, over his feet. It was just like his socks, anyway. And what if Zin was here and saw that, Zin who'd been born and raised in a castle, Zin who was, come to think of it, possibly the highest-ranking noble in the country at the moment, unless his brother was really alive after all. Which would be nice.

Alistair tried to keep his thoughts on politics, but they circled back to the idea of Zin. Zin right here, or Alistair in Zin's tent, as Zin had suggested. What would they have done together, anyway? Alistair had a fairly hazy idea of how men and women had sex, and an even hazier one of how two men, or two women, might... oh, if Zin had just kept kissing him for a little longer, he really would have made a mess in his smallclothes. He'd had no idea that kissing would feel so good.

There'd be more kissing. Alistair had no idea of how the rest of it would go, or even if he'd like it, but for more kisses like that, he'd do anything.

Chapter seven

4.6

"I'm sorry, babe," Zin said. "I know you were hoping for something better than that, but, well. Most people put their own interests first, you know?"

"Yes," Alistair said, still a bit dazed. He leaned back against the sun-warmed side of the Denerim chantry wall, grateful that the others had gone off to browse the market stalls, giving him and Zin some time alone. "I... suppose they do." He wasn't quite sure what he'd expected from meeting his sister, but that definitely hadn't been it. "I thought she'd just accept me," he went on, feeling stupid.

"Give her some time," Zin suggested. "You'd been thinking about this for a while, but it was kind of sudden for her."

"Not so sudden she couldn't ask for money," Alistair mumbled. She was his sister, but she'd looked at him and seen a prince. Which was ridiculous, because he wasn't a prince. It didn't matter who his father had been. No one else had ever thought anything like that. In fact, Arl Eamon had very kindly explained to Alistair that wherever there was a background to stay in, he'd better stay in it.

Prince, hah.

Zin shrugged. "It's like I said. Most people are out for themselves, I won't lie. But maybe you can think of us as a sort of family," he went on. "Morrigan's the scary sister who still won't let anyone else torment you, Sten's the older brother who keeps disagreeing but has your back when you need it, Zev's the disreputable cousin, Wynne is everyone's favorite grandmother, you know."

"And you?"

That got him a crooked smile. "I suppose I'm your good-for-nothing boyfriend," Zin said. "Unless you've changed your mind about that."

"No!" Alistair said, horrified. "No, I definitely haven't changed my mind about that." He would have reached out and brushed his hand against Zin's, except that they were both in armor. "You're the... you're just... you make me happier than I ever imagined being. Even with all the terrible things that happen, you're... you're you."

The others came back just then, carrying parcels and chatting excitedly. Leliana had bought a candied apple, and was eating it in a way that drew a lot of looks. While everyone crowded round Zin to talk about their purchases, Zevran tugged Alistair aside. "You, my friend, are not going to win any awards for your eloquence," he said. "You may want to put more effort into your compliments. Perhaps if you practiced them ahead of time..."

Alistair groaned. "You heard that? And also, hey! That was a private conversation!"

"Very private," Zevran agreed, "so perhaps you should not have held it in the marketplace of the biggest city in Ferelden." He cocked his head. "Perhaps you should compliment his eyes. They are quite a remarkable color, are they not? Or his legs."

"His legs are not a remarkable color," Alistair said with a scowl.

"Oh? You know this already? I was not under the impression that matters had progressed so far between the two of you. You are to be congratulated."

"Everyone's seen Zin's legs," Alistair said glumly. It had been a while since the last time Zin flung his clothes off to bathe in public, but his legs had probably not turned purple in the meantime.

"True," Zevran said, "and seeing our stalwart leader naked certainly did wonders for morale. Perhaps you could compliment him on the utterly divine shape of his--"

Alistair clapped a gauntleted hand over Zevran's mouth. "Shut. Up. And the next time Wynne offers to remove your brain through your ears," Alistair said, "I'm going to help."

4.6

They found Brother Genitivi's house, but the scholar wasn't there. His home was tenanted by a man who claimed to be his assistant, then got all tangled up when Zin questioned him, piling statement on top of absurd statement until he finally ran out of either lies or patience, and tried to fry them all with lightning instead.

Fortunately, Zevran stabbed him in the back before he could do any real damage.

"Something in here smells a little off," Wynne said. "Whoever this man was, he clearly didn't value housekeeping."

Leliana opened a door at the back of the room, and a thick smell of putrefaction rolled out. Wynne turned green. Leliana looked back at them. "We really should have brought Shale," she said. "Stone doesn't have a sense of smell. Does anyone want to go in there?"

"I'll go," Zin said grimly. He strode in, and came back out quite speedily, clutching a sheaf of notes in one hand. "Anyone who's surprised there's a dead body in there, raise your hand." He looked at them one after another. "No one?" Then a ripple ran through him and he swallowed hard.

Alistair held out a bowl he'd found in the kitchen. "You can be sick in this," he said, and Zin was.

After he'd rinsed out his mouth, Zin led them outside, where they clustered around a sunny corner and breathed deep. Denerim stank of dirt and unwashed people and cheap perfume, not to mention the cattle market wasn't far away, but Alistair would have kissed the air, manure and all, if he could've figured out how to do it.

"Right," Zin said, "I hope Brother Genitivi put some geographical details in his research notes." He waved the notes he'd brought, as if trying to air them out. "Also, someone who feels inconspicuous might want to grab one of these children running about and ask them to deliver an anonymous message to the nice city guards over there. Adding a second dead body isn't going to improve the atmosphere inside that house."

"This Brother Genitivi will have quite a bit of housework to do when he comes home again," Alistair said.

4.7

When they got back to camp, set well outside the city in a sheltering grove of trees, Zin sat down on a log and started to read. Walking past him with a pot full of water, Alistair caught a complaint about the scholar's handwriting. It couldn't have been as bad as all that, though, because Zin kept reading through the rest of the afternoon, while everyone else did camp chores around him, cooking and cleaning, oiling leathers and sharpening weapons and polishing armor.

Alistair cleaned out his pack all the way to the bottom, and held it upside down and shook it, getting a surprising amount of crumbs as well as dried grass and lint. He didn't remember ever packing any foodstuff in there. From across the camp came a blistering string of curses as Morrigan, also going through her gear, found that Serpent had gifted her with the results of his most recent hunting trip yet again. Apparently two dead squirrels didn't please her any more than the half-eaten hares.

Serpent came slinking across the camp, took shelter behind Alistair's pile of belongings, and whined.

"Don't look at me," Alistair told him. "I know you want to make her happy, but I've no idea what she really wants. Something that doesn't leave bloodstains on her clean socks is probably a good start, though."

"The way you Fereldans talk to your dogs is quite interesting," Zevran said behind him, "but does it work?"

Serpent growled a little. Alistair grinned. "It does and it doesn't," he said. "If there's one thing I've learned on this trip, it's that mabari have minds of their own."

"That much is certainly clear," Zevran said. "And they are excellent hunters, which always makes a cook happy." Serpent barked emphatic agreement.

"You think of yourself as a cook?" Alistair started to repack his things. "That seems like an unusual choice for an assassin."

Zevran grinned. "Ah, when I cook, I think of myself as a cook. When I plan and when I fight, I am an assassin. As for the rest of the time... ah, my friend, you know I would be happy to introduce you to myself as a lover."

"No, thank you," Alistair said. Zevran was growing on him, it was true, but not in that way. He'd rather stay a virgin for the rest of his life. "Really, no. Cook and assassin is enough for me."

Zevran shook his head. "Never did I believe that I would find myself traveling with so many attractive companions, all of whom would turn me down. It's enough to ruin a man's confidence in himself."

"Nothing's going to ruin your confidence, Zevran," Alistair said. "Is that a merchant with a wagon coming up from the road? He'd be better off going into Denerim. Maybe we'd better head him off before he tries to share our campsite."

"Warden," the man called, shading his eyes and looking up towards them. "Warden! You're a hard man to find."

4.8

The merchant's name turned out to be Levi Dryden. Even Alistair had heard about the Dryden family, the way they'd been grand nobility once, before their fall from grace. Looking at Levi and his merchant cart, it was obvious that the Drydens' fortunes had changed quite a lot.

Levi Dryden had been a friend of Duncan's, he said. Thinking back, Alistair could vaguely remember that Duncan had actually talked about someone called Levi, and something that the wardens might do to assist him. "Soldier's Peak is where the wardens used to have their headquarters," Levi said, "before they were exiled from Ferelden."

"The warden headquarters are in Denerim," Alistair said.

"Yes, since King Maric let the wardens back in." Levi nodded. "I suppose it seemed more politic to have them there, right under his eye, so to speak."

"They must have come from Orlais." Zin looked wry. "I'm not surprised the new headquarters ended up in Denerim. Loghain probably insisted on having them in the most public and accessible location he could think of."

That seemed entirely likely to Alistair. The news that there was an old fortress full of whatever the wardens of old had left behind, well, he could see why Duncan had thought it interesting, but he could also see why Duncan had never found the time to investigate, the way things had been.

Zin looked interested, though. Well, Zin always looked interested in what people were telling him, and maybe that was the reason why the most unlikely people ended up telling him the most unlikely things.

"It's not that far from here," Levi said, and Zin grinned.

"Let's go, then," he said.

5.

"This wasn't as much use as I hoped it would be," Zin muttered. "So we have a castle, great. I'd rather have an army."

"We can store things here," Alistair said. "Levi will take good care of everything we leave behind."

"Yes, because it's so handy leaving things in a place that's close to, let me think, fucking nothing." Zin stared morosely from the battlements at the giant snowy drifts that covered the hills and the woods. Then he grinned. "Well, we don't have a crazy warden mage to worry about any more." He shook his head. "That guy. The things he did."

"We don't have all those demons making the place their own, either," Alistair said, stepping a little closer and putting an arm around Zin's shoulders. He really didn't want to think about Avernus, or what Avernus had done to all those Grey Wardens, his brothers and sisters, tortured in the name of research. "I know, I thought it would be closer to Denerim, too. Just a small detour, when we were there anyway, trying to find that dratted Brother Genitivi with the awful handwriting." He'd taken a look at those notes, too, then happily left them for Zin to struggle with.

Soldier's Peak wasn't close to Denerim. Not what you'd call close, close. Not as close as Levi Dryden had made it sound, talking about it. And it wasn't as though they'd been able to go the most direct way here. They'd had to take a long way around the arling of Amaranthine to avoid all of Howe's soldiers; they'd followed Levi up endless snowy hills and through endless chilly caves, and even though this was very nearly the farthest north of Ferelden, it was colder here than Alistair had ever been in the south. All he could think was that the tear in the Veil must have affected the climate somehow, bringing winter out of season as well as demons.

"At least you'll get better armor out of it." Zin poked at Alistair's chest. "Even if we have to come back here to get it, once Levi's brother is done fixing it up for you."

"Right now, I'd rather have some nice wooly socks," Alistair said. "Without holes in them."

"Should've bought some in the market in Denerim," Zin said. "Honestly, you and Sten. He needed a new shirt and he bought cookies. I'm not going to loan him any spares."

"He wouldn't fit in them," Alistair pointed out. "There's a lot more of Sten to cover." He sketched imaginary Sten shoulders in the air a good half foot out from Zin's actual ones, and Zin chuckled.

"Someone's lit a bonfire," Zin said, leaning out from the battlement a little to get a better view of the courtyard. "We'd better get down there for the warmth, even if the view's incredible up here."

"If you like snowy forests," Alistair said. He brushed the hair back out of Zin's face. "I'd rather look at you."

"You're being sweet again," Zin said. "Stop it. I can't go down and get food if all I want to do is kiss you."

5.1

The next day, Zin had a cold that stole his voice completely, and Wynne declared they'd better stay until he could talk again, at least. The chimneys in most of the castle were still clear, and they settled into some of the smaller living quarters, which were easier to heat. The Drydens, who had followed them at a sensible distance before, swarmed the castle now that it was safe. They were in and out of every room, cleaning away ages-old debris, burning a lot of the old, broken furniture, making the kitchen fit to cook in again.

Leliana had a sniffle, too; nothing like Zin's, but Wynne brewed tea for both of them and made them drink, and drink, and drink, until Zin sounded better and Leliana said she was about to float away. Sten, who disliked the cold, spent most of his time by the fireplace, sharpening his sword and muttering that they were wasting time.

Without anything useful to do, Alistair wandered around the castle and its surroundings, sometimes in the company of Shale or Zevran, sometimes on his own. He spent a lot of time at the newly-established forge, watching Mikhael Dryden work on the armor they'd reclaimed from Sophia Dryden's body.

He really wanted to spend the time with Zin, but Zin was wrapped up in blankets and tea mugs and Wynne's most stringent care, and Alistair had the feeling he was in the way. Wynne certainly looked at him as if he were. All right, he didn't know how to make Zin better, but he didn't think he would make Zin worse, either. That didn't stop Wynne from catching him in the hallway outside Zin's room and turning him around and steering him away.

"I just need to talk to him about something," Alistair protested.

"If you catch this cold as well," Wynne said tartly, "it will be even longer before we can leave. I'm sure you can live without each other for just a few days."

"Of course we can," Alistair said. "I just..." Just don't particularly want to, was the truth of it. He'd always wanted to be close to Zin, to know where Zin was. Now that things had changed between them, he wanted to be even closer.

"You have strong feelings for each other, don't you," Wynne said. She guided him down the hallway and into another room, one without a fireplace, where the air was still chilly and musty from centuries of neglect.

"Maker, I hope so," Alistair said. "I mean, I know I do."

"I like you very much, Alistair, and I want you to be happy. I just hope you've considered... the two of you both have responsibilities that might interfere with a relationship."

"What do you mean?" Alistair felt a chill that had nothing to do with the room's temperature. He'd always thought of Wynne as a sweet old lady. Well, a sweet old mage. Now he noticed how firm her chin was.

"You're both Grey Wardens," Wynne said gravely, "and that means you must place the mission of ending the Blight above any personal considerations. And in addition to that, Alistair, you're Maric's only surviving son. We all heard what was said at Redcliffe."

"There's no point in trying to keep anything private in this company, is there," Alistair said. "Look, I don't know why you think I can't be in love with Zin and end the Blight. I promise I won't be thinking about how pretty his eyes are when I should be stabbing hurlocks to death."

"But what if you had to choose between ending the Blight, and saving the person you love?"

Alistair stared at Wynne. "How would that even work?" he asked. "I mean, if we don't end the Blight, the darkspawn are going to take over the world and kill everything and everyone. I couldn't save Zin by not ending the Blight."

Wynne smiled, a smile that was sad around the edges. "But you could choose to protect him, instead of doing whatever is needed to stop--"

"No." Alistair shook his head. "It's not going to be like that. Maker's breath, we're not going to end up like that."

"Zin is also the heir to Highever," Wynne went on as if he hadn't spoken, "and you may well be the heir to the throne of Ferelden. Those are both matters that must be taken seriously."

Alistair shook his head even more, nearly making himself dizzy. "No. Oh, no. Wynne, you've met me, you know I can't be king. I'd make a terrible king."

"No, I don't know that, Alistair. You have a good heart, and I think you have it in you to be a good king, too. But a good king must place the welfare of his country and his people before his own wishes, and--"

"Stop," Alistair said, "please, just -- just stop. I'm not king, I'm not planning to be king, and I... you think I'm bad for Zin? That I'll keep him from being the Grey Warden he needs to be, or the teyrn that he needs to be?"

"Now, that's not quite what I said." Wynne patted his arm. "But I want you to consider these things. I'm very fond of both you and Zin, and I don't want to see you bringing needless unhappiness on yourselves."

"Unhappiness!" Alistair stared at Wynne, unsure what to say. "You think I'll hurt him. You think I would hurt Zin."

"No, Alistair. I don't think you would try to do such a thing, but that doesn't mean you can't be hurt. You spent most of your life in very sheltered environments, and you don't have the same experience of the world that other young men your age do. All I'm saying--"

"You think he'll hurt me?" Alistair turned away abruptly from Wynne and drew a deep breath. He had enough sense to realize that if he thumped the bare stone wall here with his fist, it would be very painful. "Excuse me," he gritted out. "I have to go be somewhere else for a while."

He walked away fast, with long strides, feeling his muscles work as he pushed himself up stair after stair. Alistair didn't stop until he was on the high stone bridge that led to the creepy old mage's creepy old tower laboratory. Going up the stairs so fast had winded him a bit, and the air was so cold outside, deep breaths felt almost painful, biting into his lungs. He leaned against the nearest railing and tilted his head back, looking up at the sky.

Maybe Wynne was right. He was inexperienced, and he was going to get hurt. The really important thing was stopping the Blight, not getting to hold hands with Zin in a field of flowers. His imagination showed him Zin in a field of flowers, looking around for an evil straw of grass to stab, trying to work out how to pick a butterfly's pockets, and he had to laugh a little. Then he sobered again. He was inexperienced and awkward; he couldn't find the right words to tell Zin about the deep bond he felt between them, and he definitely didn't know the right actions, either.

Alistair wondered if Zin knew that Alistair had never even kissed anyone before that night with the rose, either. Maybe Zin had been laughing at him behind his back... but if that was so, then why had Zin wanted to kiss him again, and again, and again? They'd shared several stolen moments since that first one. Alistair felt warmer just thinking about it.

Wynne's pointed questions about ending the Blight didn't mean anything to him at all. Alistair just couldn't imagine a conflict there. He and Zin had the same goal, ending the Blight, and he couldn't envision a situation where love would be on one side and the death of the archdemon would be on the other.

But that other stuff she said, that was more difficult. Alistair didn't think anyone in their right mind would want him to be king, but Zin was the teyrn now, there was no two ways about it. Dealing with the Blight came first, but dealing with Highever would come later, whenever later was, and probably Zin didn't need someone like Alistair complicating his life.

He wanted to, though. Zin made him want so much, he felt shaky inside.

5.2

Mikhael Dryden worked faster than Wynne's tea, and Alistair's new armor was ready before they had to leave, after all. He wandered in to show it to Zin, who looked approvingly at him over the increasingly tattered collection of Brother Genitivi's research notes. "Looks good on you, babe," he croaked. He blew his nose and took a second, sharper look at Alistair's face. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Alistair said. "Why would anything be wrong? I'll just take this out and, uh, put it away till we're ready to go."

Zin straightened up where he sat, and the blanket fell away from his shoulders. "Did Wynne talk to you? She did, didn't she." His brows drew together. "I told her she could bitch at me as much as she wanted, but to leave you alone. I think we're going to have words."

When Zin stood up, he wobbled alarmingly, and Alistair caught him and pushed him down again; they hadn't been able to find any soft chairs or couches that had survived the long damp centuries, but Zin's seat was well padded with wolf pelts and blankets, soft enough that he could just sink back into it. "If you're going to have words with anyone," Alistair said, "I think they'd better be words from right here. You're kind of ruining the mean and tough image of the wardens."

Zin made a face and blew his nose again. "I just got my foot caught in a corner of the blanket, for fuck's sake."

"Also," Alistair went on, "I don't know what you think she said, but Wynne was nice and polite to me. You shouldn't yell at her."

"Mean and tough warden, remember," Zin said. "Trying to be, anyway." He sighed and sank down in the blankets. "She tried to talk to me about Grey Warden responsibilities and how I'd better break up with you now to save us both pain later on. But I didn't think she'd talk to you about it."

Alistair sat down at Zin's feet, where a couple of the wolf pelts had slipped loose from the chair seat. The warmth of the fire along his left side was nothing to the warmth of Zin's legs against his back. "I don't see how the Grey Warden thing is going to be a problem," he said. "I mean, you want to end the Blight, I want to end the Blight, it's not as though we're going to argue about whether we should kill the archdemon or feed it Sten's cookies instead."

"You don't want to keep it as a pet?" Zin's fingers dug into Alistair's hair and started to rub at his scalp. It felt wonderful. "Well, I don't either, to be honest. I think Serpent would object."

Rubbing his cheek against Zin's knee, Alistair made a sound somewhere between a snort and a purr. "You don't think he wants a bit of big, scaly competition for those mabari treats you keep sneaking him when you think no one's looking?"

"Says the man who feeds him rabbit chunks from his own stew bowl."

"Only the gristliest ones," Alistair said. "Listen, I... I think maybe Wynne had a point, though." Zin's hand stilled in his hair. "You're going to rule Highever when this is all over, and I thought we agreed that I'm just some nobody tagging along with you."

Zin's fingers clenched and tugged, not hard enough to hurt, but enough to be emphatic. "Right, just your average bastard prince and heir to the throne, nothing to see here, move along. What are you trying to say, babe?"

"I just... I don't even know," Alistair said. "You're very special to me. But I'm nobody special at all. I want to be with you, but what if you think I'm boring?"

"What?" Zin leaned forward, the blankets slipped, and he slid to the floor at Alistair's side in an uncontrolled rush. "Ow. You know, I don't think anyone who says things that make me fall out of my chair is exactly dull. Ow."

Alistair put an arm around Zin and tugged him closer. "You shouldn't sit on the floor, it's cold."

"You're sitting on the floor yourself, babe." Zin shook his head. "I won't yell at Wynne. I don't yell at people." That was true enough. "But I am going to talk to her. I don't like people making you unhappy." His hands started to wander, slipping in under Alistair's loose shirt in the back. "Hey, I can make it up to you."

"Um," Alistair said, nervous and embarrassed and embarrassed to be nervous. Before he got any further than that, Serpent burst in through the door with a merry bark and flung himself at the two of them.

Zin laughed and wrestled the dog down as Alistair got to his feet. "Easy there, boy. You're really not who I was hoping to roll around on the floor with."

"I'll get you some more tea," Alistair said and got to his feet.

"Wait." Zin flung out an arm, holding Brother Genitivi's notes up as high as he could over Serpent's head. "Take these, please, or he'll eat them."

Alistair grabbed the sheaf of papers and tried to pat the notes into a tidier shape. "Do you want, um. I could try to take a look at these, if you want," he said reluctantly.

Zin, flattened under Serpent's not inconsiderable bulk, grinned at him "No, that's all right. I think I've deciphered the important parts by now." He coughed into Serpent's side, and Serpent stopped trying to wrestle him down and whined instead. "Apparently Genitivi thought the ashes might be hidden away in a village called Haven, off in the Frostbacks somewhere. There's even a description of how to get there. More or less."

"Frostbacks." Alistair thought about that. "North or south? I mean, which way do we want to go around Lake Calenhad?"

"South," Zin said. "Though I'm starting to feel like I've walked over every field in the Bannorn already." He sat up, caught himself in the middle of the motion, and coughed some more.

"Tea first." Despite those words, Alistair reached down with one hand and grazed his fingertips against Zin's stubbly cheek. "I think there's still some of that honey," he said, and disappeared out the door.

Chapter eight

5.3

Leaving Soldier's Peak was just as troublesome as getting there had been. It worked out well at first: they went down to the North Road and found a way across it without too much trouble. Then they started to cut across the Bannorn, and ran into a problem almost immediately. Coming over a ridge, they heard the unmistakable sound of darkspawn, a thick hur hur hur that sounded like nothing else, and there was the smell of blood and darkspawn filth in the air.

"This far north," Alistair said, shocked.

"There's just a few of them." Leliana shaded her eyes against the sun with one hand as they looked down on the grisly scene: dead people, dead animals, overturned wagons. "Maybe they're a lone band that strayed away from the horde and got lost."

"Kill now, speculate later," Zin said grimly and nocked an arrow.

It wasn't a difficult fight, in and of itself. The darkspawn were so absorbed in their looting, they didn't even notice they were under attack before Zin and Leliana had shot two of their number down. Two emissaries were with them, but they were weak; Alistair used a holy smite on the nearest one and watched the emissary just crumple.

"There is something wrong here," Zevran said as they put on their thickest gloves and dragged the dead human bodies into a pile for Morrigan to practice her fire magic on. They knew better than to touch the darkspawn: those, Morrigan just burned where they lay.

It wasn't as though they could halt the spread of the Blight like this, not really, but at least they could stop the taint from spreading into the water nearby.

"You think we missed some of them?" Alistair looked around, even though he knew that looking wasn't how he sensed the darkspawn, that he'd know if they were present with a certainty that had nothing to do with sight.

"No, no." Zevran chuckled a little. "I'm not talking about darkspawn. Your Grey Warden vigilance is, of course, admirable, but I do not believe it is needed at the moment."

"And here I thought fighting darkspawn was the thing that brought us all closer together," Alistair said. "Our one shared interest."

"Oh, I think you and I share more than one interest, my friend," Zevran said. "But that's not what I meant, either. There are too few people here for a caravan this size. Some of them must have fled."

"And you think that's wrong?" Alistair shook his head, trying very hard to ignore Zevran's first remark and suggestive look towards Zin. "I'd say they got lucky, and probably they're off somewhere hiding behind a tree and thanking the Maker."

"And eating bark," Zevran said, "because they left most of their supplies behind. And clearly I should have used the word odd rather than wrong if I had known how you would fixate on it." Alistair scowled. Zevran smiled. "I'll see what we can use. The darkspawn never got to that wagon."

"Are you certain?" Wynne braced herself on her staff. "Someone should say a few words over these poor souls. Leliana, my dear, you're the closest thing we have to a chantry sister."

Leliana looked a little disconcerted, but she and Wynne together recited a few verses of the chant. Zin helped Zevran rummage in the untouched wagon, bringing out a fair amount of food as well as a bundle of blankets. "I suppose it wants me to carry this as well," Shale said in a long-suffering voice.

"Oh, would you?" Zin smiled. "Golem strength really is impressive."

"It is trying to flatter me," Shale muttered. "I can tell."

Zin's smile grew even brighter. "Is it working?"

Alistair thought the only reason Shale didn't huff at that was that golems didn't breathe. And when they moved on, Shale was unsurprisingly carrying most of the added supplies. Zin walked next to Shale and carried on a cheerful conversation, and Zevran walked behind them, more than usually intent on... something. Alistair scowled and fell in next to Zevran. "Your eyes might fall out," he said. "Or your tongue."

"What? Oh." Zevran blinked innocently up at him. "I was just thinking about the best way to make use of the, ah, available resources."

"Were you," Alistair said flatly.

"Oh, yes." That smile didn't even try for innocence. "And how very fortunate it is that no one else was staking a claim."

Alistair made a sound in the back of his throat. He knew very well that he couldn't match Zevran in a game of words; he liked to have things laid out very plainly, for clarity, while Zevran was happy to talk rings around anyone about anything.

This wasn't something Alistair could make jokes about. This mattered.

5.4

At least the seasons were back to normal here. Alistair picked apples and ate as he walked, throwing the cores for Serpent to chase, which the mabari fell for every time, only to come back barking his disgust. "You don't have to run just because I throw something," Alistair said. Serpent growled at him.

Then they both fell silent as Leliana, scouting in the lead of the group, flung up a hand. A few more steps, and Alistair felt the familiar tingle that meant darkspawn not too far away. Both he and Zin got their weapons ready at the same time, and everyone else followed their example, with the exception of Shale and Serpent, who were weapons.

Coming around the next bend in the road, they saw wagons pulled over in a meadow, and people milling around, putting out cookfires and packing up -- and darkspawn coming from the other direction, led by an emissary who threw a fireball into the midst of the people.

After that, it was all screams and blood and the smell of scorched flesh.

They all dropped their packs and ran forward, just as the people who had been attacked ran to get away. Zin shouted, directing his party where they'd do the most good. Alistair found himself in the middle of a large group of mixed hurlocks and genlocks, all of whom stank worse than he could have imagined; he regretted the apples now. Sten came up next to him, swinging his giant blade with ease and cutting through two genlocks before they even knew he was there.

They couldn't fight side by side, not with the space Sten needed to use his two-hander properly, but they were getting used to fighting together, pressing the group of darkspawn from each side and driving them together, so Sten's swings could do more damage and Alistair could use his shield to slam one genlock into another, hurting them both. Leliana's arrows cut into the middle of the darkspawn, even as Sten whittled them down from the left and Alistair from the right.

The only real problem was that the people under attack tried to step in and help, and Alistair didn't want to hit one of them by accident, nor did he want to see them skewer themselves on darkspawn swords. "Run away!" he shouted at the nearest one. "Hide behind the wagons!"

Another loud boom from a second fireball made Alistair flinch. He knew he couldn't do anything but stand and fight where he was, knew he had to kill the hurlock in front of him before he could do anything else, but he desperately wanted to know what was going on on the other side of the meadow, where Zin was. Desperately wanted to know that that fireball hadn't hit Zin.

Sten growled as his sword sliced a genlock nearly in two. "Anaam esam qun!"

"I guess so," Alistair muttered. His own short stabs were less flashy, but they were wearing his opponents down. With a loud hiss, the smell of ozone rolled across the meadow, and Alistair hoped that was Morrigan's lightning, not their enemy's.

The last of that group of darkspawn fell with an arrow in its eye, and Alistair and Sten both turned to the other side of the meadow, seeing Shale stand immovable in front of a group of frightened women and children, stone fists crushing anyone who came too close, while Serpent darted back and forth as if trying to herd the darkspawn together in a tight group--

"Yes!" Alistair said as Morrigan froze the darkspawn with a blast of ice, turning them still and silent, and Serpent overturned one of them to shatter against a rock.

"Uncontrolled magic," Sten said darkly. "It is not right." But he was already running that way, sword ready to swing at their ice-covered enemies.

Alistair couldn't see Zin anywhere. His heart froze in his chest, as if Morrigan had aimed at him, not the darkspawn. But battle training overrode emotional panic, and he threw himself forward in time to put his body and his shield between Wynne and the attack that came arcing from the emissary, who had retreated to one end of the field and was watching his subordinates fall one by one.

The emissary's magic closed around him, cutting off his air, making his ribs creak with pressure. Alistair called on all his templar training to resist it, but it was all he could do just to hold on until that terrible pressure let go and he was coughing weakly, head ringing until a wave of gentle green healing magic washed over him instead.

"Thank you, dear," Wynne said breathlessly. "Oh, well done!" Across the field, Zin and Zevran blurred into visibility, both of them stabbing sword and dagger into the emissary's unprotected back. He went down, and the skies seemed to clear above them. Alistair felt the tightness in his chest ease. Zin turned his head, and their eyes met, and Alistair couldn't keep from grinning.

5.4.1

The people they'd rescued turned out to be a mixed bunch -- merchants from the ruined caravan they had come across before, and refugees fleeing from the darkspawn taint in the south.

"We're going the south way round Lake Calenhad," Zin said. "You can come with us to Redcliffe if you want."

The leader of the refugees stared at him. "We're trying to escape the south. We're not going back there again."

"Suit yourselves," Zin said calmly. "If you go that way," he gestured, "you'll get to the docks by Lake Calenhad. You might be able to hire guards there, there's a lot of people passing through the inn, and the templars keep pretty good order."

"We can't afford guards." The refugee leader, a burly woman in her fifties, crossed her arms and glared. "Do we look rich to you? We had to leave almost everything behind."

"Redcliffe, you say?" That was one of the merchants, stroking his chin. "I hear Redcliffe's good for trade."

"It's in the south!" the refugee leader said. "We're not going back south."

"Well, we weren't trying to get north, originally," the merchant said. "We were taking goods to Denerim, but now our goods are gone. Redcliffe would suit us just fine. Maybe we can recoup some of our losses."

"The roads are very dangerous now," Leliana said, looking earnestly at the refugee leader. "You might be safer coming with us than traveling on your own."

The woman looked mulish. "Coming with you south. No, thank you."

A child started crying somewhere in the group behind them. Wynne looked troubled. "Going north might be safer for the children," she said.

"Not to pressure anyone," Zin rolled his shoulders, mail shirt gleaming in the sun, "but we have to be off, our business is fairly urgent. Are you coming or staying?"

The refugee leader sighed. "No, we'll try again for Amaranthine and a ship out of this country. I hope I don't live to regret this."

Zin quirked an eyebrow. "Well, I hope you do live, whether you regret it or not."

"We'll go with them as well," the merchant said. He looked at the refugee leader. "Maybe if we pool our resources, we can hire some protection. Or see if there's a bigger company traveling out from the Calenhad docks, maybe we can tag along. We've contacts with the Brisling family in Amaranthine, we had an heir-arrangement with them a couple generations back."

"May the Maker smile on you," Leliana said.

Alistair elbowed Zevran. "We should give them some of their food back. And warm blankets for the children."

"The blankets and food belonged to the merchants," Zevran said without moving his lips, "not to the refugees."

"Children," Alistair repeated. "Blankets. Food." Then he saw that Zin was already at Shale's side, unpacking several of the bundles they'd so carefully packed before, handing things over to the refugee leader. Which made sense, because she was definitely someone who'd make sure the children were taken care of. Alistair wondered if there'd be trouble if the merchants recognized their own supplies, but then again one onion looked pretty much like another, so he suspected not.

The merchants and refugees loaded up their carts and went on their way, finally, and after having burned the darkspawn bodies, Morrigan muttered that she would never get the stench out of her hair. "Is there not a campsite with running water on the opposite side of that ridge? I believe we stayed there once, going in the opposite direction, did we not?"

"I think we could all do with a bit of a clean-up," Zin agreed. "Serpent's got dead genlock all over his ears."

Over the ridge was a stream trickling down towards Lake Calenhad. The water was low at this time of year, but a little downstream of the campsite was a slightly deeper pool and some convenient flat rocks. The women went first, and Morrigan looked a great deal more pleased with herself when she came back wringing the water from her hair, which was surprisingly long once she let it down. Leliana offered to comb it out for her, but Alistair missed whatever reply Morrigan made as he went off with the other men to take a turn at bathing.

They all helped each other with recalcitrant armor buckles. Zevran did most of the helping, since his leather armor was by far the easiest to get out of, which was reasonable enough, but he helped Zin rather more than Alistair thought was really necessary.

Which could have been a coincidence, except that Zevran looked up just then and met Alistair's eyes with an impish grin. Alistair glared, and Zevran turned away with a fine showing of unconcern to wade into the water.

Alistair waded in, too. Wading was about all anyone could do. Last time they bathed here, the pool had been hip-deep; now the water barely came up over Alistair's knees, and was cool rather than cold, though he suspected that was about to change. Sten sat on one of the rocks, half in and half out of the water, to soap up his toes. Alistair picked a spot not that far away and started to splash water up at himself, then grew impatient with that and sat down, leaning forward to duck his head under the surface between his knees, straightening up again and wiping at his face until he could see.

Zin was across from him, scrubbing under one arm, then the other, drops of soapy water running down his sides. His hair caught the sun in dull gleams of gold and brown, like a field of late wheat, or like a treasure buried in mud. He was naked and beautiful, and Alistair turned away abruptly, fumbling for his sliver of soap.

Washed and water-wrinkly and moderately dry, they began to trudge back. Alistair thought longingly of his clean shirt, back at camp; he felt a bit awkward walking around bare-chested, though not enough to put the dirty shirt on. Zevran obviously wasn't bothered, and Zin would probably have gone naked without thinking about it if Sten hadn't thrust the bundle of his clothing at him. Now Zin had that bundle in one hand and a piece of ragged cloth in the other, trying to scrub his hair dry. The muscles in his shoulder slid against each other as he raised and twisted his arm, and he had a thin, faint scar underneath one shoulderblade that Alistair wanted to--

Alistair stumbled on a rock and nearly went head-first into a thorny bush. To his intense chagrin, Sten caught him, pulled him upright, and made a sound that seemed to mean you are a particularly clumsy and useless human. Then Zevran came up and gave him a look that seemed to mean pretty much the same thing. Sten walked on, but Zevran stayed where he was, tapping his lip thoughtfully with the hilt of a dagger until Alistair grew too annoyed to be chagrined any more. "What?"

"Alistair. My friend." Zevran smiled, charming and maybe about halfway sincere. "This is painful to watch, you understand. I think perhaps you should do something. Before someone else does something."

Then he walked away before Alistair could strangle him.

5.4.2

There had never been much privacy on their journeys. Alistair knew that. They were seven people camping close together and a golem who never slept, not to mention the dog, and sometimes two dwarves -- and while Bodahn was polite enough, Sandal had a way of getting into everything, particularly places he wasn't supposed to be.

Still, there had always been the possibility of just sitting apart to talk, or going into the woods without being followed.

Now it seemed to Alistair that he couldn't turn around without bumping into Leliana and Wynne sitting by the fire crafting health poultices and poisons, and oh, how he hoped that they never got their ingredients mixed up, or Sandal and Serpent playing a complicated game of fetch when everyone else was too tired to move. And when he tried to scout for a more secluded place nearby, Morrigan was always there first and would drive him off, usually with a scathing remark, but sometimes with a growl, depending on what shape she was in at the time.

It drove him crazy. He was aware of Zin all the time, like knowing where the sun was; he listened to Zin swear cheerfully about the road and the weather, and all he could do was smile; he dreamed about Zin, kissing him, holding him.

Then he woke up sticky and had to scrub off with the handful of water left at the bottom of his waterskin, because there was no way he was leaving the tent before he was clean. Walking out to breakfast, Alistair tried to decide if Shale was looking at him funny in a different way than usual. Maker, what if he'd talked in his sleep, or... made noises?

He had to do something. Maybe Wynne was right, and all they had to look forward to was unhappiness, but much as he hated to admit it, Zevran was the one who was really, really right, no maybe about it. He had to do something.

5.5

"I want to talk to you," Alistair said. He'd been trying to work himself up to this, and... well, at least they were at an inn tonight, at the tavern in Redcliffe where Bella treated them as heroes and let them have rooms very nearly for free. They could probably have gone up to the castle, where Isolde would have let them have rooms completely for free, but then Isolde would also have asked them about what they were doing, if they'd come any closer to curing Arl Eamon, where they were planning to travel from Redcliffe. Zin, normally so parsimonious, had decided free food and lodging wasn't worth the hours of questioning and explanations and having to put up with Isolde in general, and Bella liked them, anyway. So for once they were surrounded by walls and the others couldn't overhear what Alistair was saying. "I need to, I've been meaning to say that..."

He took two steps in the tiny room, turned around, and Zin was right there. "What?"

"Agh." Alistair bit his lip. "I'm trying, I swear, it's just that being around you makes me feel like my head is about to explode."

"That sounds messy," Zin said. He grinned wickedly. "But hey, I'd love to make you explode in a different way."

Alistair wished he could will himself not to turn red. "Yes. I. Um. That's actually... what I wanted to talk about?" Zin's quirked eyebrow just made everything worse. "I want to spend the night with you. Here. Now. I mean, in the same bed. I mean..."

"You mean you want us to fuck," Zin said. "You can't seriously think I would say no to that." He took the short step needed to bring them close. "In case you hadn't noticed, I want you. Very much."

Alistair swallowed, hard. "You've been waiting for me. I know. I just..." He reached out and cupped Zin's face, feeling soft skin and rough stubble against his palm. "I wanted things to be perfect, but they're never going to be perfect, but it's you, so it'll be perfect anyway."

Zin's eyes softened. "Aw, babe. That's really sweet." Then he grinned. "Can I suck your cock now?"

"Zin!" Alistair didn't have time to say anything else before Zin kissed him, and oh, yes, he already knew he liked that a lot. He knew some things that Zin liked, too, like having his earlobes sucked just so, and gentle bites in certain places on his neck.

But they were going to do more, now. A lot more. Zin's hands were already busy at the straps and buckles of Alistair's armor, loosening, unfastening, sure and quick. Alistair moved with Zin's gentle pushes, because if there was one thing he knew, it was that not cooperating when someone tried to get your armor off was likely to end in several pounds of metal landing on someone's toes, and it was as likely to be his toes as Zin's.

It wasn't as if he minded. He wanted to be naked. With Zin. Well, he wanted to be with Zin, naked or dressed, it didn't matter. Alistair slipped free of the cuirass and grunted as his hair caught in the joints of the pauldron. "Oh, sorry," Zin said, setting the cuirass aside on a rickety chair and rubbing apologetically at Alistair's scalp.

"Doesn't matter," Alistair said and sat down to work his greaves off. He was relieved to see that the socks underneath were, in fact, the clean ones that didn't have holes, although a spot on the left one did look pretty worn, right over the big toe. Alistair looked up at Zin. "Come here and I'll undo your buckles for you, at least the ones at the sides."

Zin took the single step that was needed to put him at Alistair's side. "This got very guards-barracks all of a sudden." He bent down and kissed Alistair's nose. "Maybe we'd better just get the undressing part over and done. Armor just isn't sexy when you're trying to wriggle out of it."

He turned away as soon as Alistair had worked the buckles loose, freed himself of his own light mail, and stripped down until all he was wearing was a thin shirt and a pair of leggings so worn that they were all but transparent. Alistair swallowed. "Stop," he said. "Please. Don't take that off."

Zin looked at him. "If you've changed your mind, I think you'd better find another room right now."

"No!" Alistair reached out and caught Zin's hands. "No, I... no." He did, now that they were getting closer to it, feel a bit awkward about the idea of being naked in front of Zin. Naked with intent, as it were. But... "I want to do it," he explained. He untied the laces at Zin's wrists and stood up, realizing yet again that he and Zin were of a height, pretty much, that their eyes were on a level with each other.

"I know what you mean," Zin said and started unfastening Alistair's shirt at the neck just as Alistair tried to pull Zin's shirt over his head, so they got all tangled up after all and stumbled into each other, and Alistair would have felt like the clumsiest oaf in the world except that Zin was laughing against his throat.

Then he freed Zin from the shirt, and had to kiss his shoulders, broad and smooth and strong, and bite a little at his collarbone; just as he was about to switch sides, Zin's hands slipped under his own shirt in the back and stroked upwards, taking the shirt with them. Alistair groaned. He nearly turned the wrong way just because he wanted to make Zin laugh again, but he wanted this, wanted Zin to take his shirt off, so he followed the prompting of Zin's hands until his shirt was tugged off and landed Maker-knew-where on the floor and Zin pulled him close.

Skin to skin wasn't anything like Alistair had imagined. Somehow his dreams had never included the sheer heat of another person. Zin's chest was so warm and strong against his own. Zin rubbed his cheek against Alistair's, then caught his mouth in a kiss, and Alistair touched because he couldn't not, all that skin, faint marks that he wanted to soothe and kiss away, a light dusting of chest hair, that was weird, a small nipple hardening under the stroke of his thumb and Zin arching against him, making a pleased sound into Alistair's mouth.

Maybe that wasn't so different from the things he'd heard about making love to women, then. Alistair didn't have the clearest idea of how to do that, either, but he'd heard more, seen more graffiti, found more oblique hints in books about that than about how to make love to a man. There was no doubt that Zin was experienced, but if Alistair could get him to make more sounds like that, good sounds... He rubbed his other thumb over the other nipple, and Zin growled.

The next thing Alistair knew, Zin had pushed him backward down on the bed and crouched over him, ripping open the fastenings on his leggings. "Oh," he said, pushing the leggings open and wrapping his hands around Alistair's hardness. It was the first time hands other than his own had touched him, and Alistair trembled with the shock of it. "Oh, this is nice. Really nice." Zin looked at Alistair with a wild glint in his eyes. "I'm going to suck your cock now."

Alistair meant to say something back, maybe beg Zin not to use language like that, maybe just beg, but Zin bent his head and ran his tongue from root to tip, and Alistair's head fell back on the bed. Nothing could feel that good, he thought dazedly, and then Zin took him in his mouth and began to suck, and Alistair knew he'd been wrong.

This -- this was -- it was-- Something he didn't have words for, had never had words for, never even dreamed he would need words for. Hot and wet and Zin, sucking him down, thumbs rubbing over Alistair's hipbones. He felt Zin change position on the bed, shift the angle between them, and then the tight heat grew even tighter and Alistair's eyes flew open (they were closed? When had he closed them?) and he stared helplessly as Zin swallowed him down.

That wasn't possible. There was no way Alistair's hardness could fit down Zin's throat. This couldn't be happening, and it felt incredible. And the way it looked... Zin pulled back, glanced up at Alistair, then plunged down again. Alistair dug his fingers into the bedding and made a desperate sound, and Zin's throat clenched around him, and then released him, he was in Zin's mouth, he was coming in Zin's mouth and it felt so good he thought he was going to die.

"Zin," he gasped, finally letting go of the bedclothes to clutch at Zin's shoulder, hair, anything. Zin suckled him gently through the aftershocks, then crawled up his body to lie on top of him and push his own hardness against the groove between Alistair's thigh and torso. "I'm sorry, but your mouth, I had to--"

"I wanted you to," Zin said against his lips, then kissed him, pushing an unfamiliar taste into his mouth along with the familiar slick heat of Zin's tongue. "Been wanting to suck your cock for so long, babe. You're so..." Zin's voice turned into a groan, and Alistair held him tight as he tensed and shook and spent himself on Alistair's belly, hot and wet and Zin.

Alistair carded his fingers through Zin's wild hair. "I wanted to see your eyes," he said. "I wanted to see what color your eyes are when you, you know."

Zin laughed breathlessly against his throat. "You are adorable." He lifted his head and grinned at Alistair. "We'll do it slower this time."

"Oh," Alistair said, because he hadn't realized, well, it only stood to reason, though, that of course you could do it more than once if you wanted to, and he definitely wanted to; he could feel a stirring inside again, a warm curl of something that could easily turn into desire again.

Zin was mouthing at his throat, and then his shoulder, gnawing on his collarbone, which unaccountably made him shudder. "I love your shoulders," Zin said. "I look at you in armor and all I can think about is how you'd look out of it." He trailed kisses down Alistair's chest. "Do you like this?"

He licked at a nipple, which didn't feel much different to Zin's tongue on any other part of his skin, and then started to chew gently on it. Lightning raced down Alistair's spine, and he shouted. "Oh, Maker! Zin!" Zin did it again, did it to the other nipple, did that again, and Alistair was moaning incoherently by the time Zin's kisses trailed down over his stomach. Zin's tongue lapped at him, cleaning him, Alistair realized, licking his skin clean of Zin's own... he raised his head to look down, and the sight made the blood rush hot both in his face and lower down.

"Warden stamina is a wonderful thing," Zin said approvingly. "I knew there had to be more to it than just eating enough for three."

"What do you... ohhh." Alistair lost his train of thought completely as Zin's tongue played up his rapidly hardening shaft. He couldn't imagine ever growing accustomed to that sensation, or to the way it looked.

Alistair caressed every part of Zin that he could reach, head and shoulders and arms, and Zin bit gently at his hipbone before stretching out to reach his own pack and fishing out a small jar. "Mainly elfroot," he said, holding it up so Alistair could see. "Completely safe everywhere."

Alistair blinked, wondering if he was supposed to understand that. He searched his memory for all the different uses for elfroot he'd ever heard of while Zin unscrewed the top of the jar and scooped out a generous amount of what turned out to be a smooth, thickish cream, leaving most of it in a cool heap on Alistair's stomach -- "Eep!" -- and putting the jar back where he'd taken it.

Then Zin's hand and arm pushed down between them out of Alistair's sight, and his eyes went half-lidded. "You're so big," he said conversationally, dipping his head to lick at Alistair's renewed hardness and then looking up again, "I'd better do this right."

"What are you..." Alistair moaned as Zin's tongue played with him again. "What are you doing? I can't see."

Zin grinned. "Oh, you want to watch?" He turned around with more swift economy of motion than Alistair would have thought possible in that position, until he was straddling Alistair's body backwards, his head down by Alistair's knees, and Alistair had a perfect view of Zin's round, dimpled arse and the way Zin was pushing a finger into himself, slowly and deliberately.

"Maker," Alistair whispered. Zin pulled his finger out, scooped up more elfroot cream from Alistair's stomach, and pushed back in with two fingers. That shouldn't be -- really, it shouldn't -- but it was, and it made Alistair break out in a sweat all over. "Can I," he said, and drew his own finger through the elfroot mess without waiting for an answer, rubbed it next to Zin's, pressed in carefully, and the cool cream did nothing to hide how perfectly hot and tight and hot and tight Zin was, inside.

Zin made a small, broken sound, lips pressed against Alistair's kneecap. Alistair pushed deeper, fascinated. Zin whimpered. When Alistair rubbed his thumb on the outside, just behind Zin's sac, Zin bit him. "Stop," Zin panted, and Alistair froze, wondering what he had done wrong. "Don't make me come yet."

Zin's fingers pulled out, taking Alistair's with them, and then Zin swung around again and smeared the rest of the cool elfroot cream all over Alistair, who groaned deeply as Zin's hand rubbed and caressed. Zin shifted his grip on Alistair and moved forward, straddling Alistair's hips, and then Alistair pressed against Zin's body, against that tiny opening he'd helped finger open, and he began to slide inside.

Tight. Hot. Tighthottighthottighthot. Alistair wanted nothing more than to buck his hips and drive himself deeper, but one of Zin's hands lay on his hipbone, holding him very firmly down as Zin took him in at his own pace, moaning softly at the back of his throat. So this was what those snickering jokes among the less devout of the templars-in-training had been about, the ones he'd never understood. And he still didn't understand, because this was amazing and Zin was beautiful, doing it; snickers and crudity didn't fit at all.

"Zin," he said pleadingly, not even knowing what he was asking for. Zin rocked his hips and finally sat all the way down, so Alistair could actually feel the weight of him, so Alistair was all the way inside him, Maker. It felt terrifyingly good, and when Zin began to move slowly, up and down, Alistair's breath caught. He tried to meet those movements, pushing up when Zin was sliding down, but he had very little leverage like this, flat on his back.

"Your cock is so thick," Zin said, sounding almost dreamy. "Feels so good." He rolled his hips, stopped at certain angle and stuttered out a moan. "Yes. Yes." Zin pressed both hands flat on Alistair's chest and began to move faster, eyes glazed, a flush rising in his cheeks. "Oh, right there, it's... I'm right there--"

Zin arched his back and spent his seed all over Alistair's stomach and chest again, untouched, with a soft cry. His body tightened almost unbearably in ripples of pleasure that might have brought Alistair over too, if he hadn't been transfixed, looking at Zin's face: the open mouth, the eyes glinting more green than blue for once in a thin ring around the deep dark pupil. "Maker's breath, but you're beautiful," Alistair said. "I am a lucky man."

Panting heavily, Zin slumped forward; his mouth against Alistair's skin wasn't a kiss, just pressure and breath and then a wet swipe of tongue. "I meant to take that a lot slower," he said. He straightened up again and lifted himself off Alistair. Alistair groaned in protest, but Zin just grinned at him and prodded him into moving until Alistair was kneeling on the bed. Then Zin swung around and went to elbows and knees, legs spread, arse raised. He looked over his shoulder. "Fuck me."

Well. Maybe a little crudity fit just fine. Alistair gripped Zin's hip with one hand, and with the fingers of the other hand he gathered up a mix of leftover elfroot cream and Zin's own seed from his abdomen and smeared it over himself for added slickness. He pressed forward, a little hesitant when Zin's body seemed to resist, and then the tightness gave way and he sank in, hearing Zin make a noise that could not possibly be a protest.

"It's deeper this way," Alistair said, almost surprised, caught by the pleasure, pushing in as far as he could and then grinding slowly against Zin's lovely arse. So good. Much better than anything his imagination could have dreamed up.

Truthfully, there'd been little for his imagination to work with before he'd met Zin, and after -- it seemed disrespectful to have these thoughts about an actual person who was actually close enough to reach out and touch, most of the time, or separated from him by a thin canvas wall and half a campsite at most.

His hips started to work without any conscious thought on his part, finding a rhythm that sent pulses of silvery pleasure from his groin through his entire body. He leaned forward and mouthed at Zin's back and shoulder, tasting salt and something he could only explain as sex. Alistair stayed there and nibbled, let his hips carry the motion. Zin's back heaved, curving down and arching up, not to push Alistair away but to meet his thrusts.

"Yes," Zin moaned. "Yes, yes, Alistair, yes." Alistair lost track of time, lost everything except this hot dragging pleasure and the sound of Zin's voice, until Zin broke off with a ragged cry and tight spasms that wrung Alistair's own orgasm from him, wrung him out completely, left him hollowed-out and gasping into the back of Zin's neck. They collapsed slowly to one side and lay curved together, both of them just breathing, Alistair still inside the tight heat of Zin's body, feeling the occasional gentle flutter along his length.

"I love you," he said into Zin's ear, his voice thick and blurry with pleasure. "I love you so much."

Chapter nine

5.6

They ended up going to Redcliffe Castle anyway, the very next day, to pay their respects. Well, sort-of-respects, anyway. To get provisions and restock for their trek into the mountains, Zin said, and everyone agreed they needed that. Bann Teagan provided them with everything they could possibly want, from arrows to field rations to spare socks to extra health poultices. Wynne, Leliana and Zevran together raided the caste's stillroom, each with their own speciality in mind, and left it all but empty.

Alistair tried to talk Zin into some heavier mail from the castle armory, but Zin just laughed and shook his head. "I can't move in that," he said. He kissed the tip of Alistair's nose. "This mail is fine. And it's much lighter. And enchanted."

"I just want to make sure you're protected," Alistair said.

"Enchanted mail," Zin said. "Really fast. Wynne. I barely even have any scars." He nudged Alistair's shoulder with his own. "You should know. I think you got a good look at most of me last night."

Alistair, predictably, blushed. "More marks than I'd like," he said stubbornly. "And bruises and stuff."

"We all get bruises," Zin said. "There's no way not to get bruises, doing what we do. There's a bit on your left calf that's black and blue from where that crazy bandit kicked you a couple of days ago, babe, that's just... it's just our lives, right now. Bandits and bruises."

"And kisses?" Alistair said, wincing when it came out a question rather than the firm statement he'd meant to make it.

"Definitely kisses," Zin said, though, brushing his lips against Alistair's earlobe this time. "But we're not making out while you're wearing that very impressive plate mail. I can barely reach you."

Of course practically the first thing that happened when they began their trek towards Haven was that Alistair, despite his fancy armor, got injured. "I never liked spiders," he said woozily as he slumped against a tree with Wynne leaning over him. "Creepy little buggers. Too many legs." He stared down at his own leg, which felt peculiarly distant. "Wynne," he said plaintively, "why can't I feel my toes?"

"Trust me, once you can, you'll wish you couldn't," she said briskly. "Zin, be a dear and get me some fresh-boiled water."

"Of course!" Zin said, practically stumbling over his own feet in his haste as he went to get Morrigan and start a fire and find a pot and get some water, all at the same time. Graceful as a rogue, Alistair thought and chuckled a little to himself.

"What do you need boiling water for?" he asked Wynne, and then, a little worriedly, "You're not going to dip my leg in it, are you?"

"I thought I'd make some tea later," she said. "And Zin is a dear young man, but he was hovering over you and getting in my way. "Now, tell me if this hurts." She did something to Alistair's leg that made him thump his head against the tree trunk and pass out.

"Yes," he said when he recovered consciousness again. "That hurt."

"I imagine it did," Wynne said and handed him a mug of tea. "But now everything in your knee is the right way around again, and you're going to be just fine. And Shale found a beehive."

Alistair sipped at the tea, heavily sweetened with honey that almost drowned out the dry, flat taste of elfroot, and drifted a bit despite the throbbing in his leg. Zin came to sit next to him, and even with Alistair's plate and Zin's mail and the cold ground and the tree roots, it was kind of comfortable and comforting.

They kept on traveling, once Alistair could walk again. Things would have been much more difficult before Wynne decided to come with them, he reflected. Morrigan could heal, kind of like she could cook, if it was absolutely necessary; the results usually weren't that great unless she took special care, and Alistair didn't imagine she would have taken any special care with him.

Zin, of course, said there was nothing wrong with Morrigan's healing at all, and had no trouble accepting it. Of course, since she took special care with him. "I think she likes you," Alistair said into the nape of Zin's neck as they sat curled up together in the silent camp, keeping an absolutely unnecessary watch, or rather, staring into the fire and making out.

"I'm a very likable person," Zin said. "Who are you talking about?"

"Morrigan," Alistair muttered.

"She probably likes me better than anyone else in this group," Zin said, "which given the way you've glared at her from the start... wait." He tried to crane his neck around enough to see Alistair's face, which wasn't really possible with the way they were sitting, thank the Maker. "Are you jealous?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Alistair said, pressing his face into Zin's neck. "Yes."

"Because I love you like crazy," Zin said, and Alistair felt as though everything inside him tumbled out of a dark dank house to lie, dazed, in the sunshine. "I thought that was kind of obvious." He snorted and said something that sounded suspiciously like, "Tea."

5.8

Getting to the village of Haven wasn't easy. Alistair was used to seeing the Frostbacks in the distance, a blue blur, and he'd never considered what it would be like to get up close and personal with the mountains.

Now he knew. They walked up and up and up, on roads that grew more and more badly kept, through a stark landscape of stone and grass and more sky than he'd ever really thought about before. The sky was supposed to be overhead, but here, when he turned back to look, the sky was somehow arcing down right in front of him, too. There was just too much of it, pale blue, stretching forever. It almost gave him vertigo.

Wynne said something about the mountain air being fresh and bracing; she must be wearing long woolen underwear, underneath that robe of hers. Sten and Zin and Alistair himself had armor from head to toe, Serpent had fur from head to paw, and Shale never gave any sign of noticing anything as corporeal as temperature and its effects on the body, but Zevran and Leliana were starting to look a little pinched and goosefleshy. They could really use some sturdier armor, Alistair thought. With long sleeves.

Morrigan, with an air of matter-of-fact practicality, had procured a dark green fur-lined cloak from somewhere, and kept it so tight around herself that she wasn't showing any bare skin below the neck, for the first time in Alistair's experience. He thought it was, on the whole, an improvement.

The air was thin here, and had a bite that seemed to threaten snow -- more snow than what already dusted the highest peaks and lay in disturbingly dry drifts on the shaded side of every slope they passed. But the sky stayed clear, and just when Alistair was starting to wonder if they were really on the right road after all, they found the village.

5.9

The village of Haven wasn't a very friendly place. The guard they met, coming in, tried to persuade them to turn around and go right back where they came from. The shopkeeper, once they managed to find the shop, could barely be prevailed upon to sell them anything. While Wynne and Leliana were sorting through supplies, Zin went off to make friends with a small boy who was playing by himself, and came back with a very peculiar look on his face.

"That child," he said, "is carrying around a human fingerbone in his pocket." He shook his head. "There's something very wrong here."

Alistair blinked, because that seemed like something of an understatement. Everything in Haven put him on edge, made his skin tingle with wrongness, as if the air carried something more than just mountain chill. It wasn't like sensing the taint of darkspawn, but whatever it was, it made him deeply uncomfortable. The sky had clouded over, too, and there was snow in the air, just a few drifting flakes.

Zin clearly took the conversation with the boy as a sign, and started to tear through the village in that way he had, looking into everything, poking things to see what would happen. When he walked into a house without even knocking, Wynne made a disapproving sound, but when she caught sight of a narrow blood-soaked table set back against the wall, almost like an altar, she fell silent.

"That is human blood," Morrigan said. Alistair didn't see how she could be sure of that, but then he thought about the fingerbone, and just followed Zin without a word or gesture of protest as Zin went on looking and poking, ending up back in the shop and going into the room behind it, despite the shopkeeper's protests.

The smell of blood was heavy and cloying back there, painful on the sinuses. In the innermost corner, they found the remains of a body, cut to pieces -- butchered, Alistair thought, not just killed but methodically taken apart, some of the remains carelessly wrapped in a bit of tattered cloth. Alistair jerked his eyes away, sickened by the sight, and saw a much-dented shield leaning against the wall. A lot of the paint had been scraped off, but he could still make out a red curve along the bottom, flaking white above, and a broad grey stripe that might have been the metal of the shield shining through, or the painted grey of a tower.

"That's a Redcliffe shield," Alistair said. "This -- this is one of the knights of Redcliffe." He made a face. "Most of him, anyway." At least there wasn't a head with a familiar face staring sightlessly at him. That would have been... bad. "I guess he was looking for Brother Genitivi, just as we are."

"This is a stupid thing to do." Sten stood at the back of the group, but Alistair didn't think he'd missed any part of the scene. "Why kill a man untidily in here and leave the remains to stink up the room?"

"It looks a little like a sacrifice," Zevran said, "as did the blood in the other house. That impostor back in Denerim said he was acting in Andraste's name, but I was certainly never taught that she requires human sacrifices."

A howl went up from outside the house: Serpent was taking exception to something, which turned out to be a number of hostile armed men. Alistair came out the door just in time to see the mabari leap on a man in grubby robes, who sent a spray of icy cold straight up into the snowy sky as he fell.

Moments later, the armed men were joined by villagers, men and women both, who wore plain, threadbare clothes and fought with their bare hands. It seemed the shopkeeper had called up reinforcements. Alistair gritted his teeth. He hated to wield sword and shield against unarmed opponents, but they wouldn't back down, seemed not to hear it when Zin called for them to stop, and he kept seeing that pitiable bundle in the shop's back room, kept smelling blood soaked into rough wooden floors.

Maybe that was someone he'd been friendly with, like Ser Donall. Maybe it was someone who'd dismissed him as being of no account, just an unwanted by-blow. Maybe it was someone he'd never even met. But he'd never know, and that... well, that was the point, wasn't it? Whatever lay behind the horrible murders of the knights of Redcliffe, these people were all complicit in it, clearly ready to kill for it again, and to die for it.

It seemed that both the armed men and the unarmed villagers had tried to keep them away from a steep slope beyond the shop, so as soon as they could, they went that way and found a small chantry. Preaching to the congregation was a revered father, of all things -- Alistair hadn't believed there were male priests anywhere outside the Tevinter Imperium, and he stared in shock for a moment, until the man denounced them and called for their deaths.

Then there was more fighting and blood. Alistair had never imagined fighting in a chantry, and afterwards, looking at the bodies, he felt a wave of unease. Everyone else seemed unmoved by that aspect of it, but he shared a look with Leliana. "I suppose the Maker will understand," she said quietly.

As small as the chantry was, it had room enough for a secret door, leading to what might be a hidden library on better days, but was a prison cell now, where an injured man lay groaning.

Well. At least they'd found Brother Genitivi, at long last.

Wynne bound up his leg, and he explained to them how to get to a temple higher in the mountains, where he believed the ashes of Andraste were hidden.

6.

"We'll stay here overnight," Zin said, "get some sleep."

"Here?" Three voices said it at once, so Alistair didn't have to. He was getting rather too tired to go deeper into this strange temple tonight, though he did want to solve the mystery of whatever strange cult had sprung up that drove these people to kill to defend its secrets. But -- here?

"Here." Zin gestured. "There are doors. There are beds. Fires for cooking, though I think we should put at least one of them out before we sleep. Anyone who really wants to can go back out into the temple and sleep with the crazy cultists, or go back outside the temple and sleep in a snowdrift, but I'm staying right here."

"It is being sensible," Shale said. "Soft-bodied creatures need a protected environment to rest in. This may be as close as we will get, here."

"I cannot decide if sleeping in the beds of dead men is tasteless, or kinky, or both," Zevran said. "Also, it makes me wonder why I have never done such a thing before." He bowed gracefully. "And here I believed myself jaded. As always, you provide such interesting new experiences, my warden."

"Just spread your bedroll on top," Leliana said, "and think about something else, at least while I am in the same room."

"Just cook first," Sten said. "Can we eat the animal that we killed before? It's likely too tough for steaks, but--"

"Liver and kidneys should be fine," Zin said. "I'd say brain, but I don't think brontos have any."

Zevran nodded. "Infinitely preferrable to the muscle meat, I should think. My dearest bard, I thought sauteed kidneys were currently in fashion in Orlais. You are making a terrible face."

"Dead men's beds and liver," she said darkly.

"I will try to get sweetbreads for you," Sten said, turned and left. Alistair blinked after him. He wasn't sure if Sten was trying to be friendly or unfriendly, there. Either way, Leliana probably wouldn't like the idea of sweetbreads any more than liver and kidneys.

Zin and Morrigan had put out one fire and encouraged the other, meanwhile, and Zevran was rigging up the cookpot. Wynne came back in -- Alistair hadn't even seen her leaving -- carrying a kettleful of clean snow. "I think we could all use a hot drink," she said. "If anyone can find my small blue bag -- I dropped it when that mage with the scraggly beard came rushing out -- there's some of that tea mix Zin and Sten made from the leaves we got in Denerim."

The tea settled them down. Alistair seated himself on a mostly unbroken bench, stripped off his gloves and curled his hands around the mug to warm them, and felt his body relax from battle, his muscles un-tense, finally. He felt even better when Zin came to sit next to him, leaning against him ever so slightly.

Sten came back and handed several bloody lumps to Zevran, went out and cleaned his hands in the snow, and returned again to sit down and accept his own mug of tea. The chilly room began to fill with the warmth of fire and people, and with the smells of food; onion scavenged from an empty house in the village below, some odd roots that Zin had dug up, the liver Leliana apparently dreaded.

"This place doesn't feel holy," Leliana said. "I know Brother Genitivi felt something when we came here, I could tell, but it's not speaking to me like that at all."

"It's a ruin full of snow," Sten said. "And homicidal people who keep large animals indoors."

"Any holiness would have to struggle pretty hard against the smell of bronto shit," Zin agreed.

Leliana looked sad. "There's a lot of the temple we haven't seen yet, though," Alistair pointed out to cheer her up. "Once we get through that locked door, maybe there'll be holiness in the air." He hoped so, actually. Any sign that they were really going to find Andraste's sacred ashes at the end of this cold and crazy quest would be welcome.

"'Tis clear something is hidden here," Morrigan said. "But one wonders what, precisely, these cultists are protecting so ferociously."

The food Zevran eventually dished up was delicious, of course. Even Leliana ate without complaint, though she looked very closely at some of the bits in her bowl. Alistair didn't; he had realized early on that the less he knew about what he was actually eating, the better, unless someone tried to feed him darkspawn flesh. Zevran hadn't poisoned them yet, and had the ability to produce appetizing meals from the most unlikely ingredients.

"This is... not so bad," Leliana said.

"Be still my heart," Zevran said, clutching at his chest. "If you should care to express your gratitude in a more intimate manner, of course, I would certainly not argue with that."

"I'll do the dishes," Leliana said. "It's my turn, anyway." She waited until Alistair and Zin had finished their third helping, though. The rest of them sat back and stretched their legs out while she went off with the bowls to clean them in the snow. The drifts in the hallway outside were going to look horrible by tomorrow.

Zin poured everyone more tea. Serpent stretched out in front of the fire, and Alistair noticed that he was gnawing on a very large bone. Sten must have brought back mabari food as well as people food.

"This is, indeed, not so bad," Zevran said. "Now, if our wardens take one of the smaller rooms that were reserved for the mages, and Wynne the other, that leaves the rest of us to the shared pleasures of this rather quaint cultist dormitory."

"I think not," Morrigan said coolly. "If you imagine that I am sharing an enclosed sleeping space with you, elf, your imagination is too vivid to be healthy. For you."

Alistair's hands had stiffened around his tea mug, and now he forced them to relax again. Zevran had assigned him and Zin to the same room, a private room for just the two of them, as if it was a matter of course, and no one had argued or even lifted an eyebrow. They all knew. Knew, and didn't care, busy with their own concerns: Leliana suggested hanging a blanket, Morrigan declared her intention of putting Zevran's eyes out first, and Wynne was trying to pour oil on the troubled waters, though given Morrigan's temper, it was more like pouring oil on a fire.

"Very well," Wynne said, going from conciliatory to exasperated, "Morrigan can sleep in the other private bedroom, and I'll be here in the dormitory. In an ordinary bed, thank you very much, not one of those... bunk things."

"Um," Alistair said, wishing he were wearing a helmet. With a visor. Turned down. "Why don't you and Morrigan and Leliana work something out with the bedrooms, and Zin and I can--"

"No," Sten said very decidedly.

"Ooh," Zevran said, "I wouldn't mind that."

"I would." Sten looked down from his full height at a sitting Zin. "You are loud, kadan."

"Sorry?" Zin said with a grin. "But Alistair and I would be in separate beds, you know. Opposite ends of the room, if you like."

Sten looked mildly placated, but Leliana rolled her eyes. "That would be ridiculous," she said, "when the two of you could share a proper room with a proper bed and a proper door."

"And proper walls," Wynne added. "I think I'll rest more easy here in the dormitory after all. These stone walls look thick, but you can never tell. Morrigan, the other bedroom is all yours, I believe."

"I will stand in the hallway," Shale announced. "In fact, I will go now. If there are any more squabbles, feel free not to inform me of them." The golem made a huffing sound. "This obsession with making squishy bodies squish even more is something I would prefer not to spend any more thought on."

"Your courage is an example to us all, my friend," Zevran said.

"I could pop the painted elf's head like a grape in its sleep," Shale muttered. The golem clomped off. Zevran, head still intact, put away his spice pouches and his knives.

Leliana assisted Wynne to her feet, and they began to discuss whether it would be wasteful to hang a blanket as a curtain rather than use it for its proper purpose, given how cold the air was despite the fire. Zevran immediately offered his assistance in keeping them warm, and they chased him around the nearest fire, Wynne aiming blows of her staff at his kneecaps with remarkable skill. Sten simply walked up to the bed he'd chosen and sat down on it, with Serpent at his heels. Alistair had a feeling the mabari would be keeping Sten's feet warm tonight.

"I," Morrigan said, "will retire to my room, where I expect I shall sleep deeply and soundly." She swept away, and they heard her close the door with a firm thud.

Alistair finally raised his eyes from his own knees and tilted his head back enough to look at Zin. "Maybe we should..."

"You definitely should," Zevran said, "but not here. Out you go. This is a warden-free zone tonight, my friends. With only three proper beds. I would, of course, be delighted to share with one of you lovely ladies-- ow!"

Zin and Alistair hurried down the short hallway and into the anteroom, where someone had considerately cleared out the bodies, but the piles of damp books looked nearly as dismal. "Did you mean it when you said you'd feed them to the darkspawn if they gossiped about us?" Alistair asked plaintively, touching an earlobe just to find out if it felt as hot from the outside as it did from the inside. It did. "Because I get the feeling they do. A lot."

"Mm," Zin said absently, his eyes fixed on Alistair's face. "You're so hot like that, babe. All flushed like we've already gotten started. Let's go to bed."

"I'm not... doing anything," Alistair said. "We need to rest. Those cultists could come looking for us, they could attack in the middle of the night, Zin, I probably shouldn't even take my armor off."

"You can keep it on if you really like," Zin said. "I can live with a few bruises. But we have a room with a bed and a door that locks, and I thought you could fuck me till I scream."

"Zin!" Alistair hissed. "What if Morrigan hears you?"

Zin shrugged, going to toss his pack into the waiting bedroom. "If she hears me screaming, she only has herself to blame. She could've stayed in the dormitory with the rest of 'em. Shared a bed with Sten, the way she keeps claiming she wants to." He came and took hold of Alistair's arms with both hands, tugging him along. "C'mon, babe. Bedroom. Now."

Alistair let himself be pulled into the bedroom, and stood silent and watched while Zin locked the door, stripped off his mail and leather with remarkable dispatch, and settled naked on the bed, on top of their bedrolls and the extra blankets. Not wanting to sleep on dead men's sheets was one thing, but in a climate like this, they needed all the blankets they could find. The top one was woven in a pattern of brown and grey stripes; Alistair thought it was probably made from local wool. The one underneath that, though, was purple and fancy-looking.

He looked at Zin; Zin looked back. After a few moments of this, Zin cocked his head invitingly and ran a hand down his chest, pausing to flick at his right nipple. His eyelids fluttered.

"You look good like that," Alistair admitted, shifting from foot to foot. "I mean, you should probably stop. Get in the bed. I'll stand watch."

"Shale is standing watch," Zin said. "Or do you mean you want to watch me?" He knelt back on his heels on the bed, one hand toying with a nipple, the other stroking lower and lower. "I was hoping you'd be more... active." He licked his lips. "I want your cock so much. In my mouth. In my arse. You want to wear the armor while you fuck me, go ahead. I told you I wouldn't mind the bruises."

"I'd mind," Alistair said, scarlet from Zin's words but very clear on this important point. "I don't want to hurt you." He began to unfasten the buckles on his left side. "I never, ever want to hurt you. Your skin, it's..." His fingers were unaccountably clumsy. "I want to lick you all over," he muttered, struggling with the cuirass and wondering why he felt so exposed when Zin was the one who was naked and making a show of himself.

"Need a hand with that?" Zin asked teasingly, his own hands quite obviously busy.

"No," Alistair said. He finally got the cuirass off and set it down with some care, but flung the gambeson any which way and set determinedly to unbuckling his greaves, glancing up now and then to see what Zin was doing that made him breathe like that. Zin's hands were stroking and caressing, and Alistair wanted to be the one to do that. He wanted to be the reason Zin moaned in that particular way. Well, in any way, really.

He had to sit on the edge of the bed to take the greaves off, and Zin abandoned his self-pleasuring to drape himself against Alistair's back, the heat of him very welcome through the thin shirt that was all Alistair wore now, and lick at Alistair's neck, which was terribly distracting. When Zin's teeth nibbled at the edge of Alistair's ear, Alistair's hands shook, and he finally threw his socks in a corner and twisted around, grabbing Zin and pushing him down. Zin laughed at him. "Shirt. Smallclothes."

"Get under the blankets," Alistair said. He stripped off the last few scraps of clothing and tugged blankets over both of them. The wool was scratchy, but the air was cold. He didn't understand how Zin could have sat there naked and exposed for so long. "You must be freezing," he said, concerned, and wrapped himself and the blankets around Zin, nosing at the back of Zin's neck and then licking it since it was right there.

"Don't care," Zin said, squirming. "Let me just--"

"No." Alistair tightened his grip. "Don't move, you'll let the cold air in." He pressed closer, feeling how perfectly he slotted against Zin's back, how his hardness fit between the round cheeks of Zin's arse. "Hold still, I said." He ran his hand down Zin's chest and stopped to play with Zin's nipples, rubbing and scraping and pinching softly until Zin made little noises and squirmed against him, rather than squirming to get away. Alistair stroked his hand lower, closed it around -- yes. This was just like touching himself, really, only with Zin in his arms, making delicious noises and writhing sinuously.

"Oh," Zin said, "oh, oh," and then, "You're going to make a mess all over me."

"So're you," Alistair said. He twisted his wrist in a way that always did it for him, and Zin shuddered and clenched, his arse moving against Alistair in a way that made Alistair shudder, too. The bed creaked in protest beneath them as they moved, and Zin's moans were definitely not quiet, and Alistair had a short moment to think that walls were splendid things before he lost himself in this close and wonderful pleasure, bodies moving together, the heated, spicy smell of Zin's skin. The way Zin pressed against him, went rigid, then trembled and spent himself, hot slickness all over the blankets and Alistair's fingers.

Alistair tried to push closer, but there was no closer, there was just this, Zin, heat, pressure. He groaned as he came to his own release, the pleasure bright and sharp, like a clean sword cut.

"Mess," Zin said sleepily.

"Probably, I don't know, good for your skin or something," Alistair offered. He got a hand between them and rubbed idly, spreading his own seed over Zin's arse and the small of his back. "I'll check tomorrow and see how stunning you are."

"You'll check my arse tomorrow?" Laughter and sleep mingled in Zin's voice now. "You're so kind, babe. I look forward to that."

Chapter ten

6.1

At the very back of the temple, they found the leader of the cultists, a Father Kolgrim, bearded and bristling, who claimed that Andraste had been reborn as a high dragon and it was their duty to protect and worship her. Alistair boggled. The idea that the prophetess of the Maker had been reborn as a dragon was so outlandish that he could barely find words to call it heretical, and the idea that a dragon would need to be protected by humans was also beyond odd.

Kolgrim wanted them to do something with the ashes, and this confirmation that the ashes of Andraste really existed here gave Alistair, at least, new strength. Some in their party might have listened to Kolgrim's request, but Zin was too busy laughing at the idea of a dragon being Andraste reborn, and Kolgrim didn't take well to being laughed at and called a heretic, so they had to fight their way out of the temple.

On the other side, a narrow but well-used path led from the temple's back door to another door set straight into the mountain; pillars and half-ruined arches hinted that this had been a grand place, once, but now the small open plain nestled between icy mountainsides was nothing but harsh and craggy. Steam rose from pools of water heated by the molten rock deep below -- or not so deep below, Alistair saw as they crept quietly along the path, trying not to alert the dragon.

They reached this next door, and when Alistair put his hand on it, the sensation was as if the door had touched him in return, shaking him down to the ground. This must be the Gauntlet, then, where the ashes were, where Kolgrim hadn't been able to go. Zin chose a smaller group to take with him inside; Alistair was relieved to be part of it. The others would watch and wait.

6.5

When they came tumbling out from the Gauntlet, dazed, overwhelmed, the first thing they saw was an enormous dragon carcass blocking the way. Morrigan was sitting perched on the dragon's neck, legs crossed, inspecting the fingernails on one hand. She looked up when she saw them coming. "'Twas hardly my idea," she said defensively. Then, after looking more closely at them, she added, "The others are well. The elf found a pool where the water is not too hot for bathing."

Alistair turned his head to look at Zin; Zin shook his head slowly, so his hair was hiding his eyes. "Good. That's... good." His voice sounded a little flat. "Dragon."

"Perhaps 'twas not the wisest choice," Morrigan said, "to let your dog carry the horn we took from Kolgrim."

"One would not expect an animal to be able to blow it," a piece of the rock wall said, and Alistair twitched, realizing Shale had been there the whole time.

"As we did not," Morrigan agreed, "until he did, and this giant lizard descended on our heads."

"And breathed fire." Shale's stone face might not be very expressive, but the golem's voice said it all. "I'm quite certain there are crystals that would protect me against such things. Crystals that I believe are in its pack at this very moment."

"We were not," Morrigan said, "prepared."

"You seem to have done a great job of it," Alistair said bracingly, since the others were just standing there, seemingly unable to free themselves of the Gauntlet's hypnotic trance. "That's definitely the deadest dragon I've ever seen."

"Seen a lot of dragons, has it?" Shale asked, but the mocking tone sounded more friendly than not.

He hadn't seen a lot of dragons, no. Certainly not high dragons that cultists had decided were Andraste reincarnated. The dragon had been large and frightening when it was alive, but now it just looked large and pathetic -- after seeing what lay at the end of the Gauntlet, after finding Andraste's ashes at long last, Alistair was feeling a vague distaste for the way the cultists had warped a true sacred calling of protecting a true holy relic into this bloody and pointless worship of a rather unfriendly animal.

The rest of the party came back just then, Serpent in the lead and barking merrily. Zevran's hair was wet, unbraided and slicked back. Alistair tried to remember if Sten had ever had any eyebrows, or if the dragon must have singed them off. "You've returned!" Zevran said. "That is a good thing indeed. As you can see, we were a little busy while you were gone."

"You killed the dragon," Alistair said.

"Yes, my friend," Zevran said, "and it was by no means easy."

Alistair shook his head. That, he could believe. "Wait. You killed the dragon?"

"Oh, not me personally," Zevran assured him. "I believe it was our lovely Morrigan who delivered the killing blow, as it were. I was busy trying to hamstring it at the time."

"Wretched beast," Morrigan said. Alistair thought she meant the dragon, but she might have been talking about Serpent, who put his wet head in her lap. Or about Zevran. "If you are quite done, I will take my turn in the bathing pool."

"We will come with you," Leliana said, tugging at Wynne's arm. The two of them looked barely half awake, lost on some other plane of existence, a trace of exaltation still burning in their eyes and making their faces luminous and beautiful and strange. Morrigan's mouth tightened a little, but then she gave a short nod and set off, leaving the other women to follow.

Sten frowned, which looked so strange without eyebrows that Alistair decided he must have had them before after all. Or had he? Seeing a man's face every day, you'd think you could remember little details like that. "Are you well, kadan?"

Zin didn't answer, and Alistair swung abruptly to look at him. There was no exaltation in Zin's face. His eyes were bleak and empty, and he had his arms wrapped around himself as though feeling the cold. Alistair dragged him over to the sunny side of this little canyon and leaned him against the warmed rock, not far from where Shale was basking silently. "The Gauntlet was... it tested us," he said to Sten. "Zin most of all, I think. We have what we came for, but..."'

"But the price was high," Zevran said, "I can see that."

Sten clapped Zin on the shoulder. "We have succeeded here, kadan," he said. "You can rest now." Then he turned away abruptly and began scratching Serpent behind the ears.

"Rest grows boring after the first few years," Shale remarked to no one in particular.

"Then if you will assist me, my large and sturdy friend," Zevran said, "I will climb up to the dragon's, ah, nest, and find out what treasures it might have hoarded there."

"If I will assist?" Shale didn't sound eager at the prospect, despite the lack of interest in more rest. "The painted elf is usually a little more observant. I am hardly anyone's first choice for scaling sheer cliff-faces."

"I did not mean for you to climb," Zevran said hastily. "Merely, if you would stand just here, and raise your arms, I believe I could climb you. No?"

Shale huffed, but consented to stand where Zevran had indicated, and in moments, Zevran was swarming up Shale's body and then a rockface that Alistair would not have thought would provide a toe-hold for a fly. Delighted noises from above seemed to indicate that Zevran had found something worthy of the effort, even before Sten was nearly brained by a falling helmet. Alistair tried to catch the various things that came hurtling down before they could be too badly dented against the rock, or could dent anyone standing below. Serpent caught a strip of leather and claimed it for his own, finding a sunny patch to lie and worry it while he watched.

When the women came back, damp and steaming, both Wynne and Leliana seemed more collected than before. "I believe it would be best if we set up camp here," Wynne said. "We could stretch some canvas against this wall to make a temporary shelter, perhaps tie it with ropes around the pillars. I know it's hard on poor Brother Genitivi, waiting for us," she glanced sideways at Leliana as though they'd spoken about this already, "but I for one do not relish the idea of returning through that temple this late in the day."

"No, indeed," Zevran said, climbing down the way he had climbed up and with the same ease, making a showy jump from Shale's shoulder to the ground. "I think we all could use some rest first. But the night will undoubtedly grow cold. Would it not be better if we went inside this Gauntlet, I believe you called it, for shelter--"

"No," Leliana and Wynne said at once.

"No?" Zevran quirked a brow. "I see. Well, then we shall simply have to stay out here. And I do believe our illustrious leader has not had the opportunity to try the hot bath yet." He clapped a friendly hand on Alistair's shoulder, and Alistair, looking at Zin with growing concern, didn't flinch away. "You, my friend, look like just the man to rectify that. Do make certain that he washes everywhere. There are so many little spots that one might easily miss. Now that I think more closely about it, perhaps I had better come with you--"

"No," Alistair said hastily, snatching up the cloths and soap that Leliana held out to him, "no, that won't be necessary. At all. Ever."

He hustled Zin away as fast as he could, sighing in relief when they were out of the entrance to the Gauntlet and away from the others. The pool was just where the others had explained, close to the tiny ruin where they'd found someone's lost treasure earlier, apparently things the dragon hadn't even bothered with. The surface of the water steamed, and Alistair tested it cautiously before stripping an unresisting Zin and easing him in, following himself as soon as he could. The air on the mountaintop was sharp despite the late-afternoon sunshine, but the water was hot enough to make his skin prickle.

There was a ledge along one side of the pool, at the perfect depth to sit. Alistair settled himself as comfortably as he could manage, and leaned Zin against his chest. After spending some time in the water, Zin began to come back to himself. His eyes cleared, he drew a shuddering breath, and then he reached out and hit Alistair's shoulder with his closed fist, hard. "You think things would be better if you were dead, do you?" he said.

"I just thought," Alistair said. The things he'd heard and seen and said inside the Gauntlet were still a little jumbled in his mind. "I mean, if Duncan had... if Duncan was... everything would be all right if Duncan were here," he tried to explain. "He'd handle all of this much better than I would."

"He would, would he?" Zin said. "You idiot. Do you imagine I could live without you?"

Alistair felt his lips draw back from his teeth in a snarl. "You'd already said you'd rather be dead. Defending your parents to the last breath. Why do you think I care what happens to me if you're already gone?"

Zin's face twisted. "They were my parents. My father was wounded, was d-dying, and my mother wouldn't leave him. Duncan asked her to, I begged her, but she refused. She chose to stay and -- and--" He smacked the water, sending drops flying, but Alistair could see the wetness already on his face. "I don't know what Howe's soldiers did to her. I don't want to think about it. I can't stop thinking about it."

"Oh, Zin," Alistair said, and Zin half-turned in the water and threw himself into Alistair's arms and wept like a child.

Alistair didn't know what to say, or really what to do, but he could hold Zin until the stars fell out of the sky, so he just hung on, pressing his lips into Zin's hair, damp from the steam, and only making a small sound of complaint when Zin bit him. After a while, Zin stopped shaking quite so hard, and just snuffled against Alistair's chest. "I got snot all over you," he said.

"Lucky we're in the water, then," Alistair said and reached out a hand. "And I have a secret weapon against Zin-snot."

Zin gave a watery chuckle. "You do, huh?"

"Yes. It's called," Alistair drew his words out, "soap." Alistair sniffed the tiny bar Leliana had given him, worried for a moment that she'd handed him something fancy and floral, but it smelled like grass, not unpleasantly. He snagged a small piece of cloth as well, the kind they usually had for a washcloth on days when all they had to clean themselves with was a few drops from a waterskin, dipped it in the water, and began to wash Zin.

Very thoroughly. He began with the face, wiping away the tear tracks and kissing Zin's eyelids. The neck, behind the ears, the shoulders and collarbones. Alistair unfolded Zin's left arm to its full length and washed it from shoulder joint to fingertips, then the right one; when he stroked the underside and washed the armpits he took care to keep his touch firm, not tickle-light. Zin made a noise, but didn't jerk away.

Then the chest and stomach, all that skin and muscle, made for wide, sweeping motions, and probably the nipples didn't get any dirtier than the rest of the skin, so Alistair really had no reason to linger there, he just liked to see them draw tight, liked the soft sound that Zin made. When he wiped out the navel, Zin squirmed, disliking to have it touched.

Alistair shifted Zin on the stone ledge so he could reach to wash his back, scrubbing a little harder against the muscles there when Zin murmured his pleasure at the scratching sensation. Then he urged Zin to stand up so he could wash his arse, those gorgeous rounded cheeks and the crease between them. Turned him around and washed what the chantry mother always called the private parts, though Zin had made it clear that no part of his body was too private for Alistair to touch. Zin was half-hard, and thickened even more as Alistair handled and washed him.

"This is nice," he said.

Alistair kissed Zin's hip. "Sit down again." Zin did, and stretched his legs out, one after the other, as Alistair washed them, all the way down to the feet, between every toe. "Okay," he finally said, "I think we're done."

Zin shook his head and looked at Alistair over his shoulder, under his hair. "Not when only one of us here is clean." He stole the washcloth out of Alistair's hand and began to scrub him right back.

It was nice, it was more than just nice, but Alistair wasn't lounging around in the hot water to pay detailed attention to his body. He dodged away from Zin's ministrations and swabbed at himself with handfuls of soapy lather, ducked under the surface to rinse and then climbed out of the pool, shivering as the crisp mountain air hit his heated skin.

"There, clean," he said and held out a hand to Zin. "Come on out before you prune up too badly."

"It's cold out there," Zin objected. "I can see your gooseflesh from here."

Alistair picked up a blanket and held it temptingly wide. "I'll make sure you're warm and dry."

Zin pouted, but that was a definite improvement over Zin before the bath and Zin during most of the bath. When Zin came out of the water, Alistair was slow with the blanket because he couldn't help but stare. He'd seen quite a bit of naked Zin by this time, but naked Zin in the sunlight, with drops of water clinging to his skin, that was definitely something worth looking at.

"Cold," Zin said. "Cold cold cold." He made as if to get back in the water, so Alistair caught him in a blanket hug and rubbed his hands briskly up and down Zin's sides and back.

"You have some water left here," he said and licked at the top of Zin's shoulder. The water tasted of minerals, but not in a bad way.

He turned Zin around, and the blanket slipped, so Alistair chased a drop down Zin's back with his mouth and sucked it off his shoulderblade. Zin's spine made a perfect groove down his back, a canal for the water to travel. Alistair filled it up with kisses instead, kisses running down Zin's back like water drops, down and down until Alistair had to kneel to lick the small of Zin's back and bite gently at the perfect round curve of his bottom. He followed the course of a drop of water as it trickled down Zin's tailbone and lower, lower, both hands on Zin's arse spreading him open, puckered skin under his tongue and Zin moaned and his legs buckled. Alistair steadied him and eased him down, then tried that tongue thing again to see if it would have the same effect.

"Oh, holy..." Zin's voice dipped into a throaty, incredulous whisper, then trailed off completely. Alistair figured that was good. He licked, kissed, sucked at the slick skin and pressed with his tongue, testing but not breaching the muscle. So tight. Impossible to believe that he could fit here, that he could take Zin that way, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that Zin could take him that way. Impossible to believe such a thing wouldn't hurt, except Zin made it very clear that no, it didn't hurt, in fact, he loved it.

Zin sounded as if he loved this, too. Alistair had a vague notion he should be bothered by it, what he was doing right now. But he'd washed Zin clean himself, and he couldn't imagine finding any part of Zin disgusting just on principle. Particularly when Zin was moving against him and breathing in little gasps, falling forward on his elbows and arching his back the way he did when he was close. Alistair wondered if he could pleasure Zin into spending just by doing this and not stopping, or if he should stop and do something else. He wasn't sure how he would ask, though, without making the decision to stop. Thinking about it made him chuckle, as busy as his mouth was, and Zin cried out and squirmed, reaching under himself with one hand.

Barely a touch, not even a full stroke, and Zin found his release. Alistair came close, too, just from hearing it and feeling it. "You're so gorgeous," he said into Zin's skin. "You're wonderful. You're perfect. You..."

Zin collapsed forward, then rolled over, nearly kicking Alistair in the head. His belly was slick with seed; he'd need another bath. "I'm a sure thing," he said. "You don't have to flatter me, you can just fuck me."

"I can think of many things I want to do to you," Alistair said, flushing hotly. "But there's no, we don't have any..."

"Use this," Zin said, swiping his fingers through the mess on his stomach, "if you don't think your tongue made me slick enough." One hand smeared the seed all over Alistair's hardness, the other dipped down between Zin's own legs, and Alistair sat back, both to get away from the knowing touch that made him ache with desire and to better see the way Zin's fingers pressed inside. Alistair ran his hands up the insides of Zin's strong thighs, caressing, pushing them wider apart, and Zin flashed him a grin. "You like it when I finger myself, don't you."

Alistair took a deep breath, determined to answer despite his burning face. "Yes, I do. But I, ah, I like to be the one to do it, too." He closed his eyes, even though, yes, he really liked to watch Zin do this, because Zin's knowing gaze on him was too much. "You're so hot inside," he said, remembering. "I like to touch you everywhere, you've probably noticed."

"I want you to touch me everywhere," Zin gasped. "Always, I always want..." Zin hooked a leg around Alistair and pulled him close, gripped him with one hand and guided him inside. "Always want you."

Alistair tried to move slowly, wary of causing pain. The ground was hard beneath them, and a blanket didn't do much to soften it; the rock was warm, too, from whatever heated the water. There was a pebble digging into his knee, and chilly air blowing across his back, and water running from his hair into his eyes, and no matter how much he tried to distract himself with these little discomforts, it didn't change the fact that he was inside Zin and Zin was clutching at his arms with both hands, trying to wrap his legs around Alistair's hips, doing everything to draw Alistair closer, deeper.

"I love you," Alistair said. "I love you." He wanted to say more, to find words as big as the sky, as brilliant as the sun, but these were the only ones that came close. "Zin. I love you."

"Fuck me harder," Zin gasped, and then he tilted his head back and laughed. And maybe it was warden stamina, maybe it was just wishful thinking, but it seemed to Alistair that it went on forever, the two of them joined together as close as they could be in this heated pleasure. The rhythm of it was fast and hard, and Zin cried out with every thrust, short high cries, until he arched and shook and screamed loud enough to echo across the mountaintop, and his body wrung Alistair's own release from him, unstoppable.

"Sten was right," Alistair mumbled into Zin's shoulder, trying to gather the strength to move. "You are loud."

6.5.1

It was raining when they finally crossed the drawbridge to Redcliffe castle, the kind of rain that's very close to being sleet. Alistair hunched down into his armor, grateful for the helmet for once, but he had to straighten up and flip up his visor when they were accosted by the guards. In its way it was a relief to see that there were guards; someone was maintaining the castle to nearly its usual standards, and Alistair had a pretty strong suspicion of who that someone was.

These particular guards were new, but one of them had been part of the village militia before. He recognized them all, and waved them in to where it was drier and warmer. They put down their packs and draped cloaks to dry before going into the hall, where Bann Teagan was deep in a conference with Murdock, the village mayor, and someone that Alistair didn't recognize, but the smell of fish that hung about her seemed like a bit of a clue to her profession.

"We can just sit and wait," Zin said, but Bann Teagan had already seen them and came hurrying over.

"My friends," he said, taking in their wet and bedraggled state, "I should ask you to rest and eat something, and I will, but... I have to know. Does your return mean that your search has been successful, or unsuccessful?"

"We have the ashes," Zin said, and Bann Teagan looked inexpressibly, almost painfully relieved.

"Then let us go at once," he said. "One of the Circle mages stayed here, after the... after they came to help with Connor. His healing has not had much of an effect on my brother, but at least Eamon is no worse than he was."

"Considering how long it's been, I'd say that's pretty impressive," Zin said. "We probably don't all need to go crowd into the sickroom, though. Alistair, why don't you come with us, and Wynne, if you think you're up to it?"

Wynne wanted to meet the Circle mage, of course, so they left the others in the hall and went up to the arl's bedroom, where Isolde was keeping a bedside vigil, looking pale and drawn and as if she needed to wash her hair. She twisted around on her knees when she heard them coming, and her face darkened at the sight of Alistair but then lit up at the sight of Zin. "You have found the ashes!" she said.

The mage turned around almost as swiftly, and his face was torn between relief and terror. "You have? That's wonderful!" he said. "I have a ritual -- I think it will work--"

"Emmett, isn't it?" Wynne stepped forward. "I hope you will allow me to help."

"Yes, of course!" Emmett looked more relieved and less terrified. "It's out of Corstorph's greater compendium of..." Wynne and Emmett went into a technical discussion Alistair was just as happy not to understand a word of. Instead he listened to the quiet conversation between Zin and Bann Teagan about the current state of Redcliffe village and Redcliffe castle. It still threw him a little to hear Zin sound so practical and so familiar with all the concerns Bann Teagan had been dealing with during Arl Eamon's long illness, even though he knew now that Zin had been brought up to know everything about running a castle and caring for its adjacent town.

Isolde straightened up a little stiffly and shook out her skirts, both of which took some time, before coming over to join them. "The ashes must work to cure Eamon," she said. "I have already lost my son, I will not lose my husband as well."

Zin looked startled, and pain and regret flashed across his face very quickly to be replaced by a blank, polite mask. "I'm sorry -- I thought we had managed to save Connor in time."

"Yes, in time for the mages to steal him away," Isolde said.

Bann Teagan cleared his throat. "When the First Enchanter and his escort returned to the tower, they took Connor with them."

"They could not even wait for Eamon to wake up," Isolde said. "Though perhaps it is better this way, to save him the pain of having to say farewell forever to his son, his only child--" She'd started out sulky, but she was working her way up to tragic with every word.

"But it's not forever, is it?" Zin got an expression back on his face; it was a frown. "You can write to him, visit him, and once he is harrowed, he can get permission to travel."

"That is easy for you to say." Isolde looked even more tragic. "I understand the wardens will accept anyone. But for the arl and arlessa of Redcliffe to acknowledge their shame, to go begging to the Circle for time with a mage -- oh, this is all my fault, and now I have brought this humiliation on Eamon!"

Zin just stared at her. Alistair tried to remember if Lady Isolde had always been like this. He thought she probably had, only he'd been too young to really understand it. Or maybe just too him to understand it, because he wasn't sure he did now, either.

"I think you will find," Bann Teagan said, "that Eamon has quite a different view of the matter."

Lady Isolde wrung her hands. "I cannot bring myself to tell him of this! He was so proud of his son, and to lose Connor like this..."

"You can't be serious," Alistair said without stopping to think first. "Lady Isolde. Are you saying that you will cast Connor off because he is a mage? But you were willing to do anything to protect him!"

She didn't even glare at Alistair for being Alistair before she answered. "Of course I was! He was my son, and the Guerrin heir! But now," her voice broke, "now he isn't, and Eamon has lost his heir, and it's all my fault, and -- and--" When she blinked, tears began to slide down her cheeks.

To Alistair's immense surprise, Zin stepped up and put his arms around Isolde, even though he was still frowning, and she began to sob into his chest. "Connor is still your sodding son," he said. "Eamon won't blame you for having given birth to a mage child. Maybe you'll have more children, or maybe Teagan will inherit, or his children, if he gets married. Redcliffe isn't lost, the Guerrin name isn't lost, your marriage isn't lost." He quirked an eyebrow at Bann Teagan. "And Eamon will want to keep as much contact as possible with Connor, won't he?"

"Yes," Bann Teagan said unhesitatingly. "Eamon loves the boy, and magic won't change that."

Isolde sniffled. "The other nobles will look down on him for this. On us."

"Maybe some will," Zin said, "but the ones who do won't be worth troubling yourself over. But Andraste's curly eyelashes, Isolde, if you pretend Connor never existed, others will despise you for that, and the people who will feel that way are much more worth keeping as your friends and allies."

"You don't know that," Isolde sobbed. "And you can't call me... Oh, you are a Grey Warden, you have no breeding and no manners. You don't understand..."

Zin gripped her by the shoulders and pushed her back until they could look each other in the face. "Didn't Teagan tell you? My name is Zin Cousland. Don't tell me I don't understand."

Isolde's eyes went wide. "The Couslands -- but the Couslands were -- they say that--"

"Howe says," Zin said. "He lies." He shook Isolde gently. "I was brought up on Fereldan politics. Trust me when I say that I know what I'm talking about. What you have to understand is that things are very different here from in Orlais. You have to stop thinking like a blighted Orlesian."

Somehow, in the middle of her tears and her temper, Isolde found a small bubble of laughter, and Alistair liked her better in that moment than he ever had before. "That is not so easy," she said, her accent more pronounced than ever. She bit her lip. "And don't tell me there aren't Fereldan nobles who would pretend a mage child never existed. I know there are."

"Yes, there are," Zin said. "But the important thing for you to remember is... Listen, my father once told me that if you allow something to be your secret shame, that just leaves room for other people to discover it, to look down on you or blackmail you. Don't make this into something someone else can hold over your head. You already tried to keep Connor's magic secret once, and you've seen what a disaster that turned into."

"Maker, yes," Bann Teagan said.

"And, er," Alistair said, and almost turned silent again when they all looked at him, but he pushed on. "If you try to pretend you don't love Connor, it will break his heart, and it will break yours."

"You should listen to Alistair," Zin said with a wry smile. "You were willing to go to any lengths for Connor, before. He's still the same boy."

Isolde produced a dainty little handkerchief from somewhere and blew her nose. At the other end of the room, Wynne and the circle mage nodded at each other. "We're ready," Emmett said.

"Then let us do it," Bann Teagan said, "and wake my brother up at last."

Chapter eleven

6.5.1.5

Once Lady Isolde knew who Zin was, she invited him to dinner; Alistair felt sorry for him, and was quite prepared to find his own dinner in the kitchen, or with the guards, or wherever the others in the company would end up being fed. He spent his time wandering around the more outlying parts of the castle, checking for people who were still alive. But a maidservant tracked him down during the afternoon and told him he was expected, too, so he washed his face and cleaned under his nails and wondered what could have changed now, to make Lady Isolde actually want him around.

When he came to the great hall, Alistair discovered that the whole company was there, and he relaxed a bit, because if this was just general gratitude towards everyone, well, he could live with that. Then he tensed up again when he saw that Arl Eamon himself was at the head of the table, and even more when he himself got seated up there, with the arl and Lady Isolde and Bann Teagan and Zin.

That couldn't be right. Alistair sat there feeling very uncomfortable and two sizes too large, and tried to see which cutlery everyone else was using for what, and hoped that at least no one would talk to him. When he looked down the table, Leliana gave him an encouraging smile, which was good, but she also made a mysterious gesture towards the knives, or maybe the goblet, or... Alistair wasn't sure, and he thought she was either trying to tell him about something he should do, or something he'd done that he shouldn't have.

He shuddered. Zin was deep in conversation with Arl Eamon, discussing what had happened at Highever, what had happened at Ostagar, and some of the things they'd done since then, with the emphasis on the politics of it, of course. Names flew past that Alistair had no hope of recognizing, and when he looked down at his place setting, he thought someone had swapped out his fork, and he couldn't remember if he'd even used the first one.

"It seems we have no choice," Arl Eamon said. "We must present a different candidate for the throne, before Loghain establishes himself too firmly."

"You mean Alistair," Zin said, and Alistair nearly stabbed himself with the new fork.

"But--" Alistair said. He didn't have words for how appalled he was.

Arl Eamon looked at him. "This duty has fallen to you now, Alistair. Or would you rather see Loghain rule the country?"

Well, of course he wouldn't. But--

"No, my lord," Alistair said through gritted teeth.

6.5.2

"I don't want to be king," Alistair said. "I don't want to be king. I don't want to be king." He paced up and down in the guestroom provided for him, which was a great deal fancier than anything he'd seen before when he'd been staying at Redcliffe; that just seemed to underscore that Arl Eamon really meant his outrageous suggestion. Alistair turned to Zin, who was sitting at the foot of the giant fourposter bed. "I don't want to be king."

"Breathe," Zin said. "You're not suddenly king just because Eamon wants it."

Alistair shook his head. "Oh, now he says he wants it. He doesn't, really. I mean, he's never -- it was made very clear to me that I wasn't, that I was just--"

"A fall-back plan," Zin said.

Alistair winced. "I made my own life," he said. "I thought joining the Grey Wardens would be, well, different, that no one would know who I was, but I guess you already know how well that worked."

"Mm." Zin tapped his lower lip. "Maybe Cailan wasn't as sanguine about the battle at Ostagar as he seemed to be, after all. He sent you away to safety, or as close to safety as anything could be there. He knew who you were, and he knew he didn't have any heirs, and--"

Alistair clapped his hands over his ears. "Stop it. No. That's not how it was." He took his hands away again and stared accusingly at Zin. "He sent you, too."

"So he did," Zin said agreeably. "You know that some people wanted my father to be king instead of Cailan? Maybe Cailan would have sent Fergus if Fergus had made it back to Ostagar before the battle. Maybe I'm a fall-back plan for the fall-back plan."

Alistair stared at Zin, who looked completely undisturbed by the thought. "You're welcome to the crown if you want it," he said, and Zin tipped his head back and laughed.

"We need to think about essentials here," he said. "Right now Loghain is regent, and some people are already calling him king. We need to stop that. Oh, and that Blight thing." Alistair sputtered. "Yes, that would be the important thing. But I think you'll agree with me, and even with Eamon, that Loghain is pretty much standing in the way of a united Ferelden working to stop the Blight."

"Yes," Alistair said glumly.

"That's what we need to focus on," Zin went on. "Stopping Loghain and uniting the country. Using the treaties, gathering allies, because the mages and the Redcliffe soldiers can only get us so far. We need to get the Dalish and the dwarves to join us, too. Let Eamon pull strings in his own way, babe. We need a Landsmeet, and we need it to be on our side, to depose Loghain. Civil war is not a solution."

Alistair thought about what he'd seen so far during their travels: land ravaged by darkspawn, land ravaged by Bannorn soldiers and Loghain supporters. Either way, the countryside suffered, and sooner or later, people would starve. "No, it's not," he agreed. "I suppose even having to be king would be better. But there has to be another solution."

"We'll be in a much better situation to find it and make it happen if we can actually gather the allies we need," Zin said. "Having an army at your back tends to give your arguments more weight." He patted a place beside him on the bed. "Come over here, babe. All that pacing is making me dizzy."

Alistair snorted, but he came over there and sat beside Zin, then let himself fall backwards and stared up at the canopy of dark velvet above. "I just. Maybe it was stupid of me, but I trusted the arl when he said I should just stay out of politics, that it was never going to be my life, no matter who my father was. And now he's trying to shove me right into the thing I wasn't supposed to even think about, and he says it's my duty."

Zin leaned back too, but he propped himself sideways on his elbow so he could look down into Alistair's face. "Did you ever? Think about it?"

"Maker, no," Alistair said. "I don't want it. I've never wanted it. The idea of being king absolutely terrifies me."

"I can see why," Zin said. "Still, I think you'd make a pretty good king. Much better than Loghain, that much I'm sure of."

"Serpent would make a better king than Loghain," Alistair said, and Serpent whuffed his agreement from the spot in front of the fire. "Things living under rocks in the Frostbacks would make better kings than Loghain." Serpent growled. "Hey, no, I didn't mean it like that! Of course you'd make a much better king than a thing under a rock! I'm just saying Loghain's a bad choice."

Zin rubbed a hand over Alistair's shoulder. "You need to relax," he said. "Maker, you're tied up in knots." He sat up again and nudged Alistair to get farther up on the bed, grabbed his feet and pulled his boots and socks off, then nudged some more -- "C'mon, up" -- until he could sit with Alistair's bare feet in his lap.

When Zin took his left foot in both hands and ran his thumbs firmly up the arch, bottom to top, Alistair groaned. That felt really incredibly good. Better than -- well, no, not better than sex, but good in a different way, good in a way that he hadn't realized until now that his body craved. Zin rubbed his foot thoroughly and expertly, and then started on the other one. Alistair felt as if he were melting into the bed.

"This is amazing," he said incoherently. "This is... ohh." Most of the time, he didn't give his feet much thought, but right now they were letting him know in no uncertain terms that one, there had been quite a bit of walking on hard surfaces lately and two, Zin had the most wonderful hands.

Zin chuckled. "I'm glad you think so," he said and worked over Alistair's ankles, then started on his calves. "Turn over," he said after a little while, "this is easier from the back."

Alistair rolled over and just lay there, feeling himself grow heavier and warmer as Zin worked over his calves, his thighs, his rear, and then started in on the small of his back, slipping his hands in underneath Alistair's shirt. Alistair grunted as Zin's thumbs dug in. "Don't stop," he managed to get out. "Just, ah, I think I did something there when we fought that, ohh, that bereskarn yesterday."

Zin's touch became gentler. "I think so, too," he said. "Let me just..." He pressed and prodded, and Alistair felt the tension roll away bit by bit, until he softened like butter in Zin's hands. "Oh, that's much better." Zin's hands kept moving up Alistair's back, taking the shirt along, until it started to bunch under Alistair's arms. "You'll have to move a little, so I can get this off you."

Alistair shifted obediently, arms up, lifting himself a little from the bed, then sinking down again once the shirt was over his head. His arms were still tangled up in it, but he didn't care, and apparently Zin didn't either, because he left the shirt as it was and went on with his attentions to Alistair's back, and then his shoulders, and Alistair wondered dimly why descriptions of the Golden City in its heyday never mentioned the backrubs.

At long last, Zin brushed a kiss against the nape of Alistair's neck and said, "Turn over again."

"Mm," Alistair said muzzily, and rolled.

He would have said, if anyone had asked, that he was completely limp. But when he rolled over he could see Zin, who was pulling his own clothes off, standing to remove his breeches, climbing back on the bed completely naked, and at that point, limp wasn't an entirely accurate description any more.

"Don't move," Zin said and smiled sweetly. "Here." He shoved a pillow under Alistair's head, so Alistair could watch without straining his neck as Zin straddled his legs, unfastened his breeches, and bent down to take Alistair's rapidly hardening length in his mouth.

"Maker's breath." Alistair didn't cry out; his voice was barely more than a whisper. Zin's mouth brought him to full hardness in a ridiculously short time, and he would have been only too happy to spend himself like that, but then Zin straightened up and twisted a bit, and Alistair saw that one of his arms was reaching behind himself. He realized that Zin was sliding his fingers into himself, stretching himself, and Alistair wanted to reach out and help.

Zin turned a sharp look on him. "I said don't move."

"But," Alistair said.

That sweet smile came back again. "I'm going to ride you," Zin said, "and you're going to lie there and let me." He cocked his head. "You look wonderful like this, all spread out for me, with your arms trapped in that shirt. But if you can't hold still, I'll tie you to the bed."

Alistair whimpered. He, well, he kind of wanted that, he realized. But not right now. What he wanted right now was to lie here and watch as Zin took his pleasure in just the way he wanted. "Of course I'll let you," he gasped. "Of course I'm all for you -- I'm yours to-- Zin."

When Zin smeared the elfroot cream all over him, Alistair bit his lip. When Zin rose up on his knees, steadied Alistair with one hand, and pressed down, Alistair felt sweat break out along his hairline, and he couldn't take his eyes off Zin, whose face was so open and so beautiful. Alistair wanted to push up, to buck his hips, but he wanted even more to find out what Zin would do and what rhythm Zin would set purely for his own pleasure.

"So good," Zin said quietly, braced his hands on Alistair's chest, and began to grind down, a slow, tight movement, more a roll of the hips than anything else. "You're so... it feels so good." Gradually he began to move faster, rose up higher, pressed down harder. His hands on Alistair's chest moved, too, fingers tightening and releasing, like the rhythmic kneading of a cat.

It was slow, the way it sometimes was between them, slow and drawn-out, and Alistair loved every moment of it. And he held still, as still as he could, though he heard the seams of the shirt creak a bit as he strained against them. Didn't thrust up, much as he wanted to, but let Zin do it just the way he wanted; watching Zin, seeing Zin's face as he shifted, found a better angle, pushed down.

Zin moved his hands from Alistair's chest to the bed on each side of him, curled his back forward and let his hips move, sliding up and grinding down, panting open-mouthed. His hair fell forward, hiding his eyes. Alistair wished he could touch. He wanted to run his hands all over Zin's heated skin, brush the hair back from his face, feel Zin's short panting breaths against his fingers.

He wanted to pull his legs up, dig his heels into the bed for traction, and thrust.

Discipline, Alistair thought to himself. He could handle this, the terrible torment of his beautiful lover riding him and taking so much pleasure in it. "Zin," he whispered.

Zin tossed his head and slammed his hips down and cried out, and his hot seed spurted out over Alistair's belly and chest, some of it even hitting the underside of his chin. Zin's body tightened almost unbearably around him, and Alistair groaned, teetering on the edge. "So good," Zin panted again. "So good, babe. Come in me." He moved, just a slow sloppy slide up and down, and that was it, that was all Alistair needed; he squeezed his eyes shut as he found his release, the feeling so intense it made him dizzy.

After a while, Alistair blinked his eyes open again and looked up at Zin. "I think there's a bathing room down on one of the lowest floors," he said, taking care with every word to make sure they were in the right order. "They pump in lake water and heat it somehow, I'm not sure how it works but I remember the dwarves working on it a whole summer."

"We could be cleaner," Zin said. His arms were shaking a little, and Alistair freed himself from his shirt, hearing one of the seams give way as he did, just in time to catch and steady Zin before he slumped forward into his own mess. "Especially you." Zin pulled out of Alistair's grip and rose up on his knees, separating their bodies. Then he bent forward again and started to lick Alistair's chest clean.

"No," Alistair said weakly. "That's, we should..." He moaned as Zin tongued his right nipple, then grazed it with sharp teeth. Getting hard again was almost painful. "We're not getting to the baths this way."

"Of course we are," Zin said. "As soon as we're done here." After a final leisurely lick, he lifted himself off Alistair and lay down prone next to him, spreading his legs and lifting his arse a little. "All yours. I promise not to move. Much."

"But I like it when you move," Alistair said, rolled over, and covered Zin's body with his own, seed and saliva sticky between them. Zin had a point. They could get clean later.

6.5.3

"Do you see?" Leliana said somewhere behind him. "The arl was cured. The ashes cured him. How could you doubt them now?"

"A magic ritual cured him," Morrigan replied, "performed with some... substance... that we brought back from the mountains."

Alistair glanced back over his shoulder to see Leliana glare at Morrigan with a sort of friendly exasperation. "It must be so dull for you to look away from all the true wonders in the world and pretend that they don't exist."

"The true wonder here is that you persist in talking to me about the matter," Morrigan said. "One would believe a bard to be a little more conscious of her audience."

Alistair lengthened his stride and caught up with Zin instead. He fell into step beside Zin and glanced sideways. Uncombed hair, chewing on a dried stalk of something, tattoo on his face. Alistair shook his head and took a deeper breath. "I need you to teach me about forks," he said quietly.

Zin blinked at him. "You hold onto one end and eat with the other," he said. "I've seen you do it."

"Yes." Alistair shook his head. "That's not what I mean. When we were dining with the arl, I didn't know what to do with my elbows, and there were all these forks, I think Leliana was trying to send me a secret message about them, or maybe that was the knives, and when a servant tried to fill my goblet I nearly knocked the pitcher out of his hands."

"You poor thing," Zin said, chuckling.

"Oh, you think it's funny now," Alistair said. "Just wait until I spill my wine all over the ambassador from Orlais." He made a face. "Not that I want to meet the ambassador from Orlais. Maker's breath, Zin, templar training wasn't about table manners!"

"No, I don't suppose it would be," Zin said. "But really, babe, just act confident and no one will care what you do with your fork."

Alistair looked at Zin, who was never anything less than confident in any situation, whether it involved forks or not. He wasn't sure he could explain. "It's a lot easier to ignore the rules if you know what they are," he said. "And I know this sounds stupid, but I want the arl to realize this is a bad idea because it's a bad idea, not because I'm a hopeless clod."

Zin looked back at him, serious now. "You're not. And of course I'll teach you stuff if you want to know, just as long as you don't end up thinking it's important. What really matters is your belief in yourself."

Alistair sighed. If it was up to his belief in himself, Ferelden was probably doomed. Good thing they had Zin.

6.6

Going back to Ostagar was madness. Of course. The south was overrun by darkspawn; nearly every day saw another ambush, another attempt to stop them. And the farther south they went, the colder it got. At first Alistair just saw traces of snow on the ground. Then the snow began to pile up in drifts, making their progress slower and slower.

He... didn't really mind. Not because he didn't want to go, no; he definitely did. There was just something about taking this road again that made him remember too clearly being one Grey Warden among many, seeing Cailan in the distance as nothing but a grand figure in a grand suit of armor, and those thoughts made Alistair's footsteps heavier than the snow. Things had changed so much. Back then, he'd believed that he'd found his place in the world.

It wasn't just that things had changed, Alistair thought glumly. The world had changed. And he had no idea of his own place in it any more.

As for walking through a snowfall, that turned out not to be possible. Zin was all set to move on even when the skies darkened and the wind picked up; it was Morrigan who stopped him just as the first few flakes began to fall. "I have seen weather like this before," she said. "By all means take to the road if you wish to kill yourself. We will collect your frozen corpse in a few days' time."

Serpent barked insistently off to one side of the road. It turned out he had found a small hut, likely used by peat-cutters, or so Morrigan guessed. The hut was very crowded with all of them inside, as well as all their gear, but it had walls, actual real walls, which gave considerably more shelter from the cold than the canvas of a tent. It had a fireplace as well, and a smoke-hole.

"I can stay outside," Shale offered. "I do not feel the cold as you flesh creatures do."

"I'd rather keep everyone where I can see them," Zin said. "And you'd get bored out there, wouldn't you? Not that this hut offers a lot of entertainment."

"Compared to the outside," Wynne said, "this seems positively palatial." She was looking a little worn around the edges, and moved close to the fire as soon as Morrigan got it lit.

"Here," Alistair said, "you should put on my spare gambeson."

Wynne looked doubtful. "When was the last time you cleaned this? It smells--"

"Everything smells in here," Zin said, which was true enough. "Put it on. At least it's warm."

"I never imagined I would experience so much snow here in Ferelden," Leliana said. "We've been to some very cold places, but this..."

Morrigan snorted. "This snow is nothing out of the ordinary," she said, and Alistair was reminded yet again that she had grown up in the Wilds. "'Tis merely bad weather. But bad weather like this can kill a man very quickly, should he get lost."

Leliana looked a little bewildered. "Lost? Because the snow covers the landmarks?"

Instead of replying in words, Morrigan cracked the door open and gestured at the outside, and they saw that the snow had started falling quite heavily, turning the air white. Alistair could barely make out the nearest trees. "Shut the door again, if you please," Zevran called. "You are letting out the heat." Then he made a sound not entirely unlike Morrigan's snort. "Not that there is any heat. But there might be some eventually, if we don't open the door regularly to let the winter in."

Morrigan had already closed the door again. "I see what you mean," Leliana said quietly. "It is good that we are staying here for now."

"Indeed," Zevran agreed. "I have read tales of travellers trapped together in cold weather. They often have to share body heat to survive, do they not? I would, of course, be willing to offer such heat as I can provide, particularly to those wearing more, ah, revealing outfits."

"I too have heard tales of travellers trapped together in situations much like this one," Morrigan said. "They often end up eating one of their companions to survive. 'Tis good we have a volunteer."

"That was not what I volunteered for," Zevran said. He pulled the blanket around his shoulders tighter, and moved closer to the fire. "And if we are to pass the time by telling stories, I believe mine will be rather more enjoyable for the others than yours, my dear Morrigan."

Zin put one folded blanket as padding on a crate that the peat-cutters had been using as table, chair, or both; he sat on it, pulled Alistair down to sit next to him, and wrapped a second blanket around them both. Then he unwrapped it again. "Nothing wrong with sharing body heat, but you'd better take the cuirass off first," he said with a grin. "And I think if anyone tells stories, we'd better pass on the cannibalism. We're not exactly about to starve to death. We haven't even been here an hour yet."

They ended up staying in the hut for two days, during which time no one killed and ate anybody else. Zevran told a number of stories, though Zin stopped him every time it seemed his tales might become too suggestive. Alistair grew increasingly frustrated, since the hut was small and crowded and Zin kept stroking his thigh under the blanket whenever they sat together, which was most of the time, or lay next to each other, which was the rest of the time.

It was certainly an effective distraction: he had no time to return to the thoughts of wardens and kingship and purpose that had burdened him before. But when they finally left the hut, the fresh cold air took care of any excitement he might have felt, and then they finally reached the ruins of Ostagar, and sex was the last thing on his mind. He was blanketed in melancholy just as the ground was blanketed in snow, a thick covering that weighed heavily on him and only got worse as they recovered Cailan's armor, Cailan's correspondence, Cailan's body.

That last was the worst thing of all. The darkspawn had hung Cailan as a mocking decoration right in the middle of the high bridge, where the statue used to be, and apparently used him for target practice. His ribs were crushed, the whole ribcage looked wrong, but what was even more disturbing was how recognizable he was. Perhaps it was darkspawn magic, keeping him free of decay for so long. Alistair's mouth twisted. No doubt it was more enjoyable to mock and deface a fallen king than a rotting body that could have been anyone.

Late that night, Alistair pressed as close to Zin as he could, underneath their shared blankets. "I don't think I'll ever be warm again," he said quietly.

"You will be," Zin said, hugging him tighter. "I promise you will be."

"He was my king, you know?" Oddly, talking to Zin's shoulder was a lot easier than talking to his face. "Not my brother. I couldn't think of him like that. But he was my king, even when he made stupid decisions." Alistair sighed. "I trusted Duncan. Duncan trusted Cailan even when he doubted him. Cailan trusted Loghain. And he should have been able to do that."

"Mm," Zin said.

Alistair leaned back a little. "Well, shouldn't he? Or is that what it means to be king, not being able to trust anyone? Because I could never live like that."

"I know." Zin met his eyes gravely. "A king can't trust everyone. But he should be able to trust someone."

6.6.1

At least they hadn't found Duncan's body. Which might mean the darkspawn had desecrated it, eaten it, done whatever they did to it, Alistair knew that, but he preferred not to think about that. All they'd found of Duncan was his weapons, which Zin had fallen so completely in love with, it was no hardship to let him have them. Alistair did wish he had something of Duncan's for himself, but when he saw those familiar hilts over Zin's shoulders, when he saw Zin wield those weapons with so much skill and certainty, it seemed right, somehow.

Chapter twelve

6.7

Alistair thought the Brecilian forest would be cold, because of how far south it was and because of the season. But the area where the Dalish clan they looked for was camped wasn't as far south as he'd imagined, and sheltered by the Southron Hills, which no one had bothered to mark on their map, so they had to do a lot of walking up and down and up and down before they came into the woods proper.

The forest here was lush and green, not wintry, and almost seemed to belong to a different season altogether. It only made sense, Alistair supposed; if the Dalish elves were staying here at this time of year, it had to be because this place was actually somewhere people would want to stay at this time of year.

As it turned out, the Dalish were only staying because they couldn't move with so many injured and sick, especially when they risked being attacked while on the move. But the weather was still, well. Not warm, precisely, but not cold either, and entirely free from snow, which was all Alistair asked at this point.

Of course there were midges instead, but Morrigan knew a way to keep the insects at bay, and Zin talked her into doing it for their entire party. Then all they had to deal with was the werewolves.

7.

"These people don't like me," Zin said, sounding disturbed. "I mean, they don't... they don't like me."

"You insulted their keeper to his face," Zevran said. "That is unlikely to make you beloved by all in the Dalish camp, my warden." He shrugged. "Also, they are Dalish elves. You are a human noble."

"They said I was arrogant," Zin muttered. "Am I arrogant?"

"Yes," Zevran, Leliana, and Morrigan answered as one. Alistair bit back a grin. He wasn't going to say anything.

"Perhaps just a bit, dear," Wynne chimed in. "You do have a way of acting as if you know what's best for everyone."

"That's not..." Zin sat back and frowned. Then he smiled ruefully. "No, I know what's best for me. The best way of getting the things done that I need to get done. It's not about what's best for anyone else. But that's not going to sound any better, is it."

"The Dalish are a proud people," Zevran said. "They are not going to appreciate being told what to do by an outsider, a human."

"But Zathrian is wrong," Zin burst out. "He's not doing what's best for his people, he's just refusing to listen to anything I say. He's screwing up, and they're suffering for it. What kind of leader acts like that?"

"Many, sadly," Wynne said. "Though I don't believe Zathrian is unaware of his responsibilities, or given to ignoring them. It is simply that over the years, he has become rather... entrenched in his view of the world, and dislikes having it challenged."

"He's wrong," Zin said. "He's wrong and he's being a festering arse about it. You met Danyla. One of his people, and all she could do was beg strangers for news of her husband and for a merciful death." He turned his head sharply sideways, profile outlined against the tree trunk, bark sticking in his hair. "I think I need a nap. Didn't get enough sleep last night."

"And here I thought the two of you were merely being remarkably quiet," Zevran said. Alistair reached out and thwapped him. He'd rather be teased about their sex life than hear their companions be earnestly concerned about warden nightmares, he thought, but that didn't mean he was going to just accept being teased about their sex life, even when the teasing was about nights when they, well, when they hadn't actually had one.

There was a perfectly good reason for that, too. The Brecilian forest was most emphatically not the kind of place where a man could just let his guard down and think about how warm and tempting Zin felt, lying there so close. Werewolves were liable to leap out of the bushes at any moment. Or the bushes themselves would leap out. Alistair looked sharply at the tree Zin was leaning against, but it showed no signs of moving, fortunately.

Or there'd be ogres, or crazy hermits who knew even less about combs than Zin did, or halla who just wanted to be friendly, which admittedly was a nice change from just about everything else, only they showed their friendliness by snuffling wetly in your ear just when you'd dropped off to sleep, and Alistair absolutely had not sat up and screamed like a three-year-old having a scary dream, that was malicious gossip, but he'd been a bit startled, thank you very much. Only Zin was allowed to stick his tongue in Alistair's ear without any warning.

Zin opened his eyes again. "I don't want to kill any more werewolves," he said. "They're people. They talk."

"They also attack," Alistair pointed out. "If they'd just stop long enough to have a conversation, I'd be happy with that, but if anything jumps at us teeth and claws first..."

"Also, even if they're people, you kill people," Leliana said. "I'm sorry," she added when Zin winced, "but you know it is true. Those bandits on the way here, they could certainly talk, and the cultists in Haven, and... oh, stop looking at me like that!"

"I am just reflecting," Zevran said, "that when I suggested listening to Father Kolgrim back in Haven, no one agreed, but now you want to listen to the werewolves, who aren't even talking to us?"

"He was a crazy cultist," Zin muttered. "He thought a dragon was really Andraste."

"I think we should try to listen to the werewolves!" Leliana said. "I didn't mean to say that we should not. The Dalish keeper isn't telling us everything we need to know. And that poor woman Danyla..."

"But the werewolves aren't telling us anything at all." Zevran tapped a dagger against his bootheel. "They call us ignorant but still refuse to tell us what they think we should know. Danyla said things were not as they seemed, but she did not tell us anything useful, for all that."

"She was in pain!" Leliana snapped.

"True, but these other werewolves, they are not in pain," Zevran said. "At least not before we fight them. And we do, because they choose to fight rather than talk to us. They only have themselves to blame if we act on the knowledge we have been given so far."

"That is what the bald elf wants," Shale rumbled. "I'm sure the bald elf would vastly prefer if we listened only to what it told us."

"Ye~es," Alistair said. "Look, I agree that Zathrian is annoying, but at least he isn't trying to kill us every time we turn around."

"No?" That was Sten, arms crossed and chin down. "Who told us we could only get the aid of the Dalish if we solved this problem?"

"I'm sure Zathrian means well," Wynne said, "but--"

"I am not," Sten said.

"But if he didn't want to risk us speaking with the werewolves, he should have sent us in the opposite direction," Alistair said. "Or told us no, no help here, sorry, go away."

"He wants us to kill the werewolves for him," Sten said. "That would not be accomplished by sending us in the opposite direction."

Morrigan came back, looking not in the slightest like someone who had just visited a private bush on her own business. "And if we fail and the werewolves kill us," she said, "I doubt he would shed any tears over our untimely demise."

"But then his own people would go on suffering," Alistair said.

Zin looked up. "Yes. Exactly. He's an arse and he's screwing this up, I told you." He looked around their little group. "Now would you all just shut up for a while so I can get some sleep?"

So they left Shale and Serpent standing guard over Zin's sleeping form, and Alistair and Sten vented their frustrations against some bears, which did not at any point try to talk. And Zin, Alistair thought, bashing his shield into the snout of the nearest bear so hard the bear sat back on its rump, as much as he loved him, Zin could be maddening. For all his frankness, Zin had a way of forgetting to tell people things, skipping over the middle of his arguments when he did bother to explain, or just assuming that everyone had reasoned things out the way he had and come to the same conclusions.

Which might be a large part of why everyone agreed he was arrogant, come to think of it.

Zathrian hated the werewolves. The werewolves hated Zathrian. But Danyla had been a werewolf and one of Zathrian's people at the same time. Alistair frowned. Who had the other werewolves been? Why did they hate Zathrian so much?

"I don't understand what is going on here," Alistair muttered.

"That is hardly surprising," Sten said, and Alistair jumped; he'd forgotten that Sten was there. The bear roared, making clear that it wasn't as dead as Alistair had hoped, and Sten hit it with a mighty blow that nearly separated its head from its body. He unbent enough to add, "None of us do."

"Well, I hope we figure it out in time."

7.1

The ruins they found past the strange barrier in the forest were dank and dark and full of undead. There was also a faint smell of wet dog. Alistair had never quite understood why people said Ferelden smelled like wet dog, or how this was really a bad thing, if it did, because he'd never thought about it, but... okay, this was what wet dog smelled like. Wet wolf, more likely. And it wasn't that great.

And then there were the spiders. Alistair hated spiders. Not normal, ordinary-spider-sized spiders; those he barely noticed. But those huge ugly things that leapt at you from behind and wrapped you in sticky horrid webs before you could even get your sword up, and then tried to chew your leg off starting with the knee?

He definitely hated those.

As they went deeper into the ruins, Alistair also decided that he hated animated skeletons wearing stupid helmets. And ghosts that never said anything useful. And dragons, oh dear Maker, how did a dragon even get down here? Granted it was on the small side as dragons went, nothing like the one those cultists had worshipped... still, it would have grown too big to get out of the chamber that housed it, eventually. Alistair wondered if it ate spiders. Or werewolves. Or if the werewolves ate the spiders, or the other way around.

"You're looking kind of pensive there, babe -- oh, hey, a phylactery, that's weird," Zin said and dove for it. It turned out to be a trapped soul yearning for oblivion. Alistair could just about feel it, like a butterfly beating its wings helplessly against the glass of the vial; when Zin set it free, the relief was tremendous.

Of course, that meant that the next time Zin found a phylactery, he picked it up and shook it to see if any other trapped souls needed help, and it came apart in his hand and suddenly there was a revenant in the room with them, all huge sword and bad attitude and centuries of morning breath.

After that fight was over, Alistair was prepared to admit that he hated revenants at least as much as ghosts and dragons. He also kept a sharp eye on Zin, to see if Zin found any more shiny glass toys to play with. As much as Alistair loved the man, he also suspected that Zin's full name was Zin Insanely Reckless Cousland.

And that was before they met the werewolves who actually wanted to negotiate, and Zin said sure right fine of course and walked into a deep underground chamber that was absolutely packed with growling werewolves who all looked like they were ready for a Zin-sized snack at this time of day. Alistair said a prayer under his breath, because, well, it couldn't hurt, and followed.

There was a mostly naked woman down here in the deepest cellars, except that she wasn't really a woman. And somehow a mage was responsible for her current fate. At least she didn't have horns. The whole thing felt strangely familiar to Alistair, but he fixed his eyes on a distant pillar and listened to what this not-a-woman and the werewolves had to say about how Zathrian had made all this happen. Vengeance had driven Zathrian to create the giant wolf Witherfang, and the werewolf curse.

Anger began to prickle at Alistair's skin. Yes, the things that had been done to Zathrian's children were absolutely horrible, but that was how long ago, exactly? The perpetrators were dead, long dead. The sufferers now were humans who had nothing to do with those crimes, and Zathrian's own people.

Alistair thought about Danyla again, and her husband Athras. Their pain had been so real to him, so obvious, so immediate. It seemed that to Zathrian, the only pain that was real was his own. Alistair was starting to sympathize with Shale's frequently-expressed urge to squash Zathrian's head.

"I'll go get him, then," Zin said. "There's got to be a way to work this out, somehow."

As they trudged up the stairs towards the exit, Morrigan said, "'Tis obvious this spirit of the forest is Witherfang, of course."

"Well, duh," Zin said. "But--"

"What?" Alistair said. "You mean they lied to us."

"Well, not lied, precisely," Zevran said. "They never said that she was not Witherfang."

"She was forced into her current shape by Zathrian's magic, then," Sten said. Then he snorted. "Could he not have magicked her some clothing as well?"

"I thought Zathrian made her a wolf," Leliana said. "Wolves do not wear clothes."

"Clearly forest spirits do not wear clothes, either," Zevran said. "And why should they?"

Alistair made a face. So the mostly-naked woman in the cellar was sometimes a furry animal, too. "Did everyone except me understand that she's actually Witherfang?"

Wynne patted his hand. "Yes, dear. But we love you anyway."

Zathrian was waiting for them, very conveniently, at the top of the very long stairs; clearly he'd come to check on their progress as soon as he judged it halfway safe. And he did not take well either to Zin's cynical comment about the trust he was showing them, or the suggestion that he come and talk to the werewolves. Shale looked about half a minute from seizing his head in one large, rocky hand, and Alistair would have helped.

"What about your people?" he said instead. "Will you really let them suffer more in the name of your revenge?" He tried to look at it from Zathrian's perspective, but that didn't make him feel any friendlier. "Is it just that their lives seem so short to you that their pain doesn't matter as much as yours does?"

Zathrian glared, first at Alistair and then at everyone else. "And if you held your dead children in your arms, what would you do?"

"I don't know," Zin said before Alistair could even think of an answer. "But whatever it was, I hope I wouldn't keep doing it for centuries."

"This is a pointless discussion," Zathrian snapped. "But very well, I will come with you to speak to these... creatures."

Walking into that great underground room full of werewolves for the second time was possibly an even more unpleasant experience than the first. Alistair thought he could taste the hatred in the air. The negotiations Zin had hoped for didn't come out well; Zathrian had all the flexibility of a rusty old broadsword, as his willingness to fight them all rather than back down showed.

He put up a hard fight, too, paralyzing the werewolves into immobility and calling on the trees to come alive and fight at his side. And how could there be trees growing here, underground, so far from the sun? Alistair ducked a branch that tried to take the top of his head off and panted a thanks as Shale's fist pounded it into splinters. He tried to keep the trees' attention on him, hoping that someone with a greater talent for stealth would be able to sneak up and--

Yes. Zathrian was caught and disabled. The trees stopped moving, and there was a brief moment of silence before the werewolves, released from their paralysis, once again began to growl their displeasure.

Alistair thought that would be the end of it, especially since the werewolves wanted nothing more than to tear Zathrian limb from limb, but this forest spirit proved surprisingly patient, and Zin, well, Zin could talk just about anyone into just about anything. Maybe Alistair shouldn't have been surprised when Zathrian finally admitted that maybe, just maybe, he'd lived too long and lost his perspective on things.

"Oh," Leliana said by Alistair's side, a muffled little exclamation, and she had tears running down her face as she watched Zathrian and the forest spirit both reach their end together, giving up their unnatural lives, the spirit swirling away in leaves and dust motes, Zathrian just slumping down in the way of all dead flesh.

And the werewolves -- the werewolves were human again.

7.2

"Can't sleep?" Alistair said after the fourth time Zin turned over and elbowed him in the ribs. Outside the tent, the voices of the Dalish were still raised in grief and celebration around the huge bonfires they'd lit on the lake shore. Zathrian was gone, and the werewolf threat was ended. Alistair got the feeling the Dalish didn't know whether to be happy or sad. There was wood smoke and tears in the air.

"No. Sorry." Zin brushed a kiss against his shoulder. "I just... these people still don't like me."

"Some don't," Alistair said cautiously. "Some do. But the new keeper promised you the troops you need, and that's the important thing, isn't it?" He stroked Zin's hair. "And you spent the whole afternoon playing catch with those kids. They certainly liked you."

"Some people wouldn't let their kids play with me." Zin pressed closer. "Especially after that one little girl told me if I had a tattoo on my face because I secretly wanted to be Dalish, it wasn't working very well."

Alistair brushed his fingers through Zin's hair. "Why do you have a tattoo on your face? It's not the kind of thing I'd've expected of someone like you."

"A lot of the old Alamarri chieftains had tattoos," Zin said.

"Don't tell me," Alistair said, and then he chuckled, because no, Zin didn't have to tell him. He tugged at Zin's hair. "You read it in a book."

"Yes," Zin said. He elbowed Alistair when Alistair couldn't stop chuckling. "It's not that funny. This was a marking the Clayne used for their warleaders." He paused a little. "My mother was furious."

"You probably shouldn't mention that," Alistair said. "I mean, didn't the Dalish fight the Clayne in that story Sarel told a couple of nights ago?"

"Maybe that's why they don't like me." Zin sighed. "He tells a lot of stories. Humans don't exactly sound like heroes in them."

"No," Alistair agreed. "Would be odd if they did."

"And then I come clomping in here and try to fix everything as fast as I can." Zin lifted his head and looked at Alistair. "There's a Blight. I'm in a hurry."

"I know," Alistair said, because he did know; he felt it in his bones, a growing pressure and discomfort, a certainty that something had to be done. He wasn't sure how to explain it to others, though.

"If I talk fast enough, maybe that will work. Maybe it won't." Zin dropped down in the curve of Alistair's arm again. "And some of what I say, I'm not honestly sure it feels right. Like that woman whose husband had been killed by the werewolves... how could I tell her she had to let go of her wish for revenge? The way she felt, it wasn't like Zathrian's anger that had just stayed and festered forever. That happened just this year."

"But the werewolves that killed her husband don't exist anymore," Alistair said. Seeing that moment of transformation would stay with him forever, he thought.

"No, but the people do." Zin thumped his forehead against Alistair's chest. "I just, how can I go around preaching that revenge warps the soul when all I can think about some days is..." He thumped harder. "If someone told me that oh no, Howe's not the same person that killed your parents, he's changed, he's a ch-chair now, I'd smash the chair to kindling."

Alistair burst out laughing. He shushed himself quickly. "Sorry, I'm sorry, I just... a chair?"

Zin made an unhappy sound. "I was going to say a child, but."

"But you can't hurt a child." Alistair pulled in closer. "I get it, I do. But that's the point, isn't it? If Howe turned into a child, you wouldn't hurt him. I suppose you can preach limited forgiveness. To children but not to chairs."

Zin tried to pull back, although the tent was too dark for him to make out Alistair's features any more than Alistair could see his. "The werewolves didn't turn into children. They turned into adults. Same people, different bodies." He dropped his head down again. "I just don't know how much they were the same, if they were responsible for what they did as werewolves or not."

"I don't know." Alistair kissed along Zin's hairline. "But what I do know is, well. Zathrian and the spirit of the forest both died to put an end to this curse, this vengeance. So I think you did right in not letting it start up again. There's enough trouble between elves and humans as it is."

"Mm," Zin said, still sounding unhappy. He pressed close instead of pulling away, though. "Wanna fuck?"

Alistair choked on thin air. "I, um. I thought we were having a deep and soul-searching conversation, here. My mistake, I see."

"We were," Zin said. His free arm began to trace a slow pattern on Alistair's back. "I'm trying to distract myself."

"I see. It's nice to know that I'm good for something." Alistair dragged his mouth down Zin's face until he found Zin's lips with his own. He couldn't see much of anything in here, but that somehow made it more exciting.

And kissing Zin might be his favorite thing to do in the whole world. It made Alistair think of tasting whipped cream for the first time in his life, that feeling of startled delight that something so wonderful could actually exist and he was allowed to have it. He pulled Zin even closer and and pressed against him, silky skin and crisp hair and hardness grinding against hardness. Perfect.

"I'm starting to think," Zin broke out of the kiss to gasp, "that you like to make a mess."

"Mm," Alistair said absently, pushing Zin down a little, licking at his throat. A little of the forest smell clung to Zin's skin, or maybe it was the lake water; they'd bathed once they came back to the camp, washing themselves clean of days of grime and spiderweb strands and crushed bone and blood. What Alistair could taste now was something green and cool and slightly bitter.

Like the forest, he thought, maybe it was the lake water but this taste was just like the forest itself. And underneath it was the taste of Zin himself, skin and spice and heat and a tiny hint of salt. Alistair loved it, but he loved kissing Zin even more, so he went back to that. The way he craved Zin's mouth was a bit like the Grey Warden craving for food, more intense at some times, less intense at others, but always there. Sometimes Alistair still couldn't believe that this was all for him, that he could have this, kiss Zin, gorge himself on kisses until he was very nearly sated.

Zin pressed close and then sank back a little, just enough to give them room to thrust against each other. They had trouble finding a rhythm at first, each wanting something slightly different, but the way their hips stuttered against each other felt almost painfully good, too, rushes of unexpected pleasure, heated air, scrape of skin, perfect pressure, nothing...

"If I sucked you," Zin said into his mouth, "there wouldn't be a wet spot in the bedroll."

"Yes, there would," Alistair said back. He slid his hand down Zin's spine and settled it on Zin's arse, at first just steadying a little, but then he gripped and pushed them together, matching the pace now, tight and heated. "And I guess I do like to make a mess with -- with you--"

"On me," Zin said. He rubbed his face against Alistair's, a scratch of stubble and a tangle of hair. "I kind of like that, too."

7.2.1

The next morning, Alistair woke up very early and lay there listening to the birds being loud in the trees outside, and enjoying the sleeping weight of Zin half on top of him, Zin's head on his shoulder. The sticky mess between them had dried into a hardened, tacky mess instead, but the discomfort of that was outweighed by the comfort of the bedroll and Zin's body next to his own. Maybe they could bathe in the lake again, later.

It took a while for Zin to stir. He yawned, smothering it against Alistair, and stretched a little, one leg at a time, and made a disgusted sound as he tried to pull his and Alistair's bodies apart. "'rning. This is disgusting."

"You're so sweet in the mornings," Alistair said. "Pure sunshine."

"I want tea," Zin said. "And a bath. And I don't want to move. Can you fix that?"

Alistair tightened his arms around Zin. "Just the last part."

"Mm." Zin didn't protest, he snuggled in closer. "I suppose we have to get up. Places to go, Blights to stop. Dwarves to talk to."

"We're getting closer," Alistair said. "Remember when you said one day we'd have armies? I have to admit, I wasn't really imagining an army of elves in skimpy armor, but now that I've seen what they can do, I'm really glad to have them on our side."

"Another treaty redeemed." Zin squirmed a little. "Your elbow is... yes, that's better. I just hope the next one doesn't take so much time. I just, I feel like we should hurry, and instead we keep getting sidetracked."

"It's not that bad," Alistair said. "...Is it?"

Zin shrugged. "I don't know. I don't know how much time we have, and it's making me itch all over. And do you want to be the one to explain to the archdemon that we're sorry we're late to the Blight, we were just stopping to talk to Wynne's old apprentice?"

"Well, when you put it that way. No."

"Not that I'm sorry we did," Zin added quickly. "I'm glad she got to see Aneirin again. I'm glad he's not dead the way she thought he was." He wiggled a hand in between them to scratch himself.

"It's not the archdemon making you itch all over," Alistair said. "It's, um, from last night."

"Your fault," Zin said. "You should do the scratching." He propped himself up on his elbow. "I can't believe Wynne asked Aneirin to come back to the tower, though. I mean, I get that they need rebuilding, not just physically, they need the people, but... why would she think he'd come?"

"Well. He is an apostate. In a really dangerous forest. I guess she thinks he'd be um, safer? In the tower?"

Zin snorted. "He's living alone and free in the woods just like he wants, he has a whole camp full of Dalish for company if he feels like it, he's perfectly happy where he is. And she says he ought to come and let himself be locked up in a stone tower and be surrounded by templars, who already stabbed him and left him for dead once. Yeah, that would be a real temptation."

"Have you been talking to Morrigan?" Alistair asked. "I thought she was usually the one to say negative things about tower mages. And then you'd argue with her."

"When she says they all deserve to die, sure." Zin rubbed his face against Alistair's shoulder. "But when she says everyone deserves freedom... I can't really argue with that. And Wynne's free to travel, but can you imagine that Aneirin would ever be, after running away and living as an apostate for so long? He'd be lucky if they didn't just make him Tranquil."

"Oh," Alistair said. "Right. He's never been harrowed, so... they could do that." He grimaced. Tranquil mages unsettled him, with their flat voices and their flat eyes and their flattened personalities. He didn't like to think of that happening to Aneirin, who had been so vivid and real, out in the woods.

"I get that Wynne means well, but I don't think she's really thought it through," Zin said. "She just thinks the tower is always the right place for all mages." He grinned a bit. "Except for her, at least right now."

"The Veil is really thin here, though," Alistair said hesitantly. "I mean, we've seen plenty of demon possession. Wouldn't that make it a really dangerous place for a mage? And that's not even counting the wolves and the bears and the walking trees and stuff. And the darkspawn starting to move in."

"Mm. But Aneirin didn't seem worried. And I just... I suppose I can't imagine taking someone away from the peace and solitude and freedom he's made for himself and stuff him into a little stone room in a big stone tower." Zin shrugged helplessly. "It seems so wrong."

"It worries me about the darkspawn, though," Alistair said. "The way they're spreading. I guess we're really not that far from Lothering here." He bit his lip. "I wish we could have done something. For Lothering."

"Yes." Zin flopped down again and buried his face in Alistair's chest. They'd travelled in a careful arc around Lothering. Around the remains of Lothering. "I hope at least some people got out in time."

Chapter thirteen

8.

The Frostbacks were cold, Alistair knew that. He was wearing double layers of his warmest socks, and he could still feel the chill rising from the ground. He'd wear double gambesons if he could fit them into the armor. Well, and if they had any to spare; Wynne had made him throw away his extra one, after the nights in the peat hut, and Sten wasn't likely to give up his. Even as crowded as the market outside Orzammar was, full of humans and dwarves and market stalls and fires and food stalls and a few teams of mules and oxen, nothing could warm up the mountain air.

"Why do we always go to cold places?" he asked. "Can't we go somewhere warm and balmy for a change?"

"Not in Ferelden," Zin said. "Not at this time of year."

Alistair followed Zin around the market and loomed menacingly (and coldly) in the backroom as Zin talked and persuaded and cajoled and stole his way from one end of the small valley to the other. It seemed everyone came here sooner or later; they even found one of the apprentices whose time with the mage Terraster had run out, though he didn't seem too unhappy about that. He looked perfectly warm, too, in his thin robes, and Alistair wondered if there was a heating spell at work, and if Wynne and Morrigan could learn it.

The only time Alistair had to step in and do more than loom was when they ran into one of the Blackstone deserters, who definitely wasn't happy about being discovered browsing dwarven cookpots and cutlery while munching on some deep-fried nug-on-a-stick. Alistair had no doubt Zin could deal with the deserter easily enough, so he contented himself with holding off the supporters the man had found somewhere. He'd just beaten one man down and was starting on the second when Sten came out of nowhere and rapped the thug on the head with the pommel of his sword, sending him crashing to the ground. "Hey," Alistair said, "I had that totally under control."

Sten ignored him. "Kadan," he said, speaking over Alistair's shoulder, "I have found Faryn." Alistair tried to remember who Faryn was. "He claims to have sold my sword to a dwarf named Dwyn."

"Dwyn, huh?" Zin came up to them, barely out of breath, and wiped his hair out of his face with the back of his hand before sheathing his weapons. No one among the people around them so much as batted an eyelash. Alistair had never been in a crowd that was quite so blasť about violence before. "Hey, we know him. Well, I wouldn't say we're best friends or anything, but... Alistair, you remember Dwyn, don't you? From Redcliffe? Sten, I think you were helping build barricades when we talked to him."

"Yes," Alistair said shortly. He still had no idea who Faryn was, but he was unlikely to forget Dwyn, the way Zin had flirted and flattered and finally outright bribed the dwarf into helping with the defense of Redcliffe. Zin had offered to have sex with the dwarf, and Alistair didn't know if he detested him more for getting the offer, or for turning it down. Well, no, if Dwyn had agreed to that, Alistair would have had to strangle him with his own beard. He just didn't understand how anyone could say no to Zin.

"Guess we'll have to look in on him again," Zin said blithely. He looked at Sten. "After we get into Orzammar and secure the support of the dwarves. We didn't travel all this way just to change our minds on their doorstep."

Sten nodded curtly. "I understand, kadan."

"I think we're done here," Zin said. "As done as we can be, for now. Let's round up the others and have something to eat before we storm the gates of Orzammar."

As it turned out, everyone wanted to try the deep-fried nug-on-a-stick. Not a whole nug, of course, that would take a much bigger stick. Alistair looked thoughtfully at the nug rotating on a spit while the food stall proprietor shaved off thin slices and filled a piece of bread with nug, bean paste, a mess of greens and some kind of spicy sauce. Maybe he should have tried that instead.

He wondered if there was a mannerly way to eat this food. Then he glanced at Zin, his would-be role model, and saw that no, there really wasn't. Alistair just did his best not to get grease all over his chin.

8.0.5

Orzammar was hot. Alistair didn't notice at first, because the hall just past the enormous gates was chilled by the outside air every time those gates were opened. Which might not be all that often just now, according to the guard in charge, but given the size of those gates, they let in a lot of air.

Dwarves, on the whole, seemed to like doing things on a large scale. The gates had been impressive. This hall was very large, too, with a ceiling that vanished high overhead, and filled with statues that were several times the size of any dwarf Alistair had ever seen.

"I believe these are statues of... paragons?" Wynne said a little doubtfully.

"Aye." A nearby guard nodded. "That they are. A paragon is like a living ancestor, born in our time."

Alistair stared blankly. "Isn't an ancestor just like, a great-great-grandfather or something? I mean, isn't 'living ancestor' sort of an oxy-whatdoyoucallit?"

Leliana trod on his foot, but it was already too late. The guard huffed and drew himself up. "That may be how you surfacers think about things, but I'll thank you not to insult the ways of the children of the stone, or my axe will teach you--"

"No, no!" Alistair said desperately. "That's not what I meant at all! I just, um."

"He does not know your ways, here in Orzammar," Leliana said. "None of us do. It would be a privilege for us to get an explanation from a real expert on dwarf culture such as yourself."

Alistair nodded so hard his helmet nearly fell off, and relaxed a little when the dwarf's hands settled in his belt again, rather than one of them hovering alarmingly over the axe handle. "I suppose you surfacers can't help being ignorant," the guard said, and launched into an explanation of which dwarves were good enough to be considered ancestors when they died, and which dwarves were rejected by the Stone, which Alistair took to mean that you pretended they had never existed.

"That is truly fascinating," Leliana said with such perfect earnestness that Alistair had no idea if she meant it or not. "Thank you for being so kind as to explain it to us!"

"Hmf, well." The guard looked over their group. "You're an odd lot and no mistake. Which one of you is the Warden?"

"Oh, he is," Alistair said, gesturing towards Zin, who was deep in conversation with two dwarf women. "Or, well, I'm a warden, too, but if anyone's talking about the Warden? That's him."

The guard nodded, staring at Zin. After a moment he asked, "Doesn't he ever comb his hair?"

"Not that anyone has noticed," Alistair said.

Then they left that first hall, and walked into Orzammar proper.

It was huge. And hot. The first thing they saw was a fight between two supporters of the two different candidates for king. While the candidates themselves stood right there. Alistair made a mental note that politics in Orzammar were clearly very, well, direct.

(He revised this mental note several times, later on.)

The second thing they saw, or the second thing that Alistair saw, anyway, was the lava. A small lake of it, right in the middle of this open space, and a bridge going over it to a giant building on the other side. Alistair tried to figure out how anyone could build a thing like that. Could build any of these things, really, because no matter how you looked at it, falling into lava was not healthy for anyone, and you couldn't exactly stand to your waist in it and work, the way people stood in the shallow water when they built new docks in Redcliffe.

The heat rising from the lava made the air very warm and a little damp, with a faint smell of sulphur that Alistair knew he'd stop noticing pretty soon.

"Finally," Zevran said with a faint, happy sigh, "we come to a place with a reasonable climate. Do you not agree, my qunari friend?"

Sten made a rumbling sound that might have been protest against the friend, but then he said, "Yes."

"I believe I can actually feel my toes now," Wynne said. "That's a pleasant change."

"And will you consider granting someone else the same privilege?"

Wynne stared at Zevran. "No." She stared a little longer. "Toes? Well, I suppose it makes for a change from your constant references to my bosom."

"I thought I could perhaps work my way up," Zevran said irrepressibly.

Wynne looked like she was about to test how well elves floated in lava, when Zin finished his conversation with the guard captain and came up to them. "Apparently there's an inn that way," he said, gesturing. "Or some kind of tavern that lets rooms sometimes. Seems they don't get a lot of through traffic here."

"Can't imagine why not," Alistair said. "This being just on the way to everything, and all. Well, let's go, then."

Of course it wasn't that easy, or that fast. Wynne had to stop and try to comfort a dwarf woman who was mourning the fate of her son, lost in the Deep Roads several years ago. Which was nice of her, but then Alistair heard her practically promising that they'd find the kid somehow, which seemed a bit overly optimistic, even if it was a kind thought. Behind Wynne's back, Morrigan and Shale said, at the same time, "Dead." Zevran nodded.

Alistair thought they were probably right.

Leliana found, of all things, a dwarf in chantry robes who wanted to open a chantry in Orzammar. Since everyone else seemed perfectly happy with ancestors and paragons and whatnot, Alistair figured that was not going to happen any time soon. Leliana was fascinated, though, and she and the dwarf had a long exchange about the joys of finding peace in the Maker. Meanwhile, Zin had discovered a merchant stall and was busy examining everything and haggling over half of it, while Sten and Shale stared down into the lava flood, Serpent ran around alternately sniffing and peeing at everything, and Zevran sat on a stone bench with his legs stretched out, watching them all rather sardonically.

Alistair felt like a sheepdog as he rounded up his wayward companions and herded them in the right direction, the one where the smell of spilled ale was the strongest and someone was either murdering a bag of gravel or trying to sing into one. Inside the Tapster's tavern, the smell was almost overwhelming.

"The rooms don't smell like this, do they?" Alistair said. While Wynne tried to persuade Leliana to split a mug of ale with her, Alistair aimed Zin at the nearest waitress. "Try to get us a discount. There's so many of us."

"We could just sleep on the benches outside, I'm sure," Zin said with a grin.

"Yes, until the guards came along and tossed us in the lava, the way they probably do with all the litter here." A loud crash made Alistair spin around, but it was just a dwarf falling off a table. "Come on. Morrigan glares too much, you can't let her -- oh, too late."

Zin went over to where Morrigan was already negotiating with the bartender, and Wynne and Leliana waved the waitress over to the table they'd found. Alistair just shook his head. His own one experience with dwarven ale wasn't something he'd care to repeat, but clearly, tastes differed.

"I fail to see the point of this behavior," Sten said, looking at the dwarves who stood on something like a stage, doing something like singing.

"I'm not sure I get it, either," Alistair said, "but they seem to be enjoying it."

"Yes," Sten said. "That is what baffles me."

Morrigan came sweeping back with Zin in her wake. "These dwarves are greedy creatures," she said.

"No discount for large parties," Zin translated. "There's probably a cheaper hostelry somewhere on a side street, but I think we might as well stay here for now." He eyed Wynne and Leliana. "Especially since it seems some of us are already settling in."

They dumped their luggage in their rooms, left Wynne and Leliana where they were, and set off to discover how to get the aid of a dwarf army against the Blight.

8.1

"So you're going back to see Dwyn," Alistair said. The room in the Tapster's tavern made him feel as though he were looming even though he was just standing there, because the furniture was all so low, bed and chairs and table. It was much nicer than he'd thought, though. Clean, didn't smell of ale, strategically placed lamps so you could almost overlook the absence of windows.

"What? Oh, yes, we have to go back to Redcliffe after this, anyway, to tell Eamon we're ready." Zin frowned. "At least, I hope we'll be ready. It would help if we ever actually got to talk to anyone. I mean, one of the actual candidates for the title, not just their flunkies. Gavorn's a smarmy bugger, but after the way Zevran managed to get Forender riled up, I don't think there's any point to trying to get on his good side again."

"You're not planning to make good on your promise to Dwyn, are you?" Alistair growled. He was being ridiculous, he knew he was being ridiculous, and he couldn't stop the words from bubbling out. "It's been a while, but I'm sure he remembers you very, very well."

"Oh, Maker." Zin dropped the parcels of odds and ends he'd picked up in the commons onto the bed. "I'd better make good on it at some point. I completely forgot that I promised to put in a good word for him with Teagan." He grinned a little. "Not that it's really necessary, Teagan's been very good to everyone who defended Redcliffe, or so Bella told me. But Eamon might need reminding."

"As long as that's the only promise you redeem."

Zin blinked. "What-- Oh. I tried to persuade him with more intimate favors, didn't I." A small smile twisted up one corner of his mouth. "It seems like such a long time ago. Anyway, he said no, didn't he? Too bad, really, I've never sucked any dwarf cock."

"And you're not going to," Alistair said and gave in to the temptation to grab Zin and hold him close. Zin was very grabbable right now, in just shirt and trousers, no armor and no daggers or other weapons, at least no weapons that showed. Alistair had forgone his own armor, too, here in the privacy of their room, so he could feel the heat of Zin's body against his.

Zin smiled at him, apparently not minding the rough treatment at all. "No, I don't suppose I will. Want me to suck your cock instead?"

"Zin," Alistair said, trying to sound more offended at the language than excited by the thought.

"I won't even make you defend any fishing villages first," Zin said and wriggled in Alistair's arms until he could slide down Alistair's front and kneel at his feet. He rubbed his cheek against Alistair through the trousers. "You're already hard for me. Maybe I should offer to suck you every time I ask you to help me with something. That would be nicer of me than just assuming you'll do it anyway, wouldn't it?"

"I will do it anyway," Alistair said, a bit amazed that all the words came out in the right order. "You know I will."

"Mm." Zin mouthed Alistair through the cloth. "As a personal reward," Zin's eyes glinted up at Alistair in a teasing smile, "for everything you've done for me, do you want my mouth, kind ser? Or perhaps my arse? I would be more than happy to... accommodate you, either way."

Alistair slid a hand into Zin's hair, gripped Zin's skull just a fraction harder than he would have otherwise. "I'd better not hear you make that offer to anyone else."

"There's elfroot cream in the outside pocket of my pack," Zin said, rolling his head against Alistair's grip just enough to kiss the inside of Alistair's wrist. "I think you should fuck me good and hard. As a reminder."

Alistair's cheeks burned. "This first," he got out. He wanted to set a different pace, but Zin was on his knees, fingers already busy untying and loosening, and Alistair couldn't fool himself into thinking that his own grip on Zin's head gave him anything like control.

"As you desire." Zin pulled the trousers open and sucked Alistair in, took Alistair straight down his throat all at once, no warning, just tight, hot suction. Alistair made a tiny, helpless noise. He liked to think he was the kind of man who could last for more than ten heartbeats, even in Zin's too-good-to-be-true mouth, but the way Zin sucked, and the way Zin looked up at him with wicked eyes, brought him to the edge of release and then sent him crashing over before he could draw breath to tell Zin to slow down.

Grey Warden endurance, hah.

"Zin," he whispered with that breath instead, thumb rubbing over Zin's cheekbone, tracing the outer line of the tattoo.

"Mm." The suction was much gentler now, but Zin's mouth was relentless, there was no other word for it; Zin's soft tongue coaxed Alistair into staying hard, into wanting again, wanting more.

"Not so fast this time," Alistair said, half promise and half question.

"I've asked so much of you," Zin said, swiping his tongue over his lower lip. "I owe you so much in repayment." He looked up with a soft smile. "You can do anything you like to me. My body is yours." He pulled his shirt over his head in one smooth move. "I'm yours."

"Yes," Alistair breathed, hoping Zin meant that just the way it sounded. He was definitely going to have to investigate that, though not at a moment when Zin was about to retroactively bribe him with sex for every reckless fight he'd followed Zin into since they met. "Oh, we're going to be here for a while," he said, thinking about that.

Zin laughed as he kicked off the trousers and crawled onto the bed. Alistair retrieved the elfroot cream, which was just where Zin had said it would be, and came to join him. "So how do you want me the first time?" Zin asked, rubbing his cheek against Alistair's thigh.

"Elbows and knees," Alistair said, unable to believe the words had actually come out his mouth. He unscrewed the lid on the pot of cream and handed it to Zin. "And I want you to, um."

Apparently he couldn't say that, but of course Zin knew what he wanted. Zin teased himself with one finger, then two, pushing them in slowly and moaning while Alistair felt his pulse pound harder and harder. "I'm ready for you now," Zin said. "I'm so ready for you to fuck me. I'll be so good for you, babe, you can't imagine..."

Alistair rolled up on his knees between Zin's spread legs and steadied himself with a hand at first as he began to push inside. Zin purred his approval, and Alistair pressed deeper and deeper until his whole length was inside and he was covering Zin completely, chest to back, his arms on the outside of Zin's arms, his mouth by Zin's ear, whispering, "I don't have to imagine. I know."

8.1.2

Some time later, there was a sharp knock on the door. "Are you decent, my warden?"

"No," Zin called in reply. And he wasn't. He really, really wasn't. "Is it important?"

"We are all going out to get something to eat," Zevran said. "You and Alistair would be welcome to join us. But perhaps you are... busy."

"Mm," Zin said thoughtfully. "We'll be along later." A few moments later, he called, "Zevran, Blight take it, go away. It embarrasses Alistair when you listen."

A laugh came from outside the door, and then fading footsteps.

"I'm not embarrassed," Alistair said, scarlet. "Maker's breath, how could you just talk to him like that while you -- while I'm--"

Zin grinned up at him. "Shut up. Move."

8.1.5

"No more run-arounds," Zin said. "No more stupid errands. No more fights that don't have anything to do with why we're here. No more secretive gossip about who did what to whose father or brother or whatever." He rubbed his wrist over his eyes tiredly. "Maybe it makes me a horrible person, but I just don't care any more. I just want someone to be king and give me a solid promise of troops so I can leave this place."

"But it matters, doesn't it?" Alistair said. "Who's king. I mean, it matters to the dwarves." And up on the surface, in what he thought of as the normal world, the one with a sky in it, it mattered to the humans. Not who was king in Orzammar, but who was king of Ferelden.

"Yes," Zin said dismally. He came over and leaned on Alistair's shoulder, pressed his face against Alistair's neck, kissed him just behind the ear. "How long have we been down here?"

"Ow," Alistair said as Zin nipped his earlobe, and then, "Eep!" as Zin slid a hand down the back of his trousers. "I don't suppose you've decided who you think you should s-support. I mean, if you want Bhelen or Harrowmont for king, or--"

"I want you," Zin said.

Alistair opened his mouth to say But I don't want to be king!, and then Zin's other hand came into play, fingers curving in a sure grip. Alistair couldn't help arching into that perfect pressure. "This," he gasped, "this isn't solving anything."

"No, but it will feel good."

8.1.5.1

"I still don't know how long we've been down here," Zin said irritably. "I thought once I had decided, once I'd thrown my support behind someone, that would be it." He paced across the room, still in armor, leather and chainmail not quite as clean as it could have been.

"We all hoped that." Alistair crouched uncomfortably on a too-small chair and wiped down his shield with a rag. "Are you... sure about your choice, there?"

"Of course I'm not." Zin paced some more. "Well, I think I am. I just." He spun on his heel. "I'm supporting change over stagnation, and a hope for a better tomorrow over a stodgy, boring, I don't even know..."

"Mm. Bhelen's a creep, though." There was probably a more politically tactful word to use, but not a more appropriate one. Harrowmont might be stodgy and boring, but Bhelen Aeducan set off warning bells Alistair hadn't even known he had. If the choice had been his, he probably would have supported Harrowmont instead -- a nice, straightforward fellow. "And he seems untrustworthy."

"Oh, yes," Zin agreed. "One of the most loathsome people I ever met. Want me to suck you?"

Alistair's hand slipped and he banged his wrist on the edge of the shield. "Um. No."

Zin stared down at him. "No." He stared some more. "No?"

"Don't take this the wrong way," Alistair said, "but I think you might bite me by mistake if you happened to think about something that made you upset." He looked up at Zin, who was looking down at him with that small line between his brows that Alistair thought was really rather adorable. "And I don't think that would be very pleasant for either one of us. Particularly not me. You've got strong teeth."

And he did quite like it when Zin used his teeth in some places, not too hard, but not in those places. Alistair fought an urge to cross his legs.

Zin looked reluctantly amused. "I suppose." He picked up a mailed glove, a small carved figurine and an old scroll from the table and tried not very expertly to juggle them. The glove fell on his feet. "Oh, fuck."

"I never thought I would say this, but," Alistair said. "Go out and pick some pockets or something. You need to unwind."

That got him a tired grin. "Is it that obvious? Wynne thought I should have a hot bath. Zev suggested a massage." Zin picked up the glove and flipped it back onto the table.

"Oh, I just bet he did," Alistair said, getting up to put the shield away in one corner.

"Shale thought I needed to crush someone's head. But I feel like I've done nothing but, lately. All those people in the Carta." Zin made a face. "They were criminals, so what. They had nothing to do with the real reason I'm here. It's like I'm not a warden any more, just a thug for hire."

"Go steal some things," Alistair said. "You'll feel better." He kissed Zin's temple. "If it helps any, you're a very pretty thug."

8.1.6

Of course there was a final errand, one last thing they were asked to do for the man who wanted to be king. Alistair didn't like Bhelen, didn't trust him, and he liked him even less after finding out that all the things they'd done so far weren't enough, and that now they were being asked to go into the Deep Roads to find a lost paragon who might not even want to give Bhelen the support he said he needed.

Zin favored him, though. Not the kind of endorsement that he'd better let anyone hear, especially not Bhelen himself, but still. Zin persisted in saying that Orzammar could use a little bit of progressive thinking, even if Bhelen had all the personal charm of a slug dipped in rancid oil.

Alistair hadn't really thought he would have to go into the Deep Roads for another twenty-eight years or so, and he wasn't looking forward to it. A huge underground warren full of darkspawn wasn't exactly his idea of a happy fun time. At least Bhelen offered them rooms in the palace where they could stash some of their stuff, so they didn't have to carry everything along. He offered to host anyone of their group that wanted to stay behind, too.

"We don't all have to go," Zin said. "I'll go, obviously, and I'd like to have a few of you with me, but..." But they were all of them hard to talk out of it.

"I would prefer to go with it," Shale said. "I believe I have been in the Deep Roads before. An unpleasant place. It will need my protection."

"I'm going," Wynne said. "You'll need a healer, dear. And even if you don't, Alistair will. Or are you trying to tell me that he won't be going with you?"

"Don't even think about trying to stop me," Alistair said. And although he had a strong feeling that this particular trip would be hard on Wynne, he couldn't bring himself to stop her, either. He wasn't concerned about himself, no, but the thought of being stuck miles underground with no healer and an injured Zin... that made his blood run cold.

"I am your man, my warden, you know this," Zevran said. "I did not swear to follow you only to pleasant places. Because then I would have left you a long time ago, no?"

Sten crossed his arms. "My place is at your side, kadan."

"Of course I'll come with you!" Leliana said. "What kind of friend would I be if I didn't?"

"And you think I would stay in this palace," Morrigan said, "surrounded by foolish courtiers and their notions of polite conversation?" She sniffed. "I am going."

Zin smiled crookedly. "Then let's all go out for some roast nug and ale, before I get all teary-eyed. You wouldn't want to see that."

"Flesh creatures," Shale said. "There's always liquid going in or coming out somewhere."

Zevran drew breath to say something, and Alistair pushed a fancy embroidered pillow in his face. "Don't. Just... don't." There were times when he could deal easily enough with Zevran and a level of innuendo as subtle as dwarven statues were small, and then there were times when he just wanted to shut Zevran and everyone else up and wrap himself around Zin, close as breathing.

8.1.6

And then there was the dwarf. "Wait," Alistair said, "don't I know you from somewhere? You were the one who bet those people at the next table that you could finish their drinks faster than they could."

"Yep," Oghren said, "that was me. And I was right, wasn't I?" He'd yanked their mugs out of their hands and tossed the contents down, one by one, until a barmaid came by, drawn by the loud protests of those who hadn't realized they were agreeing to the bet in the first place, and hit him over the head with her tray.

"Well, you won the bet," Alistair said, "but I think you lost the fight. That tray had a wicked right hook."

"Are you sure you want to come with us?" Zin looked unwontedly serious. He looked over his shoulder at the group of guards at the entrance to the Deep Roads. "This definitely won't be enjoyable. And we're not bringing any ale."

Oghren huffed. "Anyone bother to tell you Branka's my wife?" he said. He looked from Zin to Alistair and back again. "They didn't, huh."

"No wonder you want to go after her," Wynne said softly.

"So that household she brought," Alistair said. "She took everyone with her except you. Was there a reason for that?"

"Son," Oghren said, with a kind of hungover kindness, "you keep talking like that and you won't have any kneecaps."

Zin sighed. "Don't I already have enough armed lunatics following me around?"

"Perfect!" Oghren clapped Zin on the back, making him stagger. "What's one more?"

"Loud, apparently," Zin said.

Chapter fourteen

8.2

Zin hated the Deep Roads. Everyone could tell; his normally even temper ran a little ragged, and there was a certain look in his eyes that spoke of stress. They didn't need to walk softly around him, exactly, which was good since only a couple of them had even heard of tact, but Leliana saved him the best bits of the nug stew, not that that was saying much, Zevran gave him a neck rub without noticeable innuendo, and despite not knowing him very well, Oghren noticed something was wrong, and offered him a drink from his flask. Fortunately Sten was standing right there, and caught Zin when he passed out.

Not that any of them liked the Deep Roads. Even Oghren looked a bit uncomfortable as they headed deeper and deeper, leaving Orzammar far behind. But Zin liked it least of all, that much was obvious. And when he found the records that Branka had left behind in the abandoned settlement of Ortan Thaig, telling them that they'd have to keep going, he looked even more unhappy.

Well, they kept going. And Zin kept reading; there'd been a lot of records in Ortan Thaig, and they'd brought everything along. During one of their 'days,' Shale grumbled a bit about everything that needed to be carried, and Zin... Zin flinched.

That was so unlike him that Alistair fell into step beside him and wished that he did have a flask, like Oghren, to offer a drink from. He wanted to do something to connect them, something that would bring them closer, but he couldn't even take Zin's hand. Both of them were fully armored, the only safe choice down here. All he could do was walk next to Zin on this stone road, between the stone pillars, and try to think of a good way to start the conversation.

Then he gave up. "What's wrong?" he said. Being direct came more naturally to him than being devious, anyway. "What's in that book that you keep... looking at?" When they'd stopped to eat and sleep before, Zin had just stared at one page, eyes unfocused, and you couldn't really call that reading.

"It's Caridin's journal," Zin said quietly. "It's about... how he made golems."

"Oh." Alistair looked at what he could see of Zin's profile. "I take it it's a bit more complicated than baking them up like Feastday loaves."

"They're dwarves," Zin said even more quietly. "I mean, they were dwarves. He made them... You'd better read for yourself."

So at their next rest stop, Alistair was the one who sat poring over one page of the little book, staring at the words until the spiky writing started to blur. He told himself that it was the smoke from their fire that made his eyes water, not the horrifying things he'd just read. Caridin had made his golems out of ordinary warriors, sealing a living body into a giant shell of stone or metal and then, Alistair shuddered, poured in molten lyrium through the gaps, and somehow the dwarf's life had come to animate the golem instead.

He looked at Shale, he couldn't help it. Did this mean that there was a dwarf skeleton in there somewhere, lyrium-plated bones moving when the huge stone body moved? Had Shale been a volunteer, someone who'd freely offered to undergo this painful death to come to a new and different life?

Shale didn't remember much of the past. Alistair wasn't surprised. If someone had poured molten lyrium on him, he'd want to forget it, too. He could definitely understand that look on Zin's face now. That's why Alistair didn't object when Zin wrapped around him like a second skin at night. Didn't object at first, anyway. When Zin's hands worked in under his clothes in some fairly personal places, though, he tried to put a halt to it. "Hey. No. I mean, not here."

"Maybe not," Zin said, but he didn't stop. "We don't have to... just let me suck your cock."

"Zin!"

"Are you two being disgusting again?" Oghren groused from behind the next rock outcropping over. "By all the... I swear, you're worse than the Antivan. At least he just talks. You two, you're always rolling the loaded dice right where anyone might hear you."

In the middle of being excruciatingly embarrassed, Alistair was also vaguely impressed that the dwarf had come to know them so well in such a short time. Not that he and Zin had done anything like this where they could be overheard, before. At least, not on this trip through the Deep Roads. At least he didn't think so. His ears burned.

"Yes, we are," Zin called back, sounding almost like his cheerful self. "Please, babe," he said into Alistair's neck in a very different voice. "I need to stop thinking about golems for a while. And you know I love it when you come in my mouth. Tastes so good."

"Zin!" Alistair hissed, trying to stay quiet this time.

"I keep thinking I taste lyrium," Zin said softly. "Like it's being poured into my mouth and I can't stop it. I have a whole new set of bad dreams now." His fingers curved, and Alistair could feel himself grow hard, despite the terrible images brought up by Zin's words. The blood pounded in his ears. They were all of them crammed into a fairly small cave, after all, though Zin and Alistair had a tiny nook to themselves, a pretend-privacy more than anything else. "Will you let me? Or is this too public for you?"

"Yes," Alistair said, yes to both, and he arched into Zin's grip, which was an answer as well. Zin pressed a brief kiss against his mouth, then began to squirm down, hands working all the time to free Alistair from armor and cloth, so that when he'd moved into position, all he had to do was open his mouth and suck. Alistair pressed his wrist against his mouth as a reminder not to moan too loud. This wasn't really a good idea, he knew that, but Zin's mouth felt so incredibly good, and Zin's tongue...

Zin lifted his head. "Hey," he said conversationally, as if he'd just been struck by a thought. "Do you think it would be possible to suck off an ogre?"

Alistair reminded himself that he'd said yes to this, and also, that it would be a bad time to strangle Zin. Well, any time would be a bad time for that, but right now, he probably shouldn't even try. He breathed between his teeth. The purpose here was to distract Zin from the taste of lyrium and the dreams.

"No," he said as quietly as he could. "For one thing, an ogre's... it's too big to fit in your mouth. Maker's breath, it's almost as big around as your head." Ogres were apparently turned on by fighting. Or maybe they were always like that; Alistair had never seen an ogre in a more peaceful frame of mind, so he really couldn't say. He didn't much want to, either. The less he saw of ogres, the better. "And I'm fairly sure an ogre would be trying to kill you before you could even start. They don't exactly stop to chat before trying to rip people's heads off."

That actually made Zin laugh, and Alistair felt his heart lift a little, despite the darkness all around, Oghren probably listening to the whole thing, and his own aching hardness. It had been far too long since he'd heard Zin laugh. "Good point, babe." Zin licked, little kitten laps. "Oh, you taste so fucking good. And not like lyrium at all."

He took Alistair into his mouth and then, with a wicked twist and push of his head, down his throat. Alistair groaned, though probably not loud enough to cover the sound of Zin's gagging moan. So good. So unbelievably good. The first time Zin did this, Alistair hadn't thought it was possible, even when it was happening to him. And he still didn't understand how it could possibly work, how he could fit, because he knew he was, well, not small, and yet Zin seemed to think it was a pleasure to do this, would sometimes sneak up behind him and whisper filthy things in his ear, and one of them was usually... Zin pulled back and said hoarsely, "Love it when you fuck my throat, babe. Come on, put your hands on my head, let yourself go."

That. Yes.

"Maker's breath," Alistair whispered helplessly. He sank his fingers into Zin's thick, ragged hair and did what Zin had told him, because he couldn't not, because he wanted to do whatever Zin wanted to make him happy and bring him pleasure, even if he didn't understand it. "Zin... your mouth..."

A voice very far away said something about earplugs, and could they be made out of rocks and lichen, and Alistair decided to be embarrassed about that later. Much later, when this overwhelming pleasure wasn't turning him inside out and making him feel as wild and reckless as Zin himself. He arched and pressed himself deeper, Zin moaned in approval, and Alistair was suddenly so close, teetering on the brink of orgasm, about to fall over.

With the fragment of thought-power he had left, he managed to remember to let go of Zin's head, and Zin, who knew Alistair's sexual responses better than Alistair did himself, immediately pulled back just enough, so that when Alistair came with a blissful groan, he emptied himself into Zin's eagerly sucking mouth.

Alistair slumped down into the bedroll, feeling the rock underneath dig into his spine, but unable to care. Zin kissed the inside of his thigh. "I love the taste of your cum in my mouth," he said thickly. Alistair felt his cheeks burn, his neck, the tips of his ears. "Your cock tastes delicious."

Someone groaned across the tiny cave. Alistair, about to beg Zin not to be so loud and not to be so vulgar, froze. Was that... yes, that was indeed Zevran, calling out, "Please, my warden, have mercy! Are you going to stop now?" The assassin was very nearly as shameless as Zin.

Zin burrowed into Alistair's arms and settled himself comfortably, seemingly completely unbothered by the comment and what it implied. "Let's go to sleep, then," he said.

Alistair frowned. "But you," he said. He could feel Zin against his thigh, hard and unsatisfied. Even as painfully embarrassed as he was, he just... he didn't want to leave Zin like that. Though Zevran would probably enjoy himself far too much, listening.

"I can wait," Zin said into Alistair's throat. "This was what I wanted. You, the taste of you." He pressed a light kiss against Alistair's throat. "Thank you. I know it'll be hard for you to face everyone when you wake up again."

"Zin," Alistair said helplessly.

"Love you," Zin said, voice already growing slurred with sleep against Alistair's skin. And there it was, the warm feeling inside, the tenderness, the way Alistair just wanted to curl up around Zin and protect him against everything and anything, hold him close and make him happy. Sure, Zin was crude and vulgar and sometimes downright terrifying in the way he'd say just what he thought to just about anyone, but he was also sweet and tender and kind. He did things that made Alistair's heart clench, and Alistair couldn't imagine a life without Zin in it.

Zin fell asleep, regular puffs of breath against Alistair's throat, and Alistair lay staring up at a cave ceiling he couldn't really make out and wondered how this was his life. He didn't really mind the danger, not for himself, and he didn't mind being in love... well, he couldn't imagine not being in love. But somehow being down here, far away from the ordinary surface world and with no real certainty that he'd ever make it out again, made him think more seriously about what might happen when they did make it out.

Seeing Orzammar's politics up close, and the vicious fight over who would be king, was disturbing, to say the least. And it made Alistair realize that Ferelden was torn like this, too. Not between two equal candidates, but between those who supported Loghain and those who didn't. His heart ached for his poor country.

He didn't know what was happening out there while they were trapped down here. Maybe someone else had come forward to challenge Loghain. Or maybe Loghain had beaten down all the dissenting voices, and hardly anyone was left to stand against him or against the Blight.

No. Not that. Alistair wouldn't let himself think that. The mages would fight, the Dalish would fight, they'd win the support of the dwarves, and... and they'd beat the Blight somehow.

Unless Loghain beat them. Alistair didn't know whose side the mages and the Dalish would be on, then. He didn't know what would happen to Ferelden. What would happen to the rest of the world, if Ferelden fell and the Blight moved on. He could feel his thoughts start to spiral into a darkness deeper than these Deep Roads.

"My warden?" a forlorn voice with a distinct Antivan accent said. "Have you truly... finished?"

"Zevran, do be quiet," Wynne huffed. "Some of us are trying to sleep. Finally."

"I told you," Oghren said gruffly, "you can make earplugs outta lichen. Think I will, too. You're the noisiest bunch of people I ever met."

"If I knew how to turn you all into toads," Morrigan said, slowly and distinctly, "'twould already be done. Now be quiet."

The silence after that was still dark and oppressive, but Alistair turned his head to rest his cheek against the top of Zin's head and thought maybe things weren't so hopeless for Ferelden, after all.

8.2.0.1

"I'm sorry," Zin said.

Alistair straightened up from staring into the underground river. He hadn't been able to see any fish, anyway, which had been the original intent. "What about?"

"Last n-- Oh, Andraste's rotting leftovers." Zin scowled. "Well, I'll call it last night. I'm not sure I believe in Oghren's infallible dwarven sense of time, but we might as well follow it while we're out here."

"Orzammar's on surface time," Alistair said. "And they follow the Chantry calendar. Sort of. I mean, they don't celebrate the holidays, but they know when they are."

"They trade with the surface." Zin came to lean against his shoulders. "They can't trade with us when we're asleep. Even the ones who pretend we don't exist like the money the surface trade brings in."

"Everyone likes money," Alistair said. "Everyone we've met so far, anyway. Well, except that hermit fellow living in a stump out in the woods. But I think he'd've been better off taking a few silvers and buying things from the Dalish."

"Like soap," Zin agreed. He shifted his shoulders. "I could do with some of that, too."

"I think Wynne has some," Alistair said. "You could wash in the river if you wanted."

"Mm." Zin looked down at the slowly flowing river. "Come on, let's go down and find out if the water's too cold or too festering hot."

"Too cold," Alistair voted. "It's not steaming." He followed Zin off the bridge and down to the... river bank, he supposed, though it was mostly stone, some of it looking like it was dwarf-hewn and some of it looking like it just happened. Rather to his surprise, there were steps, definitely constructed steps, leading down into the water.

Zin crouched down, pulled off a glove, and swiped his fingertips through the water. "Huh," he said.

"Well, you're not screaming," Alistair said. "That's a good sign." He dipped a cautious finger in the water and found that it was like what you got when you were third in line to use the tub in the templar recruit communal bathing room -- edging towards lukewarm, but still a perfectly decent bathing temperature. And on the upside, this water was bound to be a lot cleaner.

"I'll tell the others," Zin said. "I don't think I'm the only one who wants to get clean." He made a face. "Well, I'm not sure about Oghren. He can keep watch for spiders."

"Wait," Alistair said, straightening up and catching Zin before he could set off. "You were coming to talk to me about something, weren't you." Zin tipped his head forward, hiding his eyes behind his hair. Alistair squeezed his hand a little harder around Zin's arm. "Tell me again about how sorry you are."

"I shouldn't have, last night," Zin said. "I just. I kind of needed. Oh, Blight rot it all."

"Probably, unless we put an end to it," Alistair said. Waking up and going about his business with the knowledge that everyone had heard him and Zin last night -- Maker, some of them had even offered commentary -- had been excruciating, yes, and he was both surprised and pleased to hear Zin apologizing. "But, um. I could have stopped you, you know."

Zin's quick grin was only a shadow of its bright self. "I was kind of counting on you not doing that. Sorry. I just couldn't stop thinking about sodding Caridin and his sodding golem-making process." He shook his hair back again and looked steadily at Alistair. "You know how I wanted an army of golems to help us? I've changed my mind."

Alistair frowned, thoughtfully. "But isn't that... this Paragon Branka we're chasing after, didn't she come down here to find this anvil thing and figure out how to make golems?"

"Yes." Zin sighed deeply. "She must have read this, the same stuff I did, and she still went on. I guess she wants an army of golems anyway."

8.2.1

"Babe, I know you're a Grey Warden and all, but if you keep rummaging in that pile of extremely dead darkspawn, you're going to catch something."

Alistair straightened up. He really was filthy, and now that he noticed, he couldn't help but make a face. "I just think it has to be here somehow," he said. "Call it curiosity."

Zin made a face. "I'll call it anything you like," he said, "but what are you looking for?"

"Well." Alistair rubbed at the small of his back. Maybe he'd been a little too thorough. "Just think about all the places we've seen that the darkspawn have taken over and made their own." He didn't really want to think about that himself, to be honest, but that was what had started this. "Somewhere in the horde there has to be darkspawn that's got nothing in their packs but long red ribbons. You know, the ones that go around decorating everything. Hang ribbons, put up those strange wooden things that look sort of like bandaged horns..."

One heartbeat, two, and then Zin burst out laughing so loud it echoed against the roof of the cavern.

"You're right," he got out, "oh Maker, you're absolutely right. Hey, Oghren!"

"What," the dwarf said grumpily. "If you're going to tell me dead genlock jokes, I need a drink first."

"No, I just thought you might know, the dwarves being the closest thing to darkspawn experts we have around here, where do the darkspawn keep their ribbons?"

Oghren stared blankly at him. "Nope, can't think of a punchline for that one. And I thought the Grey Wardens were the real darkspawn experts."

"There's probably a secret tome at Weisshaupt," Zin said, "that wardens only get to read after they've passed some, I don't know, warden ritual. Pocket Full of Ribbons: an Examination of the Blight Aesthetic."

Oghren patted his arm. "Sure, whatever you say. When was the last time you ate anything?"

Zin sighed. "Stuff with lichen in doesn't count."

"Ah, you humans are just spoiled."

8.2.2

"I know she's your wife," Zin said, "but she's gone completely loopy." He shook his head slowly. "The things she's done, the things she allowed to happen to her household... well, you heard Hespith."

They'd all heard Hespith. Once a devoted member of Branka's household, the captain of her guard, and now the next thing to a ghoul, crazed and rambling.

"Sodding poetess," Oghren muttered. "They probably had a, hah, lover's quarrel, makes everyone exaggerate for effect afterwards."

"No one gets themselves infected with the darkspawn taint just for effect, Oghren. You know that."

"Ah, sod it!" Oghren hit his gauntleted fist against the rock wall. "If we can just find Branka, give her what she wants, I bet she'll relax a bit, help us out with this king business."

"I can't do that," Zin said. "I'm sorry and all, but no. That's not going to happen." He bit his lip. "That's why I wanted to talk to you now, to tell you this and give you a chance to turn back. I don't know what we're walking into, but I do know that I can't let Branka go on this way. All those people... and you saw what happened to Laryn."

They'd all seen Laryn, too. The thing Laryn had become. A broodmother, a huge, twisted creature that birthed darkspawn, every trace of her former self obliterated by the taint.

"Yeah." Oghren's voice was flattened now, and quieter. "Yeah, I saw. I remember Laryn. Pretty lady, once." He went quiet for a bit, and Alistair held his breath. "They were my household, too, you know. My family. I'll come with you, warden. Just... just let me talk to her first."

"If it's possible, I promise you that I will," Zin said. He straightened up from his crouch. "We should move on."

"Yeah. It's just... she's my wife. You've never been married, have you."

"I know." Zin scrubbed at his face. "I know, but. Listen. If Alistair decided the way to conquer the Blight was by turning people into fighting slave machines, I'd kill him with my own hands."

"Thank you," Alistair said. "I think."

Oghren looked at them both. "Like that, is it? Not just rattling the dirty gravel, are you?"

"No," Alistair said. "Whatever that means."

8.2.3

But the reasonable talk that Oghren had apparently hoped for wasn't really possible. Branka wasn't in any state to be talked to, or reasoned with; Hespith had said there was nothing in her but the Anvil, and she'd been right. The clean, cold obsession of Branka's mind rolled over them in sentence after terrifying sentence as they fought their way through the last of Caridin's traps and came out into the large cavern that sheltered the Anvil of the Void, and so many things collided at once that Alistair couldn't really keep track of them all.

Branka wanted the Anvil, that much was clear, wanted it to make more golems. And golems were made out of people. Sometimes people who'd volunteered for it, sometimes people who hadn't, and in either case, once it was done, whoever held the control rod was their master. Zin had already decided that this was not something that he, personally, wanted to live with being complicit in. And they were face to face with Caridin himself, smith and creator and now golem, trapped by his own creation, wanting to see the Anvil destroyed.

Shale, their Shale, had been made into a golem by Caridin. Shale had been a dwarf woman.

Alistair shook his head. He had a hard time wrapping his head around that; clearly, so did Shale.

Everyone was arguing, for and against, with Morrigan and Zevran wanting to keep the Anvil, Oghren wanting Branka to have it, Shale determined to see it destroyed, Wynne and Leliana coming around to Shale's point of view pretty fast. Alistair just wanted Zin to point him at someone, or something, and tell him to hit it really hard with his sword. He had a feeling it would be either Branka or the Anvil, and that was okay with him, really.

Sure, golems were powerful. He could see Branka's viewpoint, there -- Orzammar would be much better defended if it had golems guarding its gates. And the dwarf army helping to defend Ferelden against the Blight would certainly be more powerful if it had golems in its ranks.

But golems were people. Alistair didn't quite understand how the process had been discovered in the first place. He tried to imagine Caridin saying, hey, I think I've figured out how to turn a living being into an invincible stone or metal warrior, so could you lie down here on my anvil while I do incredibly painful things to you to see if it works? Caridin might be full of regrets now, but he was the one who'd started it all, and at that point he must have had nerves of steel, ha ha, to take a living, breathing person and kill them with molten lyrium to make a golem live instead.

And what about the control rods? Those hadn't invented themselves, that much was certain. Maybe Caridin hadn't trusted his creations to feel as happy about their new existence afterwards as they had said they would be, before. Maybe he wanted to be sure that they'd defend Orzammar, rather than squish his head. Maybe--

"Shut up, all of you," Zin said. "No, Branka, you can't have the Anvil. I don't care if you swear to only use volunteers, I wouldn't believe you, not after what you did to your household. You have a funny definition of volunteering. And also, there's--"

Branka waved a control rod in the air. "Golems, obey me! Attack!"

"Yeah. That." Zin sighed. "Sorry, Oghren. Babe, I hope you're awake, there." He leapt for Branka, a blur of whirling swords, and Alistair followed him as surely as if steered by a control rod.

It was a grueling fight, not just because they were tired-going-on-exhausted after so long underground. The golems Branka controlled hit hard, and Alistair couldn't help thinking, every time he slammed his shield into one, that this was a person who might not have chosen to attack him, had the choice been given.

And then there was Oghren. He fought at their side, but there was a grimness to him that was nothing like his usual berserker's joy in battle, and his face when he swung his sword against Branka was painful to see. Made Alistair wish that Oghren had listened to Zin at the start of all this, and chosen not to come with them. Making a man fight against his own wife, as estranged as they were and as loopy, to use Zin's word, as she was, just wasn't right.

Alistair was grateful to see that at least it wasn't Oghren who cut Branka down, at the last. Shale's fist came down hard, and then Branka was just a smear of dwarf on the cavern floor. The last of the hostile golems shattered under the blows of Sten's sword, and for a short moment, everything was silent.

He pretended not to see the tears in Oghren's eyes. Privacy seemed like the only courtesy worth offering.

8.2.4.1

Going back was, in its way, even worse than the long journey towards Caridin's fortress had been. They had what they came for, more or less: the endorsement of a paragon for a future king of Orzammar. Not the paragon they'd been looking for, and not that the paragon in question had specified which king, but hey, an endorsement is an endorsement and a crown is a crown, even if it happened to be both ugly and heavy.

Zin realized that he could still change his mind, that he would have to make a final and definite choice, and promptly started brooding. Alistair hoped it wasn't the kind of brooding that started civil wars. One was enough.

They also had the recently widowed Oghren, who coped by being drunk most of the time. Alistair didn't see how that was even possible; even if the dwarf's pack had been filled with nothing but alcohol, surely he must have run out at some point. Yet there he was, stomping along, all fumes and grief. And they had Shale, who was trying to come to terms with some very unexpected revelations, and also trying to pick a pronoun and changing its, her, her, its mind about five times every day.

Leliana and Morrigan, not otherwise the dearest of friends, had taken up position in the middle of the group and quite close to each other after their encounter with the broodmother; they were staying that way on the return journey as well, but it wore on their tempers, clearly. Whatever pact they had made between them, it was all too obviouly not a cheerful one. Zin hustled Wynne in there, too, although she said she was too old to worry about a broodmother fate for herself.

"I am hardly fertile anymore," she pointed out.

"We don't know exactly what this transformation does to a woman's body. And I don't want you to get eaten by darkspawn in any case," Zin said and went back to brooding over the ugly crown.

On their way out from Orzammar, it had seemed to Alistair at least that they were being waylaid by darkspawn and spiders twice for every step they took. The way back was much calmer, but they still ran across the occasional nest and cleared it out as they went.

"I think I have spider guts in my hair," Alistair muttered. "That's disgusting."

"I almost feel bad about that one." Zin was still brooding, but at least he was talking. "I mean, here are these two fellows setting up house together in a quiet little cave, living there with their pets, out of the way, and we just burst in and kill them."

"Those fellows were genlock emissaries," Alistair said. "And their pets were giant spiders." He plucked a strand of filthy webbing from behind his ear, shuddered, and threw it as far away as he could. "I don't think they were just aiming for domestic happiness."

"Hey," Oghren hiccuped, "maybe that big ogre back in the cul-de-sac woulda been a happy hermit if we left him alone."

"I would be more inclined to believe you, my intoxicated friend," Zevran said, "if he had not jumped out at us and roared and tried to bite off Sten's head. Those are not the actions of an ogre seeking the quiet and contemplative life. Not for very long, at any rate."

8.2.5

Zin sat straight up in the middle of the night. "Those aren't horns," he said.

"Thass nice." Alistair fumbled for the blankets, and for the deep comfortable sleep he'd been in. "What?"

"The darkspawn decorations. Those things they put up everywhere. We're just looking at them from the wrong angle. It's a stylized dragon's head."

"Mm," Alistair said and tried to pull down Zin as well as the blankets, because away from the flowing lava streams, the Deep Roads were chilly.

"Oh, Maker." Zin flopped down and curled himself into Alistair again. He was shaking a little. "I need to get further away from the darkspawn hive mind. That sounded so reasonable in my head."

Alistair pulled Zin in tighter. "Nightmare?"

"No," Zin said. "That's the worst part." He tucked his head in under Alistair's chin, as though he were much smaller. "I'm just starting to hear them a little too clearly."

Alistair had rarely been so pleased to be bigger than Zin, though it only was by a very little. He wrapped himself around his lover as much as he could, and stroked his hands up and down Zin's back. "What was it Oghren said -- earplugs of stone and lichen? You need dream earplugs. You can probably make those of anything you like."

8.2.6

Shale suddenly stopped in the middle of a crossroads and flung out a dramatic hand, chipping the stonework of a support pillar. "I... I think I remember this place. That way. Yes. I think it must be Cadash Thaig."

"Oh, you remembered something!" Leliana smiled. "That is so wonderful!"

"I realize we may not have the time now," Shale said, stone shoulders sagging a bit. "I will mark this location on its map, if I may, and we can come back--"

"No," Zin said. "No, let's go now. We're here anyway, and, um. I don't think you should have to wait, when you've waited so long. Orzammar can handle being without a king for a couple days more. Right?"

So they went. Serpent was the one who got the most enjoyment out of this side trip, Alistair suspected; Cadash Thaig was overrun with deepstalkers, and the mabari loved chasing and killing them. Probably thought they were some kind of deformed rats. Shale was rather more shaken, as they fought their way through the old thaig and finally reached the golem monument, honoring the dwarves who had become golems, including Shayle of House Cadash.

It would have been an even more moving moment if it hadn't included Zin throwing himself with his usual cheerful abandon at the biggest ogre Alistair had ever seen; Zin apparently thought that he himself was ten feet tall and indestructible, the way he'd described golems. The ogre was not amused. Apparently it had built itself quite a cosy little nest at the back of the statue, and didn't appreciate being disturbed.

"Happy hermit, hah," Alistair snorted to himself as he thrust his sword into the ogre's belly, which was about as high as he could reach.

"It does not seem very friendly," Zevran agreed, slicing into the ogre's knee from behind, so that it began to list to one side; eventually it toppled, and Zin leaped on it gleefully and stabbed it in the face.

"You should be more careful," Morrigan said, sounding slightly put out. "I was about to cast a freezing spell on it; I could have frozen you too, had you been in the way." That pretty much settled it, Alistair thought with a quiet snort. The rest of them never got even that much consideration out of her; she definitely liked Zin best.

"Sorry," Zin said, jumping down off the ogre's chest, grinning like crazy and clearly not sorry at all. Then he sheathed his swords and sighed. "Well, let's get back to Orzammar, then. We have a king to crown."

8.3

Once they were back in Orzammar, Zin flopped down in a bed in the royal palace's guest quarters and declared his intention of sleeping for a week. "Or for as long as Bhelen sits around and lets the nobles fawn on him, I guess. Though that might be even longer."

"I can't believe you told him you wanted your face on a statue," Alistair sighed.

Zin grinned. "Wouldn't that be awesome? Not that it'll happen, he looked like I'd asked him to suck on a lemon." The smile faded. "Or like I'd asked him to show mercy to Harrowmont."

"Yes," Alistair said, "he didn't seem big on that."

"No, I think Harrowmont's fate is sealed." Zin made a face. "It's too late now for me to second-guess myself. Bhelen will make a better king, unless his tyrant tendencies run away with him. Harrowmont's an honorable, upstanding, fundamentally conservative man who has all the spine of a wet piece of parchment."

That made Alistair frown, too, more in confusion that anything. "You don't think Harrowmont would have managed to get us the troops we need?"

"Oh, he probably would have. But what would have happened next? I don't like Bhelen, but he'll get things done for Orzammar. And, yeah, kill Harrowmont, which sucks and I'm sorry about that, but." He rolled over in the bed and looked at Alistair upside down. "And speaking about sucking." Alistair blushed. "Come here and let me suck your cock."

"You were going to sleep," Alistair said. He could hear the edge of stiffness in his voice, that chantry-installed primness that never quite seemed to go away.

"Yes, well, I sleep better if I get to suck cock first," Zin said unrepentantly. Then he got a wicked look in his eyes. "Would you like me to call the others in here first, so we can have an audience again? I think Zevran would love to watch."

"Well, he's not going to," Alistair said. "I can't believe... I've been trying to tell myself that didn't happen."

"Oh, it happened." Zin rolled over again and propped himself on his elbows. "Get down here, I'm getting a crick in the neck from talking to you." Alistair sat on the edge of the bed, and Zin grabbed him and dragged him down until they were lying together, entwined. "It happened," he said in Alistair's ear. "You came in my mouth while everyone was listening." His hands busied themselves with unfastening Alistair's trousers, casual indoors-wear after spending such a lot of time in armor. "And now you can do it again where no one will hear a thing. Except me."

"No," Alistair blurted, and blushed to the roots of his hair. "I mean, um." He'd been meaning to say this for a while, after all. "I want to do it to you," he finally got out.

Zin looked at him with suddenly serious sea-colored eyes. "You know you can do whatever you want to me," he said. "I'm yours to touch and taste and fuck however you want."

The words made Alistair groan. He pressed Zin back into the bed and kissed him at random, chest and belly and shoulders, as he pulled Zin's soft indoor clothes off. Alistair had never realized a body like this would be what would turn him on: lean and muscular and strong and wiry and, well, male. Everything about Zin was sexy to him, though. The wide shoulders, the tight little nipples, the soft dusting of hair down chest and stomach. Alistair eased Zin's trousers open. The, oh. He had to use Zin's own word here, though it made him blush even in the privacy of his own head. The cock.

Maker, but Zin seemed very big, close up. Alistair abandoned his plans to get Zin out of the trousers, and instead leaned closer and licked a tentative stripe up that thick shaft, feeling the smooth skin twitch under his tongue. When he got to the head, he circled his tongue around, tasting the clear drops that were already leaking out. Sharp, yes, somewhere between bitter and salty. And at the same time, it was the sweetest flavor he'd ever tried. Alistair looked up at Zin and smiled. "I like the way you taste," he said.

He licked a bit more, then tried to suck the head into his mouth, only to realize the angle was wrong. When he shifted to get more comfortable, Zin's hand caught his cheek. "You don't have to," Zin said with only a tiny hitch in his voice. "I mean it. Don't feel that you have to learn to suck cock just because I like to do it to you. I'm fine with me sucking you and you fucking me. I could do that forever."

"Zin!" Alistair pressed his face against Zin's hipbone. "And, well. I won't know if I like it unless I try, will I?" He licked at Zin again, then wrapped his lips around the thick, velvety head. Yes, this angle was much better. Alistair dropped his jaw and took in more, and carefully rubbed his tongue against the vein on the underside, because that always felt amazing when Zin did it to him. Zin groaned.

This wasn't bad. At all. Alistair tried to smile, but his mouth was too full. He slid his mouth a little deeper, felt the head of Zin's cock bump against the back of his throat, and quickly pulled back again, because even though Zin did that to him on a regular basis, it just wasn't possible, it couldn't be.

Then he thought again, and pulled back entirely. "Zin. Love. Could you teach me to, ah, that thing you do.... Could you teach me to take you down my throat?" he asked in a rush.

Zin groaned again, and threaded his hand into Alistair's hair, rubbing at the scalp. "Are you trying to kill me?" he laughed breathlessly. "I can try, later on, though it's not for everyone. Right now, though, I think this is more than enough." Alistair blinked uncertainly. Zin mock-growled at him. "Get your mouth back on my cock, babe."

"You are such a sweet-talker," Alistair said, his face already burning, and bent his neck to lick some more before he sucked the head back into his mouth again and played with his tongue all around it. It seemed inconceivable to him that he'd never done this before, though he'd licked Zin in plenty of other places, including at least one that he was pretty sure people had even more hang-ups about. Alistair didn't mind at all licking Zin's lovely arse, though, and he was a little amazed now that it had taken him so long to suck, he resolutely shaped the words in his head, to suck Zin's cock.

Because this was really nice. The taste, the way it felt, the way his mouth was so full of living flesh that responded to every caress of his tongue, the way Zin trembled and groaned, body flexing against Alistair's hands on his hips. Zin's fingers played restlessly in his hair.

Then Zin arched with a sharp gasp and tried to push Alistair away, so he tightened his grip on Zin's hips and sucked harder, and felt the flesh in his mouth thicken and twitch and pulse, and then Zin came with a low groan, pulsing out viscous, bitter fluid all over Alistair's tongue. It tasted disgusting. It tasted wonderful. It was Zin, and so Alistair swallowed, gentled his sucking, lapped up the last few drops with his tongue and swallowed again.

"Oh, Maker," Zin breathed. Alistair let Zin's cock slip out of his mouth, kissed it before letting go completely, and crawled slowly up his lover's body. Zin was lying limp with his eyes closed, but he caught blindly at Alistair's head and dragged him into a kiss. "Thank you," he said. "That was wonderful."

Alistair made an embarrassed noise. "It was my first time, it was probably awful. You don't have to be nice."

Zin blinked his eyes open. "Yes, because I'm always nice to people rather than just saying what I think." He grinned. "And I love you and you could probably have chewed on my cock and I'd've enjoyed it somehow, but babe, honestly, that was wonderful. Please feel free to practice your cocksucking on me any time you want."

8.3.1

"Do you really think crowning Bhelen was the wisest choice?" Wynne asked seriously.

"Oh, not this again," Zin groaned and crammed a piece of lichen bread in his mouth. Alistair looked at his own piece and wondered if there was anything that would make it a more appealing morning meal, or if Oghren had the right idea, taking his breakfast in a tankard.

"He doesn't seem to be the most honorable dwarf we've met, precisely."

Oghren burped. "Watch what you say. We're in the palace. Anyone could be listening."

"I believe you are making my point for me." Wynne poured herself a mug from the carafe on the table, then realized that what she had just poured was ale. She pushed the mug over towards Oghren. "Is there no tea?"

"No," Zin said. "There's hot water, add your own herbs, if you have any. Or just some honey." He bit into a wrinkled apple, and practically everyone at the table turned to stare greedily at him. Zin clutched it close. "Hey, I had to talk really fast at the butler to get this. Go find your own."

There was a stampede for the door; the butler was about to be run down by Leliana, Morrigan, Zevran, and Sten. Alistair took hold of Zin's wrist, brought the apple to his own mouth, and took a bite. Winter-apple tart, with underlying sweetness. Zin took a bite himself.

Wynne localized the pot of hot water. "I notice you did not answer my question."

"Well." Zin chewed and swallowed. "Yes, I think it was the wisest choice. Not the nicest choice, which I think is really what you're asking. But wisest, yes."

Pouring herself another mug, Wynne pulled a bag of herbs from a pocket somewhere and began to go through it. "You may have to explain that to me."

"All right," Zin said, sounding unexpectedly agreeable. "Bhelen's the more progressive thinker. The merchants like him because he supports the idea of more trade, and more trade with the surface at that. Which will benefit Ferelden and Fereldan merchants as well."

"I suppose that's true," Wynne said. "But--"

"And he thinks the casteless dwarves are actually people."

"Are you basing this on something other than his mistress being one of them?" Wynne asked. "Liking one pretty casteless girl does not equate to social reform."

"No, but letting the casteless take up arms and fight the darkspawn like any other dwarf does, and not just in the Legion of the Dead, either." Zin frowned. "Did that sentence make sense? Anyway, it could be that he's just planning to do that because Orzammar needs more people to stand against the darkspawn, and he's too much of a pragmatist to waste resources by ignoring a sizable part of the population, but it would make a huge difference to the lives of everyone in Dust Town who thought the future was just begging, noble-hunting, or starting up a new Carta."

"I... yes. Yes, it would." Wynne stirred some herbs into her mug. "Are you certain that this is what he will do?"

"Of course not," Zin said. "He says he will. That's all I have to go on. That and Harrowmont being--"

"A feeble old man who probably needs someone to tell him which side of the bed to get up on in the mornings, or he'd be there all day," Zevran said, dropping into a chair next to them and biting into his own apple.

Alistair had to chuckle. "You really didn't take to Harrowmont at all, did you."

"No, I did not," Zevran said, "but what is more relevant here is that I think our warden is perfectly correct in his assessment. King Bhelen may have all the personal charm of a blade trap covered in unknown poisons, but he will undoubtedly get things done, which is a desirable trait in a leader of any kind, I think you will agree."

"I believe I would reserve judgement until I saw what was being done," Wynne said. "A leader may guide his people firmly and certainly in the wrong direction, after all."

"True," Zin agreed, leaning against Alistair. "I can't see the future any more than anyone else. You'll be welcome to say I told you so in a year or two."

"Provided we are all still alive then, of course," Zevran added. "If we have been eaten by darkspawn, the point becomes rather moot."

Wynne sipped at her tea. "Yes, let us by all means avoid that," she said dryly. Her eyes on Zin were grave, but no more than that. "I look forward to seeing what Bhelen will accomplish as king, indeed."

8.3.2

"The more I think about the word elfroot, the more it seems like some kind of obscene euphemism," Zin said.

"My dear warden." Zevran sounded as if he could undress chantry virgins with his voice alone. "You have only just noticed this?"

Oghren hiccuped. "Elfroots? Those piddly little things?" He took a long drink from his mug. "That's not even half a euphemism. Now, if you ever hear a dwarf talking about his stalagmite..."

"Oh, I thought that was a euphemism for haemorroids," Zevran said.

Wynne choked on her ale.

Chapter fifteen

8.3.5

Stepping out of Orzammar felt strange to Alistair -- a sky up there, fresh cold air, trees. It obviously felt even stranger to Oghren, who had never been on the surface before, and the first few days of travel were taken up with helping the dwarf adjust in all kinds of little ways, without actually saying that was what they were doing.

Spring was coming. Alistair could see it even in the foothills of the Frostbacks, as they traveled slowly south along the strip of stony soil between the mountain range and Lake Calenhad. The land was touched by the Blight, but not everywhere, not enough to stop the heavy branches of the pines and other conifers from becoming edged in new, pale green shoots, not enough to prevent the first fresh grass from poking up through mud and melting snow.

Because yes, spring meant mud, of course. It became a challenge to find a good campsite for the night; no one wanted to put a tent up on muddy ground, or lie down in the mud to sleep. The only one who didn't care was Serpent, who was mud-colored and mud-covered and kept trying to rub up against Wynne's robes. Even Shale complained about the way the mud stuck to the underside of golem feet.

It was a lean time for food, though. They were lucky that the helpful palace staff had sent them off with a lot of supplies, provisioning them the way they'd provision any Deep Roads expedition; there wasn't much to be scavenged from the land at this season. Alistair picked the tenderest new shoots off the pine branches and chewed as they walked.

The charm of dried nug meat wore off fairly fast, though, and farther south they detoured towards the lake shore and did some fishing.

"If it can be called fishing," Zin said thoughtfully, standing by the edge of the water as Shale waded out and disappeared under the surface. "Not that I was ever very good at that. Takes either patience, or a fishing boat and a crew and a net, and I never had any of those."

"Does the lake ever freeze?" Zevran asked. "Not that I would want to see such a thing, you understand."

Alistair shook his head. "You get ice around the edges in winter, at least in the south, but I've never heard of the whole lake freezing over."

"Nor I," Wynne said. "In the tower it is said that the lake is slightly warmer than it should be because of all the failed potions poured into it over the years."

"Really?" Alistair wrinkled his nose. "It didn't feel all that warm when the kids dared each other to bathe in it, back in Redcliffe."

"And did you? Bathe in it?" Zevran looked Alistair up and down. "You do not have three heads, that I can see. But you might be hiding any number of things underneath all those layers you wear."

"I'm not hiding two extra heads, trust me," Alistair said. "And I only ever dipped my feet. Maybe I'm hiding two extra toes."

"And we're going to eat fish from this lake?" Leliana said. "Are we sure that it's safe?"

"Oh, I hope so." Alistair took off his helmet and scratched at his scalp. "I grew up eating fish from this lake."

"That might explain a thing or two," Zevran said. "I think you have an extra head coming in just above your right ear, my friend."

Alistair swatted at Zevran, Zevran ducked, and Serpent happily chased both of them in circles until Wynne called them to order again.

So they waited -- some patiently and some, obviously, less patiently -- until a glow underneath the water resolved into Shale's crystals, and Shale emerged, stone arms sheeting water and holding several very large, beautifully spotted trout, with the expected number of heads and no toes whatsoever. Fried fish for dinner made for a nice change, and so did fried fish for breakfast, and for a midday meal, and for dinner again, but at breakfast on the second day, Alistair was starting to long for the dried nug meat.

As they drew closer to Redcliffe, Alistair could feel himself get more and more tense. He knew what was waiting for them there. Arl Eamon would look solemnly at him and tell him it was his duty to Ferelden to step up as a candidate for the throne. Alistair was pretty sure he still didn't want to be king.

And after seeing the mess that was Orzammar's struggle to settle on a ruler, he was also deeply unwilling to become the kind of king that Bhelen would clearly be, but even more worried that he'd end up the kind of king that Harrowmont would have been. Quite apart from what he actually wanted, maybe he wasn't even strong-willed enough to handle being king. Maybe the Landsmeet would just run roughshod over him. Maybe his advisors would, whoever they turned out to be. Maybe...

"We'll be there tomorrow," Zin said, coming up behind Alistair and rapping his knuckles gently against the dragonbone enamel, making the breastplate ring. "You look like you need a hug, but that will have to wait until we've settled down tonight and you're less well-armored."

Alistair made a face. "It's nothing," he said. "I'm just tired of fish."

"Right," Zin said. "So it has nothing to do with your little chat with Leliana about not really wanting to be king. She's right about the boots, by the way. Someone will tell you if you have them on the wrong feet. You could probably hire someone specifically just to be your royal boot-checker."

"You're not making me feel better," Alistair said. When Zin started walking again, he followed. This was a pleasant stretch of road; they were away from the pine-covered slopes of the Frostbacks now, down among the deciduous trees just waking up for spring, and every branch was hazed in palest green. "I don't want to go down in Fereldan history as the king with the boot-checker. That's right up there with the king who drooled on himself, or the king who talked to furniture."

"Let's find out first how set Eamon is on his course," Zin suggested. "He's had some time now to look at the state of Ferelden." He grimaced. "I didn't like the sound of that messenger at the gates of Orzammar talking about King Loghain. Maybe he was just trying to make Loghain sound more impressive to the dwarves, but."

"But," Alistair agreed. "Maybe he really is giving up the pretense of being just a regent for Anora."

8.4

Hearing footsteps outside, Alistair stepped behind one of the heavy window-embrasure draperies that went all the way to the floor. He knew it was silly, but if he had to listen to Arl Eamon talk about his duty to the country one more time, he was going to jump head-first from the battlements into the lake.

It wasn't the Arl who stepped into the room, though, it was Zin and Bann Teagan. Alistair was about to step out again, fully prepared to laugh at himself as they would no doubt laugh at him, finding him there. He knew Zin, at least, would understand. But then they started talking, and Alistair froze.

"You intend to support your brother's idea, then, and put Alistair forward as king?" Zin sounded strange. Cool and analytical. Through a tiny rip in the drapery that would probably infuriate Isolde when she found it, Alistair could see Zin cross the room and sit down on the couch. "Do you have any actual evidence that will strengthen his claim, or will you base this purely on his strong resemblance to Cailan?"

"It would be more difficult if he didn't look so much like Maric, just as Cailan did, you're right about that," Bann Teagan said. "But Eamon and I... well, we're Rowan's brothers. If we're willing to admit that Maric strayed, what we say must carry some weight."

"True." Zin cocked his head. "But what you really need for this to work is, of course, Alistair willing to cooperate with you. Eamon's methods of persuasion were just a trifle heavy-handed."

Alistair almost snorted, but remembered at the last moment that he was actually hidden away, and making any kind of sound would probably mean that they'd find him, and he had a feeling the rest of this conversation would be much more interesting if he wasn't a part of it. Instead he leaned back against the side of the window embrasure, feeling the edge dig into his back.

He wasn't ideally placed for spying. Both Leliana and Zevran would probably have some choice words to say, Alistair thought with a wry smile. He could see one side of the couch and he could see Zin, who was sitting on that side, that was about it. He could hear very well, though.

"Yes," Bann Teagan said slowly. "Eamon is... very concerned about what is happening to this country right now. He hasn't had as much time to assimilate events as the rest of us; he's worked very hard to catch up on everything that happened while he was ill, as well as everything that has happened since then. But yes, I agree with you."

"I haven't even said anything yet," Zin said. He quirked a smile at Bann Teagan. "Do go on."

"Concern about the country is important, but concern about Alistair might be even more important. That is what you were going to say, isn't it?" That made Alistair feel warm. He wouldn't say he'd ever been close to Bann Teagan, but closer than to the arl, yes. Teagan was younger, more approachable, less stiff.

"Something very like that, yes." Zin leaned back on the couch. "Alistair wasn't exactly brought up to rule," he said. "Rather the opposite, is my impression."

"Yes." A heavy sound, that of Bann Teagan sitting down on the couch next to Zin without bracing himself in any way. Now Alistair could see about half of his face. "I don't want to criticize my brother, but I do think that the way Alistair was brought up was less than ideal. Of course, Eamon didn't want it to look as though he was raising a, an alternative to Cailan, that would have come across very badly. But Alistair the boy, and Alistair the young man, as opposed to Maric's illegitimate son, deserved better than to have every decision made for politics first and for his own welfare second."

That hit hard. Alistair knew, of course, that the circumstances of his birth and parentage had shaped his life. He had just always thought, or at least hoped, that Arl Eamon's decisions and fatherly advice about his future had been based on the arl's wish to give him, Alistair, a halfway decent existence. Now he found himself looking back and second-guessing everything.

"I'm glad you see that," Zin said. "Alistair's been... well, as I understand it, it has been made very clear to him that he shouldn't try to lead, take charge, make decisions. Which is pretty much what a king has to do."

"Yes," Bann Teagan said, sounding troubled. "But if the king has advisors he can trust, maybe the situation won't be so dire."

This was starting to sound like Leliana's advice all over again, Alistair thought. Maybe Bann Teagan would suggest hiring a boot-checker, too. Everyone seemed to agree that he couldn't make his own decisions, and normally Alistair would have been the first to agree -- he really didn't want to be responsible for a whole country. Maker's breath, no. But was he really that incompetent?

"Mm." Zin was still using that cool, thoughtful voice. "Eamon clearly intends to be the chief of them. He'd rule the country indirectly."

"That's not-- My brother isn't doing this to claim power for himself! You have to believe me, believe in him."

"You believe in him," Zin said, "and that's a great vote of confidence, an important one. But whatever your brother intends, think about what will be the practical result. Eamon will advise Alistair, because he is used to Alistair not making his own important decisions, and he will expect Alistair to follow his advice."

"You... you're probably right about that," Bann Teagan said heavily. "Maker, I need a drink. But Eamon's not doing this as a bid for power."

"How do you think he will feel if Alistair starts to think for himself and make his own choices?" Zin asked delicately. "Alistair is not quite the boy he once was, or the young man Eamon might think he is. He has his own opinions."

"And they aren't your opinions?" Bann Teagan leaned forward. "You seem to favor bluntness, so let me be blunt as well. You clearly have a great deal of influence over Alistair. Are you concerned that he'll follow Eamon's lead instead of yours?"

That just made Zin grin. "No, actually. Alistair is his own man. And unless Eamon starts sleeping with Alistair, he's unlikely to start having the same kind of... influence."

Alistair bit his lip to keep from making a retching noise at the thought. The arl had been the closest thing he had to a father, or at least a father figure, for most of his life, and though he'd thought about Arl Eamon in many different ways over the years, loving and hating him, respecting and despising him, he had certainly never considered the man in a sexual light, nor did he want to.

He thought Zin was underestimating his own influence, though. Alistair felt that he'd actually been influenced by Zin's thinking quite a lot. Zin was smart, and he had a calm, fearless way of looking at political matters that probably, Alistair thought, came of being a teyrn's son. Alistair himself had always felt he was standing on the sidelines looking on -- looking up and looking on -- but it was clear from the way Zin talked that he never doubted he could be right in the middle of any political stage he chose.

Bann Teagan made a face that looked a lot like how Alistair felt. "That seems extremely unlikely."

"Yes, thank the Maker," Zin said.

"I'm afraid I have to go," Bann Teagan said. "I promised Eamon I would join him in going over some of the castle accounts. He's still not entirely caught up on everything I did while he was... unwell, and it seems I handled some things a little differently than he normally does."

"Isolde couldn't help you?" Zin said a little too innocently.

"No." Bann Teagan's face shifted, and Alistair could see that he was just a tiny push away from saying what he really thought about Isolde's household management. "This was not... part of her normal duties, apparently. I'd love to continue our discussion later -- perhaps over a glass of something? You've certainly given me a lot to think about."

"That would be nice," Zin agreed, and stood up to see Bann Teagan out of the room. Then he turned towards the window and cocked his head. "You can come out now, babe."

Alistair fumbled his way out from the heavy fabric. "You knew I was there."

"Of course I did. But Teagan had no idea."

"At least that's something," Alistair muttered. "Look, I didn't mean to spy on you, I just..."

"You just wanted to know what we'd say." Zin looked completely undisturbed. "I'll go have a drink with him later, but I probably can't sneak you in behind the curtains."

"I'm not sure I can take any more of a conversation like that, anyway," Alistair admitted. "I've got a lot to think about now, too. Do you think..." Alistair dragged his deepest fear out in the light and stared at it. "Do you think Arl Eamon wanted me to become a templar because I'd be easier to control that way, with the lyrium addiction?" Because really, it was pure luck that he'd been recruited into the Grey Wardens before he had started his lyrium regimen.

"Oh, babe." Zin moved closer and wrapped himself around Alistair in a sinuous hug. "That's a nasty thought. I don't know what was in Eamon's head, you'd have to ask him."

"Maker, no," Alistair said, appalled. "I'd rather try to swim across the lake with my armor still on." He turned his head, nuzzling at the side of Zin's face. "I just don't want to think of him as being quite that manipulative."

"I think Eamon has always done what he believed to be the right thing," Zin offered.

"Mm," Alistair said, and didn't feel entirely reassured.

8.5

"Sword," Zin said. "Hand it over."

"My sword," Sten rumbled, and it seemed to Alistair that Sten didn't just loom over Dwyn, he loomed over the whole house. Possibly the whole village. It was the kind of looming that was impossible to ignore, and the menacing glare that went with it wasn't half bad, either.

Dwyn sighed and handed over a key. "Chest in the back," he said to Zin. "You probably don't need the key, but let's pretend. It looks polite."

"I didn't really think you cared much about that kind of thing," Zin said with a small grin. He went into the back room and came out again with a giant two-hander; when Sten saw the sword, his eyes just about glowed.

Zin handed the blade over at once, without a word, and Alistair certainly understood why; keeping sword and qunari separated any longer than necessary would just have been cruel. "Asala," Sten breathed. Serpent gave a happy bark, and Sten began to talk to the blade in his own language. Alistair wondered if he was telling it everything that had happened since they'd been separated. If so, he wasn't likely to stop any time soon.

"I've spoken to Arl Eamon on your behalf," Zin said. "I know Bann Teagan has already talked to you about the possibilities of trade in Rainsfere as well."

Dwyn nodded. Then he got a speculative look in his eyes. "About the other half of our deal," he said. "Would you--"

"No," Alistair said. "He wouldn't."

"This just isn't my day," Dwyn said morosely.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Zevran said, tearing himself away from flirting with one of Dwyn's bodyguards long enough to direct his most charming smile at the dwarf. "You are still alive, after all."

"Dwyn?" the other bodyguard said uncertainly. "You want I should..."

"No!" Dwyn said. "No, no. These good people were just leaving. I hope." He glared at them, but with more of resignation than belligerence in his stance. "Unless you were planning to steal the floor from under my feet or something."

"Wouldn't dream of it," Zin said. "No, I think we're done here. Zev?"

"Yes, my warden," Zevran said promptly, mouthing later at the bodyguard. "We should pick up some supplies, and I believe the blacksmith may have finished the repairs to Sten's armor."

They left, and Dwyn looked more relieved than anything else to see them go. Which was lucky for him, because if there had been a shade more regret in his eyes when he watched Zin walk away, Alistair would have decked him. He was very familiar with what people looked at when they watched Zin walk away.

Once they were outside, they headed towards land to meet up with Shale again; she didn't trust the planks of the docks that made up the village streets to bear her weight, and the others had stayed to keep her company.

Alistair fell into step besides Zevran. "Really, Zevran?" he said doubtfully. "Later? That fellow?"

Zevran glanced up at him. "Surely you are not about to chastise me for my philandering ways," he said. "We cannot all be lucky enough to find true love on the road, after all."

"No, that's not..." Alistair waved a hand. "I just. You could do better."

"Really." For a moment, Zevran's eyes softened. "That's... a kind thing to say, my friend." Then he smiled, bright and dangerous as always. "Was that an offer? I thought you and our fearless leader were, ah, exclusive, but if you feel inclined to add a handsome elf to your bed some night, I certainly wouldn't say--"

"No," Zin said, walking suddenly next to them although Alistair could have sworn he was half the length of the dock away a moment ago. "You know perfectly well that wasn't an offer, Zev. Is there anything else we need to pick up down here in the village?"

"Not if we can get flour from the castle's stores."

"I'm sure we can. And we'll be travelling with Eamon and his people, so I don't think we have to worry about food, really. Which is good. We can concentrate on worrying about the Blight, instead."

8.6

Alistair was so caught up in his own concerns that he hadn't really given any proper thought to how being in Denerim for the Landsmeet would affect Zin. It wasn't until he stood in the middle of Arl Eamon's estate and watched Rendon Howe introduce himself as, among other things, teyrn of Highever, while Ser Cauthrien called Zin 'churl,' that he really understood. Zin went white about the mouth.

Then he himself was distracted by the presence of Loghain. Howe and Ser Cauthrien were only there as supporting players, one of them oily and smirking, the other upright and stern; they looked like parodies of the Bad Counsellor and the Good Counsellor in every morality play outside every chantry Alistair had ever seen. Granted, in those plays, the good counsellors and the bad counsellors were usually on different sides.

Here, they were both standing at Loghain's side, and Loghain himself dominated the arl's vast entrance hall, filling it with his presence. He was a big man, but not that big, and he wore shiny armor, but not that shiny. It was his eyes, Alistair thought, and his voice -- the voice most of all, loud and carrying and with a sort of impatience to it, as if Loghain had something much more important to do, if only the people he spoke to would realize it.

"Was there something in particular you wanted?" Arl Eamon asked with his usual stolid calm. He must be used to hearing that voice. "We only just arrived, but I could offer you a glass of wine, if you'd like."

"No, I would not like," Loghain said dismissively. "Really, Eamon. The Blight is upon us, and you call a Landsmeet and offer glasses of wine, as if we didn't have more important things to do." Alistair couldn't help making a choked sound at the words, and immediately, Loghain's cool eyes raked him over, killing every impulse to laughter. "You could do something more useful with your abilities than coddle royal bastards and make a fuss among the banns, Eamon."

"The people of Ferelden deserve a Theirin king," Arl Eamon said, and Alistair almost choked on his tongue, because that was him the arl was talking about, wasn't it.

"Ferelden has a queen." Loghain glowered from beneath lowered brows. "She rules this land competently and well."

"Yes, so I see," Zin drawled, looking at Loghain and Howe and Ser Cauthrien. "And you'd never do anything without asking her first, of course."

"And who are you," Loghain asked coolly, as if the answer was of no real interest to him, "to dare question your queen and her regent?"

"Oh, I'm Zin Cousland." Zin smiled with a great deal of false sweetness. "A Grey Warden, at the moment."

"You should take care, my lord," Howe said to Loghain. "The Couslands were traitors. That's why they're dead now," he couldn't quite hide the hint of a smirk as he glanced at Zin, "and the teyrnir of Highever is in my possession."

"Enjoy it while you can," Alistair muttered. He might not really know how he felt about being shoved into the role of future-king-and-savior-of-Ferelden, but he did know that Howe couldn't be left in charge of Highever -- nor, to judge by the look in Zin's eyes, would he be.

"Cailan relied on the Grey Wardens," Loghain said, "and now both Cailan and the wardens are dead." He said it with such certainty that Alistair wanted to shake him, because the wardens weren't dead, they were standing right in front of him. All two of them. "Ferelden needs stability and unity, and I hope you're sensible enough to see that, Eamon."

Arl Eamon looked stern. "We disagree on whose actions undermine the stability of Ferelden."

"We do indeed." Loghain's eyes were fierce, and Alistair realized that it must have been quite a blow to him that the arl had survived the poisoning, had been miraculously restored, and was now in Denerim and about to stir up trouble. Loghain must have sent Jowan to poison the arl to avoid just such a complication as this, Arl Eamon rousing the Landsmeet when Loghain's grip on the reins of Ferelden was not quite as steady as he would have wished.

"My lord," Ser Cauthrien said evenly. "You have a meeting with the representatives of the merchant guild."

Loghain nodded, and they all turned to leave. Rendon Howe glanced back as they were on the way out. "Do be careful, Eamon," he said. "Anyone claiming to be of the traitor Cousland bloodline is probably just waiting to stab you in the back."

Zin stood perfectly still as Loghain, Howe and Cauthrien marched out. Then he turned and drove a dagger into the wall. "I am going to kill that fucking fucker."

"An understandable sentiment," Arl Eamon said calmly.

Zin looked up. "I'm sorry about your wall, Eamon."

"I rather think a wall is the least of our concerns at the moment." Arl Eamon shook his head. "I didn't expect to see Loghain here, certainly not so soon after we've arrived ourselves. He could at least have given us time to unpack," he jested ponderously.

"He seemed very confident," Wynne said.

"A little too confident," Zevran said, and Leliana nodded. "He wants us to think that he has all the support he needs, but..."

Arl Eamon nodded. "It would behoove us to discover the true mood among the nobles who have arrived for the Landsmeet. They cannot all be in Loghain's pocket."

8.7

"Nice room," Zin said, strolling in and closing the door behind himself.

"Mm." Alistair gave up the attempt to get his armor to sit straight on the armor stand that he'd persuaded one of the arl's servants to find for him. Something was lopsided, and he didn't think it was his quite excellent breastplate. "If you like rooms that are embarrassingly large and decorated in heavy expectations."

"Mine's decorated with Sten, Morrigan, and a dog," Zin said. "Which is why I'm in yours. There's more privacy here."

Alistair snorted. "If you can overlook the fact that Arl Eamon is just next door." He patted his armor consolingly on the pauldron and wandered over to Zin. "Don't they have rooms of their own? Well, I don't mean Serpent, but the other two."

"Of course they do," Zin said. "Mine's apparently warmer. And has more interesting books in it." He shrugged. "Which I'll believe as good reasons, from Sten. I don't pretend to understand exactly what goes on in Morrigan's head, but I think she's hiding from Leliana."

Alistair stared blankly. "Why would she do that?"

"Because after they got so close in the Deep Roads, Leliana decided that she wants to take Morrigan shopping." Zin's eyes were bright with laughter. "And Morrigan does not want to be taken shopping." He shook his head. "Shame, really. I bet she'd look magnificent in velvet."

Alistair thought about it. "Probably. But I don't think she has a lot of patience with trying things on and fussing with sleeves and discussing colors." He shook his head. "I never expected those two to become friends."

"Neither did Morrigan, I suspect. Which would be another reason why she's hiding in my room. Maybe I should make her go out." Zin sat down on the arm of Alistair's couch. "I should go out, too, and here I am hiding in your room. I really shouldn't make fun of Morrigan."

Alistair sat on the couch. It felt odd to be so much smaller than Zin all of a sudden, but he reached up and put an arm around Zin's waist. "So what are you hiding from? I'm fairly sure it's not dressmakers."

"No." Zin softened a bit, leaning into Alistair's arm. "When I was a child, my parents took Fergus to Denerim and I was too small to come. Fergus came home and told me he'd seen the king and eaten a lot of candy. After that, I really, really wanted to go. More for the candy than the king, you understand."

"Of course I understand," Alistair said. "I think there are lots of adults who'd rather have candy than meet a king as well."

Zin kissed Alistair's hairline. "Mm." He laughed softly. "Maybe the king should always carry candy in his pockets. Anyway, when I finally got to go, I thought Denerim was the most amazing place in the world. I've always loved it."

"But now you don't?" Alistair asked hesitantly. That wasn't quite what he heard in Zin's voice, but he didn't know for certain.

"Oh, I do." Zin slid down the side of the armrest and landed awkwardly on Alistair's lap, and they spent some time sorting themselves out and getting comfortable. "I just. I always came here with my parents and Fergus."

Alistair hugged Zin tighter, and wondered what it was like to have had parents. He didn't quite know what he'd had, himself: a distant golden father, only seen a few times, and the constant presence and pressure of the arl, who was Being Good To Him. Only when he'd joined the Grey Wardens did he feel he'd finally escaped from both of them, and it had been such a relief.

Such a short-lived relief. He would have followed Duncan anywhere, but that choice had never been given to him. It had been all too easy to fall back into old habits after the disaster that was Ostagar, to look for the arl and whatever direction the arl would point him in.

Only that direction hadn't been anything he had expected at all. And in the meantime he'd found Zin, who pushed and prodded and cajoled and teased him along, who told him to stand up for himself and then kissed him until his knees were weak, who led him into unfathomable danger and then tackled the worst monsters imaginable like they were nothing.

"I love you so much," Alistair said, grateful that this was a line that was nearly always relevant to the conversation. Or at least something that Zin never objected to hearing. He nosed in under Zin's hair and kissed him behind the ear just at the hairline.

"It's silly, I guess, but now we're here to stay for a while, the city just feels so empty without them," Zin said quietly. "And at the same time, full of people, all those nobles we're going to have to talk to, I probably know them, or they knew my parents, or they might have believed Howe's story, or..."

"They'll find out the truth," Alistair said. "I don't know how we're going to show everyone what a miserable piece of slime Howe is, but we will."

Zin made a dry little sound that might have been a laugh. "Cailan promised me he'd see to it that Howe paid for his crimes," he said. "Just as soon as the battle at Ostagar was over and done."

"Well," Alistair said. "It's over and done now. And Cailan's gone, but we're still here. You'll get justice for what was done." He laughed a little, himself. "If I have to become king to see it happen." Strangely, he didn't feel quite the usual sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as he said it. Arl Eamon had already declared Alistair a candidate for the throne right in front of Loghain. Things really couldn't get any worse, he supposed.

"Thank you." Zin pressed his face into Alistair's shoulder. "I guess Eamon just doesn't know what it takes to persuade you," he said with another of those painful not-quite-laughing sounds.

A loud bang on the door startled them apart, and moments later Oghren poked his head in. "Keep forgetting that human construction is so sodding flimsy," he groused. "You think this arl fellow will mind that I put knuckle marks on one of his doors?"

"Zin stabbed his wall," Alistair said, "so he might start to wonder what we have against his house. Maybe you want to take your gauntlets off before knocking at anything in here in the future."

"Oh." Oghren stared at his well-armored hand for a moment. "Right." He looked up at Zin and Alistair again. "Better stop your canoodling for a while. The arl wants to see you both in his study right away. There's some elf girl turned up who says she's the queen's personal maid or something."

Chapter sixteen

8.7.5

"'Tis a trap, obviously," Morrigan said. "The daughter of your enemy, telling you to rescue her from the stronghold of your other enemy? 'Twould be foolish to go."

"Yes," Leliana said slowly, "but if Howe kills the queen and places the blame on Arl Eamon, we will almost certainly have the Landsmeet turn against us."

Sten scoffed. "What does this Landsmeet matter? It is the Blight we must defeat."

"Don't see what all the fuss is about," Oghren grumbled. "Go in, get the woman, get out. Seems simple enough to me."

"They'd smell you coming from a mile away, dwarf," Morrigan said.

"But surely we cannot leave the queen in Howe's hands," Wynne said. "She's the queen."

"Is she?" Zevran said. "I find the question of who has a right to the throne quite as complicated here as it was in Orzammar. But you have a point, my dearest Wynne. As long as this Anora is seen as the queen of Ferelden, her symbolic value should certainly not be underestimated."

"Is this Landsmeet like the Assembly, then?" Shale asked. "Does it vote on everything?"

Zin made a small whimpering sound and let his head drop forward on the table with a thunk. "Could I at least have some food first?" One hand fumbled blindly, and Alistair put a piece of bread in it. Zin lifted his head. "And couldn't I get honey on it or something?"

"Not when you're not looking," Alistair said. "You'd get honey in your hair and say it was my fault."

Zin stole the cheese from Alistair's plate. He took a bite of bread and cheese and said through it, "The Landsmeet matters because we need people to fight the Blight, not each other, and every day of this covert civil war has people killing each other instead of darkspawn. This is not an efficient use of resources."

"True," Sten said, if grudgingly.

"It would be foolish to go," Zin said. "But we're still going." Morrigan hissed between her teeth. "Not all of us. Morrigan, Alistair, Zevran, Serpent. The rest of you can come rescue us if things go wrong."

"And you think I will walk into this trap with you?" Morrigan said.

Zin just grinned. "I'm counting on you to keep us level-headed," he said. "Just as I'm counting on Zevran to see the traps and the politics with an outsider's eye, and Serpent to sniff out trouble the rest of us might not notice."

"And what do you need me to do?" Alistair asked, trying to steal the cheese back and failing.

"Just be yourself, babe."

8.7.5.1

"I need you to keep an eye on me," Zin said. "Howe makes me... not entirely rational. You're my touchstone." He brushed his lips against Alistair's. "Always."

8.8

"This is so completely stupid and wrong," Alistair muttered, sneaking along the side of a building, as much as a very large man in very heavy armor can sneak. "We're going to get caught."

"Very likely," Zevran agreed, next to him and doing a much better job of sneaking. "And I understand that Howe is not known for his kindness to his enemies. He will torture us, unless the guards kill us first." He patted Alistair's arm. "I'm sure he will torture me before he tortures you, though."

"Yes, that's such a reassuring thought." Alistair glared at Zin up ahead, who looked as though he was out for a walk in the park, carrying on an idle conversation with the maid Erlina. Then he looked at Zevran. "Why do you think he'll choose you first?"

"Oh, because he is the one who brought me to Loghain and suggested he should hire me to kill the surviving wardens," Zevran said. "No one likes it when the assassin returns with the job unfinished. And when the assassin returns in the company of his would-be marks, well."

"Yes, I can see how that would be--" Alistair broke off as Zin waved for them to take cover behind a random decorative wall and some even more random decorative bushes.

"The kitchen entrance is up there," Zin said, nodding. "Erlina's going to distract the guards, and we can sneak in while they're gone."

"Oh, wonderful," Morrigan said. "Then we'll be inside the enemy's walls, surrounded by his soldiers. What a clever plan this is, to be sure."

"But we'll be disguised," Zin said solemnly. He kept his face neutral, but Alistair knew that glint in his eyes, and he was pretty sure the others did, too. This was Zin at his very wildest and most reckless, when any sane person would want to stop him.

But Zin's wildest and most reckless plans had a way of succeeding, whatever the odds were, and they all knew that, too.

"Very well." Morrigan slipped a guard helmet on over the odd little tocque she had taken to wearing. "On your head be it, then."

At first everything went so well that Alistair couldn't believe it. They were inside, they strolled through the estate, meeting droves of guards, none of whom paid them any attention. Apparently what Erlina had said was true -- there were so many guards, they didn't all know each other and just relied on the uniform to tell friend from intruder. Their little group followed Zin, who always moved as if he knew where he was going and had every right to be there. Erlina slunk along in the shadows, looking nervous, but no one, Alistair reflected wryly, was going to think that odd in an elven servant.

Then they came to the room where Anora was kept prisoner, and that was where things began to go wrong. There was a magic barrier over the door, and Anora shouted through the thick oak planks that the mage who had cast the spell was with Howe himself, somewhere. At least Alistair assumed it was Anora shouting; it wasn't as if he would have known her voice, but Erlina seemed to.

"Well," Zin said, and now that wild recklessness was in his voice, too. "Let's go find the mage, then. And Howe."

They found Howe's rooms, and Zin looked as if he'd swallowed hot coals when the bedroom had a door down to the dungeons, not hidden in any way, just... right there as if a door from bedroom to dungeon was the most natural thing in the world.

"This building belonged to the previous arls of Denerim, did it not?" Zevran said thoughtfully.

"People with rather specialized interests, one feels," Morrigan said. "And since the door is open and Howe is not here, one assumes he is down there exploring to what extent he shares those interests."

The sound Zin made was more like a snarl than anything else. Alistair didn't know what to do, and when Zin went through the door, he followed, as did the others. They didn't look quite as worried as he felt, and he realized that they didn't know about Howe and the Cousland family, not like he knew. It wasn't his story to tell, either, but looking at Zin's face, he thought the story would soon begin telling itself.

Zin, with his usual tact and discretion, slammed open the door they found and stormed in, and the guard just inside started to say something, only to be grabbed from behind through the bars of a tiny cell. It was pretty clear that Zin wasn't going to be helping the guard, so Alistair came up and knocked the guard on the head with his shield, while Zin looted the keys and let the prisoner in the cell out.

Alistair blinked. The man was dirty and scrawny and unshaven, and his hair was in his face, but... "I know you from somewhere, don't I."

"Alistair," the man said slowly. "Indeed you do."

8.8.5

Alistair remembered his Joining vividly, but the surrounding faces were a little more vague. But when he tried to mentally clean up this man, imagined him combed and properly dressed, it was easy enough to place him.

"Right, you were at my Joining! You're a warden. From Orlais. In Howe's dungeon," he trailed off. "What are you doing here?"

"My name's Riordan," the man said with a small bow, as if this were a proper introduction, and he someone much cleaner. "I'm a senior warden of Jader, but I was born in Highever." Zin made a small, pained sound. "I'm very glad to see you. I didn't come to Denerim to sit in a dungeon."

"I shouldn't think many people do," Alistair said, "of their own free will, I mean."

"Oh, you'd be surprised," Zevran said. "Although not this dungeon, I should think."

"What are you doing here?" Zin lifted a hand as if to shake the man, then apparently thought better of it and began to strip off the guard's armor instead. "Did you bring more wardens? Where are they? What--" he broke off. "I have so many questions for you, but you probably need food and rest most of all. And something to wear. Here." He shoved the armor at Riordan. "It's not exactly clean, but."

"But neither am I," said Riordan wryly. "I think I'd better take his shirt to wear underneath, too."

Alistair turned to Morrigan. "Do we have any spare healing potions, poultices, something?"

The situation would probably have been better if Wynne had been along, but they did the best with what they had, and Riordan looked a lot better after he'd drunk some things and been smeared and bandaged with others. Riordan explained, in between potion gulps and stoic winces, that no, he was alone here; he was on a mission from the wardens in Orlais to find out why they'd been turned back at the border when they'd come to help at Ostagar. It had been thought that a native Fereldan would have the best chance of discovering what had really happened at Ostagar and what was going on in Ferelden, and he'd been trying to find out if anything or anyone was left in Denerim.

"I thought Howe could be trusted," he said. "This is where my trust got me."

"Right," Zin said. "As for surviving wardens in Ferelden, you're looking at them. You'd better come with us."

Riordan shrugged a little. "I don't think I'd be of any use to you. I'd be better off leaving at once to find a good physician, I believe."

"Yes, but you can't," Zin said. "This place is packed with guards, you'd never get out on your own. And we've got things to do here that won't succeed if anything gets the guards all tense. Come with us, stay at the back. No need to fight, Serpent will look after you."

Serpent barked his assent, and Riordan looked down with a sudden smile. "That I can well believe," he said. "It has been much too long since I was in the company of a mabari." He scratched at his temple. "Perhaps if you have a spare crossbow, I can offer a little support, should it be needed."

"Oh, I hope not," Alistair said fervently.

8.8.6

But of course it was needed. Their disguises, which had stood them in such good stead up until now, were useless once they encountered guards down in the cellars who were more suspicious, or possibly had more brains, and wouldn't just let them pass unchallenged. At least the cellar walls were thick enough that no one from upstairs heard anything and came down to check, not even when mabari barked wildly and mages lobbed fireballs.

Alistair could really have done without the fire. He could also have done without Morrigan physically turning and aiming him to make sure he didn't hit her with a holy smite. She was never that considerate when flinging her magic around; Alistair had lost count of the times he'd come out of a fight with blue lips and ice crystals in his hair.

And he could really, really have done without the torture chamber. Maker's breath, the way it smelled... and they found, here at the very heart of this dungeon where not a sound would make it outside, a young man on a rack who had apparently had the attention of all those torturers before they'd been distracted.

Health poultices were insufficient in this case. Zin got the young man free, and Morrigan tried her best with healing spells, until he regained consciousness and could have a potion poured down his throat. "Did my father send you?" he asked as soon as he was coherent enough to speak. "Because if he could send rescuers, I wish he'd done it earlier."

Zin shook his head. "No. We came for -- well, for different reasons. You're Sighard's son, aren't you? How did you end up here?"

"Yes, I'm Oswyn." The young man grimaced. "I was trying to discover the fate of my wet-nurse's youngest. He told people about the way he and his regiment had retreated at the battle of Ostagar, under Loghain's command. Then he disappeared. It seemed a grim kind of coincidence."

"No coincidence at all, I'd say," Alistair said wryly.

Oswyn nodded. "I see now that I set about my search the wrong way, and accepted a drink from the wrong hands. It put me to sleep, and I woke up here."

Riordan came up from the outer room and handed some rather horrible clothes to Oswyn. "Take this," he said. "As distasteful as it is, wearing your enemy's clothes is better than being naked, I find."

Oswyn nodded reluctantly. He needed help to get the shirt on, and even more help to get into the leggings and boots, but once he was dressed, he looked a little more at ease. "Maybe you two can lean on each other," Zin said, looking from Oswyn to Riordan and back.

"Who," Oswyn said, trailed off, and started again, "who are you people? Seems as if it could be a useful thing to know, if I'm throwing my fate in with yours."

"Not precisely humble and grateful, is he," Morrigan said under her breath, but loud enough for Alistair to hear.

"We're Grey Wardens," Zin said. "Three of us, anyway."

"Ah." Oswyn's mouth twisted. "Howe hates wardens, he's made that much clear. Says he even has one imprisoned here."

"That would be me," Riordan said, "although I'm hoping my imprisonment is a thing of the past, just as yours. If you would accept my arm...?"

Alistair snorted quietly as Riordan made it sound as though he and Oswyn were apparently going for a walk in some Orlesian pleasure gardens. He got serious fast enough, though, when he saw how much it pained Oswyn to stand up, and just how much he leaned on Riordan -- just how much they leaned on each other. Howe had a lot to answer for.

8.8.7

"Nobody needs this many dungeons," Alistair said fervently. "I mean, not that I personally have ever needed any dungeons at all, but... Wait, here's a door we haven't been through, that might be where that key goes."

Through the door, they found prison cells.

"I can't remember anyone ever saying anything nice about the Kendells," Zin said. "I'm starting to see why."

"The Kendells?" Morrigan said. "Is that the name of the previous inhabitants of this charming estate?"

"Yes. Howe only moved in here when he took over as Arl of Denerim," Zin said. "The Kendells were the family who held the title before that, so I guess it was old Arl Urien who kept popping down into the dungeons from his bedchamber back when it was his bedchamber, and that slimy son of his, what was his name again, Vern, V-something..."

"Vaughan," a quiet voice said from one of the prison cells, and Alistair jumped.

"Right, that was it." Zin hurried up to the cell door and unlocked it, and a gaunt young elf stumbled out; Zin caught him before he could fall. "Careful. What in the name of everything holy are you doing here?"

"Vaughan Kendells ruined my wedding," the elf said, his voice a little rusty, as if he hadn't done much talking in a long time. "He and his friends came and k-kidnapped my bride and some of the other women, bridesmaids. We came here to try to fight back, to free them." He rubbed at his head, as if remembering. "Someone knocked me out, and I don't know what happened to the others."

"Nothing good, one suspects," Zevran said and handed him a hip-flask. "Here, have some brandy. What's your name?"

"Soris."

"Well." Zin had a mad gleam in his eyes. He handed over a flask, too. "Here, have some water first. Would you like to come with us, Soris?"

Soris looked faintly incredulous. "You can't think I'd rather stay here." He drank deeply of the water, and then took a sip of the brandy. "I've been here forever, or that's what it feels like. I know people were talking about petitioning the king, because of what Vaughan did, but I don't know if that ever happened."

"The king is dead," Zin said, and Alistair remembered standing on the bridge at Ostagar and seeing Cailan's body displayed as a trophy. He could almost feel the icy wind on his face. "Riordan, maybe you could give our new friend a brief history of the past year while you and Soris and Oswyn sort out who's helping who walk and who's got the crossbow. Just don't shoot each other by mistake."

8.8.9

In the next cell they found an Ostagar veteran who was far gone, naked, filthy, Blight-tainted and muttering disjointedly; Alistair thought he could make out that this was one of the men under Loghain's command, one of the soldiers who had retreated instead of charging in when the beacon on top of the tower was lit.

Didn't seem to have worked out too well for the poor sod, anyway.

The man just ran off when Zin let him out of the cell, but then he followed them after all, scuttling in their wake at a distance, mumbling to himself. Oswyn, at the back of their group, looked appalled. He probably realized something like this could easily have had happened to the man he'd been searching for, too.

"'Twould be a kindness to kill him," Morrigan said dispassionately. "I can do it for you, if you like."

Zin shook his head. "Just leave him be."

8.8.9.1

And in the very last group of rooms they came to in this unpleasant cellar, they found their unpleasant host. Not alone, of course; Howe was surrounded by soldiers, and had with him not just the mage Anora had spoken of, but at least one more. He wasn't pleased to see them.

"It's the Cousland child again," he sneered. "You'll soon be as dead as the rest of your pathetic family."

"We were your friends," Zin said tightly. "My parents were always kind to you."

"Condescending, you mean." Howe's face twisted into something like a smirk. "But your parents weren't so smug and superior any more when your father was bleeding out on a dirty pantry floor and your mother was on her knees and begging."

Listening to Howe taunt Zin, Alistair began to understand better how someone could end up with an all-consuming need to kill this man. He glanced over at Zevran, and they nodded briefly to each other and began slowly to edge in opposite directions. When Zin finally broke and went for Howe's throat with a snarl, Alistair was ready to let loose with a holy smite on the mage skulking in the shadows of a side-chamber, and he thought the gurgle and thump in the distance was Zevran stabbing the other mage in the back.

Of course, that still left a bunch of guards to be dealt with. Zin and Howe were fighting each other as if this were a duel, with a lot of insults from Howe and a quiet, intense passion from Zin that... well, that would have made a lot of men flee, Alistair thought, so Howe was either braver than he looked, or just not very perspicacious at all. He suspected the latter.

One guard had worked his way around to the back, and raised his sword to Morrigan, who was busy freezing some other men into immobility. "Look out!" Alistair shouted uselessly, but then the naked Ostagar veteran leapt on the guard out of nowhere and hit him over the head with a chunk of wood from a broken barrel, hammering his helmet down over his eyes.

The guards fell one by one, with no mages to help or heal them. "And stay down," Alistair muttered, wiping his sword on the tabard of the last one and turning towards the center of the room once again.

Howe was lying in a bleeding heap at Zin's feet. Zin looked blank-faced, distant, shocky. Howe's face contorted. "I deserved more," he spat out on one last breath, then fell back.

"No," Zin said quietly, "you deserved so much less. All the friendship we gave you, the years of kindness..."

"My warden," Zevran said from across the room, "there are more prison cells over here."

8.8.9.2

One of the cells held a very incoherent templar, shaking with lyrium-withdrawal and far enough gone that he insisted for some time Zin had to be his sister. Alistair sincerely doubted his sister looked anything like Zin, and if she really did, he hoped she shaved more often.

Zin unlocked the door and hauled the man out, and stretched out a hand to Morrigan. She sighed and slapped a lyrium potion in his palm, and he poured it down the templar's throat.

That made the man a little less jittery, and he managed to tell them that he'd been part of the patrol sent to capture Jowan, the blood mage who had poisoned Arl Eamon. Alistair already knew that Jowan had been suborned by Loghain, but he'd never thought about the practical details -- of course Loghain had not gone out personally and found himself a runaway mage in the road. No, templars had tracked Jowan down, and then the templars themselves had been captured and ended up in Howe's creepy dungeon, and this man was the only one left.

Alistair shuddered, looking at the templar whose hands trembled, whose body bore signs of unmistakable ill treatment, whose mind was three-quarters gone. That could so easily have been him. He didn't want to think about what must have happened to the others in that patrol.

"Soris," Zin said, "can you look after this fellow, make sure he stays with us?"

"I'll try my best," Soris said, eyeing the templar and clearly hoping he wouldn't get delirium-mistaken for some maleficar or other. Then he caught sight of the man in the next prison cell over, and his breath hissed between his teeth. "Vaughan."

8.8.9.3

"I'll have you all flayed if you don't let me out of here!"

"That would be difficult," Zevran remarked. "If you were still in there, I mean."

Vaughan Kendell certainly wasn't endearing himself to anyone, and Alistair could see why. The first thing he'd said to Zin was, "Aren't you that traitor Cousland's son?" and the second, "What are you doing here with all those knife-ears?"

Soris looked about half a breath from reaching in and strangling the man through the bars, and Alistair wasn't surprised. The story Soris had told them had been very short, barely an outline, but it didn't take much imagination to fill in what Vaughan must have been like in the alienage, or why, exactly, he and his friends had taken the elf women. Alistair could only hope those women had gotten out somehow. He kept thinking about finding them, alive or dead, in a cell up ahead. Vaughan wouldn't live long if that happened. Maybe Soris would even kill him before Alistair did.

"We can't leave him here to starve to death," Zin said grimly. "All the guards are dead, and I don't know how long it would take before anyone came to check on the prisoners."

"It does not seem as if anyone has missed him," Zevran said. "Such a charming fellow, too. I cannot think why not."

"Yes, but starvation's an ugly death." Zin shook his head. "Besides, I'd like to see him held responsible for what he did in the alienage."

"You think I'd be punished for playing a little?" Vaughan said from his cell. "Nobody cares what happened to a few elves. But me? I've been imprisoned here for ages. People will feel sorry for me."

"Likely he is right," Morrigan said. Vaughan looked smugly triumphant for a moment before she went on, "Better to kill him here and now. Everyone believes him dead, so..." She made an eloquent little gesture.

"No!" Vaughan clutched at the bars of his cell door. "You can't do that! I have money -- let me out and I'll reward you!"

"Is that before or after you have us flayed?" Zevran asked. "Just as a point of interest."

"Maybe we can gag him," Zin said. He looked at Vaughan. "Listen, I'll let you out to save your life, but only if you shut the fuck up."

Vaughan finally seemed to realize that this was his only chance for escape, staring him grimly in the face. "Let me out," he said. "I'll be quiet." Zin unlocked the cell door, and Vaughan stepped out, his legs not quite as steady as his voice.

"Zev," Zin said, "could you keep an eye on our new friend, please? I very much doubt he can be trusted."

Zevran made a noise low in his throat. Alistair completely agreed.

8.8.9.3.1

"Wait," Riordan said, "those are my documents. I can't leave them in the hands of outsiders -- Howe should never have seen them." He rubbed a palm against his chin; his beard rasped. "I should have left everything in the Grey Warden vault, and come back for it later. Ah, hindsight."

"Vault?" Zin and Alistair said with one voice.

"I'll tell you later," Riordan promised.

8.8.9.4

"But this is my bedroom," Vaughan said, "my money's in here." He flung open the door. "I'll just get--"

The maid who was kneeling on the floor squeaked, got up and ran out, elbowing them all in the process and probably hurting herself quite a bit on Alistair's armor. The soldier who had been receiving the maid's attentions tried to fit his erection back in his partly undone armor as he glared at them. "Wait, who are you people? Intruders!"

It seemed wrong somehow to Alistair to attack a man who was protecting his crotch with one hand and trying to draw his sword with the other. None of the others had the same problem, though, Zevran going so far as to deliver a hard kick in a sensitive area just before Morrigan froze the man into a giant icicle that Zin shattered with a single well-placed thrust from one of his swords.

"You," Zin said, turning to Vaughan, who took a nervous step backwards. "We should have gagged you."

"I'm sorry, my warden," Zevran said. "He was my responsibility. I failed you."

"Perhaps we could leave this place now," Morrigan suggested, "and apportion blame later."

There was an eerie silence around them as they hurried down the hallway. Alistair kept waiting for guards to swarm around and try to capture them, because surely that maid who ran must have run to someone, and a guard captain would be the worst, and therefore the most likely, choice.

The magical barrier was gone from the door, and Zin picked the lock with a look on his face that said he was thinking about something else entirely. Probably how they were going to get out of here. A woman stepped out, and Alistair nearly burst out laughing, because she was disguised as one of the estate's guards, just as they had been earlier. He wondered how many sets of guard armor and tabards Erlina had managed to steal and stash away.

Well. They had Anora, they had Riordan, they had Soris, they had Oswyn, they had the crazy templar, they had Vaughan, probably for their sins, and they had the Ostagar veteran lurking nakedly in the shadows. Oh, and Erlina. Now all they had to do was get out. With all those people along. After being spotted by a maid who must have raised some kind of alarm by now. Alistair shook his head.

8.8.9.5

The way out was, unsurprisingly, blocked. Zin, surprisingly, surrendered.

"We just have to get through her," Alistair hissed, gesturing at Ser Cauthrien. "We can do it."

"With all these people?" Zin nodded first at the guards with Ser Cauthrien, who were, okay, there was a lot of them, and then at their own little band of people, many of whom were unarmed and in no state to fight. "You take them and get out. I'll--"

Someone hit Alistair over the head.

Chapter seventeen

8.8.9.6

The prison cells at Fort Drakon certainly were not comfortable, but at least they were bigger than the cells they'd freed prisoners from at the Arl of Denerim's estate. Which was lucky, since he and Zin had been thrown into the same one. Zin was still out, and Alistair sat on the floor with Zin's head resting on his thigh, stroking Zin's hair. He tried to figure out, through the remnants of his headache, if it would be better or worse to move Zin so he lay on the straw instead of directly on the stone floor. Softer, yes, but that straw was definitely not clean, and Alistair thought he saw something moving in it.

He could hear distant screams, which was thoroughly alarming, and distant barking, which was just very, very odd, because who put the kennels right next to the prison?

Then again, people in Denerim didn't seem to have normal requirements for these big stone buildings of theirs. Before he'd seen the Arl of Denerim's estate, he would have said no one would put an entrance to the dungeons in their bedroom, either.

Zin turned his head, made a face, and blinked his eyes open. "Ow. Ow. Hi, babe. Ow."

"How's your head?" Alistair kept up the soft caresses. "They must have hit you harder than me." Yes, his own head hurt, but less now that he could see Zin was back with him.

Zin made a face. "Could be worse, I suppose." The way he sat up, one hand to the side of his head as if making sure it was still attached, was more eloquent. He looked around. "Oh, Andraste's toenails on fire. Charming place, this."

"Fort Drakon," Alistair said. "I don't think it was made to be charming." Someone screamed a little louder, and he couldn't help but flinch.

"No, I don't expect it was." Zin looked down at his hands as though they belonged to someone else. When he looked up at Alistair again, his eyes were shadowed and oddly vulnerable. "I didn't mean to drag you into this. I thought if I surrendered, the rest of you could get away."

"The others must have," Alistair said. "I mean, they're not here."

Zin nodded. "I think Cauthrien had very clear instructions. She was after you and me." His mouth crooked up. "And strangely, not Anora. Apparently she knew we'd be there, but she didn't know about Loghain's daughter? She just ignored everyone except the two of us. I can't make sense of this." He rubbed at his forehead. "Weirdest trap I've ever seen."

"She said Loghain didn't care about the rest," Alistair said slowly. "But she didn't say he sent her. Maybe Howe told her to come because he had a warden, and he meant Riordan, and she thought he meant you, and it was just coincidence that she turned up right when the maid raised the alarm."

"That'd be one Blight of a coincidence," Zin muttered. "But she never reacted to Riordan either, that's true. And if she'd even looked at Anora in that ridiculous guard outfit, she'd've known her. And she's Loghain's right hand, not Howe's, so she must have been at his estate because someone told her to be there, not because she's staying there anyway."

"But she said she was arresting you for killing Howe. How did she even know about that?" Alistair rubbed at his forehead. "I can't outthink these people. I can't even think like these people. Was Anora in on it? Whose side is she on?"

"Her own, I should think," Zin said. "But she did want to get out of there, I saw her sneaking off with Morrigan and the rest, rather than falling on Cauthrien's neck, so I don't think she was out to get us all caught. It must be true that she doesn't trust Loghain, if she took care not to get escorted back to him. And I think," there was a darkness in his face, "she was lucky that Howe treated her better than his other prisoners, but I don't know how long that better treatment would have lasted."

"But," Alistair said. "Howe was Loghain's not-so-loyal bootlicker. He couldn't have kept licking any boots if Loghain got word of Anora being tortured." He paused. "Or do you think Loghain would have turned a blind eye to that, too... No. No, he couldn't have. I'm prepared to believe a lot about Loghain, but not that."

"I don't think Howe would have told him," Zin said. "Howe likes to sneak around and do things in secret. He--" Zin broke off. "Liked. He doesn't like anything anymore. He's dead. I killed him." He drew a deep breath. "No. No, let's talk about the trap some more, because it's just too odd, I don't understand--"

Alistair reached out and pulled Zin close. "You killed him," he said into Zin's hair, running a hand down Zin's back. "He's dead. You killed him."

"Then why don't I feel better?" Zin said shakily into Alistair's chest. He didn't cry, but his breathing was ragged. Then he pushed himself away with both hands. "Or what if," he said. Alistair cocked his head. "What if Cauthrien didn't look for Anora, because she knew Anora would be there? This way, Loghain's daughter is free, and the wardens are captured."

"You're making my headache worse," Alistair said. "Are you saying that Anora was Loghain's trap for us? That's... a bit risky, isn't it, if he loves his daughter, putting her in Howe's hands like that. And he couldn't have known she'd go to Howe in the first place."

"Unless he drove her to it," Zin said. "Erlina said Anora thought she could get the truth out of Howe, but not out of Loghain."

"But the timing," Alistair said. "Or was Cauthrien lurking in the bushes outside the estate all this time, waiting for us to spring the trap, and we just didn't see her when we came here? Because she never struck me as all that stealthy."

His headache wasn't actually getting worse, but he was confusing himself, that much was certain. Alistair just couldn't get it to make sense. The one thing that was clear to him was that Zin would rather talk about labyrinthine, bewildering possibilities than about the fact that Howe was finally dead by his hand. Which probably meant that Zin should talk about it, but Alistair didn't think this was really the place.

"No," Zin agreed. "She's not, and... oh, this is just a complete fucking mess."

Alistair couldn't help coming back around to the thing that confused him the most. "How did Cauthrien know that we'd killed Howe? There was nobody alive down in that cellar who could have outrun us with the news. It's not as though we told the maid or anything."

"I don't know," Zin sighed. "I don't understand any of it, to be honest. I think we should get out of here, before--" He broke off with a peculiar look on his face.

"Before what?" Alistair said.

"Too late." Zin's mouth quirked up in a small grin. "Listen."

Alistair listened. The distant barking grew louder, then stopped. He heard running footsteps, then a rough voice saying, "Hey there, what are you--" and cutting off with a wet gargle.

Then more footsteps and a happy bark, and the sound of a key turning in the lock of the door to their cell. Alistair looked up to see Zevran leaning against the doorjamb, grinning insouciantly, with Serpent at his feet. "Did you miss me, my warden?"

Serpent jumped on Zin and licked his face.

8.8.9.7

"I notice you don't ask me," Alistair said.

"But you had our esteemed warden's company," Zevran said. "There would hardly be any reason for you to think of anyone else." He eyed Alistair thoughtfully. "If I had known you were naked together, perhaps I would have waited a little longer to rescue you."

The esteemed warden looked up from the floor, where he was rolling around with his dog. "Alistair's a warden too, you know. Everyone seems to forget that." He sat up and pushed Serpent aside. "We really need some clothes, though, if we're getting out of here."

Zin stood up and ran a hand through his hair, which didn't improve it much. Alistair wanted to clap his hands over Zevran's eyes, just on general principle, even though he knew Zin didn't care, or maybe just because he knew Zin didn't care.

"I suppose you do," Zevran agreed, "though it is a shame to hide such a charming view."

Zin snorted and clapped a hand over Zevran's eyes. "Stop staring."

"What?" Alistair said before he could stop himself.

"I think your equipment is ow ow ow," Zevran said. "Your arms and armor, my warden, please let go of my ears!"

"Sorry," Zin said. "Stop staring at Alistair and talking about his equipment."

"What?!" Alistair said. Then he shook his aching head and followed Serpent out of the cell to a large chest over by the far wall, where he found all their things, from socks to swords.

He felt better when he was dressed and armed once again, and even better when Zin, too, was dressed and armed. Zevran looked a little disappointed, but only a little. "Thanks for coming," Zin said. "Now, how do we get back out?"

8.8.9.8

The way out was disturbingly easy. Alistair saw traces of Zevran's and Serpent's passage everywhere: dead mabari, dead guards, doors standing ajar that should have been shut and locked. It wasn't until they were nearly at the exit that they had to fight their way out at the last, and those scant few guards that tried to stop them didn't call down a fort's worth of reinforcements, the way Alistair half expected they would.

No, it was all easy. In fact, it seemed too easy, and Alistair felt as though he had a huge target painted on his back when they left the fort and started to make their way back to Arl Eamon's estate. They crept along the smaller, darker alleys, unwilling to meet anyone just then; even Serpent stayed quiet, where Alistair would have expected him to bark his happiness to the world at being reunited with Zin.

They went up alleys and down back streets, and after crossing some of the smelliest and most unpleasant places Alistair had ever come across, even after seeing the dungeons of Fort Drakon, they made it to the market district, and finally to the arl's estate.

The main door didn't seem like a good idea, so Alistair brought them in by the kitchen entrance. Unfortunately, just as he was making pleading eyes at the head cook for some bread and cheese and privacy, one of the scullions spotted them and gave vent to an excited squeal. "You're back! The arl's been that worried!" She flung open the door to the dining room. "Your grace, the wardens are back!"

The company that sat around the dining room table was so strangely mixed that under any other circumstances, Alistair would probably have burst out laughing. At the head of the table, Arl Eamon sat with Anora, who was out of her guardsman disguise and wearing what had to be one of Isolde's gowns. Those two alone might have made quite a presentable showing, but then there was Riordan, eating like a Grey Warden, and Oghren, drinking like a dwarf. Oswyn looked as if he'd rather be lying down, and Soris as if he'd rather be somewhere else. Wynne and Leliana were trying to make polite conversation, Sten sat like a Qunari statue, Morrigan picked at her plate. Someone had wrestled the templar into a clean shirt, and he sat at one end of the table and talked to himself.

There was no sign of the naked Ostagar veteran, which was kind of a relief, and no sign of Vaughan. "Tell me you didn't kill him on the way," Alistair hissed in Zevran's ear.

"I have no idea who you are talking about," Zevran said, with nearly his usual aplomb.

Arl Eamon stood up abruptly, upsetting his wine goblet. "Maker's breath, it is good to see you in one piece, my friend!"

The room exploded into talk and exclamations and fussing. The arl wanted to know all about Fort Drakon and how they got out, Leliana scolded Zevran for running off and doing the rescuing while the others sat and worried, Riordan wanted to talk about a vault, but he still had his mouth full, Anora started to explain something about the alienage, which actually made Soris try to speak up and add in something, and Oghren bellowed that the Warden needed a drink, and tried to thrust his own tankard into Zin's hand.

Zin looked about as responsive as a paralyzed golem (and good for Shale, Alistair thought, avoiding this). Alistair managed to catch Wynne's eyes and mouthed help at her.

"It's truly wonderful to see them again," she said, "but I think it would set my mind more at ease if I could examine them more closely. I'm sure with a little rest and healing, they'll be as good as new." She turned to Arl Eamon. "You don't mind if I take them away, do you, my lord? I'm sure they'll be happy to have a long discussion about strategy tomorrow."

She had them all swept up and out in the hallway before the arl could even answer. Alistair clutched at her hand. "Thank you."

Wynne eyed them. "Do you need healing?" She poked briskly at Zin's ribs as they walked towards the bedrooms. "You were in there... Well, we were all very concerned." She rounded on Zevran. "And even more concerned when we realized one of our companions had gone off behind our backs--"

Serpent barked. "Two of your companions," Zevran said. "Surely you would not deny the valiant hound this title."

Wynne sighed. "No. No, I would not."

Serpent barked again, sounding much happier.

Zin pulled open the door of his room. "I'm fine," he said to Wynne. "No torture, no bruises even. You should take a closer look at Oswyn and that templar fellow, though."

Then he just turned away and walked into the room, leaving the door ajar. "I'll take care of him," Alistair said. "Try to, anyway."

"But you could take care of me, my dearest Wynne," Zevran said. "Perhaps I could rest my head in your bosom."

Wynne aimed a blow at him with her staff, and he fled. Alistair turned to Wynne with an apologetic shrug. "Thank you for getting us out of the dining room," he said. "I think any conversation we tried to have with the arl tonight would be, well."

"Yes," Wynne agreed. Her eyes narrowed and sharpened as she tried to look past Alistair. "Did... something happen, when you rescued the queen? Or when you were imprisoned?"

"Oh, did it ever," Alistair said with a sigh. Zin came back to the door for and closed his hand around Alistair's wrist, tugging wordlessly. "Er, I'll see you tomorrow?"

Through the sound of the door swinging shut, he thought he could make out Wynne saying something about a tray of food. That sounded like an excellent idea, so he nodded and hoped she had time to see it. Alistair turned into the room as Zin let go of him. He set down his sword and shield, finally, and began to work at the buckles and straps of his armor -- Zevran and Zin between them had buckled him in quite thoroughly back at Fort Drakon. Alistair looked up to demand a little help, but what he saw was Serpent sitting right in the middle of the good couch by the fire, with Zin leaning against him on one side, eyes closed.

It wasn't a sight he wanted to disturb. Alistair wrestled himself free of all the metal and dragonbone, pulled on soft indoor boots, and scrubbed at his hair with both hands, enjoying the freedom from the heavy pressure of the helmet. A peculiar, muted thump at the door turned out to be one of the kitchen scullions, knocking with his elbow, because he was carrying a tray full of food. Lucky the butler didn't see him, Alistair thought with a small grin and took the tray, setting it down on the small table that was nearest to the couch Zin was sitting on.

Alistair made a place for himself next to Zin, dragged the table a bit closer, and began to hand over things without bothering to ask if Zin wanted them. Bread. A bowl of hot soup. An apple.

"I don't have any more hands," Zin said rustily. "Better move the table over." So Alistair did, and they ate in silence for a while.

"Do you want anything else?" Alistair asked finally. He wasn't going to eat Zin's bread without asking; he'd rather see Zin eat a bit more, but that didn't seem about to happen.

"I want to feel like myself again," Zin said. He had one arm around Serpent, but now he put his other hand on Alistair's leg, and Alistair slumped down a bit on the couch in sheer relief. "I want..." His hand on Alistair's leg tightened. "I want to feel like someone who got what he wanted."

"I know," Alistair said awkwardly. "Or I suppose I don't know, but. You've wanted Howe dead for a long time." He remembered Zin's voice, telling him about it. "At least he's gone now, even if it doesn't make you feel as relieved as you thought."

"I don't know what I feel," Zin said. "I just don't... I used to dream about killing him." He grimaced. "They weren't good dreams. Can I have your apple?"

"Sure," Alistair said. Then he added cautiously, "Can I have your bread?"

"Anything you want," Zin said. He looked up at Alistair with a little of his usual spark showing. "You know that."

"Yes," Alistair said, biting into the bread. "That, I know."

8.8.9.9.1

They got up the next morning to find that the arl had already started to send out messengers and make arrangements. Oswyn's father came to get him, with several guards and tears in his eyes; he recognized Zin as a Cousland, and showered him with gold and gratitude before he carried his son off -- well, he let the guards do the literal carrying. Oswyn himself got in a brief and more low-key but definitely heartfelt thank-you, though he looked horribly embarrassed about the litter.

Anora and Riordan had been established in comfortable guest rooms, and were still asleep, or resting, or doing their hair or something. At least, Alistair imagined that it took a while for Anora to get those braids coiled up properly in the mornings.

Soris had sneaked off at some point. When Alistair asked about him, the arl stared blankly at him for a moment, and Alistair had a feeling that the elf's presence hadn't really registered.

He was just about to start investigating what had really happened to Vaughan, when there was a bit of a commotion in the entrance hall, and a short-haired woman in supple fighting leathers came storming in. "Where is he!" she said. "Is it really true that you have rescued my brother from a dungeon--"

"Bann Alfstanna," Arl Eamon said, sounding a bit taken aback. "While it is always a pleasure to get a visit from you, I--"

The templar, ragged and incoherent but a little cleaner than he had been, at least, stepped out from the room where breakfast had been served. "Sister," he said unevenly. "Little sister."

Alfstanna flew to his side and hugged him until Alistair feared for his ribs. "Irminric! Oh, Irminric, where have you been!"

"I don't know," he said uncertainly. "It was... cold and dark, and whenever there was light, it hurt."

"He was in the dungeon at the Arl of Denerim's estate," Zin said. "Seems he was captured on the hunt for a maleficar, but you may have better luck getting the full story from him."

"I will," Alfstanna vowed. "Oh, my poor brother. I will." Her eyes sharpened. "I recognize you. You're the youngest Cousland." She set her fist over her heart. "Any help I can give when you take back your teyrnir is yours, I swear."

"Thank you," Zin said quietly.

"How did you know your brother would be here?" the arl said, confused. "We had trouble discovering his name..."

"An elf came and told me this morning," Alfstanna said. "The staff at the Gnawed Noble wouldn't let him in at first, he was so ragged," Alistair grimaced at this clear indication that no one had offered poor Soris a clean shirt, "but he said he had a message for me -- he said he had been in the cell next to my brother's until the Grey Wardens set him free. A prison cell!"

"A cell," Alistair confirmed. "Not a very nice one, either. I mean, all prison cells are bad, I guess. But I'm glad he's out of that one." He rubbed the back of his neck. "And regular lyrium will help, too."

Alfstanna gave him the same kind of sharp look that she'd given Zin. "You look very familiar," she said.

"Er," Alistair said. "You probably knew my brother."

"Alistair is the son of Maric Theirin," Arl Eamon said solemnly, "and the rightful heir to the throne of Ferelden."

"Is that so." Alfstanna looked very thoughtful. Then she smiled. "Thank you for helping save my brother," she said. Irminric clung to her side, keeping a steady hold on her arm. "I suppose you want something in return."

"We would appreciate your support, of course," Arl Eamon said. "I-- What?" Zin said something in his ear and started to drag him away. "Excuse me," he said, walking backwards, "I'll only be a moment! Really, young Cousland, this is--"

The door closed on the arl's protests, and Alistair was left face to face with Alfstanna. "That counts as subtle with him," he said. "Zin, I mean, not the arl. He can actually be a bit more subtle, though he doesn't always bother."

Alfstanna looked more amused than anything else. "I'd heard that the youngest Cousland boy was a bit," she paused for a moment, "impetuous."

"Yes," Alistair said. "Yes, you could probably say that. I think this is where I try to be well-mannered and offer you wine and polite conversation--"

"Political conversation," Alfstanna said.

Alistair grimaced. "Yes, and that. But I can't imagine that you have your mind on anything other than getting your brother safely home, right now."

"No," Alfstanna admitted. "I have to get him to a physician, and talk to the grand cleric, and..." She shook her head decisively. "No, no wine, not now. But I'm having dinner with Bryland at the Gnawed Noble tonight. I'll be there a great deal too early, and if you're there, too, we can talk."

She marched off with her brother, and Alistair slumped against the wall and wondered what he'd let himself in for.

8.8.9.9.2

Anora still wanted to talk about the alienage. She said there was something wrong there, and it was clear that she expected them to investigate, to discover the truth, and to fix it.

"She's so bossy," Alistair said, wandering up and down his bedroom while Zin sat on the couch, sharpening his boot-dagger. "It's as if she expected us to leap out the door as soon as she finished talking. I don't know how Cailan could stand it."

"Maybe he liked it," Zin said. "Some men do."

Alistair made a revolted sound. "I don't want to think about that," he said firmly.

"I think it's refreshing," Zin went on. "She makes it very clear what she wants. She wants the trouble in the alienage sorted out, and she wants to be queen."

"And you don't think there's more to it than that?" Alistair said, letting all the doubt he felt creep into his voice. "Arl Eamon's made no secret of what he intends for me. And she's got to know there's a fair bit of the Bannorn that would support you over her, if it came to that. But anyway, as for me, if I came to a tragic end in this alienage trouble, I don't imagine she'd cry herself to sleep over it."

Rather to his surprise, Zin beamed at him over the edge of the dagger. "No, I don't think she would," he agreed. "She's well aware that your claim to the throne, supported by the Guerrins and the Couslands and your very distinctive Theirin nose, is extremely strong."

Alistair made a face. "I think a nose is an unstable foundation to build a country on." He rubbed self-consciously at the tip. "I... I know the arl has already put me forward as a candidate, and I know that's what Alfstanna wants to talk about tonight. It just doesn't feel quite real to me."

"Well, it is real," Zin said, putting the dagger away with a decided little snick and leaning back where he sat. "Eamon's never even asked you, has he?"

"No," Alistair said glumly.

"You're in the middle of this," Zin said, his voice soft. "You have to decide what you want, babe. You've got the trouble and the danger already. Do you want the responsibility as well?"

"You make it sound so tempting." Alistair flung himself down next to Zin. "I never wanted any of this, you know that." He wanted to fling himself on Zin, wanted to take the strength and warmth he knew was there, but he held himself back. "I guess I do have a choice," he said. "I thought I didn't, but I do, and." He took Zin's hand, at least. "And I guess I'll be that man, then, the one I thought I wasn't supposed to be. The prince." He made a face.

Zin laced their fingers together. "Because Eamon's decided that you are?"

"No," Alistair said, squeezing a little too hard. "Because I've decided I can be. I know this might sound stupid, but I've seen so much of Ferelden by now, and what she needs, and I can't just sit here and hope someone else does right by my country. I have to do something. I have to at least try."

"You know I'm with you," Zin said, lifting their joined hands and brushing his lips over Alistair's knuckles.

"Maybe I'm only doing this because I don't like Anora," Alistair said, trying to make a joke of it.

"I do," Zin said, "but I don't want her to rule Ferelden. She does have a point, though."

"Yes," Alistair said with a sigh. "We have to find out what's wrong in the alienage. I mean, you heard Soris, but Vaughan was in a cell and Arl Urien's dead, so there's got to be more."

"I think the first thing we have to do is have a word with some of the others." Zin frowned. "Because I really want to find out what happened to Vaughan."

"Mm, so do I," Alistair said. "And I think your favorite Antivan knows more than he's telling about it."

Zin turned his head and leaned into Alistair so he could kiss his dratted Theirin nose. "Then we should go talk to him."

8.8.9.9.3

Zevran was in the library, which was a bit of a surprise to Alistair, and he was deeply engrossed in a book, which was even more of a surprise. Their assassin just didn't seem like the bookworm type. He looked up as soon as they entered, of course. "Good morning, my warden. Wardens, I mean."

"Is this what you've been reduced to?" Zin shook his head. "That's just sad, Zevran. Or are you reading that to impress your lady?"

"If you are asking whether our redoubtable Wynne has succumbed to my charm," Zevran said with surprising delicacy, "alas, she has not. And to think I was once notorious for my skill in seduction. Staying in this country for so long has turned me positively Fereldan."

"It's a tragedy," Zin said.

Alistair reached out and tilted the book in Zevran's hands, trying to get a better look at it. "What are you reading? Is that a flower?"

"Yes, my observant friend, that is indeed a flower. I found a compendium of common Fereldan herbs and their most frequent uses, for simples and cooking and the like." Zevran turned the book around to show them both. "There is no mention of poisons, even though the book lists deathroot early on, which seems decidedly odd."

Alistair frowned. "As long as it doesn't say deathroot goes perfectly with mutton..."

"Zev." Zin took the book out of Zevran's hands and perched on the library table, leaning over the elf, who naturally looked more delighted than intimidated. "What happened to Vaughan?"

"He left our company before we reached this place," Zevran said.

That made Alistair frown a bit more, and he leaned against the table next to Zin. Zevran looked, if anything, even more delighted. "What do you mean?"

"I scouted ahead," Zevran said, hands moving illustratively over the book pages, "while the others waited in an alley, a little spread out, like this. When I came back, Soris told me that Vaughan had decided to go to the nearby home of one of his friends, rather than come the rest of the way with us." He shrugged.

"Soris told you." Zin shook his head. "I assume Vaughan wasn't lying dead at Soris's feet at the time, at least."

Zevran's eyes widened. "Of course not!" Then he gave up on trying to look innocent, and shrugged again, more expressively. "I did not go after Vaughan to see if Soris told the truth, no. There were no obvious fresh bloodstains, and Soris is... not a large person, nor was he carrying a weapon." He frowned. "I'm not sure who was the last person to be in charge of the crossbow."

"Tell me it wasn't that tainted veteran," Alistair said with a groan. "And where did he get to, does anyone know?"

"That's right, I knew there was someone I'd forgotten." Zin looked around as if he expected the veteran to leap, naked and gibbering, from a bookshelf. Which wouldn't have surprised Alistair at all. "So we lost two people between Howe's dungeon and Eamon's house."

"Vaughan was not much of a loss, if you ask me," Zevran said. "Though your friend the arl would probably like to point out that he has a vote in the Landsmeet, now that he is free."

Zin buried his face in his hands. "And he'll probably be happy to vote against us, even though we let him out. It's not as if we were nice to him, precisely."

"I think being nice to him would have been beyond my abilities," Zevran said.

Chapter eighteen

8.8.9.9.4

The first person they ran into outside the library was Leliana; she stood in front of a painting in the hallway, head cocked to one side. Just as they came up, she tipped her head to the other side and squinted.

"Art appreciation, Leliana?" Zin asked, taking the same pose next to her and squinting the same way. "Not very prepossessing, I'd say."

"He just seems so familiar," Leliana said, nodding at the man in the painting. "I could swear I have seen him somewhere before."

"Hmm. Now that you say it..." Zin got a tiny wrinkle between his brows.

Alistair shook his head at the pair of them. "Honestly, aren't you supposed to be all sharp and observant, things like that?" They both glared. "The Aeducans had the exact same painting. It was in the Orzammar palace, we must have passed it a hundred times."

"Oh," Leliana said. "This is a copy, then?" She leaned closer, studying the canvas.

"Or that one is," Alistair said. "Whoever sold it must have known there's practically no contact between Orzammar and the surface, so selling the same painting in two places wouldn't cause a problem."

"You could tell Eamon," Zin said. "Or Bhelen, I suppose, but that's a bit longer to go." Then he shrugged and grinned at Alistair. "Or we could just decide to ignore it. I know it's hard, but." He held out both hands and weighted them up and down. "Art fraud, Blight... Blight, art fraud..."

Leliana gave a sputtering little laugh. "Thank you for that little lesson in perspective." She shook her hair back. "I suppose I feel a little superfluous here in the arl's household. There isn't much for me to do."

"I know something," Alistair said slowly. "Could you do some spying for us?"

"Spying?" Leliana batted her lashes at him. "I don't spy. Precisely."

"Well, could you not-precisely, then, find out where Vaughn Kendalls disappeared to? Zevran says that Soris says," Alistair made a face, "that Vaughn went off on his own to stay with a friend. Somewhere along the way they travelled from the Arl of Denerim's estate."

"I could do that," Leliana said. She tapped her lower lip. "There must be taverns along this way, of course. I'll need to know the route more precisely."

"Get Zevran to help you," Zin suggested. "I think he's bored."

8.8.9.9.4.1

In the late afternoon, Alistair checked his teeth in a small hand mirror that had to belong to Isolde and his hair in Zin's smiling eyes, and they went off to meet Alfstanna at the Gnawed Noble tavern. Zin wore a set of comfortable leathers, but he'd insisted on putting Alistair in noble dress, fine linen and a tunic in a combination of the red of Ferelden and the blue of the Grey Wardens. Alistair felt he stood out like a sore thumb, but when he saw nobles in the tavern in much more garish color combinations, he relaxed a bit.

"I still think I look like a prat," he muttered to Zin.

"I thought you'd like warden blue," Zin said. "Maybe red and gold would've been better."

People were looking at him. Alistair stiffened his shoulders. "You don't think this is a little conspicuous?"

"Yes," Zin said cheerfully. "That's the whole point. Make sure they can see your nose."

They sat down at a table in the front, where they couldn't be missed, and ordered ale. Alistair felt hopelessly on display, and he longed for armor; the space between his shoulderblades itched. "I just want you to know," he said, "if I get stabbed in the back, it'll be your fault."

"This is a respectable tavern," Zin said, attempting to sound prim. "Also, you've got an excellent bodyguard with you. Oh, hey, Alfstanna is here already."

She was in leathers, too, just as before, and looked as comfortable as Zin. When she sat down at their table, a serving maid brought her ale without asking, and she downed half the tankard in one long draught. "Denerim's too blighted dusty at this time of year," she said. "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the Landsmeet." Her eyes pinned Alistair in place. "So you're Maric's son, then. Never heard of you before."

"If Cailan were still alive, you wouldn't have heard about me at all," Alistair said frankly, "and that would have been fine with me. But I survived Ostagar, I've survived Loghain's assassins, and I just can't leave the country in his hands any longer."

"Loghain sent assassins for you? Because you're a Theirin?"

"For us," Alistair said, tipping his head to include Zin. "No, because we're all that remains of the Grey Wardens, and we were witnesses to what happened at Ostagar."

"Yes," Zin said slowly. "Hmm. You know, we should probably have thought about this before. I think he probably sent his men after us in the first place because we're wardens, but we might've rated a serious effort and a real assassin because we are who we are, particularly you."

Alistair wanted to say that he wasn't particularly who he was any more than Zin was particularly who he was, or any less, everyone was who they were, it was the nature of things, but he drank some ale instead. "The point is, he thinks I'm a threat--"

"You are a threat."

"I'm an alternative to Anora. As long as she has power, he has power. But if Ferelden decides to support another Theirin king," Alistair felt his stomach swoop as he said it, and hoped it didn't show on his face, "Loghain can't call himself regent any more."

"We already have a civil war," Alfstanna said. "Loghain has nearly all the southeast ready to follow him, and with Howe ruling most of the north and Denerim--"

"Howe is dead," Zin said flatly. "You don't have to worry about him looking towards Waking Sea next."

Alfstanna sucked her breath in. "That changes things," she said. "Highever stands with Theirin, then, I assume." She nodded at Alistair. "And I don't know who'd inherit the Amaranthine voice in the Landsmeet. Howe had three children, but Thomas is said to have died at Ostagar, Nate's off up north doing Maker knows what, and Delilah seems to have disappeared completely."

Zin nodded slowly. "Unless Nate or Delilah make a sudden appearance, I think we can discount Amaranthine. Dragon's Peak votes against Loghain. Denerim... we should know at the end of today."

"A lot of the Bannorn is against Loghain by now," Alfstanna said, tapping her lip thoughtfully. "They'll be happy to vote against him," she looked thoughtfully at Alistair, "if not precisely for you, because they don't know you."

"The Theirin name has a lot of clout, though," Zin said. His voice had that cool note to it again, as when he'd discussed politics and Alistair's fate with Bann Teagan. "No one can doubt Alistair is who he says he is, once they get a look at him."

Alfstanna nodded. "The grand cleric is furious. I've told her what was done to Irminric, and I thought she would rush off and denounce Loghain right then."

Alistair wrinkled his brow. "But the grand cleric doesn't have a vote in the Landsmeet."

The two children of Fereldan nobility looked at him. "No," Zin said patiently, "but do you have any idea of the influence she has?"

"There's a lot of banns who'll follow whatever she says," Alfstanna added.

Alistair sat back again. All he could do was listen as Zin and Alfstanna went though the roster of banns, which of them were likely to follow the grand cleric, and which of them would look to what arl for political guidance. "I trust Bryland," Zin said. "But we need Wulff. With Howe gone, and the Denerim vote so uncertain..."

"Wulff doesn't care about who's king," Alfstanna said, a shadow moving through her eyes. "His arling's overrun by darkspawn, and he lost both his sons in the fighting. He's come to the Landsmeet, but he's not happy it's been called. A lot of the southern banns feel the same way."

"The Blight must be stopped," Alistair said. All this politicking in the face of disaster was giving him a headache. He turned to Alfstanna. "And what about you, my lady? How will you vote?"

"You gave me back my brother," Alfstanna said. "The least I can do is support you in return. And you're right, the Blight must be stopped. Half of Ferelden is seeking refuge with the other half." Her voice turned from serious to light. "Besides, I never did get along with Anora."

"I... see," Alistair said. "What about Loghain?"

Alfstanna grimaced. "He has no right to the throne," he said. "Anora's claim is doubtful, but Loghain's is non-existent. If the Theirin line had indeed been lost, a lot of people would have supported the Couslands instead," she flashed a quick grin at Zin, "certainly not the Mac Tirs."

"Told you," Alistair muttered quietly. Zin pinched his leg.

"I'll talk to Bryland over dinner," Alfstanna said. She got to her feet. "This will be an interesting Landsmeet, to say the least."

8.8.9.9.4.2

On the way out, they saw a heavily bearded man that Zin said was Wulff, the man who had lost so much to the Blight. Zin took a step towards him, then stopped when Alistair touched his arm.

"Let him mourn," Alistair said. "If all he wants is to stop the Blight, he is on our side, whether he knows it or not."

"I'd feel better if we had his word." But Zin turned away. "I suppose we have a little more time to plan things."

8.8.9.9.4.3

Leliana was waiting for them in Zin's room, chatting animatedly with Morrigan, who looked well on her way to turning someone into a toad. Oh, she claimed she couldn't do that, but Alistair wasn't at all sure he believed her.

"Red," Leliana said decidedly. "Red velvet would be-- There you are!" She smiled at them both. "I've come to report."

"You are drunk," Morrigan said, "and you are a nuisance."

Leliana drew herself up. "I am not drunk." She turned more fully towards Alistair and Zin. "Zevran did most of the drinking. Now, he's drunk. That part of Denerim really has a lot of taverns." She spoiled her pose of sober outrage with a small hiccup.

Zin strolled into the room and scratched Serpent behind the ears in greeting. "Well," he said. "What did you find out?"

"Nothing," Leliana admitted. "No one's seen him." She shrugged. "I suppose we could knock on every single house along the way and ask, if you want."

"No," Zin said, "don't do that. There's someone else we can ask."

8.8.9.9.5

So the next day, they went to the alienage. (Just as Anora had asked.)

8.8.9.9.6

"This is your home?" Alistair said, looking around the cramped room, which was surprisingly clean and unsurprisingly bare.

Soris shook his head. "No. Yes. I don't know." Then he shrugged. "Aren't your other friends with you? The alienage probably isn't the safest place for one human alone," he looked Alistair carefully up and down, "even if most people would hesitate to take on someone who looks so very well armed and armored."

"Some of them are here," Alistair said. "We split up to try to find you."

"Me?" Soris looked startled. "Why would you want to find me?"

"To check that you're all right," Alistair said, "and that you made it home safely. Which it looks as if you did, to someone's home, anyway, even if it isn't yours."

"Oh." Soris gestured for Alistair to take a chair, and Alistair sat cautiously, hoping the wood would bear the weight of a large, heavily armored man. Soris sat down, too, across from him at the table. "It used to be my uncle's home. He and my cousin lived here. But Darrian was with me when we went to free the kidnapped women, and he... didn't make it. And I don't know where Uncle Cyrion has disappeared to. You should talk to Shianni about that."

Alistair was starting to feel he should have brought quill and ink, so he could write down all these names and try to keep track. It was worse than Bannorn politics. "Who's Shianni?"

"My cousin -- I mean, my other cousin. She was one of the women who got kidnapped by Vaughan and his friends, but I found out when I got back that some of them made it out." Soris rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Which is a good thing, don't get me wrong, I just..."

"Some of them didn't make it out," Alistair surmised. "I'm sorry. Listen, while we're on the subject of that paragon of charm and compassion, Vaughan, do you know where he disappeared to?"

"No," Soris said flatly.

"It's not that I want to see him again, you understand," Alistair said. "But I'd like to know if he's suddenly going to pop up and make trouble for anyone." Vaughan could be a problem for Alistair himself, and he could definitely be more than that for Soris and whatever remained of his family.

"No," Soris said again. He put his hands down flat on the table and stared at his nails, which were a bit ragged. "No, he won't."

"You're certain of that?"

Soris looked extremely bleak. "Yes."

"Because," Alistair made himself go on, "if his body were suddenly discovered, there'd probably be, well. Trouble."

That made Soris laugh a little. "Since he's supposed to have died in the elven uprising," he spoke those particular words as if they left a foul taste in his mouth, "I imagine there'd be quite a lot of trouble and confusion. But you don't have to worry about that."

"All right," Alistair said, but he could hear for himself that there was no conviction in his voice. He shook his head. "Just tell me what happened. Please. I'm not out to make things difficult for you, I just don't want to be taken by surprise."

Soris leaned back in the chair. He looked bleached out, pale and pinched, almost difficult to see against the faded greys and dingy browns of the room. "Vaughan killed one of my cousins and raped the other," he said. "I couldn't let him just walk away. Because he was right, there'd be no justice for someone like him, only sympathy for his terrible suffering."

"Not from me, that much is certain," Alistair said. "But I see what you mean." He wished he didn't, but he did. "You killed him, then?"

"No." Soris shook his head. "I meant to. I would have. But that other man, the one with the Blight sickness, he went down a cul-de-sac and seemed to find something. He waved his arms and Vaughan went to look, and then he dragged Vaughan down and they both vanished." Soris shrugged. "I think it was a sewer entrance."

Alistair grimaced. "I did wonder what happened to him, too." At least it sounded as if Vaughn wouldn't turn up out of nowhere, or rather out of the sewer, at the Landsmeet to vote against them.

"I didn't go after them," Soris said. "I don't think anyone else saw what happened." He shrugged. "I lied to your friend when he asked me about it, though I think he knew that I was lying. If that tainted man dragged Vaughan underground to eat him, that's terrible and I'll feel very sorry. From a distance."

"To eat him?" Alistair said, horrified. Then he thought about the veteran's own rambling confession about how he'd become tainted in the first place. His stomach turned. "I suppose it's too late to go after them by now."

Soris nodded. "Is that what you came to ask me?" He looked down at his hands again. "I know it's a poor repayment for my life. I wish I had something to reward you with, but I'm afraid I didn't own much even before I spent all that time in a dungeon and all my possessions were shared out to those who needed them."

"You don't have to give us anything!" Alistair said. He knew Zin's approach to rewards, which was yes please with a liberal helping of every little bit helps mixed in, but Zin wasn't there, and Alistair really didn't feel that a man who had almost nothing should have to pay them for doing the only decent thing.

"I don't like to owe debts," Soris said. "And if you all came here to look for me, you must want... something."

"We came because there's something wrong in the alienage," Alistair said. He glanced swiftly around the room. There was a lot wrong in the alienage, clearly, but... "Maybe you can tell me a little about that."

"You should talk to my cousin Shianni," Soris said again. "She knows a lot more than I do about this." He scrubbed a hand over his face. "There's a plague in the alienage. You probably saw when you came here that there's sick people everywhere."

"Yes, we did," Alistair said uneasily.

"There are Tevinter mages here who are supposedly helping with the plague, and they've set up a quarantine. But Shianni says they quarantine healthy people who just disappear and haven't been seen again. Like Uncle Cyrion."

"That sounds bad," Alistair said. "Really, really bad." He scratched the tip of his nose. "Wait, does the chantry really allow that? Tevinter mages coming in here and being all mage-y?"

Soris shrugged. "There isn't anyone from the chantry keeping an eye on them," he said. "If the chantry worried about this magic, wouldn't they send templars to keep guard?"

"Well, I would think so," Alistair said. The feeling of unease inside him was growing. "I think we'd better go take a look at this for ourselves. I'll round up the others."

"Head for the vhenadahl -- the big tree," Soris said. "They've set up a hospice in a house on one side of the square. And you can talk to Shianni, she'll be there. Red-haired woman with a temper, you can't miss her."

"Thanks." Alistair got up. "We'll do that." He felt awkward saying goodbye, more so than he had during the conversation. "I hope things get better for you," he said, feeling like an idiot as soon as the words were out of his mouth.

Soris just gave a little half-smile, though. "Being free again is already much better than I'd dreamed of," he said.

8.8.9.9.7

Turned out that the Tevinter mages were a front for Tevinter slavers, who had been taking and selling the missing elves. They chased through dirty back alleys, disturbingly empty apartment buildings, and squalid warehouses, but still only managed to find and free a handful of people. And the blood mage in charge of the whole operation tried to bribe Zin into letting him go, saying he could use the lives of the captured elves to make Zin healthier.

Alistair rather thought the man didn't know how close he came to having Zin throw up on his shoes before he killed him.

8.8.9.9.8

None of the people in the cages in that back room turned out to be Soris's Uncle Cyrion, and Alistair didn't want to think about where he'd disappeared to. They did find the alienage hahren, though, Valendrian. He was a skinny, frail old man, and Alistair thought to himself that it didn't really make sense for the slavers to take him. No one would buy Valendrian for the long years of hard work they would get out of him. Most of the captured elves were young; some were only kids.

Alistair thought about throwing up on the blood mage's corpse.

"Are you all right?" he asked as he wrenched the last cage door open. One little girl was crying and rubbing at her arms where the edges of the blood mage's blizzard spell had touched her. Alistair managed to catch Wynne's eye, and she came over and began to busy herself with gentle restorative spells.

"Much better than we were only an hour ago," Valendrian said. He leaned into the support one of the younger elves offered, but his eyes were clear and alert. "Thank the Maker."

As Wynne's spells began to take effect, he straightened up and began to look like the leader of this group in more than just name, and Alistair realized that the Tevinters had probably decided to take him because otherwise he'd be a rallying point and a focus for potential opposition. To judge by Shianni's explanation of what a hahren did, he was also the person most likely to have official contacts outside the alienage, people he might be able to ask to investigate if he began to suspect that something was wrong.

But that went both ways, Alistair reflected. The disappearance of Valendrian was also the one most likely to be noticed, by the other elves in the alienage and by outsiders alike.

"This is terrible," Leliana muttered next to him, as she stood flipping through the documents Zin had found on the body of the blood mage. "Loghain allowed this to happen -- it must be how he has financed his side of the civil war."

"He's just splintered Ferelden even more," Alistair said with a frown. "This," he gestured at the large room, the cages, the elves, "this is another front of the civil war. I don't see how he thinks he can possibly manage to unite the country against the Blight when he sells some of his countrymen so he can afford to fight others."

"No," Leliana said and looked at him in a way that made him feel vaguely uncomfortable. "I suspect a lot of people, Loghain included, don't quite think like that."

"What do you mean?"

"Elves aren't always considered to be proper Fereldans," Valendrian said from behind him, and Alistair spun around. "We live here, we work here, we certainly pay taxes here, but..."

"But we're always elves," the young man supporting Valendrian spat.

"We should be proud of being elves," Valendrian said mildly. "But we're part of this country, as much as any others who live here."

"The Dalish don't pay taxes," the young man said. "I think they have the right idea. They don't try to pretend that we're just like the shem."

"Taeodor." Valendrian's voice was still very gentle. "I know you want to believe that your brothers found these mythical Dalish they were looking for, but..."

"The Dalish I met certainly weren't mythical," Alistair muttered, and the next moment, both Valendrian and the young man were staring at him.

"You met the Dalish." Taeodor looked angry. "You met the Dalish." Then his face softened into uncertainty and youth. "Did you -- did you see my brothers there?"

"I don't know your brothers," Alistair said, "but probably not. It was far to the south from here, and it wasn't... well, it wasn't exactly a social visit. Not like we were introduced to everyone or anything." He found himself grinning a little, remembering it, though it had been uncomfortable enough at the time. "I shouldn't think they pay taxes, though, no."

"Would you tell us more about it -- my friends and I, we'd really like to hear more." Taeodor looked hopeful, and friendlier than before, but next to him, Valendrian was shaking his head.

Faced with these mixed signals, Alistair opted for honesty. "I probably don't have time," he said. "I go where Zin goes," he gestured back at his fellow warden, who was busy opening chests and cupboards, trying to find the elves' meager possessions for them, it looked like, "and I'm not even sure what our next step will be."

"And we should leave," Valendrian said, "go back to our homes and reassure our families."

"What's left of them," Taeodor said, but he let Valendrian lead him away.

9.

Zin rounded on Wynne the moment they came out of the building. He actually looked angry, which was something Alistair had only seen maybe twice. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard you say. That piece of slime offered to kill people to benefit me, and all you could say was that it would be blood magic so don't do it?"

Wynne looked taken aback. "Surely you know that the path of blood magic--"

"Offered to kill people," Zin said. "People who were shut up in cages. Some of them were little kids. I don't care if it's called lace knitting or an Exalted March or blood magic, that's not the point, he offered to kill people as a bribe, that's the part that's not okay, do you get it?" He stared at Wynne. "Do you even understand why I'm upset?"

"I understand," Leliana said, and Alistair breathed out a sigh of relief as she put a hand on Wynne's arm and began to gently tug her away. "Wynne, let's go back to the arl's estate. You and Zin can talk more about this later, when you've had some time apart, yes? Perhaps you and I could have some tea together."

"But you agreed with me," Wynne said, her eyes still on Zin. "You said you wouldn't consider it."

"What did you expect me to say?" Now Zin was white around the mouth. "Did you expect me to say yes to his suggestion? Like if you hadn't pointed out so very observantly that it was blood magic," he spat out the words, "I would have said yes, of course, that sounds great, just cut the throats of those children over there--"

"I would never countenance harming a child!" Wynne bristled. "And I didn't think you would, either."

"I wouldn't," Zin said. "That's what I-- Are you even listening to me?"

Leliana got a better hold on Wynne's arm and began to tow her away. She met Alistair's eyes. "If I see any of the others," she said, "I'll send them here. Better if we keep them separated for a few hours, don't you think?"

Alistair nodded so hard he thought his helmet would fall off. "We should, um, go check that Valendrian made it home all right," he said to Zin, changing the subject with all of the grace of an ogre dancing the Remigold. "He looked kind of old and frail, and he's had a trying day."

"He's not the only one," Zin muttered darkly, but he fell into step besides Alistair, going back into the alienage, with its pervasive smell of rotting mud and boiled cabbage, while Leliana towed Wynne in the opposite direction.

"Do you feel ready to talk to Valendrian," Alistair said, "or are you going to mistake him for Wynne and bite him?"

The question made Zin laugh, just a little, and that balanced him enough that they could move on, finding Valendrian's home by following the stream of people that were rushing there to welcome their hahren back. Alistair started to wonder if he'd meet Taeodor there with another request to hear all about the Dalish. The door to the house was wide open, and the old elven man was, in fact, starting to look a bit tired.

"We were so worried," somebody said, and someone else chimed in, "And Shianni said--" and someone else added, "But the plague, what will we do--"

Alistair and Zin shared a quick look; it would be better to come back at another time, probably. But to Alistair's intense embarrassment, Valendrian spotted them in the crowd and beamed with delight. The old man had everyone else cleared out and was sitting down to tea and some kind of dry biscuit with the two of them in no time flat. "My friends," he said, looking at them with wry gratitude, "I'm pleased to see you in more comfortable circumstances."

"Did everyone make it back to their homes all right?" Alistair bit down on a biscuit and got a lapful of crumbs. It was only when he glanced around for Serpent, who would happily have licked them up, that he realized the dog wasn't with them. Maybe he'd gone with Leliana and Wynne earlier, but that dog was so attached to Zin, it seemed extremely unlikely.

"Yes." Valendrian smiled. "You can be proud of yourselves for reuniting so many families."

"Not all of them, though," Zin said. The darkness in his eyes reminded Alistair that the Tevinter slavers had taken and sold people for a good while now, to finance Loghain's side of the civil war. Shianni's words echoed in his head: They can't be shipping people, can they? Shipping them where?

"Is there any chance that you can track those who were already," the word wanted to stick in his throat, but he forced it out, "sold?"

That question wiped the smile off Valendrian's face and made him as dark-eyed as Zin. "The slavers may have left some records," he said. "We will certainly try. But--" His mouth twisted and he stopped talking.

"They couldn't afford to buy anyone back," Zin said. "Even if they could find a paper trail, even if they could trace individuals and prove that free Fereldan citizens had been sold, the buyers are very far away and would claim good faith, because slavery is legal in their country. The only way to get those people back would be to pay for them."

"But," Alistair said. "But surely the crown would back you up, if..."

"Given that the regent was the one who allowed this to happen," Valendrian said, "I think you'll find that not a lot of people here in the alienage have any faith in the crown." His mouth twisted. "I'm afraid I don't."

"Of course matters are a bit unsettled right now," Zin said. His eyes bored into the side of Alistair's head; Alistair looked down at his crumb-covered knees. "Maybe once it's been settled who will rule Ferelden, things will be different."

"No ruler of Ferelden will want to risk offending Tevinter over a few elves," Valendrian said. "Those who are gone will be considered acceptable losses." He didn't look angry, only tired. "Just like the ones who'll die of the plague."

"But it's wrong," Alistair said. "That's just... it's wrong." He tried to imagine the people of Redcliffe disappearing the same way, or half a village in the Bannorn being sold off. There'd be riots. Then he remembered Vaughan Kendell talking about the elven uprising. Riots were never good, but some riots ended even worse than others. "Is it really-- Doesn't anyone from the alienage have anything to say about what happens in Denerim?"

"Of course not," Valendrian said in mild surprise. "Or anywhere else. Well, I've heard that the Gwaren hahren was informed before the new sewer lines were dug under a corner of the Gwaren alienage, but that was several years ago."

Alistair shook his head. "Something should be done about that," he muttered. "I just don't know..."

"An advisory position," Zin said. He smiled brightly at Valendrian. "Would you support a ruler who paid more attention to elven concerns?"

"I hardly think my support would make a difference," Valendrian said wryly. "If it was a good kind of attention, of course I would. But attention from the rulers of Ferelden has traditionally not meant anything good for the elves."

Alistair glanced at Zin, who was watching him expectantly. He really didn't know what to say, but he said it anyway. "I'm Maric's son. The Landsmeet that's been called? It's going to be about who will rule Ferelden."

"I see." Valendrian's tea cup rattled against the mismatched saucer. "And you're looking for... support? Would that be the armed kind of support? Because I'm sure you've seen the signs around the alienage about what will happen to elves with weapons."

"No, no. Nothing like that!" Alistair said. "I mean, I know there's nothing you can do now. And, um." He tried to imagine presenting himself to the Landsmeet with a guard of city elves at his back. "I don't think it would really help."

Valendrian let go of the tea cup. "I'm glad you see that."

"There's something, though," Zin said. Both Valendrian and Alistair turned to look at him. "Information. Which families are in town, and the way they're allied with each other, and how they're going to vote come the Landsmeet. We've been able to put a lot together from talking to people, but I'm willing to bet the elves of the alienage know a lot more."

"Yes. That, we can do." Valendrian nodded, looking more settled. "A lot of families have hired temporary servants for their stay here in Denerim, or extra help to get their townhouses in order. I will talk to people here."

"That'd be great," Alistair said. "We're staying with Arl Eamon, just off the market district."

Valendrian nodded. "I can probably get a message there."

"Thank you." Zin had a gleam in his eye, and Alistair got the impression that Zin was really enjoying this game of politics. Well, it was a good thing that one of them did, he supposed.

"Or we could just come back here," Alistair said. He had a feeling that anonymous elven messengers probably would find it difficult to get their message to the right persons in Arl Eamon's household. Either they'd be disregarded completely, or they'd end up in front of the arl, the way Erlina had. "In a day or two."

"Yes, that might be better." Zin seemed to be thinking the same thing. "If that would be convenient for you?"

"I think so." Valendrian poured more tea for all of them. "Of course, I cannot guarantee that I'll have any useful information at the time..."

Zin shrugged. "Then just tell us to come back later."

"Very well. But this should be a day of celebration," Valendrian said, not so much changing the subject as dropping into an entirely different conversation as though that was what they'd been talking about all along, "for those of us who were released from Caladrius's cages. Did I hear correctly," he looked at Zin, "that he said you're a Grey Warden? Tell me, how is Duncan?"

Alistair felt as if someone had put the sun out. He sank lower in the chair and left it to Zin to handle the question, which Zin did in his usual tactful manner by saying that he thought everyone knew by now that Duncan was dead. Valendrian looked sadly at them both, and he and Zin had a long and involved conversation about Duncan, and Duncan's recruitment habits, and personality and amazing ability to have friends everywhere, and it ended with Valendrian giving Zin a dagger and Zin thanking him warmly and making the dagger vanish into thin air in that thoroughly alarming way he had sometimes.

"I'm afraid we have to leave now, though," Zin said, finishing his tea and stealing the remains of Alistair's biscuit.

Valendrian assured them they'd be welcome back at any time, saw them to the door and stood waving as they left. He was such an incredibly nice person, and Alistair half wanted to go back again, to apologize for his own terrible mood.

Chapter nineteen

9.1

Alistair realized that he'd been wrong. The trouble with going back to the estate wasn't facing Wynne. The trouble was Arl Eamon. They'd made it safely to the building, going in through the servants' bedquarters, and up through the long winding hallways, but just when they were about to retreat into the safety of Alistair's bedroom, the arl came into the hallway. "There you are! I've been hearing of a great commotion in the alienage." He walked up to them with long unhurried steps. "Tell me what happened."

"Loghain was collaborating with a Tevinter slaver," Zin said bluntly. "Elves were being kidnapped right here in Denerim and shipped off to Tevinter." He fumbled out the wad of documents that he'd taken off Caladrius's body; they still smelled faintly of snow and ozone and expensive hair oil. "There's evidence right here."

"Maker's breath!" The arl looked just the proper amount of upset. "I should be appalled that such a thing can exist, but I'm overjoyed that you can implicate Loghain." He took the papers out of Zin's hand. "This will definitely make a strong argument at the Landsmeet."

Zin took the papers back. "Yes, it will. Do you want to know how many people were sold before we put a stop to it?"

The arl looked slightly taken aback. "I don't see that it makes a difference, as long as Loghain can be held responsible. The crime is his to answer for, regardless of how few or how many times."

"It makes a difference," Zin said. "Politically, it makes a difference because it will tell us how much money he made from this, which says something about on what scale that money was needed and what resources he has. It also tells us how much money would be needed to buy those people back."

"B-back?" Now the arl looked more than just slightly taken aback. "Tragic as it is, I just don't think that will be possible--"

"And on a level that has nothing to do with politics," Zin went on, "it tells us how many families in the alienage have been ripped apart, just so Loghain could continue ripping the country apart. That fucker has so much emptiness and grief to answer for."

Arl Eamon nodded. "Yes, yes. And he will be held responsible for what he has done. Since we have a strong candidate to replace him," he nodded to Alistair, "we can see order restored to the alienage, and more importantly, to Ferelden as a whole. The country must be united again."

Alistair put a hand on Zin's back and felt the muscles quiver with tension. "People are dying in the civil war, too," he said in a low voice, as if speaking only to Zin, though he knew very well that Arl Eamon could hear him. "And from the Blight. Families are being ripped apart everywhere. It all needs to be stopped." He sighed. "And I suppose I can... that I'll have to try."

Zin turned his head and looked piercingly at him. "Really?"

Alistair grimaced. "You know how I feel about it. But what we saw today... there's so much that isn't right. And no one else is doing anything about it."

"You'll make a fine king, Alistair," Arl Eamon said with complete assurance. "And with sensible, trustworthy advisors at your side, you'll be able to restore this country to order, back to what it was."

Alistair wasn't sure how he felt about that. He still wasn't sure he wanted to make any kind of king, though he'd resigned himself to being put forth as a candidate, mostly because Loghain had to be stopped. Stop Loghain, and stop the Blight, those were his two goals. Anything that came after that seemed very distant, and could be dealt with later; stopping the Blight came first, because if they didn't do that, there wouldn't be a later. Wouldn't be a Ferelden to have a later in, and to restore order to, of whatever kind.

Alistair also wasn't sure that bringing the country back to what it had been before was the best thing to do. He thought he knew what the arl meant, the kind of order the arl wanted, where Ferelden would be just the way it had always been -- always meaning the past twenty years or so, after the upheaval left by the successful rebellion had finally settled down.

But during his year of travelling with Zin and the others, Alistair had come to see quite a lot of Ferelden, mostly the unquiet parts, the tensions, the troubles, the injustices. He wasn't sure at all that was the best thing to try to get back to. There was a lot that needed fixing, Alistair thought, or at least adjusting. Anyone who took the throne might be better off listening to the people who were in the middle of whatever difficulty needed solving, rather than advisors who said that everything would be fine if it just went back to the way it was before.

Alistair wasn't sure he believed in before.

"It's really time for us to retire," Zin said. "We've had a long day."

"Very long," Alistair agreed when Zin pinched him. "We'll need to discuss things later, of course, but I think it'll have to wait until I've slept for about a week."

"Yes, of course. But tomorrow, you must tell me in more detail what happened at the alienage."

"Anora will probably want to know, too," Alistair said glumly. "Since it was her idea for us to go there, and everything."

"Yes, but tomorrow," Zin said, even more firmly. "We both need to sleep now." He made a suppressed sound that was halfway between a yawn and a hiccup.

"Yes," Arl Eamon said, "yes, of course. And I believe Riordan also has something he would like to discuss with you when you have the time." He made a small gesture, the habitual you are dismissed handwave of a man who regularly met with a lot of people. "Tomorrow, then."

"And won't that be a joy," Zin muttered as they trudged up the stairs together. "Babe, can I sleep in your room tonight? With you?"

"Yes, of course," Alistair said, slightly bewildered since it hadn't occurred to him that they would sleep apart. "Why wouldn't we--" Then he thought about it. "Oh. Do you think the arl will come and wake us up himself, then?"

"I wouldn't put it past him." Zin shook his head. "No, he'll send a servant. But it might still be awkward."

"Oh," Alistair said again. "I don't care." Which wasn't entirely true, he did care. He just cared more about Zin. "It's up to you. But I don't think I want to sleep alone tonight, and neither do you."

"No," Zin said, "I really don't. But you're wrong, it's up to you. You're Eamon's candidate for king. He doesn't care what I do."

Alistair pushed Zin in through the door of his bedroom, and followed close on his heels. "He cares a lot what you do. You're the warden. I mean, you're the Warden. I'm just someone who's been tagging along with you." Zin opened his mouth to protest, and Alistair shook his head. "And about you and me... he might as well get used to it."

9.1.0.1

"I suppose I'd better talk to Wynne," Zin said.

Alistair nodded. "Do you want me to be there?"

Zin made a face. "I don't want me to be there." He kissed the tip of Alistair's nose. "Yes, please. I rather think I need someone to keep a level head."

"And you're trusting me to do it?" Alistair chuckled. "You'd be better off with Leliana trying to keep the peace, I think. But I guess since you've both had some time to sleep on it, you'll both be more even-tempered."

"You mean me, don't you," Zin muttered. "Wynne is always even-tempered."

They tracked Wynne down in one of the little side rooms next to the library, where she was looking over a large compendium of some kind and making little disapproving noises. She looked up when she heard the clang of Alistair's armor. "Did you want me for something?"

"Yes," Zin said. "I want to apologize for losing my temper at you yesterday. I shouldn't have snapped the way I did."

"It was a very upsetting day," Wynne said. "For all of us. I'm glad you came to talk to me. I don't think I quite understood you yesterday, and it's been preying on my mind. It seemed to me that you were saying that blood magic was a very small crime compared with the other things this man Caladrius had done, and I'm not at all sure I can agree with you there."

"That's not what I was saying. No." Zin took two steps in one direction and one step in another, and Alistair reached out and caught Zin's hand, squeezed it gently. Zin threw him a grateful look. "Listen. Wynne. When that disgusting man made his offer, you said that of course I had to say no, because it was blood magic, as if that was the only reason why I would say no. And that's why I got so angry, because that had nothing to do with it. If he'd offered to kill people because they were standing in front of a door I wanted to walk through, that would still have been wrong and I would still have said no. He was trying to bribe me with other people's lives."

"That's what blood magic is," Wynne said, her brows drawing down a little. "Using blood for power. Unscrupulous blood mages use the blood and lives of other people to make themselves more powerful. Surely you cannot mean that was unimportant to you."

"That's not what I was saying!" Zin tugged his hand out of Alistair's grip and flung both arms up.

"This is just getting us back to where we were yesterday," Alistair said.

Wynne turned to him. "Alistair, you have had templar training. You must know what a real threat blood magic is."

"Of course I do," Alistair said. "Look, I think the two of you are trying to talk about two different things as if they're the same thing, and it's not working very well. Maybe we should get Leliana in here."

"You seem to understand it," Zin said. "So tell us what we're saying."

Alistair looked at both of them. "I suppose it's better that you're angry with me than with each other," he said hesitantly. "Look, can we just have some tea and bread and cheese and sit down while we do this? I'll be in the middle."

Wynne raised an eyebrow. "Alistair, are you using this as an excuse to have more of that South Reach cheddar?"

"No!" he said earnestly. "No, I don't want you to think that! Really. That soft cheese from Gwaren would be fine, too."

"And do you have any preferences as to the tea?" Zin asked sweetly. "Really, babe." But he still went to the door and asked one of the ubiquitous maids to bring them what Alistair wanted.

Alistair, meanwhile, moved the furniture around a bit, so that when the maid brought a tray, she could set it down on a low table with three chairs arranged in a half-circle on one side of it, facing the fire. Even at this season, the rooms deepest in the estate were chilly, and fires helped to keep the damp away as well as bringing the air up to a comfortable temperature.

"Wynne, why don't you sit here," Alistair said, "and Zin here, and I'll sit here."

Wynne chuckled a little. "Surely you don't imagine that we'll suddenly leap at each other's throats if you're not there to keep us from it."

"No!" Alistair poured her some tea. "No, that's not what I was thinking at all." He poured for himself, too, and set the pot down because Zin would want to wait a little and eat some bread first. "You know I was trained as a templar. We were taught that blood magic was the root of all evil, that blood mages brought sin into the world. That everything starts with the wrongness of blood magic, it's at the beginning of all bad things."

"You speak as if that weren't true," Wynne said with a frown. "I've seen first-hand, in the tower, the terrible results that blood magic brings. You saw it, too." She leaned forward and looked past Alistair at Zin. "You saw it, too. Surely you aren't about to deny that blood magic nearly brought the tower to ruin."

"We both saw what happened in the tower," Alistair said, leaning forward too, so that he was still between the pair of them. The last thing he wanted was for Wynne and Zin to start yelling at each other. "The thing you have to understand, Zin, is that to Wynne, blood magic is where it all starts and that's always going to come first. That doesn't mean she doesn't think other things are wrong, it just means that if she starts talking about the wrong things a blood mage is doing, she's always going to start with the blood magic itself."

"I feel like I'm back in the chantry," Zin muttered, but at least he didn't start talking about everything he didn't like about the chantry.

"Wynne." Alistair turned back to her. "Zin wasn't raised like we were. He doesn't have that deep-down belief that blood magic is wrong just because it's blood magic." Alistair held up a hand when he could see Wynne draw breath to say something. "Wait, please?" She nodded reluctantly. "I'm not saying he thinks it's a good idea, either."

"Thank you," Zin said caustically. "I'm glad to know I don't give the impression that I think deals with demons are just fun and games."

"I'm just saying that he looks at things a different way. If someone's about to kill children, he starts with killing children is wrong, whether that person is a blood mage and doing it for blood magic reasons, or some other kind of broken in the head that's making them think it's a good idea. That means that the particular wrong things that a particular blood mage is doing at a particular time is always going to be what he objects to first, instead of starting with objecting to blood magic itself and then going into the specifics." Alistair rubbed his forehead. "Maker's breath, but that was a long sentence."

"Blood magic corrupts," Wynne said. "Once a mage has made a deal with a demon, that mage's soul will begin to tarnish from it. All the wrong things that the mage do come from that."

"No," Zin said. "I don't think that's true. The tarnishing thing. Do you remember Jowan?"

"That young blood mage who poisoned Arl Eamon." Wynne's mouth tightened. "I'm hardly about to forget a thing like that. And your decision to let him go was utterly irresponsible--"

"We found him again," Zin said. "You weren't with us then, it was when you and Leliana were staying in camp to brew poultices. He was escorting refugees north, defending them against Blighted beasts. Keeping people alive."

"I really wasn't sure it was a good idea to let him escape then, back in Redcliffe," Alistair said. "But when I saw him again... well, I realized he was serious about trying to make things right after he'd done so much wrong."

"If his soul is being corrupted and tarnished," Zin said, "then why would he work so hard at redemption? He's trying to be a good person. He's actually succeeding at doing good things. If I'd turned him over to the circle the way you said, well, those refugees would be dead, for one thing."

"You can't know that," Wynne said. "I'm relieved to hear that he's trying to do what's right, of course, but--"

"Not just trying," Zin said, "succeeding, like I said. Saving people's lives."

"Yes, I heard you," Wynne said, "but that doesn't change the fact that an uncontrolled blood mage is loose in the world, and you don't know what he's going to do next. What if he gives in to his demon?"

"What if I get my dagger out and start stabbing everyone?" Zin leaned forward and braced himself with an elbow in Alistair's chest, so Alistair couldn't move. "What if Alistair becomes a tyrant once he's king, and starts beheading people left and right? I'm not going to judge people because of what they could do, Wynne. It's hard enough just to look at the things they actually do. I set Jowan free, and maybe I wasn't thinking too clearly about it beyond knowing that he was locked up and he'd been tortured and he wanted to get out and make things right again. Maybe that was naive of me, just trusting that he meant it. But now I've seen him again and seen that he did mean it, that he's working hard at it. I think that means I made the right choice."

"Ow," Alistair said mildly and tried to get Zin to lean back again. "That's going to leave a bruise."

"Like you haven't had worse," Zin said with a faint smile.

Wynne looked troubled. "So if I understand you correctly," she said, "you're judging both Caladrius and Jowan on their actions and their stated intentions."

"Well, yes," Zin said. "What else would I judge them on? Or anyone?"

"But you can't judge everyone on a case by case basis." Wynne had picked her teacup up, but now she put it down again. "I know you want to. I know you would rather make decisions based on what you see and hear for yourself. But child, you can't meet everyone in Ferelden and judge them on their own merits. This is why we have laws. This is why the chantry has set down rules for how to deal with mages."

"I don't agree with those rules," Zin said plainly. "I think a lot of them are wrong."

"But the rules are there for everyone's safety," Wynne said. "We mages can be dangerous. Surely you haven't missed that."

"No, a lot of the time, I'm counting on it," Zin said. "I just... look, I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I couldn't help but hear when you told Alistair you have a child, and that child was taken away from you right after birth. That's wrong. Can you imagine the outcry if the chantry took every newborn away from tailors simply because they were tailors?"

"Tailors can't set a person on fire just by looking at them," Wynne said dryly.

"No," Alistair said slowly, "but anyone having their children taken away... that's just cruel. That should be stopped."

"Think about what you say, Alistair." Wynne put a hand on his arm. "I understand that you mean well, and I know you're a kind-hearted young man. You're also going to be king, and the decisions you make will affect the whole country. You must think things through very thoroughly."

Alistair shook his head, not because he was disagreeing with the idea of having to think things through, he was pretty clear on that, but... "I don't think I'm ever going to think it's all right to take people's children away like that."

"But all mage children are taken from their parents as well," Wynne said, "for their own protection, as soon as their magic is discovered."

"But you can't think that's a good idea!" Zin sounded genuinely upset. "Wynne, you're starting to worry me. I'm sitting here saying that mages are treated a bit too harshly, and you're the one saying that all these restrictions make sense. Shouldn't it be the other way around?"

"Actually," Alistair said, "this is why I'd really like to have you as an advisor, Wynne. Because I do want to change some things about how mages are treated, and I think if you and Zin manage to actually agree on something, it's probably going to be a good place to start."

"I'm not saying that I was happy to have my son taken from my arms," Wynne said. That was sorrow in her voice, sorrow in her eyes, Alistair was pretty sure. "It was the most terrible moment of my life. But it's not enough to say that something is wrong and must be stopped. Not about this. The rules about mages and mage children and children of mages do exist for a reason, and they cannot just be removed without anything taking their place." She smiled at them both, and it was not a happy smile. "You're both young, and you want change to be quick and radical. But changing the way people feel is a slow process, much slower than that of changing the laws."

"You'd make a good advisor," Zin said. "I'd argue with you all the time." He grinned. "That would be good. Well, maybe not for Alistair, if he had to listen to it."

"I don't have to listen all the time, do I?" Alistair said plaintively. "I'm sure there's a lot of other important king business I have to deal with, like making sure I've got the right boot on the right foot, that sort of thing."

9.1.0.2

"Do you think Valendrian will have news already?" Alistair said, leaning over the stone railing of the bridge to the alienage and looking down at the river. It was a nice day, clear and bright, and even here in the middle of the city, the water didn't look as muddy as Alistair had thought it might.

"The only way to find out is to ask," Zin said flippantly. He jumped up on the railing and walked along it, perfectly comfortable keeping his balance on the worn stones. "Don't underestimate his resources. There are elves working in all kinds of places all over Denerim."

"And I suppose," Alistair said slowly, "people talk in front of them." He remembered Redcliffe Castle from his childhood, and the way the guards in the main hall and the servants on the upper floors always had the best gossip, because they were just there all the time and Isolde, at least, treated them like furniture. No wonder Leliana had said that blending in as a servant had been such a useful skill for a bard to have. It must be like becoming invisible.

"All the time." Zin did a handstand, and Alistair looked more closely at him, because all this nervous energy, this restlessness, had to mean something. "Maker knows we did."

That flipped the conversation around for Alistair, just as Zin had flipped himself around. He tried to imagine Zin being like Isolde, tried to imagine Zin and his noble family at the heart of a castle with nameless servants bustling around them, unnoticed, ignored.

Pushing away from the railing, Alistair resumed walking. "Come down from there," he suggested, and a moment later, Zin was walking next to him, upright and alert. "Maybe we should have asked some of the others to come along."

Serpent huffed and pushed against Alistair's leg, hard enough to make him stagger. "We do have someone along," Zin said. "Come on."

The alienage looked a little less grim today, or maybe Alistair was just getting used to it. Some of the voices he heard talking in the background were very nearly cheerful. They knocked on Valendrian's door, and he opened it with a smile and ushered them in.

Alistair got the mismatched cup and saucer this time, and he sat quietly drinking his tea and sneaking the dry biscuit to Serpent piece by piece while Zin and Valendrian went over a surprising amount of information, discussing this family's absence and that family's presence and whether Bann This was really still looking to Bann That for political guidance after allying in another matter with Bann The Other.

It was worse than the conversation with Alfstanna, and Alistair realized that if he became king, he'd have to learn all this stuff, too. Zin had grown up with it. Valendrian had learned about it to try to keep his people out of trouble, as much as he could.

And that was what Alistair would have to do, he knew that. Learning proper table manners had been a small matter by comparison. If he was serious about this, if he really meant it, if he was going to let himself be pushed all the way to the throne--

It was Serpent's unhappy whine at not getting any more biscuit that woke Alistair from his sudden stillness. Zin and Valendrian were looking at him, too, Zin with a cocked eyebrow and Valendrian in polite concern.

No, Alistair thought, he couldn't let himself be pushed. That was what Arl Eamon wanted, someone who could be pushed and prodded and guided and directed. Alistair was going to walk on his own two feet. To keep his people out of trouble.

He smiled at Valendrian. "Maybe later," he said, "when we have more time, you can teach me more about the politics of Denerim and Ferelden."

Valendrian blinked. "Of course I'd be happy to," he said, "but you have at least one much more qualified teacher right here." He looked sideways at Zin.

"I think I need to learn from everyone," Alistair said. That was becoming more and more clear to him. "And I'd appreciate your perspective."

Valendrian looked surprised, but something in his eyes glowed. And when Alistair glanced at Zin, Zin smiled so sweetly at him that it was all Alistair could do not to grab him and kiss him. Instead he finished his biscuit himself, much to Serpent's displeasure, and they left with repeated assurances of mutual goodwill.

Wandering slowly towards the gates of the alienage, they stopped for a while to watch a young girl play in the dirt, pretending that a doll was her mother coming home after a long time away. While they stood there, all the sweetness and life drained out of Zin's face, and something hard and tight and unhappy replaced it.

When they moved on, Alistair looked at Zin. "Why did you give her money?" he asked. Zin stared stonily at him. "Yes, yes, big clumsy warrior here. I've spent some time around you, you know. I could see you doing something, and you don't steal out of children's pockets, so you were putting something in. So I hope it was money and not, I don't know, a poison grenade or something." Then he could have hit himself, because it was a bad joke and Zin did not harm children, but those particular words drew no reaction.

"Her mom's not coming home," Zin said instead, sitting down on the rickety wooden steps to a rickety wooden platform and staring fixedly at the branches of the vhenadahl waving high overhead. "It's not, I can't tell her that. She looks like her." He rubbed a hand over his face. "One of Howe's men shot an arrow through her chest right in front of me."

Alistair didn't know what to say to that, even after he'd sorted out the pronouns in his head. "At Highever?" he asked carefully.

Zin nodded. "They must have been under orders to kill everyone in the castle. Open door, see naked woman, fire an arrow. I was just lucky to get hold of my daggers so I could stab them before they stabbed me. But I wasn't fast enough to save Iona."

Alistair stared down at his toes. A rat ran across the muddy grass right in front of them. It was as big as a mabari puppy. Disgusting. So Zin's last night at home had been spent with a woman. Naked. "Did you... like her?"

Zin shrugged. "I didn't even know her. She was pretty, she was willing, she was tight, she smelled like blueberries and cream. I only met her that afternoon and some time after midnight, she was dead. Her blood was on my skin for days. I'm not telling her daughter any of that."

"No," Alistair said, trying so hard to keep his voice even that it came out flat, "no, I don't think you'd better."

"You think I'm being too crude again? About a dead woman, even?" Zin's voice would be mocking if it weren't so ragged. "That's what I remember about her. Sorry. If I could have killed Howe a hundred times, one of those times would have been for Iona and her daughter." He scrubbed a hand over his face. "And one would have been for Nan, one for Saharel and Tinniz who worked in the kitchen, one for Edric and Willem and every man and woman I'd known since I was born. But I didn't have a hundred times, and when I killed him it was for my parents." He shook his head sharply. "If I cry any more, I'll turn into you."

"And that would be bad," Alistair agreed. He wished he could take Zin in his arms, but given that he was in full armor, that probably wouldn't be all that comforting. "Do you have anything to blow your nose on?"

The question made Zin laugh, just a little, and that balanced him enough that they could stand up and move on. There was a shop hidden in the darkest corner of the alienage's central square, and Alistair had a feeling they might not have found it before, but now the door was open and the shopkeeper happy to chat with Zin about various herbs and substances that he didn't have, of course, and had no idea what they might be used for, but possibly there could be special arrangements made for the people who had driven out the Tevinter slavers.

Alistair stood in the doorway and tried to see where Serpent had disappeared to, listening with half an ear. He was just starting to feel faintly worried -- for the city of Denerim, not for Serpent -- when he heard joyful barking and saw some very familiar figures coming around the vhenadahl. Alistair went out to meet Sten, Morrigan and Serpent, and Zin followed after him, discreetly tucking away a small parcel of something-or-other.

"Your fool dog," Morrigan said, "would not take no for an answer. He insisted that we both come here."

"What do you need us to do?" Sten asked simply.

"Nothing, really." Zin sounded calm now, but the lines of tension were still there around his mouth. "Serpent is just overprotective."

Serpent snorted, and Alistair patted his head, looking around. A glimpse of very familiar silver and purple caught his eye. "Huh, there's a templar," he said unthinkingly. "What's he doing here? I thought Soris said there weren't any templars in the alienage."

"Clearly he was wrong," Sten said. Morrigan just made a low sound that expressed her opinion of templars; Alistair had plenty of practise in interpreting those.

"Yeah. Um." He looked at the templar, then at Zin, then at the templar again. "Maybe we should ask him what he's up to."

9.1.0.3

That was not, he thought afterwards, the best idea he'd ever had. But it seemed harmless at the time. They went over and talked to the templar, one Ser Otto, a mild-mannered fellow who seemed friendly enough and apparently had managed, with his nearly-blind eyes, to miss the whole slavery racket going on practically under his nose, but claimed there was some other unspecified evil badness here, not too far away, no, he had no idea where. Or what.

Alistair wanted to say that Ser Otto must have sensed the badness of the Tevinter slavers, and could they go home now, except that he didn't think Zin was really ready for that. He still looked a little brittle. And Ser Otto wasn't talking about mundane evil. What he said might sound nonsensical and unhelpful, but Alistair remembered that tone of voice from his training, remembered it coming from templars who'd known very well what they were talking about.

So it wasn't really a surprise to him when it turned out that Ser Otto was right. Based on some extremely flimsy evidence, the templar broke into the abandoned orphanage, and the rest of them followed, because you couldn't just leave a man like that to his own devices, after all. And the orphanage was--

It was--

Alistair made it as far as the room with all the little bodies on pallets on the floor before he was sick in a corner. The blood mage slaver had been bad, but this was worse. Evil badness, oh yes. The veil was thin here in the alienage, worn through by violence and despair, and terrible things had happened in the orphanage during the riots, and then a demon had come through into a place full of small, helpless containers of life and blood, ready for it to use. A pack of feral dogs had gone into the building, probably to feed off the dried blood and the scraps, only to end up trapped when doors closed and locks jammed -- Alistair suspected the ghosts had something to do with that. Now the dogs were half-starved and wholly desperate, and Ser Otto would never have made it past them if he'd been alone.

Because everything left inside the orphanage had been gnawed down to the, Alistair's stomach turned over again, the bone.

"I do not understand this," Sten muttered, pausing in a hallway to wipe dog blood and spirit traces off his sword.

And that summed it up, really, Alistair thought. It was all too much, the blood, the ghosts, the air of death and wrongness. He'd have been more relieved in a way if Zin had been sick, too, but instead Zin burned with a hard white fury, all of his considerable will and determination narrowing down to a sharp point; he was like one of his own blades, sleek and deadly and unstoppable. He charged ahead, all stealth forgotten, and cut down shades and demons as if every blow was as necessary to him as the next breath he drew.

Alistair had no idea how long they were in there. It felt like days and like no time at all until they found the true center of this nest of evil and Ser Otto found his death. Everything was fire and pain, until Zin stabbed the demon one last time with all the passionate rage that was in him, and all the fire in the air went out like a smothered candle.

They staggered out of the orphanage into the same pale afternoon sunlight that had seen them go in. Zin sat down as if his legs weren't working any more, right on the muddy ground, staring at nothing. Alistair looked at him for a moment, and then he squared his shoulders and turned to Morrigan and Sten. "Can you go with him back to the estate?" he said. "I'll tell Valendrian about the orphanage," though he'd rather have had his toenails pulled out with red-hot pincers, "and report the death of Ser Otto to the chantry."

"I don't want to go to the estate," Zin said. "I want a drink." He accepted the hand that Sten reached down, let himself be pulled to his feet. "Several drinks."

"We will be at the Gnawed Noble," Morrigan said to Alistair, "towards the back. 'Tis more quiet there." She glanced at Zin. "Usually."

Chapter twenty

9.0.1

In the doorway of the Gnawed Noble, Alistair met Morrigan and one of Arl Eamon's guardsmen, propping up Sten between them, with some difficulty. "There you are," she snapped. "I was beginning to think you lost. The chantry is such a terribly long way from here, after all."

Alistair glared back, because he was perfectly capable of walking across the market square by himself, thank you very much. Before he could say so, Sten bellowed, "This is dishonorable treatment for a warrior!" and tried to break free of Morrigan's grip.

She did not try to hold him. Instead she tripped him and watched with some satisfaction as he crashed to the ground. "Let us try it again," she said to the guardsman, who looked terrified. Then she turned to Alistair. "There is something of yours in the booth at the back. You need not worry overmuch; Serpent is with him." Morrigan dismissed Alistair from her attention and turned back to the guard. "Well? Get him upright again, fool. We can hardly carry him between us."

"Good luck," Alistair muttered into the guard's ear, and walked into the tavern.

The tavern was more crowded now that evening was coming on than it had been during Alistair's previous daytime visits. He made his way through, stepping aside politely for waitresses who carried trays of foaming tankards and full glasses.

When he came to the back booth, he heard a familiar snuffle, and Serpent came out to butt his nose against Alistair's hip. He scratched at the dog's head and looked past him to see Zin, not passed out, as Alistair had feared, but sitting back against the wall with his legs slung up sideways on the bench, his heels leaving traces of alienage mud on the red cloth. On the table in front of Zin was an alarming number of empty tankards and glasses.

"Hey, babe," Zin said. "There you are. I was lonely for you." He swung his legs down and patted the muddy bench. "Come sit with me."

Alistair sat, because a little mud was hardly going to hurt his armor. "There's a lot of people in here now," he said. "I thought this place was all nobles and fine manners, but now I'm not so sure."

That made Zin laugh. "Don't you remember the mercenaries we rousted out of here once? And it's not as if all nobles have fine manners."

"No, that's true," Alistair said and poked Zin in the side. "Are all these glasses yours?"

"No. I mean, yes. The tankards are Sten's, though." Zin looked around. "Hey, where's Sten?"

"He left. I met him and Morrigan just outside. They went back to Arl Eamon's."

Zin made a face. "I hate that place." He tried to snuggle up to Alistair's side, and his mail scraped against Alistair's plate. "This isn't very comfortable, babe."

"No," Alistair agreed. "If we go back to the estate, we can get out of this stuff. And the bed in your room is a lot softer than this bench."

"But I hate that place," Zin said again. "It's full of people. And Eamon's there. And Anora."

"In your bed?" Alistair mocked up an expression of exaggerated outrage. "Is there something you haven't been telling me?"

Zin socked his shoulder, then shook his hand as the plate clanged. "Ow. That's not funny. Ow." He slumped against Alistair, which produced the same grating, scraping sound as the attempt at snuggling had. "I just don't want to see them. Not now. Eamon's probably got some fancy dinner planned."

"In that case, I hope he remembers to move Oghren out of the dining room in good time," Alistair said. Moving the dwarf when he was drunk was a bit of a project. Zin was a kitten in comparison. Blight, even Sten had been easy to handle when you looked at it like that. Maybe he'd point that out to Morrigan next time he saw her.

...or maybe not.

"Maybe he'll just use another room till we're gone," Zin said. "Anyway, we can get food here. It's not bad. And not all fancy. And there's no sodding Eamon."

Alistair had to admit that was an advantage. He cleared space on the table for his elbows so he could lean forward a bit; his back wasn't happy about one of the twistier maneuvers he'd tried inside the orphanage. Glancing sideways, he tried to understand how this easy-going drunk Zin had replaced the hard, empty-eyed Zin he'd last seen at the alienage. "Are you... all right?" he asked hesitantly.

"Oh, fine," Zin said. "Fantastic." Something flashed in his eyes, there and gone again. "There's nothing wrong with me."

Generally speaking, Alistair agreed with that statement, but he had a feeling it wasn't really true as an answer to the question he'd asked. And he couldn't grab Zin and hug the truth out of him, not with all the metal they were both wearing.

"I told Valendrian," he said. "About the orphanage." Alistair looked down at his hands, knowing his knuckles were white under the hinges of mail. That hadn't been a particularly pleasant conversation. "He said the elves would... clean it up. And bury the, um."

"Remains," Zin said. His voice caught on itself and fractured into something that was all jagged edges. "Children, babe. Children." He stared at the far wall. "Iona's daughter should've been there, too. Since both her parents are dead and all. But I guess no one knows about her mother yet, Howe didn't exactly publish casualty lists after he was done with Highever."

"It's been so long," Alistair said. "They, um, they guessed. I asked Valendrian. She lives with a family in the alley behind his house. They kept her even when her mother stopped sending money."

"On account of being dead." Zin began to place all the wine glasses in a neat row. "I'll send them money." Two of the glasses chimed against each other. "Actually, you remember the money Vaughan nearly got us killed over? We should get that to Valendrian. I'm sure Vaughan would've liked to contribute to rebuilding the alienage after the riots."

"Oh, yes, he would've loved that idea," Alistair agreed. He reached out and tried to save a glass that was about to tumble over the edge of the table, but Zin caught it before he did. Alistair's stomach rumbled. "Did you say something about food before?"

"Yes." Zin balanced two wine glasses on top of three other wine glasses. "We could get food here."

Zin could probably do with some food to soak up all the drink, Alistair reflected. And he wasn't really looking forward to maneuvering Zin through the halls at Arl Eamon's estate, so if he could put it off for a bit, and get Zin to be a bit more sober and cooperative, and... maybe not cheerful, but at least less gloomy, that would be all to the good.

"We'll do that, then," Alistair said. He looked out over the room and caught the eye of one of the waitresses, and she nodded that she'd be with him in a moment. "Do you think they have any good cheese here?"

Zin looked sideways at him. Then he looked up at the waitress, who had just arrived. "My friend here wants the cheese pie for dinner," he said. "And I'd like some of the cold roast, with... do you have any fresh bread?"

"Baked this morning," the waitress said promptly, and started to gather up the empty tankards.

"And wine," Zin added. "Lots of wine."

"Ale for me," Alistair sad firmly. "And you should probably have water."

The waitress swept away with the tankards. Moments later she was back with a tray. She set down a tankard of ale before Alistair, and a glass of wine and a glass of water before Zin, collected all the empty wine glasses on the tray, and left.

"That woman is scary," Zin said, sipping at his water, but he did brighten up a little when he got thick slices of cold roast, served with bread and butter.

As for Alistair, he took one mouthful of the cheese pie and decided he had found the perfect food. Maybe he could live here at the Gnawed Noble from now on, and have cheese pie three times a day. They ate slowly, in companionable silence. Zin sat up straight now, but his knee pressed against Alistair's under the table.

Alistair finished every last crumb of pie on his plate, then sat staring sadly at the well-cleaned tin surface until it was whisked away under his nose and a second plate, with a second generous helping of pie, set in its place. He looked up to find the waitress smiling down at him. "You looked like you could use that," she said.

He prodded Zin as the waitress left. "You're wrong. That woman is wonderful," he said with great conviction.

They got more bread, too, and another slice of the roast for Zin, and more water; Alistair discovered he and Zin had been drinking out of the same water goblet, and his ale had stayed untouched. It didn't go with the cheese, he thought, but he drank it after he had finished his food.

"I feel better now," Zin said. He sounded a little surprised, but also more sober.

"Good." Alistair leaned back, although the stiffly upright back of the bench wasn't very welcoming. "Maybe we should think about--"

"There you are, my wardens," Zevran said cheerfully. "Morrigan said I would find you here, and how right she was." He slid onto the bench across from them and shamelessly stole Zin's wine glass. "I have come to tell you that it took five guards and two sleep spells, but Sten is now safely put to bed, so you can return to the estate without having to listen to any Qunari drinking songs."

Alistair frowned. "The Qunari have drinking songs?"

"Ah, not precisely, no." Zevran sipped at the wine. "But our inebriated friend was certainly reciting something very rhythmically, and it could be heard through several walls. Even Oghren was impressed." He flicked a glance at Zin. "You do know that Qunari do not normally partake of alcoholic substances."

"He said he didn't drink wine," Zin said. "That's why I got him the ale."

"I rather think you can get drunk on ale." Zevran grinned. "Or so the rumor has it."

Zevran half-turned on his bench and aimed a smile at the waitress, who came bearing down on them with a tray and a great deal of determination. Alistair nudged Zin. "You have money, right? Tell me you have money."

9.0.2

Outside, the sun had set and the streets were hazed in dark blue. Alistair turned automatically towards the marketplace, ready to go back, but Zin gripped his arm and tugged him in another direction. "What?" Alistair stumbled a bit.

"I feel I should point out, my warden," Zevran said from behind them, "that this is not the way back to the estate."

"I don't want to go back," Zin said reasonably. "I don't want to talk to Eamon." There was a short pause, and then, "You drank my wine. I want another glass."

"You sound sober," Alistair said doubtfully.

"The tone of voice is sober," Zevran said. "The actual words--"

"Hey!" Alistair stumbled a bit again when Zin stopped tugging at him and let go, which seemed grossly unfair since he was the sober one; Zin set off down a particularly dark side street, and Alistair sighed and went after him. Zevran followed them both, muttering something under his breath that Alistair thought he was better off not hearing.

After a while, Zin fell back to Alistair's side while Zevran overtook them both. "I just don't want to go back," Zin said, sounding just as reasonable as before. Alistair was coming to doubt that tone of voice. At the same time, he had to admit that Zin seemed very upright and alert. "It's nice to just be on an evening stroll. isn't it?"

"Yes," Alistair said, "what could possibly go wrong."

"I don't know what you mean," Zin said with a grin and took his hand, a gesture that would have been nicer if there'd been skin against skin rather than metal against metal. Also possibly more romantic if they'd been anywhere but a Denerim back alley that smelled like the rats had spat it back out.

Then again, Alistair reflected, he'd been down in the Deep Roads, doing... things. Compared to that, this was a rose bower.

Suddenly Zevran flung out a hand. "Wait," he said. "Don't move."

"I see them," Zin replied in an undervoice, and Alistair blinked, because he saw nothing at all.

Then he did see something, shadows moving against shadows. A little bit more subtle than the usual street gangs, he thought.

"Well, well," a smug voice said. "Found you at last, Zevran. Are you ready to come back with me now?"

9.0.2.1

That really wasn't what Alistair had been expecting at all. His money had been on kill the Warden, with a side bet on kill that fellow who thinks he's a prince. Or it would have been, anyway, if he'd had any money. Zin had been a prime target for random and not-so-random attackers since, well, since Lothering, but Alistair had to admit that in proclaiming him heir to the throne, Arl Eamon had also painted a target on him for all to see.

Someone turning up out of Zevran's past was a bit of a surprise, and considering that Zevran's past seemed to consist of being really annoying, and oh yes, being an assassin, this probably wasn't good news, either.

"I'm not going anywhere with you, Taliesin," Zevran said.

"Certainly not while I'm still alive," Zin said in a voice so sweet and cold it made the hairs stand up on the back of Alistair's neck.

"We can make up some kind of story," the man said, "explain why you were gone so long. You belong with the Crows. Not here."

Crows. Alistair sighed to himself. Oh, fantastic.

"Did you... miss me?" Zevran said, the disbelief plain in his voice.

"You should know the Crows would miss one of their best men."

"Lucky for us they sent Zev, then," Alistair said. Then he worried that he'd said the wrong thing, but Zevran chuckled. The assassin really hadn't been all that back when he joined them; he was a different man now, sharper and softer at the same time, and a great deal more skilled. Alistair had seen Zevran and Zin train together, and there was no doubt that both of them had improved a great deal, doing it.

"Lucky for me, I rather think," Zevran said. He shook his head at the man in the shadows. "You don't want to do this, Taliesin. Call it off. Go back to Antiva. Make up some kind of story, as you said."

The man Taliesin chuckled, too, but it was a harsh sound with no humor in it. "I don't think so. I can bring you back, or I can bring back proof that you're dead. It's your choice."

"There is no choice," Zevran said, sounding rather sad.

9.0.2.2

No, there was no doubt they had both improved. A lot. Alistair kind of had his hands full with the local talent that tried to rush them from the back, but he could see enough to make out that Taliesin was fighting someone who didn't exist any more, the Zevran of a year back, the Zevran who'd come to kill them in an ambush as poorly planned as this one. But his actual opponent was the Zevran of today, their Zevran.

And did Taliesin really believe that the other Crows with him would get past Zin to distract Zevran?

"Not a chance," Alistair muttered. Zin was beautiful to watch in motion, but he couldn't let himself get distracted, either. He'd learned a thing or two from sparring with Zin and Zevran, too, and while it might not be enough to take them down, it was certainly enough to let him handle these Denerim wannabes.

Especially with Serpent at his side. Well, Serpent was at Zin's back, strictly speaking, but it came to the same thing. When Alistair had cut down the last of the thugs masquerading as assassins, he turned to help Zin with the actual Crows. Fighting side by side with Zin was a feeling like nothing else, and he very nearly smiled.

Then Zevran cut down Taliesin and made a pained sound, as though he'd taken the blow in his own flesh.

9.0.2.3

Moments later, Alistair and Zin finished off the last of the real Crow assassins, and stood panting, looking at each other. Alistair didn't know if it was wrong or right, but nothing made him want Zin as much as a fight, that moment right after, when they were bruised but alive. He wanted to strip that blighted mail off, enchanted or not, and lick Zin all over. And quite a lot of the time, Zin was completely on board with that idea.

This time, though, Zin turned to Zevran and put a hand on his shoulder. "Zev?"

Zevran's sudden, bright smile was so false that Alistair winced. "Well now. I suppose when Taliesin doesn't come back, the Crows will think we both died. Or he killed me and ran away. Or I talked him into leaving them. At any rate, I think... this was their vengeance, and I have survived it. I'm free of them."

"I'm happy for you," Zin said, and Alistair shook his head, because whatever was in Zin's voice, it wasn't anything as uncomplicated as joy. Though he tried. "So does that mean you're leaving us? I mean, of course you can leave us if you want. But I'd miss my friend." He tried to smile, too, and made a worse job of it than Zevran.

"It would be sad if I couldn't see this through, don't you think? You're going to end the Blight," Zevran said, with complete confidence, "and I'd be honored to be there when it happens."

"If you say so," Zin said, "obviously it has to be true."

"That's settled, then." Taking a step back, Zevran looked down at the corpse of Taliesin at his feet. "Maker. I killed him. He's... really, truly, actually dead."

"Yes," Zin said, not looking at Taliesin at all.

Serpent made an uncertain, huffing sound. "You and me both," Alistair said to him. "I'm glad I have you with me here. You'll help me get those two home, won't you, boy?" Serpent barked once, sharply and decisively. "Oh, good."

9.0.2.4

Between them, Serpent and Alistair managed to get both Zin and Zevran back to Arl Eamon's estate in one piece. Well, one piece each. It was a good thing, though, that no one else decided to ambush, assault, or in any way address them, since both Zin and Zevran seemed to be moving in a dream, thoughts very far away.

Alistair would normally not have trusted his own observation skills above either of theirs, but he figured he could at least rely on Serpent's nose. He was relieved when they came into the estate and Zin seemed to shake off whatever it was that clung around him, since Arl Eamon was waiting for them. "I had hoped you would be back for dinner," he said. "We must discuss our Landsmeet strategy."

"Yes, of course," Zin said at once, "but not right now, I think. You heard there was more trouble in the alienage? I think both Alistair and I need to get some rest."

"Yes, we do," Alistair agreed, before Zin could pinch him this time. "That demon at the end really took it out of me."

Arl Eamon's eyes went wide. "D-demon?"

"There was some unexpected trouble," Zin said.

"Yes, but a demon -- Maker's breath, I never dreamed that the elves would call up demons! We must tell the templars immediately that--"

"That's not what happened," Alistair said, frantically trying to get his foot back out of his mouth.

"There was already a templar presence in the alienage," Zin said firmly. "And the demon is dead now."

"Good. Good." Arl Eamon looked more agitated than Alistair had ever seen him before. Of course, the man had been unconscious for the havoc a demon had wrought on his village, had very nearly wrought on his family. He'd been unable to protect anyone then, but he'd certainly seen the results, had probably been told repeatedly and at length what might have happened if Zin hadn't done everything he could to solve Redcliffe's problems.

Maybe that was also why he nodded acceptance despite his agitation when Zin said, "It's been taken care of, so there's nothing for you to be concerned about. And now, if you'll excuse us..."

9.0.2.5

When they went into Zin's room, hoping for some peace and privacy, well, at least Alistair was hoping for that, what they found was Serpent sitting on the good couch by the fire again, a spot he'd apparently really taken to, with Zevran on one side this time, one glove on and one off, hair hanging over his face. It was an oddly sweet sight, which made Alistair feel a little more reconciled to the privacy they were obviously not going to get.

Instead, Zin went over and sat down on the other side of Serpent, putting his arm around the dog and clasping Zevran's shoulder. Alistair sighed. "I don't suppose anyone's going to help me out of my armor."

9.0.2.6

"I worked with Taliesin as my partner, you understand," Zevran said, apparently to Serpent. "Back in Antiva."

Serpent whuffled. "I remember," Zin said. "You told me... before. He seemed very, I don't know, certain of you."

"He did, didn't he," Zevran said with a bit of sharpness in his voice.

"Not you," Alistair said. He managed to fit himself onto the leftover space on the couch the best he could, then reached over Zin and Serpent to grab Zevran's shoulder next to Zin's hand and squeeze. "It wasn't you he was certain of, it was that other Zevran he knew back in Antiva, way before. Being with us... you've changed."

"Yes," Zevran said, staring into the fire, "I suppose I have." His shoulder was tense under Alistair's hand. "I never thought... I wanted to be free of the Crows, yes, but I did not imagine it would feel like this."

"Like having a hole where the wish used to be," Zin said.

Alistair considered this. "But that makes sense," he said, cautious but determined.

"It does?" To have Zevran be the one to question the words was much easier than having it be Zin. "You must explain this to me, my friend."

"You said it yourself, you've changed," Alistair said, speaking to Zevran, but knowing that he was saying the words very close to Zin's ear. "I know you've wanted this for a long time, but you're not the same person now as you were when you first wanted it, so you feel something different now than you thought you would."

"I did not expect such wisdom from you," Zevran said, but his voice was warmer now. Serpent squirmed around, and Alistair let his grip on Zevran's shoulder slip free, so that his hand rested on Serpent's back instead. "It seems you have unexpected depths."

"I think I'm getting better at telling when you're making fun of me," Alistair said. Serpent whuffled something that sounded like a laugh and then stuck his nose in Zevran's ear, and things got a bit undignified at that end of the couch for a while.

When Zevran managed to sit up straight again, he looked thoughtful, and he looked at Zin. "Your wish was quite different from mine, I believe, my warden." Alistair sighed. It had been too much to hope for that Zevran wouldn't pick up on the subtext. "This man Howe, the one with all the unsavory habits, he is the one who killed your parents, yes?"

Zin grew tense under Alistair's arm. "How did you know that?"

"He said that he did." Zevran pulled his legs up on the couch and rested his chin on his knees, and Alistair had a moment of faint and completely irrelevant envy, because he'd never be able to do a thing like that while wearing his armor. "I was there, after all. He said several unpleasant things that sounded like lies, but that... that was the truth, was it not."

"Yes." Zin leaned back against Alistair a little, but didn't precisely relax. "He ordered the deaths of everyone who was there that night. Everyone died. Everyone."

"Not you," Alistair said. "You lived, and you've avenged them."

"But they're still dead," Zin said.

"Well. Yes." Alistair pressed a little closer to Zin. "I'm sorry, love."

"I never imagined that I would be the one to kill Taliesin," Zevran said idly, not looking at them, "even though there were moments when we worked together that we did not see perfectly eye to eye." He shrugged. "Or so I tell myself now, when it is eye to hindsight."

Alistair shook his head. "I'm sorry, Zev." He stretched out his arm and managed to reach Zevran's shoulder again, patting it in an awkward fashion. "Glad you're out of the Crows, now. Seems like it's all kill first and ask questions later, when it's not kill first and maybe get paid later."

"I must confess," Zevran said, managing something like his usual light tone, "I prefer to kill first rather than be killed myself. As I have said before, I like living."

"I haven't tried being dead," Alistair said, "but living is probably more interesting."

9.0.2.7

"It's time for you to leave now," Zin said.

Alistair felt Zevran's shoulder tighten under his grip. "He means the room, Zev. You have a bedroom of your own, I'm pretty sure."

"I do," Zevran said, relaxing again, "but it is sadly empty. I thought perhaps the pair of you had decided that your sex life was lacking the kind of spice that--"

"Please shut up," Alistair said, feeling his ears heat.

Zin laughed, and it was good to hear that laugh, clear and open. "No, Zev. There's no lack of anything, and you're going to your own bed."

"Alone?" Zevran managed to sound noble and suffering, which was kind of impressive, Alistair thought, not that he believed in it.

"That's up to you, isn't it?" Zin said cheerfully. "Maybe Wynne will finally be ready to succumb to your charms."

Zevran shook his head. "Alas, I am coming to think that my pursuit of the redoubtable Wynne is in vain. I shall have to turn my attention elsewhere."

"Not to us," Alistair said at once. "I mean, good luck with that, of course."

9.0.2.8

"We should have sex now," Zin said. "Lots of sex."

"At least you asked Zev to leave before you started in with the demands," Alistair said.

Zin snorted. "Oh, as if you mind. Babe, it's not a big secret that you'd like me to tie you to the bed and suck your cock for hours."

"Er," Alistair said, feeling his ears burn again. "When you say it's not a secret, I hope you don't mean that Oghren and Sten are going to discuss it over breakfast one of these days. Because I could really live without that."

Zin wound himself around Alistair and bit his neck gently. "You know," he said, "you didn't tell me off for being vulgar this time." He kissed Alistair's reddened ear.

Chapter twenty-one

9.1.0

The next day, nobody needed to be rescued from anything, nobody came with any urgent messages about anything, and Arl Eamon went on a series of long visits to old friends, saying it would be better if he talked to them first, and introduced Alistair in person later.

Alistair completely agreed, particularly as he had something else on his mind that he'd rather not be introduced to old friends while thinking about.

9.1.1

"I... didn't know you liked women. Too." There had to be a better way of starting this conversation, but Alistair couldn't think of it.

Zin quirked an eyebrow at him. "There's really been no reason to talk about it, I suppose. Yes, Alistair, I like women, too. I've had sex with women. But these days I seem to like you."

"I know that," Alistair said hastily. "I mean, I'm not trying to say that I doubt that. I mean..."

Zin came over and stepped in close, propping his chin on Alistair's shoulder. "Then what are you trying to say?" he asked. "Does it bother you?"

"No, no, that's not it." Alistair wondered if there was a conversational equivalent of a running start, something that would actually let him say what he was trying to work up to saying. "I'm trying to... look, could you close your eyes for this? I can't say it when you're looking at me. Or maybe I should close my eyes."

"I'm not looking at you," Zin murmured, rubbing his face against Alistair's neck. The stubble rasped a bit.

"If you..." No, that sentence was going nowhere good. Alistair tried to find something to stare at that didn't seem to stare back and mock him. Even the wall wasn't very supportive. "Do you want to be inside me," he finally blurted out, "the way I'm always inside you?"

"I think you should learn to say fuck," Zin said. "It would make these conversations so much easier." He kissed the hollow of Alistair's throat. "You could just say, hey Zin, I always fuck you, do you secretly want to fuck me?"

"No, I couldn't," Alistair said, with some conviction. "And that's not what, I didn't -- I didn't mean you were hiding something from me. I just, we've never talked about this, and."

Zin leaned back and looked Alistair in the face, because Zin didn't need to stare at walls when he talked about things like these. "I like fucking as well as being fucked," he said. "And you've probably noticed I really like getting fucked. Some people don't. Mostly I like you, so whatever you want us to do together, we'll do."

"I don't know what I want," Alistair said. "I've never tried, um. That. Which you already know, since you're the only person I've ever had sex with, so I think you would probably have noticed if we. Um. If that happened."

"Do you want it to?" Zin cocked his head. "Because right now, babe, you look completely terrified."

Alistair firmed his jaw. "I want you to be happy," he said.

"Mm, of course. And it would make me so happy to do something you're scared of and maybe wouldn't like at all. I really enjoy acting like that towards the person I love more than anything else in the world."

Alistair took a step backwards and sat down on the back of the couch. "Oh," he said weakly. "You know, I've heard you say things like that before, and it's not that I don't want to believe you, I know you care, I do, it's just that sometimes it feels like waking up to name-day gifts on the wrong day and waiting for everyone to find out they made a mistake and take them back." He looked up at Zin.

Zin went over and checked that the door was locked. Then he came back across the room, rounded the couch and sat down on it. "Alistair. Come here."

"Oh, that doesn't sound good." Alistair rose and walked around the edge of the couch, because he had a feeling grown men didn't just swing their legs over the back and slide down. Well, and he also had a feeling that the couch might overturn if he did; it looked sturdy enough at first glance, but there were traces of Orlesian spindliness about the legs. There was probably a name for that. People who made furniture probably had a lot of different words for the way they made things look and work, just like he knew the name of every piece of his armor and every part of his sword, and--

Zin put a hand on his leg. "I don't know where you just went in your head, but I'd like you back here."

"I was just thinking about the names of things," Alistair said. He bit his lip. "I don't think you've called me by my name when it's just you and me since the first time we kissed."

"Oh." Zin moved closer. "Sorry, I just thought it might sound more serious. I take it back. Listen. Babe." His eyes glinted a quick smile. "I thought we were talking about sex, but this isn't about sex, is it. I mean, it is about sex, but."

Alistair squirmed where he sat, and he knew Zin could feel it, close as they were. He put an arm around Zin and tried to pretend that was the only movement he'd been trying for. "Can't we just be manly men together, and not talk about things?"

"No. Just pretend I'm a girl," Zin said, straight-faced, and Alistair burst out laughing. "Oh, you think it's funny now, but I'm going to talk about feelings, and you're trapped where you are." Zin swung his legs up over Alistair's, sitting sideways to him, but still within the curve of Alistair's arm. He was close and warm, and Alistair could smell his hair, like sunshine, even though they'd been indoors all day.

"As long as it's you I'm trapped by," Alistair said, "I don't mind."

"I'm not a name-day present," Zin said. "I love you. I'm not taking that back." He couldn't get any closer, but he rubbed his cheek against Alistair's shoulder. "I'm not taking me back. You've got me for as long as you want me. Clear?"

"It's just hard to believe sometimes," Alistair admitted in a rush. "And if there's something that you want, that you're not getting..."

Zin bit him. Not too hard, but not lightly, either. "That's not how it works." He chuckled. "We're good in bed. And in a lot of other places, as I recall, but that's not the point right now. We have a lot of sex, and it's really good."

"Yes," Alistair said. He could feel a growing heat in his face, but for once, it wasn't because of what they were talking about. Well, it was because of what they were talking about, but not in a really embarrassed now way, more in a whoa vivid memories here way. They did have a lot of sex, and it was really, really good.

Zin smiled lazily at him. "I hope you haven't missed the part where it's really good for me," he said. "If you think I'm, I don't know, not satisfied somehow, maybe I should yell louder when I come."

"That's... really not necessary," Alistair said. This time he managed a grin with his blush. "And are you sure it's even possible? Because you are pretty loud."

"You're just that good, babe," Zin said solemnly, then laughed into Alistair's neck. "We're just that good together," he said, sobering. "Now, if you want to find out what it feels like from the other end, pun totally intended, we should start out pretty slow. Tongue, fingers, just to find out if you like being touched there, and if you don't, then you don't. I hate it when someone touches my navel, even if it's you. People are different."

"I get that," Alistair said. "I, um. I do want to try it." And yes, he did mostly want to try it because he still had the deep-down feeling that it might please Zin, and Maker, but he wanted to please Zin more than anything else in the world. But he did understand that his own discomfort would not make Zin happy, so he hoped he would at least find it tolerable.

"Then we'll try it," Zin said, just like that. "Why don't you come to my room after dinner? I'll tell Wynne to look particularly old and frail tonight, so we can break up early. If Eamon wants to linger over his wine, he'll have Oghren for company."

"That's just cruel," Alistair said, but he couldn't help grinning at the thought.

9.1.2

That dinner was one of the more uncomfortable ones Alistair had ever sat through. The food was excellent, of course, and he tried to keep himself occupied with eating and with listening to Arl Eamon talking about which nobles had arrived for the Landsmeet and which they were still waiting for and which he'd met that day and which might not come at all.

But he kept being distracted by thoughts of the evening to come, and every time he glanced at Zin he could feel a blush starting. Then he'd look in the other direction, only to see Zevran looking far too knowing. And even though Alistair knew that Zevran was completely unaware of the specific reasons behind Alistair's blush, he still felt that he had thinking about sex with Zin tattooed on his forehead, and that was bad enough.

Because he wasn't, really; he was trying very hard not to think about sex with Zin, and the things that Zin had talked about, the things that Zin would very probably do tonight. He couldn't think about those things, he really couldn't, it made a sweat break out all the way down his spine. What if he hated it? What if he made Zin unhappy somehow? What if--

Zevran kicked him under the table and mouthed "Breathe!" at him. Alistair sank lower in his chair and tried to pretend he wasn't there.

When he couldn't stand it any longer, he turned to Arl Eamon and said, "If you'll excuse me, I'm afraid I'm not feeling quite well tonight," and barely waited for the nod of understanding before he pushed his chair back and left.

He realized in the hallway that he hadn't thought even once, at the table, about forks and being proper. Maybe all he needed was to be distracted and uncomfortable.

He was even more uncomfortable in his room, though. Alistair paced up and down, wondering how many turns it would take before he wore a hole in the expensive carpet. He paused at the fireplace and stared down into the crackling flames until they started to look like darkspawn heads; then he paced again. When the door to the room opened, he froze.

"You're looking a bit tense there, babe," Zin said, slipping into the room, closing the door and leaning back against it. Alistair heard the soft click of the lock. "Maybe we'll just stick with business as usual, if thinking about experimenting makes you feel like this."

"But I've already had the panic," Alistair said, "shouldn't I get to have the fun, too?" He looked at Zin's face, so beloved and still so hard to read. "It is fun, right?"

"Well, I think so." Zin pushed away from the door and came over and kissed him. "Just promise me you'll say stop if you don't think so." He went on with the kissing, and Alistair relaxed into that, and then felt quite another kind of tension rising to take the place of his previous feelings.

This was Zin, after all, and he could put himself unreservedly in Zin's hands, because Zin would never hurt him. Zin had only ever brought him pleasure. And no matter what this evening was meant to be about, Alistair saw no reason why he shouldn't get to give a little pleasure back, so he devoted himself to nibbling on Zin's neck and slipping his hands underneath his shirt.

It never ceased to delight him to feel Zin's skin, so warm and alive, against his hands; the silkiness was like a caress in reverse as his palms moved to stroke, and in turn were stroked. He tugged Zin's shirt off, and Zin began to work at Alistair's, rogue dexterity suffering just a little as Alistair played with his nipples.

"I'll do it," Alistair said with a pleased grin and pulled off his shirt, flinging it in the same direction that he'd flung Zin's, previously.

"Bed," Zin said, prodding Alistair to go backwards, until the edge of the bed hit the backs of his knees and he had to sit down. "Stop being so distracting." Zin knelt down and pulled off Alistair's boots, then his socks, and stretched up to unfasten his belt. Alistair lifted up just enough to have breeches and smallclothes pulled off in one smooth movement.

Being naked in front of a still mostly dressed Zin gave him a weird little thrill, but that was soon replaced by quite another thrill as Zin stripped himself very efficiently and then pounced, pushing Alistair down flat on the bed with Zin's warm weight holding him down. Alistair swung their legs up and tried to roll them so that he was the one on top, but Zin laughed into his chest and then sat up, pinning Alistair's hips in place. The look in his eyes was warm and tender, and Alistair smiled into it, stretching his arms up over his head. "Go on, then," he said. "Do whatever it is your devious mind is planning."

"Well, I thought we'd have sex," Zin said and grinned. "You know. Fuck." He leaned forward and started kissing Alistair's neck, shoulders, chest, biting a little, licking a lot, his mouth grazing over all the places that made Alistair shiver, all the places that sent a thrill of sensation through him that was so much more than you'd expect from just the touch of lips on a tiny patch of skin.

That was strange and fascinating to Alistair, the way some small spot was sensitive enough to affect his entire body, and he'd like to think about that one day, but he only remembered it when it was happening to him, and at those times it was just a fleeting thought, quickly superseded by the need to experience the moment for what it was -- because those feelings meant he was having sex with Zin, and then he had much more interesting things to think about.

He threaded his fingers into Zin's hair and used his thumbs to caress the sensitive edges of Zin's ears. When Zin nibbled at the edge of his ribcage, he pinched a little harder. "Hey! Ticklish."

"To think that I forgot that," Zin deadpanned. He kissed Alistair's hipbone and started to lick along the crease between leg and torso. One hand brushed caresses up the inside of Alistair's thigh, teasing at the fine hair, then cupped and caressed his scrotum.

Alistair groaned as Zin mouthed along his hard length, lips and tongue working together. He heard a popping sound and the air filled with the familiar elfroot cream scent. A thin shiver went down his spine, and then he felt slick pressure, not pressing in, just teasing along skin that he should have realized was very, very sensitive. Oh, yes, it felt good.

When Zin began to suck him in earnest, Alistair put a hand over his mouth to try to stay quiet, and his palm did a halfway decent job of muffling his cry as Zin took him down his throat and pushed a finger in at the same time. Maker's breath, that felt... wrong and strange and oh, oh, Zin's finger moved in him, pressed skillfully and just right, and Alistair bit desperately at his own hand as a wave of pure sensation washed through him. He couldn't even have said if it felt good or bad, except that he wanted more, so it probably wasn't bad, then.

"Please," he whispered. "Zin, Zin, please..." All of him was intent on this sensation, completely and gloriously lost to anything that wasn't Zin's mouth and finger pushing pleasure into him from two directions, so different from what he was used to and so amazing, so -- so--

Alistair lost words and thought, suspended on a knife's edge of excitement for what felt like forever, knowing nothing but yes and love and then finally YES, falling, in ecstasy.

When he opened his eyes and blinked weakly at the ceiling, he tried to remember if he'd screamed, but no one was hammering at the door trying to find out if he was alive, so if he had, it couldn't have been too loud. Alistair realized that he still felt a stretch and pressure that wasn't exactly uncomfortable, but odd. He fumbled with one hand for his lover and managed to cup Zin's head just as Zin kissed his hipbone.

"So I'm thinking you didn't hate it," Zin said. "Two fingers now," he added, sliding them in and out a little, and Alistair sucked his breath in; he had no memory of Zin switching from one to two, and yes, it felt odd, but not in a bad way. Zin licked a slow, lazy stripe from root to tip, and Alistair groaned a little. "You're still hard."

"Ngh," Alistair said. He was still working on getting the ability to speak back.

"I was going to be so slow and careful," Zin said, licking and kissing. "I wasn't even planning to go this far." His fingers worked steadily, in and out, in a rhythm Alistair couldn't mistake. His mouth was gentle, but he didn't stop, and Alistair knew how easily Zin could rouse him again, kindle that want and need over and over. "You're just so gorgeous, babe, and I love to make you come."

Alistair had no idea what to say to that. Maybe he should be used to the way Zin talked by now, but a lot of the time he still had trouble believing that the things Zin said were actually about him, and not some ideal lover in Zin's head, full of... well, not virtues precisely.

Instead of saying anything, he just made an incoherent noise as Zin's fingers pushed in at a slightly different angle and pressed against that spot inside him that felt so, that was so, that made him... Alistair's head spun and he couldn't stop his hips from bucking; when he slipped deeper into Zin's mouth, Zin just laughed, which sent another jolt of pleasure through him. That made him arch up, and the movement made Zin's fingers shift, and that brought another jolt of sensation.

"It's good," Alistair managed to say at last, "it's... do that again."

"You have to be more specific," Zin said, words slightly muffled.

"That thing with your fingers," Alistair said helplessly, and moaned long and slow as Zin did do it again. Then his breath caught as Zin pressed into him with a huge dollop of cream and three fingers. At least, he thought it was three fingers. "Zin..."

Once again Alistair was caught between Zin's mouth and Zin's fingers, and he could feel his mind haze over with want. The desire that he'd believed sated slowly rose to take him over again, and he dug his fingers into the bedding in slow heaving clenches.

"You're so beautiful, babe," Zin said with his mouth full. The words buzzed, and Alistair groaned.

"Do it," he said.

"I should ask you to be more specific," Zin said, but his voice was a rasp of want and need. The careful pressure of Zin's fingers went away as Zin moved up in what seemed to Alistair to be a dreamy haze of desire and the scent of elfroot. "Breathe in. Now breathe out."

"Maker's breath," Alistair said, and the fingers of one hand dug into Zin's shoulder instead. This was a different pressure, thick and hot and strange, and before he could figure out if he wanted to say stop or more, Zin sank in deeper, rubbing against the spot inside that made him want and need just as much as Zin. He tried to move against Zin, the way Zin would move against him in this position, and that sent white pulses of sensation through him.

"You feel so good," Zin whispered in his ear. "Babe. You feel so good."

"Why are you telling me that?" Alistair arched. His head spun. "I should tell you that. I feel good. I feel... kind of woozy." They moved together, and Alistair felt more and more dizzy, dazed, drunk, whatever this feeling was. He was weirdly balanced between a feeling of discomfort and bone-melting pleasure, and he didn't know what to do except hold on to Zin and feel.

9.1.3

"Well," Zin said, the whole warm, damp length of his body against Alistair's, "how was it?"

"Weird," Alistair said honestly. Now that Zin had pulled out, he was very aware of feeling open and loose in a place that really shouldn't be open and loose, and Zin's seed was trickling out of him, an indescribably strange and wrong sensation. "I mean, you probably noticed that I, um. Enjoyed it. But."

Zin kissed his neck. "But you don't want to do it again."

"I might," Alistair said. He turned his head enough that he could catch the nearest part of Zin with his lips. "Sometime. But probably not all the time or anything."

That got him a soft chuckle. "Well," Zin said, "it would be awkward if we kept arguing about whose turn it was."

9.2

One of the nice things about the ridiculously large rooms that Arl Eamon had provided them with was that you could pace in them. Alistair had never thought of himself as the kind of person who paced, but maybe it was all that time on the road and in an open camp: he felt most comfortable now when he had a lot of free space to move around in.

"It's time for us to decide what we're going to say at the Landsmeet," Zin said. "Eamon's going to want to put you forward as the new king, and... at this point, we've all presented you as a candidate in a lot of places. Frankly, I think it might be our best option. You're definitely our best choice."

"Yes. I know." He walked from one end of the room to the other. "But... I know I've been saying this forever, but I never wanted to be king," Alistair said. He needed to make that clear, one last time. "I just wanted to be a Grey Warden. With you. Forever."

"I know." Zin came up behind him and embraced him, kissed the back of his neck. "Maker, I know."

"It's too late now, isn't it," Alistair said. He could feel a new tension along his spine, something very close to resolve. "Arl Eamon's right. I do have a responsibility, don't I. To step forward and be king, if that's what it takes to sort everything out." He'd call it resolve, anyway. Because what Zin said was true; Alistair had gone around being Maric's Son And The Heir To The Throne ever since they'd come to Denerim.

"Well. Look at the state of the country, babe. Anora's had her chance, and apparently all she did was say yes, daddy. I think you'll make a good king, honestly." Alistair turned around in the circle of Zin's arms, and Zin kissed away the protests before Alistair could speak them out loud. "And I'll be with you. You know I'll always be with you."

"You will?" Alistair held Zin tighter. He remembered Zin saying I'm yours, more than once. He really hoped it was true. "I think," he said a little breathlessly, "I'd need to be completely certain of that." He nosed at that spot just underneath Zin's ear that was possibly his favorite spot on Zin's entire body, just for the way it made Zin sigh. Then he pulled back, because he had to be able to look Zin in the eye for this. He felt as if he were holding his heart out in both hands. "So will you marry me?"

Zin looked, for the first time in Alistair's memory, completely poleaxed. "You... you want to marry me?"

"Yes," Alistair said. If there was one thing he was sure of, in this confused life of his, that was it. "I want to marry you. I want us to be together for the rest of our lives. However long that is." Because the world might be about to end because of this wretched Blight, and maybe the archdemon would eat them both in two little warden-sized bites, but if they had only five days to live, five hours, five minutes, he wanted to spend those five minutes with Zin.

"But you're going to be king," Zin said. "You can't marry me." He didn't let go, though; if anything, his hands gripped Alistair more tightly.

"Why not? I hear you're a Cousland," Alistair said. "That's as respectable as it gets around these parts."

"Alistair," Zin said faintly. "You need an heir."

Alistair nodded. He had to admit, he was sort of enjoying this; he'd never managed to take Zin aback before. But more importantly, Zin had to understand that this was something Alistair really, truly meant. "So do you," he said. "But the warden taint means we're not the most likely men to father a lot of children. That's not going to change no matter who we're married to."

Zin got that look in his eyes that meant he was actually thinking about what Alistair had said. "That's true, as far as it goes," he said slowly. "But you know the banns won't be happy unless there's a clear line of succession. They don't know about the warden taint and they don't care. The stability of the country is the important thing."

"Well," Alistair said, reasonably enough, "someone would have to be the heir to the throne if I married someone else and didn't have children. Which is presumably what would happen." He'd given quite a bit of thought to this, actually. "Maybe we'd better talk to the arl about this. I'm not ready to share any warden secrets, but the part about not being able to father children is rather important."

"Alistair," Zin said. That was his actual name, twice, in less than a minute. Zin truly was rattled, then. "You know that's not true. You could have a child with a woman, I mean, it would be quite possible, even if you might have to, well, work on it." Now he did let go.

Alistair shook his head. "There's just one problem with that," he said. "I love you. I'm not going to marry someone else. That... that would be wrong." He sat down abruptly and looked at Zin. "Is this your way of telling me that you don't want to marry me?"

"No!" Zin dropped to his knees next to Alistair. There was an unexpected vulnerability in his eyes, which wasn't nearly as much fun as the pole-axed look. "That's not what I'm trying to say. What I'm saying, what the arl will say if we talk to him, is that you have a responsibility to Ferelden."

"No. I mean, yes, but." Alistair reached out and took Zin's hand. Everything seemed to go better when they were touching each other. "This is as far as I'm willing to take my responsibility. I'll be king. I'll stop Loghain. I'll stop the civil war. Maker willing, we'll stop the Blight. But I'm not giving you up." He rubbed at his face, feeling a building ache in his jaw. "This would be easier if we had siblings."

"Yes," Zin agreed. "But if you still had your brother, then we wouldn't have this problem. And if I still had my brother..." His voice broke, and Alistair tugged him into an uncomfortable embrace, nearly falling off the couch himself in the process. In the end he gave up and slid down on the floor, settling next to Zin on the rug and pushing and pulling until nobody's knees were endangering anyone else's health.

"It has to be you," Alistair whispered into Zin's hair. Maybe he had to change everything else about his life, but not this. "Did you really think, after all this, we could just..." He leaned back until he could see Zin's face. "Were you going to make me king and just walk away, then?"

He was getting better and better at reading Zin's face. Maybe because he spent so much time staring at the man. Even when Zin tipped his head forward to hide his eyes behind his hair, there was still the mouth, and its hint of a tight smile. "I could always be your secret lover," Zin said. "Just about every king has a bit on the side."

"No," Alistair said. "That's really not what I-- Did you have a plan for this? Make me king, marry me off, sleep with me sometimes between the state dinners and the, the baby-making?"

"You need an heir," Zin said again. "Ferelden needs stability. Which means you need a wife. You already have me, I'm yours, you don't have to do anything to keep me. Your marriage is one of the most important bargaining chips you have in dealing with the--"

"No," Alistair said again. He wanted to shake Zin, but they were sitting a bit awkwardly for that, and Zin's mouth already looked more than a little unhappy. He wanted to be angry, but Zin's mouth... "No, that's not how it's going to be. I couldn't handle a double life, I can barely manage a single one, and you know what a bad liar I am." Because he needed to see more than just Zin's unhappy mouth, he brushed the hair away so he could see Zin's eyes as well. "I mean, yes, my marriage is one of the most important decisions I'll ever make, even if I get to be king for the rest of my life." However long that would be. "Which is why I want it to be to you. Something real and honest, something I don't have to lie about."

Zin looked at him. His eyes were unhappy, too. "But you can't," he said. "It can't be me."

One of Alistair's legs lay turned at an awkward angle, and the bump on the outside of his foot pressed uncomfortably against the floor. It hurt. "But it has to be you," he said again. "Zin. Forget about the succession for a minute. Do you want to marry me?"

"Of course I fucking well want to marry you," Zin said. "But--"

Alistair put a hand over Zin's mouth. "Good."

Now he just had to make it happen somehow.

9.2.5

Alistair found Leliana in a small sitting room; she was tuning a lute, but put it aside as soon as she saw him. "Er," he said. "Do you think you could help me with something?"

"Yes, of course," she said, getting to her feet.

"There's something I need to know more about," Alistair said. "And you know how to find out. Things. So I thought you'd be the best person to ask."

"Yes," she said again, and then, after a short pause, "It would help if you told me what it is you need to know about. I could just tell you things at random and hope that one of them turns out to be it, but I don't think that would be a very efficient method, do you?"

"I hope that suggestion was you making fun of me," Alistair said. "I'd hate to think that the infamous Orlesian bards actually work like that."

"Not if we have a reasonable alternative," Leliana said.

Chapter twenty-two

9.3

"I've got something for you," Zin said, striding into the room. Alistair dropped the book he was studying and stood up. He hadn't even known Zin was going out, but now Zin was here with cool night air hanging in his clothes and hair, dragging a sack full of heavy things, and holding out a large cloth-wrapped object to Alistair.

As soon as he took it, he knew what it was by the weight and shape, and Alistair shook his head. "But I've got a good shield," he said.

"I know. But just look at it."

Alistair unwrapped the cloth, and the Grey Warden griffon insignia shone up at him. He turned the shield over, out of habit checking for identifying marks, and that's when he saw the mark scratched into one corner, a mark he recognized very well. Every report, every set of orders he'd ever seen Duncan pen had been signed like that. His breath caught in his throat.

"This is Duncan's shield," Alistair said. He stared, unable to tear his eyes away. "I mean, I didn't even know he had a shield. He never used it. But this is -- just look at the--"

"It's yours now," Zin said. "You can carry it into battle if you want, the way he didn't." He touched his fingertips to Alistair's face. "I know he'd want it to protect you."

"Thank you," Alistair said, trying hard not to choke up. And probably not succeeding very well, because Zin took the shield out of his hands and leaned it against the end of the couch, and dragged him down to sit in a tight embrace.

Alistair pressed his face against Zin's neck. Duncan's shield. It just didn't seem possible, but there it was.

"It's perfect for you, babe," Zin said. He kissed Alistair's temple and the top of his ear. "You look so much like a Theirin, especially in your brother's armor, but if you carry this shield, everyone who sees you will know that you're a Grey Warden as well."

"Where did you find it?" Alistair leaned back and surreptitiously wiped at his eyes with his shirtsleeve. He would have blotted them on Zin's collar, except Zin was in full mail, so it didn't seem like such a good idea.

"In that secret vault Riordan talked about." Zin grinned. "It's unbelievable, really -- the wardens had a secret cache of stuff, weapons mostly, and the entrance was from that warehouse across from the Wonders of Thedas, I've been in there I don't know how many times, but I never spotted the door." He shook his head. "Embarrassing, really."

Alistair grinned, and felt the urge to burst into tears fade away. Which was probably what Zin intended. "Some rogue you are," he teased. He looked at the stuff Zin had set down just inside the door. "That's it? The wardens had a secret cache, and it fit in one sack? That's not very impressive."

Zin grinned back. "No. I just wanted to bring back that shield for you, and a couple of other things. We'll go tomorrow and bring some of Eamon's men, and he can help us sort out what can be shared out among the soldiers, and what can be sold to buy the equipment we need."

A swift knock on the door was followed by Leliana's red head poking inside. "Oh, hello," she said to Zin with a bright smile, and then her eyes went to Alistair. "I believe I found what you were looking for."

"That's good," Alistair said. "That's... really good. You should come in and tell us about it."

Leliana slipped inside. She was wearing a plain green dress that left her shoulders bare, and looked for all the world like a maidservant on her day off. The illusion was only spoilt when she dropped down to sit on the rug in front of Alistair and Zin. The dress was long enough to let her sit cross-legged, its folds draped neatly around her knees, but no maid would act like that.

Next to Alistair, Zin straightened up. "Wait, have you two been conspiring?"

"Yes," Alistair said. "Leliana has helped me with a villainous plot."

Leliana gave a little gurgle of laughter. "Terribly wicked," she agreed. "I went to the chantry." She smiled at Zin. "It may not be the most villainous place in Denerim, but they keep very good records in the chantry."

Zin frowned, looking at Alistair and at Leliana and at Alistair again. "I suppose they do, but... Records of what?"

"Heir-arrangements," Alistair said. "I asked Leliana to find me some information about heir-arrangements."

The look on Zin's face was more than Alistair could have hoped for. "But," he said helplessly. "But... we can't do that. That's just a merchant custom."

"Nowadays, yes," Leliana said. "But did you know that the first heir-arrangement in Ferelden was made between a grandson of Calenhad and the eldest daughter of the bann of Rainesfere?"

"It's a legally binding custom," Alistair said. "And apparently it's a custom that comes with a royal precedent. That's really more than I'd hoped for. Thank you, Leliana."

She waved away his thanks. "I enjoyed reading those old records," she said, "and spending time in the chantry. The smell of all that clean-scrubbed wood and all those burning candles, you know." Leliana smiled. "It's so peaceful in there."

Alistair tugged Zin a little closer. "I should have told you," he said. "I know I should have told you before I asked Leliana to investigate. I just didn't want us to start having this discussion again before we had facts to discuss. I knew about heir-arrangements, but I didn't know if they were established at all outside of the merchant class."

"Surely," Leliana said, "you can't have a better example to follow than a direct descendant of Calenhad himself. I understand that heir-arrangements are mostly used by the lower classes these days, and of course they aren't frequent, but the custom exists because of that royal precedent."

"Royal precedent sounds like just what we need," Alistair said. All he'd been hoping for was a legal loophole, something that would make this possible. But being able to point to a grandson of Calenhad as an example, rather than some random importer of woolen goods, would make this much, much easier.

Leliana nodded. "Even more importantly, the law exists because of that precedent, and any children from an heir-arrangement will be considered fully legitimate and able to inherit from the parent whose heir they have been designated as. Of course. That is the whole point of an heir-arrangement, after all."

"Yes." So it was, and this information was everything that Alistair had hoped for. He just wasn't sure how Zin was taking it.

When he met Leliana's eyes, she jumped to her feet and nodded briskly at them both. "I will just fetch us some wine," she said with a swift wink at Alistair.

She went out of the room, and Alistair turned his head to look at Zin. "The one thing I never expected you to be is quiet," he said.

Zin looked back. "You really want to marry me," he said. "You've thought about this."

"Er. Yes?" Alistair said. Truth to tell, he felt as if he hadn't thought about anything but, recently. "I reckon this way there's at least as good a chance of an heir as if I married some random woman, with the added bonus that I don't have to marry some random woman. Which is pretty much the point."

"You... You found a way to have an heir, and to marry as you please."

"Leliana found it, really," Alistair said. "If it had been left to me, I would probably have fallen asleep over the chantry records."

"I would never have..." Zin shook his head. "They'll tell you it's not done, among the nobility. They'll tell you you can't follow merchant customs when you're king. Finding that royal precedent was brilliant. It's, it changes everything."

"I never expected that." Alistair leaned back on the couch. "I just thought, merchants do it sometimes, it has to be legal, there has to be a way it can work for us, too."

Zin kissed him. Alistair wasn't entirely sure why, but he kissed back, because he wasn't stupid. (Despite Morrigan's persistent comments on the matter.) "You're brilliant," Zin said, and Alistair wouldn't have gone quite that far, himself. "This is--" Zin's eyes glittered, blue and green and a glint of silver. "This could actually work."

"That's the idea,"Alistair said. Things weren't as cuddly as they could have been, because of the chainmail, but he had Zin in his arms.

"In fact, Alfstanna would probably do it. She doesn't have an heir to her bannorn, either, except for her brother, and, well, there's a reason she's the bann instead of Irminric. And now he's a templar, anyway."

Leliana came back with a bottle in one hand and several glasses in the other, the stems fanning out between her fingers. She smiled at them, sat back down on the floor, and began to pour. "Bann Alfstanna?" she said. "I think she would be an excellent choice."

"Has anyone heard," Alistair said, feeling a bit awkward about asking, "I mean, how is her brother doing now?"

"We should find out," Zin said. "It would make a good way to start the conversation. Negotiation." That look in Zin's eyes was past a glitter, it was an unholy gleam. Alistair knew what that look meant: he was plotting. "It's probably better to talk to her first, Eamon second. Present it as a done deal."

"Yes," Leliana agreed. "Otherwise, even if he agrees to the idea, he is bound to have his own, ah, candidates for the role. But he couldn't reasonably object to Bann Alfstanna."

"What about you, babe?" Zin looked at Alistair. "I know this was your idea, so I know you've thought about it. But you're the one who's going to have sex with her."

Alistair willed himself not to blush. It worked about as well as it always did. "And she's going to have to, um, with me," he said. "I think we'd better find out if she's interested, first of all."

"She'll be interested," Zin and Leliana said with one voice, then looked at each other with almost identical crooked grins.

9.3.5

The arl came home late that afternoon after yet another day spent with his old cronies. He made noises about wanting to talk fairly soon, to sit down and discuss their plans and progress, but since Alistair and Zin were agreed that it would be better for them to speak with Bann Alfstanna first, they spent the evening avoiding him, which wasn't difficult in something the size of the arl's Denerim estate.

They went around speaking to their companions, checking on them. Alistair was a bit concerned that perhaps everyone was bored, cooped up in the estate, but that turned out not to be the case -- neither the boredom nor the being cooped up, actually. Apparently everyone had spent a fair bit of time wandering the city, or just the marketplace. Even Shale, whose appearance was the most likely to startle the citizens of Denerim, had been out with Leliana and with Wynne, and approved of the estate's small courtyard, which was remarkably free from pigeons.

It seemed to Alistair that Zin was unusually quiet. He noticed it first when they were sitting with Oghren, and thought it was just that Zin had run out of ways to say that he didn't want to take part in a drinking contest with Oghren and some off-duty guards, but when they wandered off again, carrying a small bottle of wine as a gift for Wynne, Zin was still a little withdrawn.

Alistair took his hand. "What's wrong?" he said.

"Nothing." Zin slipped his fingers between Alistair's. "I'm fine." It looked to Alistair as though he had to fetch his smile from farther away than usual, though.

Wynne appreciated the bottle of wine, and Alistair went off to fetch her a glass, because of course they'd forgotten that. When he came back, he saw Wynne saying something to Zin that made Zin's face shut down completely. Alistair glared, but before he could ask any questions, Zin took the glass and set it down in front of Wynne and dragged Alistair away.

"What was that!" Alistair hissed; he would have shouted, but they were right outside the arl's study, and he suspected the arl's presence would not actually help.

"Nothing," Zin said again. "She just reminded me of a conversation we had before. Come, it's nearly time for dinner. We shouldn't have bothered to get Wynne a glass just now."

Once again, Alistair had to sit through a dinner at the arl's table that was much too long, and although he appreciated the food, which was good and plentiful, all he wanted was to be done and to leave, and to find a place where he could be alone with Zin for a proper talk. So of course Zin took his time, chewing slowly and adding enough to the slightly stiff conversation between Arl Eamon and Anora to keep it going. Alistair tried to work out if she was Queen Anora these days, or if she was the former queen, or what.

No, she had to be queen, still; that wouldn't have stopped just because Cailan died. If she wasn't queen, Loghain couldn't have become regent for her. But was she really and truly queen of Ferelden, with the right to rule the country? Alistair didn't know for certain. He thought she probably didn't know, either, and that did explain a fair bit.

When the dinner finally ended, Zin escorted Anora to her room, and Alistair loomed behind them, feeling very conspicuous and in the way, but unwilling to let Zin out of his sight.

"...and of course your support would be crucial," Anora was saying, and Alistair would have pointed his ears if he'd been able. "Eamon will listen to you, and no doubt several of the other nobles will listen to Eamon."

"Yes, I'm sure they will," Zin said. "I bid you good night, my lady." He handed her over to Erlina and closed the door behind them with great dispatch. "There." He gave Alistair a sidelong look. "We'd probably do better in bed, too, babe."

They tumbled into Zin's room together; for a wonder, it was empty, even Serpent having chosen to go somewhere else. Just the two of them, and a fire burning low in the fireplace, wasteful and welcome. The weather wasn't anywhere near cold enough for a fire, but at this late hour and deep inside the house, it was still pleasant.

Alistair locked the door, and they curled up on the bed in a comfortable tangle. Zin was still quiet, but he was also extremely affectionate. Alistair tried to ask him again if there was something on his mind, but the kisses were very distracting. Extremely distracting. Only the knowledge that this was, in fact, Zin's preferred method of distraction for both Alistair and himself made Alistair find the inner reserves to push back onto one elbow, keeping Zin at a distance with a hand on his chest.

"Tell me what's wrong."

Zin's hair was over his eyes. "You're not kissing me."

"Because there's something wrong. Besides me not kissing you, I mean."

Zin sighed. "Andraste's lacy apron strings, what does a man have to do to get laid around here?"

"You could tell me what's wrong," Alistair suggested.

"Or you could stop going on about it," Zin said, glancing down. Alistair realized that while his hand was still firm on Zin's chest, his thumb was rubbing gentle circles into Zin's skin, just for the pleasure of touch. "I've told you nothing's wrong, you want to have sex, I want to have sex, and I don't see why there's talking when there should be kissing. And fucking."

"Maybe because I want to know why I'm suddenly in bed with a hedgehog," Alistair said. "Are you... you're actually snapping at me for not kissing you. And, um, other things."

"Kissing's important," Zin said. "So's fucking. And listen, babe, if you ever want to have sex again--" Then he broke off and shook his head and made a dry little sound that might have been just a loud exhale, or a laugh that never really got started.

"Are you going to finish that sentence?" Alistair said after a while. "I mean, it might have a lot to do with my future."

Zin sighed. "If you ever want to have sex again," he said, "all you have to do is tell me. I thought that was pretty obvious by now." He tilted his head up, shaking the hair back out of his eyes, and suddenly he looked naked. Well, he was naked, but that had nothing to do with it. "It's just. Babe, are you sure about this?"

"About what?" Alistair tried to stop stroking Zin's chest, because that stealthy little caress didn't fit with the conversation, or at least he didn't think so. It was difficult, though. "About ever wanting to have sex again, yes, I'm pretty sure about that, and about wanting to know what's wrong, yes to that too. There is a reason I asked so many times, you know."

"No, I mean." Zin gave him a crooked little smile. "This heir-arrangement thing, with Alfstanna. Or with anyone. If you got married to someone else, you could make an excellent alliance--"

"Better than Highever?" Alistair broke in. "Are you telling me I could marry someone fancier than a Cousland, because I'm not sure I believe that."

"Well, you could always marry Anora."

Now Alistair did stop touching Zin. "She was married to my brother," he said. "She's Loghain's daughter. And she hates me. And I want to marry you."

"It would unite the country," Zin said. "Give a sense of stability and continuity."

"It wouldn't give me a sense of stability," Alistair said, "it would give me a sense of complete terror." He tried to imagine being married to Anora, but he just couldn't do it. Also, a feeling of cold unease was starting to grow, slowly, in the pit of his stomach. "I know I kind of sprang this on you," he said slowly. "I mean, the marriage thing and the heir-arrangement thing. But I thought you agreed to it. That it was a good idea."

"Yes," Zin said. "Well. It is a good idea. But it'll take a lot of fast talking to get everyone to agree. It would be easier for you if you chose a more conventional alternative."

Alistair fell back on the wrinkled sheets, sending up a puff of herbal scent, whatever they used to store with their linens here, something dry and bitter but not unpleasant. "You're the last person I'd expect to tell me to be conventional," he said, staring up at the ceiling. "What did Wynne say to you, to make you think like this?"

"It wasn't... She just reminded me of things," Zin said. "Of who I am, of who you are. And if I marry you, it will look as if I'm only doing it to benefit the Couslands, to advance my own interests."

"Oh, and Anora would marry me out of the goodness of her heart, would she?" Alistair rolled onto his side so he could see Zin again. "Or this unknown highborn bride that the arl would suggest, I'm sure she'd be in love with me already and it would have nothing to do with her family name."

"She'd fall in love with you," Zin said. "I don't see how--"

"What?"

"I don't see how anyone could not." Hair in his eyes again, and Alistair had never felt such an urge to cut it short. He needed to see what Zin was thinking. "I did."

"So marry me," Alistair said, voice rising with the desperation of it. "Stop trying to, to foist me off on someone else, I don't want someone else, that's the whole point here. I know this probably isn't-- You're a Cousland and I'm dragging you into some merchant custom that you never imagined would have anything to do with you. I'm sorry, but it was the only thing I could think of that would let us be together." He shook his head helplessly. The cold unease was spreading through his entire body now. "And I thought you thought it was a good idea. I want to marry you, Zin. More than anything."

Zin shook his head. "No, I-- Babe, I'm so proud of you for coming up with that, I'm entirely humbled by the lengths you're willing to go to. It's just that the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it's the best thing for you. You deserve something easier, something better, and--"

"No, shut up," Alistair said. "You're the best thing for me. Zin. I love you. I want to marry you. Or are you saying," the bottom of his stomach dropped out, "that you'd rather not--"

"No, of course that's not what I'm saying! I just--"

Someone scratched on the door, followed by a bit of vigorous knocking. Alistair froze. Zin got up and wrapped something around his waist -- Alistair rather thought it was his shirt -- and stalked over to open the door. Alistair himself sat up on the edge of the bed and dragged the sheet over his hips. Something large and furry charged into Zin's legs, and then Serpent was bounding around the room while Zin staggered against the doorjamb.

"He insisted on coming in here," Leliana said apologetically. "Also, I think you should know..."

"My dear warden," Zevran said smoothly, and Alistair clutched the sheet tighter, "I think perhaps the two of you should be a little more quiet. Anyone passing through the hallway could hear what you were saying."

Alistair felt himself flush, starting at the toes.

"I don't doubt you could hear every word," Zin said.

"Mm, no. Only about every other word, but I believe that would be quite enough even for the not very perspicacious arl."

Alistair reached down and scratched Serpent between the ears. "Oh, I'll bet. Did you do that on purpose?" Serpent barked at him, not too loudly, and sat down on Alistair's feet. Alistair sighed and went on with the scratching.

After some more muttered conversation, Zin closed the door and came back to the bed. He dropped down next to Alistair and took Serpent's head in both hands. "You're never going to let me hear the end of this, are you." Serpent rumbled happily, then lunged up and licked Zin across the face. "Oh, now you're just being smug."

"I suppose we'd better..." Alistair looked at Zin, feeling tentative and awkward.

"Sleep," Zin said. "We'd better go to bed and sleep. Got to be well-rested and sharp tomorrow when we see Alfstanna."

So they got back in bed again, and Alistair didn't know whether to wrap himself around Zin or not; before he could figure it out, Serpent landed heavily across their feet, pinning them in place. They were close enough that their bodies were touching, and Alistair tucked the tips of his fingers underneath Zin's hip.

9.4

Waking up the next morning, they were all tangled up, and Serpent was still sprawled on their feet. Alistair liked waking up like that, close and warm, but as soon as he was awake enough to think, he remembered what they were going to do that day. He could see the awareness in Zin's eyes, too, and then Serpent woke up and made it clear that he needed to be let out right that moment.

They'd agreed ahead of time that it would be best to talk to Bann Alfstanna in her Denerim home, rather than ask her to come to Arl Eamon's estate. The Waking Sea house in Denerim was small compared with the arl's, but situated in a very respectable part of town, not far from the royal palace itself.

The tricky part was getting there without telling Arl Eamon what they were about to do. He mentioned over breakfast that he wanted to introduce them both to his old friend Bann Jessco and her daughter Dian. Her very eligible daughter, Alistair thought. It wasn't Zin who needed to be introduced, here.

They ended up grabbing Riordan for camouflage and saying that they were going out on Grey Warden business.

"So what is this business we have?" Riordan asked as they crossed the courtyard together. "It doesn't actually involve me, does it? The pair of you are being remarkably secretive."

"We'll have to go on being secretive for a while yet," Zin said. "You should take the opportunity to go have a drink somewhere. Somewhere that doesn't have Oghren challenging you to a drinking contest every time you pick up a glass, I mean."

"As long as you watch it being poured," Alistair said, half-forgotten warnings coming back to him. "Don't take it from a stranger. I know we're not dealing with Howe any more, but that's what happened to both you and Oswyn, and I don't want to find out that he taught his favorite trick to Loghain."

"It's a bit early for a drink. But I will keep a low profile," Riordan said. "Falling for the same trick twice would be shameful. And wherever you two are off to, I trust that you will be careful, too."

"Oh, there's no need to worry about us," Alistair said. He looked at Zin. "I think."

"No." Zin smiled. He was smooth as glass today. "No, we won't be in any danger." His smile grew a little more genuine in the face of Riordan's polite skepticism. "Warden's word of honor."

"I will not disbelieve that. Though I trust Duncan taught you that the warden watchword is usually expediency, not honor." Riordan nodded at the pair of them. "I'll see you later, then," he said and sauntered off in the direction of a back alley that had a quiet little alehouse.

"Oghren says that place is about to go out of business," Zin said. "Nobody goes there any more." He nodded decisively. "That seems like the best choice."

Alistair fell into step beside Zin as Zin started to walk. At this hour, Denerim was still very nearly cool in places, especially in alleys so narrow that the sun never reached them. Still, the city-smell was thick between the houses. Alistair appreciated the heap of refuse they passed, because the aging cabbage leaves kept him from smelling the open sewer entrance.

After a little while, and a few alleys, he cleared his throat. "I know this didn't really work last night, but... will you tell me what's wrong? And does it have anything to do with why we're taking the stinkiest way possible to get where we're going?" Alistair frowned. "It's not that I think Bann Alfstanna is fussy, exactly, but she might not even listen to our proposal if we turn up smelling like two middens."

Zin slowed down, then stopped. He tilted his head forward, and his hair fell down across his eyes in a defensive mess. "I'm sorry," he said, but he didn't quite sound it.

"What about?" Alistair asked cautiously.

"I shouldn't have taken us this way. Andraste's rotten leftovers, I know what the back alleys of Denerim are like. I was just--"

The low chink of a weapon being drawn had them both spinning around, so they stood back to back when they were attacked. Alistair growled, and the bandits around him fell back a few paces before one, bolder than the rest, charged forward with his axe held high. Anyone could have told him that was a bad idea. Alistair cut his head off.

One of the bandits, at the back, broke and ran at the sight, but two others jumped into the fray side by side, which was a much more sensible choice. They fought like a team, too, used to guarding each other's side. Alistair knocked one of them down with his shield and attacked the other on that suddenly undefended side, the point of his blade sliding in through a chink in armor that wasn't as good, or in as good repair, as it could have been.

No one was shouting any demands for their blood, specifically, or that of any of their companions. "Just out to rob us, then, you reckon?" Alistair asked over his shoulder.

"Sergeant Kylon was right," Zin tossed back. He didn't even sound out of breath. "The market district is enough excitement for anyone, really."

9.6

They went down what looked like a quieter and more respectable street next, though Alistair didn't trust any part of Denerim to stay quiet. He squinted up at the sun, or at least the sky, what he could see of it, and tried to make a map in his head. "Are we really going the right way?"

"We'll get where we're going," Zin said, which wasn't really an answer. "Or... Babe, we could go back, you could go out with Eamon and meet this Dian, forget about all this."

"When you say all this," Alistair said, "do you mean the heir-arrangement idea, or do you mean-- I'm not exactly going to forget about you."

"I'd still be there!" Zin wasn't looking at him, though. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm yours."

"That's what I want you to be," Alistair said. "Mine." He shook his head, trying to fend off a rush of uncertainty, wondering if he'd got all of this wrong. "But if you don't want to be--"

"No, I do, I mean, I am. I just--"

"The two of you are complete fools," a familiar voice with an Antivan accent said from behind them. "Clearly you can not be let out on your own."

Alistair groaned. "Zev, what are you doing here?"

"Saving you from your own folly, I hope," Zevran said. "I could not help but notice, last night, that you never finished your conversation."

"We could have talked quietly," Zin said.

"Yes, because it is quite obvious that you have resolved all your issues." If a voice could roll its eyes, Zevran's voice was doing it. "My wardens, you are not fooling anyone. Come with me, if you please."

Chapter twenty-three

9.7

Zevran led them out of the alley and into a larger street, around two corners, and there was the Pearl. (Which meant that they really had been going in the wrong direction, and the map in Alistair's head wasn't completely wrong. Which was something, at least.) He hustled them in through the door of the brothel, even though Alistair tried to protest, and moments later the proprietess Sanga was with them, asking delicately what their requirements were.

"These two fine fellows need a room," Zevran said. "As for myself, we can discuss that once they are settled. May I say that your headband is very becoming?"

Sanga smacked him on the back of the hand for being cheeky and showed Alistair and Zin into a room that Alistair thought looked vaguely familiar. He'd seen more of the Pearl than he really thought was proper, and now here he was with Zin in one of those narrow rooms that was basically just a giant bed and a washstand. The purpose of the room was very clear; the bed was less a suggestion than an order, really.

Alistair sat down on the foot of the bed and looked at Zin, who paced angrily the two steps back and forth that the room would allow him.
"This is ridiculous," Zin said. "We certainly don't need a room at a brothel when we're on our way to talk to Alfstanna."

"I think," Alistair said, watching the restless spring in Zin's step, the way Zin's face was closed off and unreadable. "I think maybe we do."

Zin crooked an eyebrow at him. "You want to practice with a woman first? Alfstanna won't expect you in her bed now, you understand. There'll be plenty of time."

"No," Alistair said. The suggestion was outrageous, and also bizarre. "Zin, stop it. You're being..." He didn't even have words for it. "Strange. Like you're someone else and not you. And I'm used to you being you. Just calm down and tell me what's wrong."

"I suppose you'd like me to be reasonable," Zin said. "Practical. Pragmatic."

"You usually are," Alistair said. Between the two of them, Zin was nearly always the pragmatic one. The one who kept a level head, the one who considered all sides of an issue.

"Yes," Zin growled. "I'm so sodding reasonable, and this is such an excellent idea," his voice smoothed out and speeded up, "I'm not being sarcastic, it really is, and there's no point in being difficult about it, I've already agreed, it's fine, let's stop talking and just get where we were going."

Alistair looked at his lover, who was as close to unbalanced as Alistair had ever seen him. "Are we-- We're having a fight, and I'm not even sure what it's about. We have to talk, Zin."

Zin crossed the room, which took only another two strides, and sat down on the bed just out of Alistair's reach. "Talk, then."

Alistair drew a deep breath. "I want to be with you," he said. "I want to spend the rest of my life with you. And if I'm going to be king," he shook his head in disbelief, "I need an heir somehow."

"Yes," Zin said, with nothing in his voice but neutral agreement.

"Hey, we could always run off to the Anderfels together," Alistair suggested. "If we survive the Blight. Go be wardens, fight darkspawn, let someone else rule Ferelden. Anora, I guess." He made a face. "Not sure that's the best idea. But I'd do it for you. If that's what you want."

"No," Zin said, and there was some real feeling in his voice now. "No, babe, that's not what I want."

"You're the most important thing in my life." Alistair reached out and put his hand down between them, palm up. "All I wanted was to figure out a way to get to be with you." He kept his voice steady by sheer force of will as he went on, "But if you don't think you can do this--"

"I'm not the one who'll have to do it," Zin said, and there it was, the raw and genuine feeling in his words at last. "Oh, Andraste's well-roasted rump. I'm jealous."

"What?" Alistair had a feeling there were many more suave things he could have said to that, but he couldn't think of any of them, just, "...What?"

"I know, it's absurd." Zin shook his head. Which made his hair fall over his eyes again. "You shouldn't pay any attention to it. I shouldn't pay any attention to it. I think you had an excellent idea when you remembered the heir-arrangements, and I'm glad Leliana was able to find a royal precedent, and I think Alfstanna is the best choice by far. I just."

"You're jealous," Alistair said, feeling stuck several steps earlier in the conversation. "You're jealous."

"I suppose that's the best thing to call it." Zin gave him a small twist of a smile. "I don't like the idea that you're going to have sex with someone else. I know why, and as I already said, it's the sensible choice, and I really have no right to--"

"Wait." Alistair grabbed at Zin's wrist. "First of all, we haven't even asked her yet. Second... Maker, you don't think I want to have sex with someone else, do you?"

Zin didn't answer at first, just stared down at his own knees. "Well, you've never. I just took you for my own, you never had a choice. You were stuck with me."

"It wasn't like that. I came to you," Alistair said. "And I didn't want anybody else, and I still don't want anybody else." Another thought worked its way up to the top in his confused mind. "And you've been telling me to go off and marry someone else, like that's a choice. Then I'd really be stuck, with someone I didn't love, and she'd be stuck with me, and you'd be... are you saying that if I married someone else you'd be less jealous? Because that doesn't make sense."

"No," Zin said quietly. "I suppose I was just trying to give you more freedom to choose."

"Well, I've chosen." Alistair put his hand between them again, there for the taking. "I don't know what else you want me to do or say."

"Nothing!" Zin said. "I couldn't possibly ask you to do more."

"You can ask me to do anything." Alistair shrugged. "I'll probably at least try."

"No," Zin said again. "No, there isn't anything, and you're being disturbingly adorable, babe. You're doing all this for me, you're giving things up for me, and all I do is feel jealous and upset because it means someone else will get to touch you, get to touch you a lot, because the taint means you might have to try for a long time before there's a child, and I really get uncomfortable at that thought, and it's for me..."

"Of course it's for you," Alistair said. "I love you."

Zin looked at him. "I'd do anything for you," he said quietly. "And now you're trying to do things for me, and I can't do the simplest thing and just say yes and thank you." He bit his lip. "I just, I want you to have everything. I should be the one to give things up."

"I'm not giving up anything," Alistair said. "That's kind of the point of this, as far as I can tell. If being king means I have to give you up, I won't do it, Zin. And if you can't put up with this solution, then I guess we run away together as soon as the archdemon's dead."

He couldn't bear the way his hand lay between them, untouched, so he got up and tried some pacing himself, two steps this way, two steps that way.

"No." Zin stood up, too, and now they took up almost all the space in the room that wasn't bed. "Zevran's right, I shouldn't be allowed out on my own. We're not running away, babe. We're doing this." He looked down at his feet for a moment, then up through his hair. "You solved this problem, and I'll live with the solution and like it. The more I see of this, you like this, the more I think you'll make a great king."

"Really?" Alistair said, moved and embarrassed and just a little hopeful.

"Really." Zin's smile wasn't quite happy, but it wasn't entirely sad. "If you can handle me, you can definitely handle the Bannorn. And outmaneuvering Eamon is good political practice."

Alistair shook his head without speaking, because none of it was about any kind of political game, to him; it was all about necessity. He had to be with Zin, or nothing would make sense. Getting compliments on it was like getting compliments for his elegant sword work when he'd just barely survived an encounter with an ogre.

But they were doing this, and that was the important thing. "Well, good," he said. "That's... good." His voice cracked a little on the word; Alistair felt embarrassed, and half-turned away and pulled out a drawer in the vanity for something to do. Several peculiarly-shaped objects met his gaze. When his mind told him what his eyes were staring at, he slammed the drawer shut again. What he'd been feeling before wasn't embarrassment. This was embarrassment.

Especially when Zin came up behind him, not that Zin had to move very far in this small room, and hooked his chin over Alistair's shoulder. "What's in there?" he asked. "If it makes you turn that color, I have to see it."

"Nothing," Alistair said quickly. "Just someone's private... things. I shouldn't have looked."

Zin reached out to tug the drawer open. "This is a brothel. I don't think anyone keeps their private things here where the customers can... oh, wow. That's quite a selection." To Alistair's horror, Zin reached into the drawer and lifted something out, an odd contraption of leather strips and metal rings, the purpose of which Alistair didn't even want to guess at.

Moving it revealed what lay underneath, and Alistair couldn't pretend not to know what those phallic objects were, laid out in a neat row. It was the one on the left-most edge that he'd seen before, made of metal, with some rather alarming bumps and ridges, and of a size that Alistair suspected would make most men feel entirely inadequate.

"Put that back," Alistair said. "Please."

"I really hope they keep those clean," Zin said. He dropped the mysterious thing in his hand back down again and shut the drawer. Alistair breathed out in relief, only to tense up again when Zin turned towards the high, narrow cabinet jammed into the corner of the room. "I wonder what's in here." Alistair closed his eyes. Then Zin said, "I've always wanted to try one of these."

When Alistair looked, very cautiously, Zin was holding some brightly colored cloth thing with long ribbons dangling from it here and there. Alistair tilted his head this way and that, trying to make sense of it. If those were shoulder straps... "Is that some kind of bodice?" he asked dubiously. "Aren't those made to fit women?"

"I don't think they're made to fit anyone," Zin said absently, turning the bodice over in his hands. He tugged the ribbons apart until the front of the bodice was quite loose, put it down on the bed, and to Alistair's consternation, began to strip off his armor.

"Wait," Alistair said, "you can't just..."

But of course Zin could, wriggling out of his mail and trying to wriggle into the unlaced garment. "This isn't working," he said grumpily.

"Your shoulders are too broad," Alistair said. The way Zin had turned abruptly from the intense talk about feelings to giving all his attention to brothel props was a bit disconcerting, or at least, Alistair thought carefully, meant to be disconcerting. Distracting. Zin needed this complete change of topic for a bit, and Alistair followed where Zin led, because he nearly always did.

Zin huffed and sat down on the bed again. "Stupid shoulders."

"I rather like them," Alistair said. He sat down next to Zin and tried to untangle him from the bodice. The ribbons wound themselves everywhere, tangling around Alistair's fingers. "Why have you always wanted to try one?" he couldn't help asking.

"They look so sexy on women," Zin said. "I wanted to know what it would feel like."He looked down at the mess Alistair was making of the ribbons. "You really aren't used to this kind of thing, are you."

"You're the one who tried to put it on," Alistair said. He tugged again, trying to get himself free this time; one ribbon had knotted itself around his wrist. "It seems I'm, ah, stuck to you."

Zin started to laugh helplessly. "Let's not tell anyone about this," he said wheezily. He raised his hands to unwind the ribbons from around Alistair's hands. "You don't tell anyone I tried to wear a lace-up bodice, and I don't tell anyone you got stuck in the laces."

"I never claimed to be a good ladies' maid," Alistair muttered. "Or any kind of ladies' maid." He finally got his left hand free, and used it to stroke across the back of Zin's neck, enticingly exposed as Zin sat with his head bent forward. "I'm glad you wear armor most of the time. At least I know how that comes off."

Zin freed Alistair's right hand, too, lifted it to his mouth and kissed the palm. "Why don't you show me?" he said. "You don't have to stop there."

Not that Zin was wearing very much armor any more. He'd stripped off the gloves before handling those things in the drawer, and the main part of his mail before trying to wriggle into the embroidered bodice. Alistair knelt down on the floor and slowly began to tug off Zin's chausses. He stroked his fingertips over Zin's long, strong legs as they were bared, kissed the knees, the tender inside of one thigh. "In case I haven't made it clear," he said. "I love you. I think you're beautiful. I want to marry you."

Zin made a small sound and stroked Alistair's hair. Then he said, "It's only too bad you already said that once. Otherwise we could tell the child that his father the king proposed in one of the cheaper rooms in a brothel."

That sent Alistair's heart soaring. "We can still tell the child that, and it will be entirely true. I'm also willing to propose to you in any other locations that take your fancy, as long as you promise to say yes in all of them." He rose to his feet and pulled Zin's shirt over his head, leaving him in just smallclothes and one stray ribbon trailing over his left shoulder.

"The sheets here are probably disgusting," Zin said. Then he turned, and grinned slowly at Alistair over one shoulder before climbing onto the bed.

Alistair ripped a few stitches in the shoulder seam of his own shirt.

9.7.1

"I'll never touch anyone else the way I touch you," Alistair said, the words muffled and sloppy against Zin's skin.

9.7.5

"Am I to understand that you've seen reason, now?" Zevran drawled.

Alistair couldn't help smiling, and he had a feeling it was a fairly sappy smile. "I think I saw stars."

"Is that so." The gleam in Zevran's eyes was nothing short of wicked. "I always knew our Grey Warden here was a man of uncommon skill."

"And how did you manage to stave off boredom, Zev, all on your own in a brothel?" Zin said.

"Oh, I wasn't alone. Not for long."

9.7.6

They finally made it where they had been going all along, to a tiny side street in the palace district, a narrow house front, and a door that looked like the back entrance to something. Left to his own devices, Alistair would probably have decided he was in the wrong place, but Zin stepped up and knocked with complete confidence. He smiled at the butler, a creaky old retainer, and calmly said that Alistair Theirin and Zin Cousland had come to talk to Bann Alfstanna.

"She's probably out," Alistair said glumly as they were shown through a narrow, dark hallway into a small side room with dented old shields hung along one wall for decoration. "She seems to spend a lot of time at the Gnawed Noble, maybe we should have gone there instead." He sat down on a chair and then stood up again. "The arl has probably sent people out to look for us by now. He doesn't like not knowing where we are."

"Where you are," Zin said. "And the Gnawed Noble is the second place they'd look, when they didn't find us in the marketplace." He looked around the room with an expression that was sad and happy at the same time. "This reminds me of my father's study."

"Yes?" Alistair looked around, too. A frayed rug, a narrow window, a fireplace with no fire in it. He wondered if Waking Sea was short on money.

"He liked to hang old shields for decoration, too. Fergus asked him once, when we were children, if he'd picked them up on some glorious battlefield. Father said no, scavengers picked over battlefields, the shields were Highever ones that he'd retired from the guards barracks one by one when they became too dented." Zin laughed a little. "Except one was my great-grandfather's."

Alistair eyed the shields on the wall again. Any one of them could have been someone's great-grandfather's, he thought. Probably had been. They all looked ancient.

The door opened, and Bann Alfstanna strode in briskly. She was plainly dressed, in fighting leathers and clean linen, but the open neck of her shirt showed a necklace of thick, heavy gold links. Alistair revised his opinions on Waking Sea's finances. "Welcome," she said. "I didn't expect to see you here, but you're welcome -- would you like tea, or wine, or ale?"

"Tea would be fine," Zin said, "or whatever you'd have if we weren't here. How is your brother?"

"Better," Alfstanna said, asking the butler to bring them a tray. "He's not here -- the chantry took him in to care for him, but I visit him as much as they'll stand for. I was there this morning, talking to him about what had befallen him." She gestured them to be seated on a backless bench shoved against the wall and piled with cushions; Alfstanna herself sat on a campstool in front of the empty fireplace. "The grand cleric is extremely unhappy that her templars have been treated this way. The others in Irminric's patrol are," Alfstanna's mouth thinned, "presumably dead."

The chantry would be supplying Irminric with lyrium again, Alistair thought, making sure that his addiction was well and truly re-established. Then again, as bad as Irminric's withdrawal had looked to be, he probably wouldn't have been able to give lyrium up, even had he wanted to. Zin's gesture in giving the man a lyrium potion as soon as they let him out had likely been a wise choice.

"I'm glad we found him when we did," Alistair said.

"So am I," Alfstanna said warmly. She leaned forward towards them. "I don't think he would have lasted much longer in that place. Irminric's always been strong -- physically strong, I mean. But I don't know what more time in that place would have done to his mind, especially if Howe was using the lyrium withdrawal as another instrument of torture."

The butler came back with the promised tray, which held tea and almond cookies and three small glasses and a bottle of Waking Sea's infamous gritty brandy. They began with the tea, since it was hot, and soon enough all sat with their hands curved around tea mugs for wamth. It wasn't that the room was cold, precisely, but this warmth was always welcome.

"We didn't only come to ask about Irminric, though," Zin said once the butler had withdrawn again and they were on their own. "We had another errand as well."

Alfstanna cocked her head. "Yes?"

"We have a... request. Proposition? Maker's breath," Alistair said, "I don't even know what to call it."

"If you're here to ask me to support you over Loghain," Alfstanna said, "I thought I already made it clear that I would." Her brows drew together. "Loghain has gone much too far, and the things he allowed Howe to do... my poor brother is getting better now, yes, but it's clear just how much he has suffered."

Alistair nodded. He knew that just the withholding of lyrium would be torture for a templar who was far enough gone in addiction, but it had been obvious from the marks on Irminric's body that Howe hadn't stopped there. And the entire patrol had been captured, not just Irminric. Irminric must have seen his friends succumb, one by one.

"No," Zin said, "that's not it. I'm glad to hear that your brother is getting better, but the reason we're here has nothing to do with him."

"Well, it sort of does," Alistair said. Zin blinked at him. "In the ordinary way of things, he'd be bann, wouldn't he, and you'd be his heir until he had children. But you're the bann because you're better suited for it, and Irminric is a templar, and that means you don't have any heirs yet."

"No, I don't," Alfstanna said, and she sounded a bit more reserved now. "Is that a problem?"

"I'm going to marry Zin," Alistair said bluntly. "Arl Eamon is probably going to have something to say about that. Something that involves the word heirs." He rubbed at the back of his neck. "And I imagine you've got people like that, too, who keep bringing the subject up..."

"Yes," Alfstanna said. "At least you don't get the repeated reminder that you're not getting any younger." Her mouth tightened. "Is that why you're here? To say that if you take the throne, you'll want me to marry and have children? That's really not what I expected from you."

"I seem to be making a terrible mess of this," Alistair said. "Look, as I said, I'm going to marry Zin, and unless the chantry sisters at the abbey were telling the truth about where babies come from, we're not going to have any children. Not that that wouldn't be interesting," he couldn't help adding, "if we just suddenly appeared with a baby and said the good Fade spirits brought him."

Zin made a small sound that was almost like laughter. "You're getting off track a bit, babe."

"Yes. Um. Did you know that the custom of heir-arrangements was written into the law, and sanctified by the chantry, because of one of Calenhad's great-grandchildren? It's a royal custom that fell out of fashion, and now only the merchant classes use it sometimes, to preserve some merchant house or other. But we thought, I mean Zin and I thought, I mean I thought--"

"What an excellent idea," Alfstanna said. She looked like a woman having a spiritual vision. "What a completely brilliant..." Her eyes focused on Alistair's face. "So you want me to have your child."

"Well. Yes." Alistair could feel the tips of his ears heating up a little, and he tried to push the rising tide of embarrassment back by sheer force of will. He was trained in the art of mental discipline. He could do this.

"I would be honored," Alfstanna said with a bright grin. Then her grin dimmed a little. "I'll have to have two children this way, won't I. An heir for you, and an heir for myself. With a different father, or there'd be potential issues about the succession." Now the grin was completely gone. "I do mean it, it would be an honor. But I never imagined myself as spending so much time pregnant. I'm a warrior, not a mother."

"I think my mother would have taken issue with the idea that you can't be both," Zin said.

"Oh. So she would," Alfstanna said. The expression on her face changed yet again. "Eleanor certainly knew how to handle a weapon." She nodded, the short braids in her hair dancing. "I can think of no better, or fiercer, lady to be my model in this."

Zin nodded. "That would have pleased her a lot. I know she liked you." He looked almost wistful. "She loved Oriana dearly, my brother's wife, but I think it made her a little sad that Oriana had no interest in learning the sword or the bow."

"I suppose I don't have to ask if you'll bring the child up to be familiar with the art of fighting." Alfstanna's face showed everything she felt, every change of emotion, and for a moment she was close to laughter. Then she turned serious. "You would bring the child up, yes? Or would I be... I'm not sure I can just give you a child and then pretend I had nothing to do with it. With the child, I mean."

"No, no," Alistair said, without even looking at Zin, because that idea just reminded him far too much of Wynne's story of her son, the way babies were taken from mage mothers who never saw them again. The idea of taking a child from anyone turned his stomach. "That's not how we would do it."

"Good. And how about..." Alfstanna tapped her lower lip with one finger. She poured herself a small glass of brandy and downed it in one gulp. "I have to go out, I've an appointment with a bowyer who's looking to move north." She grimaced. "As if anyone's looking to move south, these days. Could I meet you at the Gnawed Noble later? I have a lot of questions."

"Of course," Alistair said. "And I understand if it will take a little while for you to make up your mind--"

"Oh, no," Alfstanna said. She smiled at the pair of them. "There are so many things that need to be decided, so many details to think about. But you already have my answer. Yes. Yes, I will do it."

9.7.6.1

"Of course, you should know that Grey Wardens have a... lower rate of fertility," Alistair said. "So this might take a little while."

Alfstanna looked him up and down. "What a terrible hardship," she said, deadpan. "More brandy?"

9.8

The arl's town estate had a rear courtyard, too, with a statue of Andraste, an unused chicken coop, and a tiny strip of garden with a few nondescript bushes and some white flowers Alistair didn't know the name of. Two stone benches were placed along one wall, just far out enough that the people who sat on them couldn't actually lean on the wall for support. Alistair and Zin sat down on the bench closest to the chicken coop.

"Well, out with it," Zin said. "You didn't drag me out here to hold my hand and look at the flowers. Or are you worrying about what Alfstanna will say?"

Alistair frowned. "No. I mean, yes, I am, but that's not what this is about. It's, well, I don't know what to do with Anora," he said. "Every time I see her she looks at me like I'm something the mabari threw up. Like I'm trying to steal her throne."

"Well, you are," Zin said. "Trying to take the throne, I mean. Not dog vomit."

"Oh, thank you. You're so kind." Alistair thought about socking Zin's shoulder, but decided to save it for some time when he wasn't wearing plate-mail gauntlets. "But I still don't know what to say to her. I can't be the only one who thinks the arl's dinners are getting a bit tense."

"No," Zin agreed a bit glumly, "you're not." He came in for quite a bit of Anora's glaring, too, Alistair realized. Whether it was because Zin was Alistair's lover, or because he was a Cousland and a potential candidate for the throne in his own right, Anora was rather cold towards him as well. "At least he's stopped trying to entertain vacillating nobles and you and Anora at the same time. All that lobbying in opposite directions was making my head spin."

"Arl Eamon's made it clear where he stands," Alistair said slowly. "Do you think he keeps including Anora in these dinners because he hopes to change her mind, or is it just hospitality that won't let him leave her out of it?"

"She keeps attending," Zin said. "She could just ask for a tray in her room, but she never does. Maybe she hopes to change his mind."

Alistair shook his head. "That won't happen, not unless this Theirin blood he keeps going on about actually turns into dog vomit." He made a face. "I think I just managed to disgust myself."

"Congratulations," Zin said. "About Anora... I don't think Eamon is likely to change her mind, either. And the Landsmeet is getting very close. Extremely close. If she decided to side with her father again, if she thinks that's the only way she can retain any claims to power, then we might be in trouble. Better to have her on our side, at least for the time being."

Alistair snorted. "And how are we going to manage that?"

Zin shrugged. "I think we'd better just lie to her."

"I'm not very good at lying," Alistair said. "One of the many reasons why I'm not sure I'd make a good king."

"I'll do the lying for you," Zin said.

"And... that actually sounds romantic. I think you've been a bad influence on me, Zin Cousland." Alistair shook his head some more, but he couldn't help grinning. "And what will you say, when you're lying?"

"That I think she'd make a good queen." Zin's nose wrinkled. "Wait, that's actually true. That it's no use trying to change Eamon's mind, he's completely set on this Theirin heir thing. Which is also true."

"I hate to say it, but I'm not that impressed yet." Alistair shifted further to the left; the sun was coming around the roof of the houses on the west side, and his armor was warm and heavy enough all by itself, without any additional roasting. "And what do you mean, you think she'd make a good queen? Have you changed your mind about who you're supporting, here?"

"No," Zin said patiently. "I do think she's efficient and strong-willed enough to run the country, if her father isn't pulling the strings. Which he would be, so maybe it's only half true. My point is, I need her to believe I'd support her."

Alistair snorted. "She won't." He shifted again to get a proper look at Zin past the arch of his pauldron. "Why would she believe that? I mean, you're-- We're--"

"Well." Zin had his head tipped forward a bit, so his hair just about hung down over his eyes. "If I tell her that you being king means marriage to some young woman of Eamon's choosing, and I'd rather you remained a Grey Warden..."

"That was the original plan," Alistair muttered. He really hoped Zin wasn't about to get any funny ideas about marrying him off, again. "Staying a warden. You talked me into this, you know. I wish this bench had a backrest."

Zin frowned at him. "What?"

"A backrest. So I could lean back and put an arm around you without being so obvious about it."

"Of course that would be useful," Zin said. "You being so subtle and all."

"I can be subtle," Alistair said. "If I need to. Do you really think Anora will believe this, then?"

"Why not?" Zin looked up and squinted against the sun. "It was very nearly true." He hesitated, put a hand over Alistair's, and went on, "Do you wish it were true? That you'd stay a warden, I mean?"

"No," Alistair said. "Strangely enough, I don't. Not any more. I do think Anora's capable, like you said, but... sometimes I think she might be capable of anything, if it suited her purposes." He turned his hand under Zin's and linked their fingers together. "And I think I'll do all right, as long as you're with me."

"Always," Zin said. "Always."

"Well. Good." In lieu of yanking Zin close and kissing him breathless, Alistair squeezed their hands a little tighter together. Only a little, because metal grated on metal. "They used to have chickens here," he said inconsequently. "But those all died from some... chickeny illness."

Zin blinked sweetly at him. "Chickenpox?"

Alistair looked back at him. "Are you making fun of your future king?"

"Yes," Zin said. "And my future husband, don't forget that one."

Those words made Alistair feel so warm inside, he might as well have been sitting directly in the sun after all.

Chapter twenty-four

9.8.2

When they came to the Gnawed Noble, Alfstanna was already there and waiting for them. This time she was in the back, at a table as close to private as any tavern offered. She nodded at them as they sat down on the bench opposite to her, Alistair on the inside. "I ordered for you. Ale."

"Sounds good," Zin said, leaning back to make room for the waitress to serve Alistair his tankard. "So. Have you changed your mind since the last time we saw you?"

"No." Alfstanna gave them both a long, level look. "I've just been thinking about all the formal contracts we need to make, everything that has to be written down and agreed on and signed. I know this isn't the time for us to make those arrangements, but we need to agree on what we're going to agree on later."

Zin nodded briskly, and Alistair sipped at his ale, because his throat was suddenly dry. "Yes," Zin said, "I've been thinking about that, too." Of course he had. "Normally an heir-arrangement is for two children, one for each family, but--"

"But that could make things complicated in the future, if everyone knows my heir also has Theirin blood," Alfstanna said. "One child from each of you would work just as well, and of course we'd need witnesses--"

Alistair choked on the ale. "Witnesses."

"That one of us was with Alfstanna and the other one was at the other end of the country," Zin said. "Not witnesses at the foot of the bed or anything, breathe, babe."

Alfstanna chuckled. "It's a shame, really," she said. "I think we'd all be more comfortable if we could do this privately between the three of us. But there can't be any doubt which child is Alistair's. Particularly with the irregular circumstances of your own birth and background," she turned another of those level, assessing looks on Alistair, "you have to take care that there's nothing even remotely suspect about the conception and birth of your heir."

"No," Alistair said. "I mean, yes." The last thing he wanted was for Ferelden to erupt into a civil war for the throne once he was dead. "I understand that it would have to be just as clear that the second child wasn't, wasn't mine."

Zin nodded. "Even if things were settled legally and on paper, it would be much better not to have even the possibility of doubt, there."

"Yes," Alfstanna said slowly. "And that brings me to something I need to ask." She turned to Zin. "Have you decided what to do about Highever? Will you rule it yourself, or appoint someone else, or let it go to a distant relative, or," she made a small grimace, "let it revert to the crown? I'd want a second child to be my heir, brought up to it. A child known to be a Cousland as well..."

"I know." Zin looked troubled.

Alistair put a hand on Zin's leg under the table. He hadn't thought about any of this when he was making his little plans. And he was starting to think that Zin had let all the possibilities play out in the back of his head as soon as Alistair had made the suggestion, and never imagined that Alistair hadn't done so as well.

"Because I won't enter into an agreement for three children," Alfstanna said. "I looked at some of the records in the chantry before I came here, and it does seem as if most heir-arrangements are for two children, yes, but sometimes only one. Three children, no."

"I don't really know yet," Zin said, "about Highever. But it will be much easier to sign away legal rights for a Cousland child than a Theirin child. I mean, to make sure that it isn't a Cousland child." He scrubbed a hand over his face. "So you could be assured that I wouldn't suddenly change my mind and demand the child as my heir, at any rate. Though I'd want to meet her and know her, just as you would for the Theirin heir, I assume."

"Yes, of course," Alfstanna said. "We'll have to formalize that, too. Just in case."

"In case of what?" Alistair asked, though he had a feeling it was a stupid question and he should be able to figure out the answer.

"Death," Alfstanna said. Well, there was a nice cheerful future to plan for, but Alistair could see that it had to be done. "And we'll have to agree, too, what happens if I die in childbirth, or if I fall down a flight of stairs and break my neck before there's a second child. If I die before there's an heir to Waking Sea, I'd rather you found a new bann for it than let my cousins fight it out amongst themselves."

"Would they?"

"Oh, yes." Alfstanna shook her head. "Especially the Burnhams. Ellis Burnham has been trying to get formally named as heir ever since Irminric went to the chantry." She drew a deeper breath and smiled. "But that's nothing to do with this."

They spent the next hour or so discussing where to bring up the children, when the future Theirin heir would come to live with Alistair and Zin, how Alfstanna would continue to be there, where to find and hire a reliable nurse...

"Someone who'll be there from the beginning, because there can't be any rumors later on that you traded the real baby for someone born in the village at the same time," Zin said, and Alfstanna just nodded brisk agreement.

Alistair shook his head. "You were brought up to think like this?" he said. "Both of you?"

"I suppose so," Zin said. "I mean, not about this specifically, but."

Alfstanna laughed. "He was," she said, tipping her head at Zin, "and I got enough of it to see the sense of what he's saying." She got to her feet. "I have to leave you now, there's a meeting later on at the Book and Sword tavern up near the palace quarters, and I want to get home first. It'll be mostly people connected to the chantry, so I'll let them know about Irminric's rescue, and how the grand cleric feels about it." Her smile was sharp now. "I'll see you at the Landsmeet."

Craning his neck to watch her thread her way among the tables, Alistair didn't realize Zin was moving until there was suddenly empty air next to him and Zin slipped onto the bench across the table where Alfstanna had been sitting. "That went well," he said "More ale? Wine?"

Alistair shook his head. "We should be getting back, too. I was just thinking." He looked at Zin, who was beautiful and alive, shining with it. "She said we should make plans in case of death. I never thought I would leave enough behind for it to matter. If I fell with the wardens, another warden could have my sword, and that would be it."

"Leaving a child, that's different," Zin said. "Or a country."

"We might not get that far," Alistair said. "Blight to stop, remember?" He turned the empty ale tankard over between his hands. None of these plans felt wholly real to him. There'd be the Landsmeet to get through, and he thought Arl Eamon wasn't really thinking beyond that; there'd be the Blight to stop, and he couldn't see any further, himself.

He did want to marry Zin, more than anything. He wanted them both to live in a future where these plans had meaning, and there was a child and a country.

"We will. And there's time for you to have some cheese pie before we leave, if you want," Zin said.

Alistair perked up. Child and country were distant things, but he could definitely handle cheese pie.

9.8.3

The Landsmeet was horrible.

They were late, to start with. Arl Eamon and Bann Teagan and Anora had all set off in good time, particularly Anora, who was taking some kind of roundabout back way to avoid everyone, but Alistair and Zin had real trouble getting their party assembled and moving. Wynne, Shale and Zevran waited patiently in the front hall while Zin tried to roust Oghren out of the pantry with the wine-cellar door and Alistair closed his eyes and pointed when Leliana said she couldn't decide which shoes to wear.

Sten thought the whole thing was pointless and didn't want to go at all. "If you are their king, just tell them to follow you," he said. "If they do not follow, you are not their leader."

Given that kind of attitude, Alistair thought it might be just as well to leave Sten behind, but Zin was stubborn. Zin also dragged Morrigan out of the tiny back garden and ignored her complaints that her hair was coming loose from its bun and she needed to fix it. When they came back to the front hall, it was to find that Zevran had made one too many comments about Wynne's bosom, she in turn had made one too many comments about his past, and they had stormed off in opposite directions.

"This is worse than when I had to spend my afternoons looking after Oren," Zin muttered. "Babe, make the ones who are still here stay here."

At long last, everyone was rounded up and ushered out the door, and they even managed to get to the Landsmeet without being attacked by any random street gangs on the way, which Alistair had half expected would happen, given the way everything was going. But no: what did happen was that Ser Cauthrien met them just outside, and tried to stop them from going in, telling Alistair that if he were worthy of being in there, he'd already be in there, which was an argument that confused him so much he just stood back and watched Zin deal with it.

Which Zin did by playing on Cauthrien's misgivings and uncertainties until she admitted that she really wasn't sure that Loghain was all that well balanced and doing the right thing. Alistair snorted quietly. He could have told her that a year ago. But then, a year ago she wouldn't have listened, to him or to anyone.

She stepped back at last, looking lost and unhappy, and Alistair would have felt worse about that if the whole country hadn't been lost and unhappy for so long. "Please," she said. "Don't kill him. My lord is a great man, and there's goodness in him, he's just been... confused."

Alistair wanted to reply to that, but Zin just dragged him forward, until they were finally in the Landsmeet chambers and Loghain's loud demagoguery washed over them. Practically the first thing he did on seeing them was fling out his hand and accuse Zin of selling out the country to the Orlesians. Seeing that the country was quite spectacularly not invaded by Orlesians, but on the other hand overrun by darkspawn, this didn't seem to Alistair to be the best argument to make, but he knew that to everyone over a certain age, which included quite a lot of the people here in the Landsmeet, Orlais was the kind of threat that overrode sense and reason.

Was that it? Was that the fear and the belief that had warped Loghain into a man who had done so many things wrong? Alistair shook his head. He couldn't agree with Cauthrien. Being confused was one thing, but destroying the country under the pretense of saving it was quite another.

"The Blight is the threat here," Zin said calmly, "not Orlais." He went on to list all the ways in which Loghain had abused Ferelden and its people over the past year -- selling alienage elves into slavery, allowing Rendon Howe to imprison and torture anyone who said the wrong thing or asked the wrong questions, arranging to have Arl Eamon poisoned by a man who was an apostate and a blood mage.

It was a fairly damning list. Loghain defended himself loudly and cleverly, but too many people could vouch for everything Zin said. They had signed documents that showed Loghain condoning slavery, after all; they had the grand cleric up in arms about what had happened to the templar Irminric, and about the way he'd lost his blood mage charge; they had Bann Sighard to testify to Oswyn's current health, or rather lack of it, after spending time as Howe's prisoner. And they had everyone whose bannorn was filling up with refugees, which was pretty much everyone except those whose holdings had already been lain waste by the darkspawn invasion.

Faced with evidence like that, Loghain could only talk. Which Alistair had to admit he did well, though every word out of his mouth made Alistair want to strangle him. He wanted to take the man by the neck and shake him and say Give me Duncan back, not that that was going to happen, and Give me my brother back, not that that was going to happen either. He'd lost both of them forever there at Ostagar, the man who hadn't been his father but might as well have been, and the man who hadn't been much of a brother, but might have been, and who had definitely made a more convincing king.

Zin didn't say a word about Highever, about what Howe had done to Highever. They hadn't talked about it, Alistair realized. None of them knew if Loghain had any involvement in that terrible betrayal, and there was so much else that he was involved in, there was really no need for Zin to relive his own personal tragedy yet again.

"And what have you done with my daughter?" Loghain demanded. "You took her by force, you--"

Zin snorted. "Oh, I did not. Your daughter was imprisoned by Howe. She was behind lock and key, Loghain, did you know about that?"

"And where is she now?" Loghain flung out a rhetorical hand. "You didn't return her to me, you took her--"

"I am hardly lost property," Anora said coolly, making an entrance, pitching her voice to carry, "and I am quite capable of speaking for myself."

Hearing Anora confirm everything Zin had said seemed to take the air out of Loghain. Whatever lies Zin had told her, they must have been effective. As her voice filled the chambers, telling the nobles that Loghain wasn't himself and couldn't be trusted with the welfare of the country any longer, Loghain seemed to shrink a couple of inches. The Landsmeet voted that Zin was right and Loghain was wrong, and when Zin told him to step down, Loghain suddenly growled and straightened up again, throwing all caution to the wind. He demanded a duel. A duel.

"This is not the most sensible course of action," Arl Eamon tried to say. For once, Alistair agreed completely. But apparently it was a lawful way to settle matters before the Landsmeet, because Alfstanna was on her feet and calling out the rules as if she saw this every day. The nobles gathering round looked nothing but excited and pleased. Alistair shared a panicked look with Arl Eamon, the first time he'd ever felt the two of them shared an adult opinion.

Too bad the opinion had to be oh holy Maker, this is a terrible idea and Zin's about to get himself killed. Alistair felt as though his heart skipped a beat and then raced on twice as fast. Of course Zin was an excellent fighter, tall and strong and fast and fearless, and armed with the best swords to be found in Ferelden. But he was still a rogue in some fairly lightweight chainmail, and it seemed that he'd be facing a man who had a big sword, a heavy shield, some fairly impressive plate mail, and about thirty more years of fighting experience.

The people on the floor cleared a circle, and Loghain stood sat the center of it with an anticipatory smile. "Afraid to face me, Warden?"

"No. But this isn't my fight," Zin said. He turned his head and looked at Alistair. "All yours, babe."

"Oh," Alistair said, startled. At least he'd armored up properly that morning, even if full plate had seemed excessive for the Landsmeet. But it was Cailan's armor, the same shiny gold that he'd worn in Ostagar, and apparently it made Alistair look the part.

Loghain shook his head derisively. "Will you really send that puppy of yours to do a man's job?"

There was a ringing in Alistair's ears as he marched forward. He knew that Loghain was trying to provoke him; the thing was, it was working. When Loghain looked at him, Alistair bared his teeth in something very far from a smile. "You left my brother to die," he said. "Regret it while you still have time." Then he turned the visor down, because he didn't want Loghain to see his face; he wanted Loghain to fight Cailan's armor and to imagine Cailan's ghost in it.

They circled each other slowly, each with sword and shield at the ready. Alistair took some comfort in the fact that although he was wearing Cailan's old armor, he carried Duncan's shield. Zin had been right. People would know he was a warden.

Loghain threw back his head and shouted a war cry that set the rafters ringing, powerful enough that Alistair would have staggered back if he'd been the puppy Loghain named him. Instead he called on all his templar training to keep mind and body steady, and when Loghain looked at him to see if he'd wet himself or fled the duelling circle in fear, Alistair struck back with a holy smite that made every grain of dust in the air between them gleam white.

No, Loghain didn't stagger back, either. But a thin trail of blood leaked from his nose. He wasn't wearing a helmet, the overconfident bastard. Alistair bared his teeth and rushed forward.

Of course Loghain was strong. Surprisingly fast, too, for a man that age in that armor. But Alistair had spent a year training with two rogues who could run circles around him; this was nothing. All he needed was for Loghain to be in one place long enough for Alistair to hit him with the shield.

And it worked. Loghain was strong, and he was used to overpowering his enemies, it showed in the way he fought. Alistair knew he could stand up to those blows if he had to, but it was even more satisfying not to be there, to step aside that bare fingerwidth, to hit Loghain while he was still trying to recover his balance from hitting the air. And every time one of Alistair's hits landed, Loghain roared, growing angrier and less coordinated, flailing as he turned and tried to keep up.

That flailing and unpredictable lurching was harder to judge than the early attacks had been, and when Loghain's shield crashed into his side, Alistair thought he heard his ribs crack. But he didn't fall. Reel back, yes, go down on one knee, and Loghain was coming for him with the sword held high, paying no attention to the shield-bearing side any more.

It was like being back in a stinky Denerim alley, fighting bandits. Alistair rose up and struck out in one single motion, all his strength flowing through him from the soles of his feet up to his right arm, his sword going through the right side and the front of Loghain's throat. Didn't quite cut his head off, because those high pauldrons were in the way, but the blood spurted out hot and bright, and Loghain went down.

The whole Landsmeet gasped. Anora rushed forward and dropped to her knees beside her father, her face a stiff mask of shock. Blood soaked into her skirts.

Alistair pulled his helmet off, because the time for being a ghost in Cailan's armor was over. Now he had to be himself. And he had no blood on his face, either, which had to be a plus. People were moving towards him, Zin and Arl Eamon first among them, but to his surprise, it was Riordan who came up out of nowhere to take the helmet from his hand. "I had hoped to stop you before this," he said in a low voice that didn't carry to the watching nobles.

"Stop me," Alistair said. He couldn't get the words to make sense. "You wanted to stop me."

"Yes, to make the teyrn take the Joining instead," Riordan said as if that was the most self-evident thing in the world.

"Never," Alistair said, revolted. "That would be -- that would have been wrong." For Loghain to join the brotherhood of the Grey Wardens, when it was because of him that all the men Alistair had called brothers before Ostagar were dead, when it was because of him that Duncan was dead... No.

"Well, it's too late now," Riordan said philosophically.

Zin came up to them, beating out Arl Eamon by about three steps. He looked at Alistair in a way that made Alistair forget all about his aching ribs. Then he glanced over his shoulder at the assembled Landsmeet, and gave Alistair a quick, warm look. "Time to step up, babe."

"So it is decided," Arl Eamon said smugly. "Alistair will take his father's throne."

Alistair wanted to laugh. That was why they were here, and he'd known for a long time now that it would come to this, but standing there in the Landsmeet chamber, his sword wet with Loghain's blood, he still found it difficult to believe that the arl and Zin had talked others into agreeing. The whole idea that he was going to be king was absurd. Ridiculous. No one would want to see a country ruled by him, the bastard who grew up in a stable, the reluctant templar, the charity-case Grey Warden. All he had going for him was the Theirin nose.

"No." Before Alistair could say anything at all, Anora had pushed to her feet and stood facing the arl. She had blood all down the skirt of her dress. "He is unfit, untried, and unwilling. Just look at his face. I am the queen who has ruled Ferelden for years. I have the experience, and I believe I have shown my ability."

"Anora." Arl Eamon shook his head. "You are indeed Cailan's widow, but since he died..."

"Since he died, Loghain has been ruling the country," Zin said. "Mostly by calling himself your regent, but he was king in all but name. You ceded your authority to him, and now that he's dead, you want us to give it back."

Anora's eyes flashed. "I want the Landsmeet to confirm it," she said. "Everyone here knows my ability. And I thought you would support me in this, my lord Cousland, but it seems your heart is overruling your head."

Zin looked unexpectedly amused. "I think a lot of people would have put it more crudely than that. But actually, no. I believe in Alistair."

"I'll do it," Alistair said, finally finding his tongue. "I'll take the throne." He wished he could reach out and take Zin's hand, feel a bit of warmth and support after speaking words that made him feel so nervous, but he knew they had to take it one step at a time.

Anora refused to swear loyalty to Alistair, which probably shouldn't have surprised him, so his first act as... king? Was he king now? He hadn't been crowned, he couldn't be king. Anyway, his first act as someone who apparently had a lot more power than he'd had a few minutes ago was to order her imprisoned somewhere not too uncomfortable. She'd just seen her father cut down in front of her; he couldn't be harsh, even if she probably would have been, he thought. And if he fell in the coming battles, at least Ferelden could have someone competent to run it.

"And now," Zin said, with a sparkle in his eyes that was half mischief and half something uncomfortably respectful, "you should probably say something encouraging to the nice Landsmeet that voted to make you king. Don't forget to mention the Blight."

Alistair wanted to stick his tongue out, but he had a feeling he needed all the dignity he could get in this situation. He drew himself up as straight as he could, looked at the nobles gathered on the floor and on the balconies of the Landsmeet chamber, and did his best.

9.8.4

"This is your revenge, isn't it," Zin muttered. He came over and wrapped his arms around Alistair, armor and all. "You get to be king and look pretty, I get to lead armies and work out logistics and supply routes and attack plans."

"Unlike me with the king business," Alistair said, "you're actually trained for it." He gripped Zin by the upper arms, pushed him back and looked at him. His ribs didn't even twinge; Wynne had taken care of that as soon as they'd returned to the estate. "Aren't you, my lord Cousland?"

Zin glared at him. "To a certain extent. My lord king." Then he suddenly grinned. "You want to play king and general in bed? You can give me orders, and I can tell you no one orders a general around..."

Alistair's hands fell away. "It's not playing, is it," he said. "This is who we are now. I'm the king, and you're the leader of Ferelden's armies."

"But not actually a general," Zin said. He sighed. "I know, I know, babe. We should have done the silly role-playing before. But I still want to suck your cock, my lord king." He knelt in front of Alistair and looked up through his lashes. "A bit of service to the crown."

"I thought you said I couldn't order you around." Alistair wasn't sure why his throat felt tight when he looked down at Zin. They were the same people they'd been this morning. Everything felt completely different, and there was still a fleck of blood on his right vambrace from his fight with Loghain.

"You can't," Zin said, "but this is completely voluntary." He stripped off his gauntlets and raised his hands, began to work at the faulds of Alistair's armor. "I want your cock in my mouth." Leaning in, he began to kiss and lick as soon as the skin was bared to his mouth, even though a metal edge dug into his cheek. "You taste so good, my lord king." His eyes flashed at Alistair, blue and green and mischievous. "Babe."

Alistair wished he had something to lean against. He was in the middle of the floor, and Zin's soft mouth was making his knees go weak already. Maybe the armor would hold him up. He was encased in dragonbone from neck to toe, only the helmet stripped off, and he had no idea where that had gotten to. Completely untouchable, except where Zin was touching him so very intimately. Zin knew how to find his way underneath and inside, and Alistair braced his hands against Zin's shoulders and just felt.

The armor was still in the way a bit, so Zin couldn't take Alistair in all the way; instead, Zin's warm fingers wrapped around the shaft, squeezing and rubbing as Zin's mouth worked. As Zin's tongue worked, rubbing just perfectly in the right place. "Maker's breath," Alistair ground out. "Don't stop. Don't ever stop."

Zin made a soft humming sound of acquiescence, and the vibrations were almost unbearably wonderful. Zin's free hand clutched at Alistair's armored hip, and Alistair followed the urgings of that faint pressure, thrusting gently into Zin's mouth. That got him even more noises, which brought even more pleasure. Alistair groaned. Zin's hand was urging him on to move faster, but he wanted this to last, this strange moment of standing here fully armed and armored and at the same time experiencing such an intimate act with the man he loved beyond reason.

He hoped that Zin would always be able to do that -- peel back the layers and find Alistair inside. When he looked down, he met Zin's eyes, dark with lust and still smiling, crinkling a little at the corners. Zin's mouth was stretched wide around him, lips spit-slick and shiny. Alistair's hips jerked at the sight, completely out of his control, and Zin's deep noise in response vibrated up and down his spine.

Time spun out around them, and Alistair couldn't tell how long they stayed like that, how long he drove himself into Zin's mouth and Zin sucked him hard. All he knew was, when it ended, it was like lightning going off inside his head, bright and sudden and perfect.

He staggered and would have fallen if his hands hadn't been on Zin's shoulders, that solid strength holding him up. As Zin had always been holding him up, completely reliable even at his most impossible.

"You made me king," Alistair said when he could speak again.

"Yes," Zin said, sitting back on his heels and wiping his mouth against the back of his wrist. His lower lip was bruised and swollen. "I did."

"I mean, you made me this person." Alistair shook his head a little. "Who is king and doesn't actually mind."

Zin looked at him with eyes still full of wanting. "Well, good. Cause I think it's a bit late for you to change your mind now, babe."

Alistair shook his head and laughed. "Come here," he said.

9.8.4.1

"Well," Arl Eamon said, closing the door of the study behind them, "I think it's high time we had a little private talk. You've taken on a great responsibility, Alistair, but I don't doubt, with your Theirin blood, you'll be able to handle it."

"Wouldn't that be blood magic?" Alistair said, and the arl stared at him. "Never mind, bad joke." He glanced around the study. He'd really like to sit down, but the arl liked to stand up, and keep other people standing up as well.

"I never imagined Loghain would go to such lengths," Arl Eamon said. "Duels at the Landsmeet aren't unheard-of, of course, but... I would not have expected it of him. Most fortunate for us that you could best him without taking any serious injury."

Alistair winced, remembering, and then decided he really didn't care if the arl glared at him; he sat on the edge of the desk and slumped forward a little. Those cracked ribs had felt like a serious injury to him, but it was true that he'd had worse, and once Wynne had healed him, he'd all but forgotten that he'd ever been hurt. Fighting Loghain had been an unexpected turn in a strange day, and he understood now why Zin had looked so empty after killing Howe. He would have felt empty himself, except that too many other things kept happening, filling his time up, filling his self up.

Maybe it wasn't the perfect and satisfying vengeance he'd dreamed of, but it was done and he couldn't regret it. Loghain had fallen to his sword, and that was really all he'd ever asked.

What he'd actually gotten was a great deal more.

"At least now we can give our full attention to stopping the Blight, finally," he said. "Without worrying that Loghain will stab us in the back at the same time."

"Yes, of course." Arl Eamon fussed a little with his beard, smoothing it down. "I think our wisest course right now is to return to Redcliffe with all speed. All the reports from our scouts indicate that the darkspawn army will head that way, and we must be prepared to meet it."

Alistair nodded. "Oh, absolutely. We just need to make a quick detour up north to pick up a few things we've stored with friends there. But we're a small party, we move fast, so we can be in Redcliffe not more than a couple of days behind you, I bet."

"Oh." Arl Eamon looked a little disconcerted, but he rallied fast. "Yes. Good. That will give me time to confer with Teagan and muster the troops." He shook his head. "I will be glad when all of this is over."

"I don't suppose anyone will argue with you there," Alistair said.

"Alistair, my boy," the arl said, "there is one more thing we had better consider. We can't hold a coronation with the Blight looming over us like this, but there is something else that would assist in uniting the country. I know it's rushed, but there's still time for you to meet with the banns and their families before we leave Denerim. The ones I've already talked to are quite eager for it. And if you meet someone you like, well, your betrothal to a suitable young woman would do a lot to establish you more firmly among our leading families."

"Um." Alistair stared at his hands and drew a deep breath. "But I'm already engaged to be married."

"What?" Arl Eamon looked very grave. "Is this some old agreement from your youth?" Alistair had the time to think that he was still young, thank you very much. "I'm afraid things will be rather different now that the Landsmeet has acknowledged you as the future king of Ferelden. You must marry suitably, and that will take some consideration."

"I'm going to marry Zin," Alistair said.

Arl Eamon actually reached out and patted his hand. "Yes, I've noticed the attachment between the pair of you. But Alistair, your responsibility is to all of Ferelden now. If you don't ensure the succession, the nobles won't have faith in your reign. I understand that you feel strongly for your fellow Grey Warden, but--"

"First of all," Alistair said, "Zin's a Cousland. The Couslands have ties to most of the north, and they're a deeply respected family. Oh, Maker's breath, he's probably the teyrn of Highever. Second, about heirs. We've already made an agreement with Bann Alfstanna of Waking Sea for an heir-arrangement." The arl drew breath, and Alistair held up a hand. "Which is a legal agreement that goes back to Frayne Theirin, grandson of Calenhad himself. It's fallen out of use among the nobles of Ferelden, but the law remains, and so does the precedent. The chantry has records."

"Well." Now the arl looked more than just a little disconcerted. "I never took you for a student of law and history, Alistair." He sat down on his couch and rubbed his hands together. "Of course these records will have to be presented to the Landsmeet, to make everything clear. And a connection to Waking Sea... it's not what I would have chosen, but..."

"Highever and Waking Sea," Alistair said, placing his emphasis carefully. "I'm not marrying Alfstanna."

When Arl Eamon looked up at Alistair now, it was with a very thoughtful look indeed. "For someone who claimed not to want to be king only days ago, you've put a great deal of thought into this."

Alistair sighed. No, it had never been his ambition to be king, and he would never have made it to this point without Zin, but since it seemed he was stuck with it, he really didn't want to be a bad king. One who didn't think for himself, say. But he didn't think he'd better say that to the arl, who was very much prepared to do his thinking for him. All he said was, "I had to. I'm marrying Zin. I hope you're not going to oppose this."

Because Alistair could always choose another chancellor, he realized, but he didn't think at this point the arl could choose another king. Looking at Arl Eamon, Alistair felt as though the world had turned upside down.

"No," Arl Eamon said. "No, I... no." He shook his head a little, but not in protest, it seemed. "I trust you will come to Redcliffe with all possible speed?"

Alistair nodded, glad to be able to say yes to something that was easy to say yes to. "Of course. Count on it."

Chapter twenty-five

9.8.5

Redcliffe was empty, and it smelled wrong. Alistair's warden senses were on a steady alert, like a chantry bell ringing a constant warning, but he thought even without that ability to sense the darkspawn he would have known they were there, their stench overlying the smell of fresh and not-so-fresh fish.

There were bodies hanging from the edge of the windmill roof -- not hanged there, you couldn't hang people there, just hung there after their deaths like some kind of perverse decoration. Alistair cut down a horde of Blight wolves and felt almost nothing, but when the genlocks started their inevitable hur-hur-hur that seemed to be the only vocalization they were capable of, he put a bit more anger and force behind every swing of his sword.

It wasn't as though he was alone here. Redcliffe might be abandoned by all except the darkspawn and the dead, but there were some people who would follow Zin anywhere, up the highest, coldest mountain and down in the dankest depths of the Deep Roads, and right now Zin was leading the way into Redcliffe to see if there was anything, or anyone, that might be saved.

Alistair had a feeling they wouldn't actually find any people there -- any people still living, that was -- and he hoped the lone fleeing man they'd met up at the top of the cliffs had been right, that everyone was safely barricaded in the castle by now. Down here, the darkspawn had been making themselves at home in their own way. Their penchant for setting things on fire actually looked kind of normal down in the Deep Roads; without the darkspawn habit of making a big bonfire everywhere, it would be impossible to see anything, let alone find the revolting creatures and kill them.

Up here on the surface, though, setting things on fire just looked wrong and destructive. Which Alistair guessed was the point. He wondered how the darkspawn would feel if he told them their underground fires and ribbon decorations just came across as kind of cozy by comparison.

Zin came up next to him and tilted his head towards the village square. "What do you think -- emissary?"

"I've told you, I'm not very good at telling the different horrible feelings I get from different horrible darkspawn apart." Alistair grimaced. There was a difference, yes, and different Grey Wardens were sensitive to it in different ways. "All I can say is, there's a lot of smaller darkspawn down there, like the ones we've seen already, and then a couple of heavy hitters." It was like the difference between disgusting little mice skittering through the corners of his mind, and big dirty rats like the ones in the alienage.

"One of them feels sparkly," Zin said. Alistair looked at him. "Most of them are like stains of old blood, but emissaries are like... old blood with mica flecks in?"

Alistair just shook his head, because that wasn't the way he experienced it at all. "Just tell me where to put the holy smite," he said, and Zin grinned, wide and vicious and happy. And even though Alistair had to fight his way through a couple of ogres to get to the emissary, he would have done it many times over just for a smile like that.

9.8.5.1

They didn't find any living people until they finally made it up to the castle. The courtyard was swarming with darkspawn, and the castle guards looked distinctly harried. When Morrigan put a fair number of the darkspawn to sleep where they stood, the guards got a lot more cheerful, and Alistair agreed that it was nice to know that those genlocks wouldn't be trying to stab anyone in the back for a little while. Instead, Zin stabbed them in the back. Alistair would say in the kidneys, but he wasn't really sure if darkspawn had kidneys.

It was a good battle, as battles went. Nobody got hurt -- not even Zin when he launched himself at the ogre who only turned up after all the other darkspawn were already dead, like walking uphill to the castle had just been very tiring for its big heavy ogre legs. Maybe because the ogre was tired, maybe because Zin was very fast, none of its blows managed to connect, and when Leliana finally put an arrow through one of its eyes, it went down with a very un-ogre-like squeak.

"Thank you," the leader of the castle guards panted at them. "We were... outnumbered."

"But surely there is an army here," Wynne said, looking a little troubled. "No one expects you to stand against the darkspawn horde on your own."

"I'm not sure what's happening," the man said, "but Riordan of the Grey Wardens arrived here not long before you did, and whatever news he brought made the arl start to move his troops already. You'd better get inside and hear it all for yourselves."

9.8.6

The inside of Redcliffe Castle smelled like too many people and not quite enough sanitation, and also, disquietingly, a little of blood. Alistair could see Wynne noticing it, too, turning her head as they passed an open door, trying to pin it down.

"Go," Zin said. "I'll make your excuses to the arl. Just don't exhaust yourself. I hate to say it, but things will likely get a lot worse from here on out."

"Because they're so wonderful now," Alistair muttered.

"He is right," Sten said. "That is the nature of war."

"I never imagined that I would come to Ferelden to fight in a war," Zevran said.

"Nor did I." But Sten looked almost pleased at the thought.

They found Riordan, Bann Teagan and Arl Eamon in the great hall, crowded together around a map table, dressed for war, and in the middle of a very vigorous discussion. The arl was the first to look up and see them. "Ah, there you are!" He straightened up and tried to rub at his back, and made a face that indicated he'd barked his knuckles on his own armor. "Riordan came back with some very alarming news, and I've taken the liberty of ordering my men to--"

"Wait, what news?" Alistair didn't remember actually ever interrupting Arl Eamon before, but he had a feeling they really needed to hear this.

Riordan looked uncommonly grave. "The darkspawn horde is marching on Denerim, not Redcliffe."

Five different people behind Alistair, including Zin, cursed. "It would have been good to know this before we leftDenerim," Alistair said, mildly enough, because he knew just how Riordan had come by this information, and you couldn't pay him to listen in to the darkspawn, not that he'd understand them if he tried, so they were lucky to have Riordan. He looked at Arl Eamon. "You told your men to get ready to march?"

"I hope the other armies have been told about the change in plans, too," Zin said. "I know the dwarves are already here..."

"So are the Dalish," Bann Teagan put in. "But if we send a sailing vessel with some fast messengers, we might be able to catch the mages before they've done too much marching in the wrong direction."

Zin nodded. "Do it, then. Tell them we'll meet them outside of Denerim, where the roads join up."

At least, since getting an army moving was slow work, they had time to eat something before they left.

9.8.7

One of the perimeter scouts came running up, out of breath, and skidded to a halt in front of them. "My lord," he gasped. "My lords." Alistair hoped he wasn't included in that. Arl Eamon and Bann Teagan and Zin, maybe. Not him. Next to him, Riordan seemed to have the same reaction.

"Tomas," Bann Teagan said. "What have you found?"

The man gulped for air. "There's a force coming up from the south, they're almost on us, a lot of movement in the woods," he got out. "They're almost impossible to see. Maybe it's--"

"Not darkspawn," three voices said at once. Alistair, Zin and Riordan shared looks with each other. None of them had felt anything -- Alistair certainly hadn't, and while he knew his darkspawn-sensing was far from perfect, he also knew that there was no way he'd be ignorant of a large force of them, that close.

Arl Eamon frowned. "This is remarkable," he said. "There is no one left in the south who can rally large numbers of troops. Wulff is already in the capital, Maker help him, and--" He broke off, breath whistling between his teeth.

Three people stepped out of the treeline, not so close that it felt like an ambush, but close enough that, well, they shouldn't have been able to be that close. Two were men and one a woman, Alistair saw when he got a closer look at them, though they were all dressed the same way. They were all three tall and dark and wearing strange leathers, with loose straps and fringes reminiscent of Morrigan's skirt. They were all three very well armed, one carrying a huge maul, one a bow decorated with blue ribbons, and one a sword and shield that looked surprisingly ordinary. They all three had a stripe of blue paint across their foreheads. So they were Chasind wilders, then. Alistair tensed.

"We come to join you," the man with the maul said. "You march on the darkspawn. So will we."

No one replied to that extraordinary statement. They all likely felt as though they had been hit over the head with that maul. Maker knew Alistair did.

The other man, the one who carried a sword and shield and whose bearing was subtly different, cocked his head to one side. "Little brother, close your mouth."

Zin made a sound that Alistair couldn't even begin to describe, and the next moment, he and this man were both rushing forward to meet in a bone-rattling embrace. "Fergus," Zin said. "Fergus."

"Oh," Alistair said under his breath. Fergus Cousland, thought to be lost with his scouting band in the Korcari Wilds somewhere, presumed dead. He seemed quite robust and alive now; he and Zin were pounding each other on the back, talking and laughing and crying.

9.8.7.5

"Perhaps we should offer our new allies something warm to drink," Riordan said, "and sit down and discuss how we should progress tomorrow."

Alistair saw Arl Eamon draw breath to say something, and he didn't trust that the arl would accept Chasind tribesmen at his fire, even if one of them happened to be Fergus Cousland, so he took a long step forward. "That sounds like an excellent idea." He looked at the man and woman who both stood with their arms crossed, keeping an eye on Fergus and Zin. "I'm Alistair," he said, "and you've probably guessed that that is Fergus's brother, Zin. You are...?"

"Karsten," the man said.

"Cathla," the woman added. "It was my tribe that found Fer'z in the forest."

"Then we're doubly grateful to you," Alistair said. His eyes softened as he looked at the Cousland brothers. "It's very good to see Fergus and Zin reunited again."

The woman Cathla nodded. "Fer'z has spoken often of his Zinnian. How comes he to be here, with the leaders of this army?"

"He is the leader of this army," Alistair said, "and it's a long story. Which I'll tell you as soon as we can sit down and have that hot drink Riordan mentioned." He looked at Fergus and Zin, now clasping each other's arms and both talking at full speed, and couldn't help smiling. Zinnian. Huh. "Do you need to talk to your men first, get them settled?"

"Karsten will go," Cathla said, and at her words, the tall man with the maul melted back into the trees.

"I'll make sure the other army units get word," Bann Teagan said. "It would be unfortunate if anyone got confused."

Alistair nodded. "That's... definitely a word for it."

9.8.8

Riordan and Bann Teagan between them managed to arrange camp chairs and dry logs in a half-circle by the fire, and hot tea with a splash of something in it that Alistair suspected had come from Oghren's hip flask. Whatever it was, it definitely killed the taste of the tea. Cathla told them how many Chasind tribesmen she'd brought, and Teagan went to get the word out to the rest of the troops, so they'd know these were allies.

"This is most unexpected," Arl Eamon said, though he managed not to sound entirely disapproving.

"The Blight threatens all," Cathla said flatly. "Our lands were the first to be overrun."

Alistair nodded. Everyone had been running away from the Wilds as fast as they could, after Ostagar. But what if that was your home? He'd seen only a few Chasind refugees in Lothering, and none at all in any other places.

"The darkspawn only moved on because they don't like marshland," Karsten said, appearing out of nowhere to sit down on the log next to Fergus Cousland. "They went into the foothills of the mountains."

"The Frostbacks," Fergus Cousland footnoted. "Any villages down in the south are... likely not there any more."

"Like Honnleath," Alistair said, biting his lip. The people of Honnleath had still been arguing, when they left, about whether to flee the area, or stay and try to rebuild. He really, really hoped they had fled.

9.8.9

When they made their final camp, knowing that they'd reach Denerim and battle on the next day, none of them could settle down, despite all knowing they'd be better off well-rested. Shale went to speak to some of the dwarves, trying to understand them a little better, trying to understand how she could once have been one of them. Alistair would have been concerned, except that Wynne went along, bringing a bit of diplomacy. Oghren wandered off to see if the Chasind had brought any mead with them. Zevran and Leliana were sparring, not quite idly, not quite seriously. Sten sat and sharpened his sword.

Alistair looked around for Morrigan, but before he could spot her, Riordan came up to him, Zin in tow.

"I must speak with the two of you," Riordan said. "I have been putting this off, and my commander would scold me for it."

Alistair tried to imagine anyone with the nerve to scold Riordan. The Orlesian wardens must be a tough lot, after all. "Is this as important as your voice says it is?"

"Yes," Riordan said, and Alistair hadn't thought it was possible for him to sound any more grave and grim, but he did. "You had better come into the tent with me, and keep your voices down. There are some warden secrets that you may not have been told."

9.8.9.5

Oh, it was important, all right. A warden must die to destroy the archdemon, taking its soul into himself to make certain it never rose again. The killing blow would kill both of them. That was why Riordan had wanted to make Loghain a warden -- to have one more chance at ending the Blight. Riordan meant to take that blow himself, but if he fell before he reached the archdemon, it became someone else's responsibility. Became their responsibility, Alistair's and Zin's, because they were the only other Grey Wardens in Ferelden.

They stared at each other, and Alistair couldn't have said when Riordan left. He was there, then he wasn't there, and Zin stood shaking his head and swearing under his breath. It was unbelievable, somehow, that this terrible and difficult thing they were committed to doing had suddenly become worse.

"I'll do it," Alistair said, feeling an odd rightness settle about him like a cloak he hadn't thought would fit. "It's my duty as king to save the country. And I can't think of any better reason to die than to preserve Ferelden and save your life."

Zin glared at him. "You big idiot," he said. "All set to be the heroic sacrifice, are you? You're the king, you need to be there to rebuild the country. Saving it isn't enough. And as for..." He threw a dagger at the ground and watched it stand there, point down, quivering. "Don't you think I love you, then? Don't you think I'd do anything to keep you alive?"

"Yes, but I'll do it," Alistair said again. The certainty within him was the only thing that kept him from screaming. "If Riordan can't. Maybe it's selfish of me, but I can't live without you."

Zin made an incoherent noise. He snatched up the dagger again and made it vanish, grabbed Alistair's face in both hands and kissed him, hard, with a nip of teeth that made Alistair's lip bleed. "You," he said in a harsh voice. He seemed to be on the verge of more words, but then he just spun on his heel and stormed out of the tent.

Alistair sank down on his bedroll and wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. He could go after Zin, but then they'd yell at each other surrounded by not just their traveling companions, but the soldiers of Redcliffe and Orzammar as well. And if they went into the woods to be private, they'd be surrounded by Chasind and Dalish warriors.

This was the way it had to be, and that was all there was to it. He ached to think that Zin was angry, but there was no way he'd let Zin take that final blow on himself, if it came to that. Not if he was still alive to do it.

One of them had to live through this, and Alistair was determined it would be Zin.

9.8.9.6

They slept apart that night, for the first time since they'd come together in the tavern in Redcliffe.

9.9.1

Alistair felt very cold in the morning, and colder still when he wrenched himself into cold armor and ate a brief, cold breakfast. Then they were all marching again, a final, fast, desperate march. Their little party held together, an odd unit in the middle of this army, and there was Zin again, pale and drawn, rather as Alistair suspected he was himself. Fergus was marching with the Chasind, though Alistair thought Zin would have wanted his brother close.

He wanted to talk to Zin, needed to talk to him, but every time he drew close, another companion was there already. It seemed that everyone was determined to get their own heart-to-heart talk with their favorite warden before Denerim and whatever awaited them there.

Alistair wasn't trying to eavesdrop on any of it, he figured it was private, but there was a limit to how private anything could be in a marching army. Especially since Sten's rumbling voice had a tendency to carry whether he wanted it to or not.

"You have carried us this far," Sten said. "Do not doubt it. Do not doubt yourself, not now. When the archdemon has fallen to your blade, then you may be weak, if you must."

Zin drew a ragged breath. "It's been good to have you at my side," he said.

They didn't say anything else, but then, those two had never been much about the conversation. Standing shoulder to shoulder and killing things, yes. Alistair didn't quite get it, but he'd come to rely on Sten's solid presence, too.

When Sten drifted away, Leliana was there, talking inconsequently about roadside flowers and the difficulty of finding a cobbler who'd make shoes for Shale. She made Zin laugh, and Alistair could have kissed her for that. Then she slipped her hand in Zin's and said something under her breath, and he nodded.

"Never thought anyone would believe in me again," Oghren muttered gruffly, and Alistair almost stumbled into the ditch when he realized the dwarf was actually talking to him, not to Zin. "Orzammar sure doesn't. But that man..." He gestured at Zin with his war axe, nearly unmanning a Redcliffe soldier who'd come too close. "He believes, and somehow that makes us all act like we're the thing he believes in, know what I mean?"

"I know what you mean," Alistair agreed. "I'm going to be king because of that."

"Hah!" Oghren slapped him on the back, fortunately not with the axe. "Don't ever change, pike-twirler."

"I've never even touched a pike," Alistair muttered. "I don't even know the difference between a pike and a polearm."

"A pike is a-- Oh, never mind. I mean, excuse me!" The Redcliffe soldier scurried back into the mass of marching men, and Alistair sighed. Now he'd never know. Zin was walking next to Shale, listening to something; Alistair could only make out the words eradicate all pigeons and inevitable doom and, rather to his delight, it must not die. Someone agreed with him, then. Zin must not die.

9.9.2

The mages were waiting for them where the West Road met the North Road outside Denerim, just as planned. They looked so few, a colorful group of people in bright robes, without the heavy armor Alistair's eyes had come to register as normal over the past few days. First Enchanter Irving strode out to meet them, moving with the ease and vigor of a young man, for all that he sounded like he was about a hundred when he spoke.

"There you are," he said, and Alistair smiled to himself when he saw that the First Enchanter was speaking directly to Zin. "We were nearly on the verge of entering the city ahead of time. The healers feel that they are needed."

"Oh, they are," Wynne said quietly.

"Everyone is needed," Zin said. "The darkspawn believe this city is theirs to plunder as they will. But we will prove them wrong."

"Yes," Irving said, and he sounded more fierce and less ancient than Alistair had ever heard him. "This is an impressive army you've gathered, warden. All the peoples of Ferelden, fighting together under your command." His eyes narrowed. "All the peoples of Ferelden. Is that a Chasind warband, truly?"

"My brother was injured in the Wilds just before Ostagar," Zin said. "The Chasind took him in and cared for him, and now he and a large number of Chasind warriors have come to join our forces."

"Most impressive," Irving said. "And will you address your army before this battle, to put a little extra courage in everyone's heart?"

"No," Zin said. "The proper person to give that speech is Alistair Theirin, who is king of Ferelden, accepted and acclaimed by the Landsmeet, even though he's not crowned yet."

"What?!" Alistair yelped. "Speech? Me?"

"A rousing speech," Zin specified.

Irving nodded. "Excellent. I will make certain everyone can hear him."

9.9.2.5

Well, it was a speech, anyway. And then they marched on the gates of Denerim.

9.9.2.6

The city looked very different like this. Alistair tried to keep his mind on what he was doing: battling darkspawn, keeping himself alive, keeping the others alive. But it was hard not to notice that everything smelled of blood and taint, or that the darkspawn were lighting things on fire as they went. Everything was darkness and firelight and blood, and it reminded him quite disturbingly of the Deep Roads.

Denerim shouldn't be like this. No city should.

At least they could drive the darkspawn away from this place by the gates. The hurlocks and genlocks who swarmed the open space were many, but they were weak. They couldn't stand against the combined assault of Redcliffe infantry, Dalish archers, dwarven fighters, and the ferocious skills of the Chasind. But as soon as the area was mostly cleared, the army began to break up in smaller units, according to plan. Zin had a final talk with the commanders, then turned to his own small party. "If we go towards--"

"Wait," Riordan said, head cocked as though listening to something other than the din of battle. "There's another wave of darkspawn approaching. We need to change our plans."

"Oh, fuck," Zin said. "Right. Who wants to stay here and hold the gates of the city against a coming darkspawn invasion?"

"Insane nug-humping blighters who don't have any sense," Oghren said with a raucous laugh. "So that's me and who else?"

"You'll have to take a smaller team into the city," Riordan said with a frown. "If you and Alistair and one or two more people take the first route we planned, I'll bring a handful of the Redcliffe knights with me and take the second, and with any luck, we can lure the Archdemon to ground in an area with higher buildings and less people."

Zin nodded, as if this made perfect sense. Alistair supposed that he must have been talking with Riordan about this last night, too. "Right. Shale, you're with us. The rest of you--"

"I'm coming, too," Wynne said firmly. Zin stared at her and she stared back, grey-haired and frail and indomitable. "You'll need a healer, child. And I may not be much of a battle mage, but I've learned a bit of entropy magic from Morrigan. I can at least put your enemies to sleep until you have the time to hit them." She snorted. "My entropy is better than her healing, at any rate."

Zin gave a little gurgle of laughter. "I don't have a choice, do I?" Then he turned serious. "We won't be able to protect you, Wynne, not as much as--"

"And the gates and the coming invasion will be perfectly safe, of course?" She raised an eyebrow. "Don't argue with me, young man. Not about this."

"I'm coming with it, am I?" Shale sounded slightly put-upon, and very pleased. "Let us stomp the Archdemon into paste together, then."

"I knew I should have worn better boots," Zin muttered. He raised his voice. "Oghren, you're in charge of the defense here. Zevran, you're in charge of making sure Oghren stays sober."

"Is there a time limit involved?" Zevran asked teasingly. "I do not think I can be in charge of keeping our dwarven friend sober indefinitely."

"You'd better not try," Oghren said.

"Don't worry," Leliana said, to Zin rather than to Oghren. "I will keep an eye on both of them."

"Whereas I," Morrigan said coolly, "will occupy myself with the darkspawn, while these fools stand around watching each other."

"Like I'd ignore the darkspawn? Bite your tongue, woman!" Oghren said. "Better yet, bite my--"

Leliana clapped a hand over his mouth. "We will be fine," she said. "And you -- you'd better be careful." A shadow passed through her eyes. "Truly, I'd be happy to follow you into this or any other danger, you know this."

"Yes, yes," Morrigan said impatiently. "I daresay I would be of more use to them, but our warden has made up his mind." She broke into an unexpected half-smile. "Go forth and conquer, then. Live gloriously, my friend."

"We'd better hurry," Zin said, and they were off.

Chapter twenty-six

9.9.2.7

Their way through the city didn't follow the planned route at all. Some streets had been entirely blocked off, either by barricades or crushed buildings; some places held groups of survivors, banded together and ready to fight, and Zin led their small party around those places, so as not to draw darkspawn attention to them. The plan was to go south, but the two bridges there were blocked off and burned down, respectively, so in order to get across the Drakon river they ended up going farther and farther east, deeper into the city, until they stumbled into the market district, so disturbingly changed that Alistair had to blink and look and look again until he was certain of what he was seeing.

Everything was on fire here, too. All the buildings were tightly shut, but Alistair didn't dare to hope that any survivors hid behind those locked doors and barred windows; bodies lay broken in the small yard in front of the chantry, and dark stains in the dirt were likely not just crushed fruit and berries from vendors' stalls.

The canvas roof that shielded wares and shoppers from the sun, and the stout poles that supported it, had been pulled down. And set on fire, of course. This was one of the larger open spaces in Denerim, and now it was filled with ogres, who likely felt quite comfortable here. "Filth everywhere," Shale said, not sounding very surprised. "Is that ogre eating a chicken?"

"I do believe it is," Wynne said. "With the feathers still on."

"Serves it right."

"I hope it gets food poisoning," Alistair said cheerfully. "Not that it will have time to notice, since I'm going to kill it."

"Go for it, babe," Zin said. "I'll take the one on the left."

The one on the left turned into two on the left, three... four... Alistair had honestly never seen so many ogres gathered in one place before, and he could have done without seeing it now, especially since Zin leaped on them in his usual breakneck fashion and tried to stab them in the face when they bellowed a challenge.

But maybe all that raw chicken hadn't been good for them, after all, because they fell, all of them, and so did the darkspawn general who'd been hiding behind them. Wynne got lucky with her entropy spells, and he stood paralyzed as they cut him down.

And then they finally made it to the bridge, made it across the river, and the archdemon ripped the bridge to pieces behind them.

"Well," Zin gasped as they huddled together at the end of the bridge and watched building stones bigger than a man's torso go flying. "That's... interesting."

"Oh, I'm sure it just wants to play," Alistair said. "We should try throwing a stick for it." At his feet, Serpent barked disapprovingly.

"We had better hope the archdemon stays on this side of the river," Wynne said. "Because we cannot get back across now."

"It is going that way," Shale said, leaning out of their dubious shelter under a stone arch to follow the archdemon's flight.

Zin straightened up. "Then I guess so are we."

9.9.3

Going that way meant going through the alienage. Here, the closed doors and barred windows really did shelter survivors; Alistair caught glimpses of pale faces, of bows held at the ready. When they came to the big open space with the vhenadahl tree, they found a familiar-looking red-headed woman, Soris's cousin Shianni, trying to rally a small group of defenders, shouting to be heard over the roars and thumps of approaching darkspawn. "Get up high! We can pick them off from the--"

A man ran up, panic in his face. "They're breaking through the gates! It's some big grey thing and it's breaking through!"

"There's always another ogre," Zin muttered. "Maybe it's a rule."

Shianni spotted them and ran over. "We need help," she said bluntly. "No one here has any decent armor, if we get too close to those creatures, we're doomed. I don't know where you came from, but--"

"But now we're here," Zin said. "We wouldn't say no to a bit of ranged support, though. Get up high, like you said, and we'll take care of the street-level fighting."

"We will?" Alistair said. "Yes, okay, we will. But one of these days I'm going to explain to you that you're a fast and sneaky rogue who creeps up behind his enemies and stabs them in the back, not a warrior in heavy armor who stands in the middle of the fight and yells for the darkspawn to come and get him."

"I'm not?" Zin grinned. There was a loud crash in the distance, and Serpent ran off towards the sound, growling angrily. "Come on, babe. Darkspawn to kill." Zin ran after Serpent.

"And you're not a whole army!" Alistair ran after them both, waving his sword as he tried to make the point perfectly clear. "That's what you have me for."

"It is not an army, either," Shale said, running beside him and making the ground shake. "Why do squishy creatures imagine themselves to be invulnerable?"

"Don't ask me, ask him!" Alistair slammed his shield into a hurlock that had gotten through the ruined gates, and saw that Zin had already engaged the ogre. Damn the man. But Shale walked up and hit the ogre in the stomach, drawing its attention and almost making it fold in half at the same time. Unfortunately, that made it possible for Alistair to see past the ogre's great bulk to where a hurlock general was directing wave after wave of its hurlocks to attack, and wielding a rather ominous-looking staff.

Alistair drew a deep breath and went straight for the general, cutting his way through the hurlocks to get close enough to try the effect of a holy smite. If anyone ever needed smiting, it was this revolting creature. He put everything he had into it, and when he saw the general stagger, he sprang forward, slamming his shield into its ugly face and then doing his level best to cut its head off, while it did its level best to send bolts of lightning through him.

Which was unpleasant, to say the least. Alistair felt as though all the bones in his body rattled against each other, and he bit his own tongue so hard he tasted blood. His hand shook around a sword that was suddenly very, very painful to keep hold of. But this had to be done, and he was the one who was there to do it, so he kept on stubbornly swinging, bashing, battering as hard as he could.

Not until the body fell one way, the head another and the staff a third did Alistair start to wonder why the hurlocks hadn't overrun him, trying to defend their general. He took a moment to look around, and saw that the ranks of hurlocks were being held away from him by a steady rain of arrows. Shianni and her archers had found their high ground and were offering just the kind of support that was most appreciated, weeding out the masses of weaker darkspawn so that Alistair and the others on the ground could focus their attention on the bigger threats.

A sturdier hurlock charged him, and he stood his ground, taking the full brunt of that charge on his shield and then drawing his sword arm back to retaliate. His blade nearly clashed with another inside the hurlock's body, as Zin stabbed it in the back at the same time.

"Kind of romantic, isn't it," Zin said.

9.9.4

The palace district had certainly changed from the last time Alistair had seen it. He remembered a lot more elegant house facades and flowering shrubs. Now it was all fire and wreckage and darkspawn.

Somehow Riordan's little troop had arrived ahead of them, though Alistair couldn't figure out how they'd crossed the river. Those men fought their way to the top of a watchtower, while Zin, Alistair, Wynne, and Shale struggled on the ground, trying to catch up, hoping for an exchange of information, a short moment of planning in the midst of all this confusion.

9.9.4.1

They saw Riordan fall. Alistair held his breath at the insane bravery of it, seeing the man leap from the top of that tower onto the Archdemon's back, the glint of a sword rising and then stabbing down as the dragon flew higher and higher. But to kill a large creature in the air, while clinging to its back... Riordan fell.

Alistair was grateful he couldn't hear the sound of Riordan landing.

The archdemon, one wing seriously injured by Riordan's sword, drifted sideways like an ash flake on the wind, and came down on the top of Fort Drakon, roaring its displeasure.

"I don't think it can fly properly anymore," Wynne said, squinting against the night and the firelight. "Riordan has... given us a chance we must attempt to take."

"So all we have to do is get up there," Zin said. "Piece of cake."

9.9.4.2

The fort stank of death. Its soldiers were massacred, and darkspawn roamed the halls, desecrating bodies, ruining food stores, setting fires. Doing the worst kind of magic, apparently, or maybe all this death had ripped the Veil apart, because some of the dead soldiers were up and moving again, their bodies much too decayed in such a short time, their corpse grins fixed.

"Insult to injury," Alistair muttered, killing the already dead.

Some places were strangely untouched, and that was even worse. They ran through silent soldiers' dormitories, seeing beds neatly made, waiting for sleepers who would never come. A few private touches, such as a book left half-read or a pot of salve for sore feet waiting on a table, made Alistair look the other way.

"And to imagine we fought our way out of here, not so long ago," Zin said. "It smelled better then."

At least, Alistair thought grimly, there were no ribbons anywhere. He really wasn't in the mood for a festive touch.

9.9.4.3

The last of Fort Drakon's defenders were on the roof, dying. Soldiers screamed and burned as the archdemon breathed a strange blue fire on them. Its presence was a horror, far worse than the uncomfortable itch of ordinary darkspawn; to Alistair, it felt like every part of his skin was being pelted with filth, bruisingly hard and utterly disgusting. He set his jaw, and tightened his hand on the hilt of his sword.

Everything about that long fight was a blur to him. The archdemon, though it could not truly fly, nevertheless managed to move short distances, making them run after it. Which was like the whole past year, only worse. Fighting a dragon was bad enough; fighting a corrupt dragon-like creature that could call more darkspawn to defend it was a nightmare. Quite literally, Alistair thought as he stood shoulder to shoulder with Shale, or at least shoulder to stone arm, and tried not to burst into wild laughter. This was exactly the stuff that warden nightmares were made of.

The archdemon's roar rang in his ears, but much worse than that was hearing its voice inside his head, growling and commanding. Alistair didn't know what it said, but he could guess, especially when more darkspawn came to their injured archdemon's assistance. Some of them were injured, too, looking as if they'd been through a long battle already to get here; Alistair found it strangely cheering to see that Denerim wasn't giving up without a fight.

None of them were giving up without a fight. A loud thunk made Alistair look up from cutting a shriek in two, to see that Zin had made one of the fort's ballistae work and was firing it at the archdemon. Little by little, they wore the dragon down. Alistair didn't think they could have done it without Wynne there; the cool green wash of her healing spells was the only pleasant sensation in all that chaos. He was bruised all over, scratched and bleeding in more places than he cared to count, but he had no deep damage, nothing that kept him from moving.

When his sword severed the tendons of one scaly knee, when the archdemon staggered and its legs began to give way, Alistair stared in silent amazement for a moment that seemed very long and very short at the same time. This was it. This was really, truly it. The dragon was bleeding heavily, its life pulsing out with each heartbeat. It was time. He'd decided already, he didn't have to stand there and think about what his choice would be. And it wasn't a choice, really.

He did wish he could have kissed Zin one last time.

Then he ran, with a speed that was born of equal parts certainty and terror, launched himself at the dying dragon, and stabbed his sword into its skull.

The world went white.

9.9.5

Alistair woke up in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room, flat on his back, and as soon as he tried to move, his whole body hurt. He grunted in pain, and in response got a flurry of movement immediately to his left, where Leliana straightened up in the chair by his bedside. "It is wonderful to see that you're awake at last!" she said. "I'll ask Wynne to give you something for the pain."

"Wait," Alistair hissed between his teeth. So, he wasn't dead. At least, he'd never heard anyone preach that the afterlife involved pain and brightly smiling Orlesian-accented bards. But if he wasn't dead... "Where's Zin?"

He'd been ready to sacrifice himself -- not happily, no, but if it was a choice between Zin and him, of course Alistair was going to take that death on himself. The last thing he remembered was burying his sword in the dragon's head, and then a blinding flash of light. He'd believed that was the end. Yet here he was, alive. The archdemon's soul had bypassed him somehow, had gone somewhere else, and Zin had been the closest receptacle, then.

"He was just here," Leliana said. "He asked me to take his place for a moment when Arl Eamon insisted on talking to him about something." She shrugged. "I thought the arl would still be confined to bed, with that broken leg of his. It seems he is remarkably receptive to healing magic."

Which Alistair himself apparently was not, at least not judging by the way he felt at the moment. He managed to reach out, with his every joint screaming in pain, and grab Leliana's wrist. "Zin."

"I'll see if I can liberate him from the arl's clutches," she said. Leliana stood up, then bent down and kissed Alistair's forehead. "You should be proud. You killed the archdemon."

Then she turned and went out of the room, and Alistair stared after her. His mind still felt a bit hazy. He was alive and the archdemon was dead. It didn't make any sense.

9.9.5.1

The door burst open and Zin skidded in, sliding to his knees on the floor by Alistair's bedside and clutching at his shoulder with both hands. "You're awake," he said, "I'm away from you for five minutes and suddenly you're awake!" He buried his face in the mattress next to Alistair. "I was so worried, babe. It's been two days. Wynne said you'd be fine, but."

"Zin." Alistair wanted Zin to lift his head. He wanted to see those clear blue-green eyes. "What happened?"

"When you killed the archdemon," Zin said, still speaking into the bedclothes, "there was a huge blast of, I don't know, something, some concussive force that knocked us all down. You -- you went flying. You broke so many bones, and I was terrified you'd have internal injuries. We didn't know if we could move you, and in the end we just," Zin swallowed hard, "we just sat there for hours and waited for the battle out in the city to be over and for people to come find us. Wynne drank all the lyrium we had, she was exhausted, and she worked and worked to heal you, and I take back every mean thing I ever said about her, thought about her, she almost killed herself trying to keep everyone alive, she was incredible."

"Everyone?" Thinking back, Alistair remembered an odd, ragtag force coming to their aid halfway through the battle: some dwarves, some mages, some human soldiers, led by... "The arl was there?"

"Broke his leg in that blast," Zin nodded. "He went tumbling down the stairs and landed wrong. But he's fine now, full of energy."

"Zin." Alistair managed to move his hand enough to slide it into Zin's hair and stroke slowly. "Why am I not dead?"

That made Zin lift his head, finally. "Well, it's certainly not for lack of trying," he said tartly. He caught Alistair's hand, tugged it to his mouth and kissed the palm. "I made a deal," he whispered. "I wasn't sure it would work, and you wouldn't wake up, I could see you were breathing and Wynne said you'd be fine but you wouldn't wake up..."

"Deal?" Alistair blinked. "What kind of deal?"

Zin told him.

9.9.5.2

"You slept with Morrigan," Alistair said. Zin nodded mutely. "To keep us both alive." Zin nodded again. "And she got pregnant and left." Zin didn't even nod this time, just met Alistair's eyes and then flinched and looked away. "You mean to tell me that the heir to the teyrnir of Highever, who might also have a claim to the kingdom of Ferelden, is out there somewhere in the hands of an apostate witch whose evil mother planned the whole thing."

"More like in the womb of an apostate," Zin muttered. "And do we know that Flemeth is evil?" He slumped down, as if speaking like his insouciant self had been too much of an effort. "Do you hate me now?"

"I don't know what Flemeth is," Alistair said. "I'm not sure she's even human." He wished he could wrap his arms around Zin, but settled for resting the backs of his fingers against Zin's shoulder. "And I don't know if you've noticed, but I love you."

"I love you, too," Zin said, no flourishes, no under-the-eyelashes look. "I couldn't stand the idea of losing you." Then he frowned, nose wrinkling. "Wait a moment, did you say claim to the kingdom of Ferelden?"

"It's your child," Alistair said, "and the last time I looked, you were about to become one half of the royal couple. You haven't changed your mind about that while I was unconscious, have you?"

"No," Zin said. "But I promised Morrigan that this child would be hers to raise. That I wouldn't come after her." His brows drew down. "Much as I want to." Then he smiled faintly. "And the child's not a Theirin, whatever else it is. You're still going to have to have sex with Alfstanna, babe. No getting out of it."

9.9.6

The next person to sneak into Alistair's bedchamber and sit in the bedside chair was, rather to his surprise, Fergus Cousland. Fergus seemed to have come through the battle mostly unharmed; he moved a little stiffly, that was all. Alistair tried to prop himself up a bit higher on the pillows and felt his ribs twinge.

"Don't move," Fergus said quickly. "Your healer might let me live if you crack your bones again, but Zin definitely wouldn't."

"Wynne's fiercer than she looks," Alistair said, "so I wouldn't count on her being the sweet and gentle choice." He settled back down again and wished he could at least reach up to tuck another pillow under his head. "And to what do I owe the honor of this visit?"

"I can't want to express my gratitude to the man who killed the archdemon and stopped the Blight and saved my country?"

Alistair choked out a laugh. "Zin did that," he said. "I mean, he did all the hard work and all the difficult parts. I just swooped in at the end and stole the glory."

"Oh, that's what you call killing a giant dragon and getting nearly every bone in your body broken. I had no idea." Fergus shook his head. "Zin... It's because of Zin that I'm here. I have a few things I want to say to you."

"Erm." Alistair really, really wished he wasn't lying flat on his back in bed.

"Seemed stupid to say anything when I wasn't sure we were going to live through this." Fergus grinned. "I'm still not sure how we managed. But since we're here and alive, I think I have a family obligation to ask you, what are your intentions towards my little brother?"

"We're going to get married," Alistair said. "Didn't he tell you that?"

"He may have mentioned it." Fergus's face turned grave. "But you're about to be crowned king of Ferelden. You need to marry a woman and have children."

Alistair sighed. "It's a Cousland thing, I swear. First thing you think of. Did he also happen to mention we've agreed on an heir-arrangement with Bann Alfstanna of Waking Sea, and before you say anything about merchant customs, heir-arrangements started with Calenhad's grandson, what was his name again, Frayne, right, that was it, it's because of him that the law exists and he's about as royal a precedent as you can get. And yes, I'm going to sound more enthusiastic than this when I tell the Landsmeet about it, before you ask."

That made Fergus chuckle. "I certainly hope so. But I'm glad to hear that you've made some serious plans." His brows drew level. "What about Highever? I know you must have believed me dead, which would mean Zin was teyrn."

Alistair nodded. "We hadn't started to make plans for that yet. Things were, well, rather busy for us." Most of the past month, in fact, seemed to have passed in a haze of stress and blood and sex, although he certainly wasn't about to tell Fergus Cousland that. "I know Zin meant to find out if he had any cousins left, as a first step." He definitely wasn't going to go into the child-with-Morrigan complication. Alistair wasn't sure he understood it himself, but whatever plans the witch had for that child, he was fairly sure that claiming Highever wasn't one of them. "But now that you're back--"

"Yes, about that." Fergus Cousland held up a hand. "My lord, I have to tell you--"

"Oh, please don't call me that," Alistair said. "Zin told you how I was raised, didn't he? And you're going to be my brother-in-law, I sincerely hope."

"Yes," Fergus said with a small grin. "But listen. I thought I could count on Zin and his children to be my heirs. I was married. I had a child. But..."

"I know." Alistair reached out, without thinking, just as he would have reached out to Zin, and patted Fergus's forearm, which was about all he could reach. "And I'm so, so sorry. Howe is dead now, at Zin's hands, but I know vengeance doesn't really do anything about that, that hollow feeling inside." Seeing Howe fall to Zin's sword, seeing Zin's face, had shown him that even before Loghain had bled out at his feet and he'd learned for himself that the emptiness left in him by Duncan's death was always going to be there.

"No." Fergus pressed his lips together. "I heard of what had happened at Highever even before I was injured; another scout had the news, and I had all of an hour to be stunned by it before the woods were overrun with fleeing soldiers and hunting darkspawn bands, and we learned that the battle of Ostagar was over before we'd even managed to get back there. Then we met with a band of hurlocks, and there was an emissary with them."

"That's when you were hurt?"

Fergus nodded. "I was the only one who survived. Karsten found me under the bodies of my men. Cathla cut the head off the emissary and saved it for me to cleave in two later -- I didn't understand when I first woke up why she wanted me to do that, but it's a Chasind custom, so those who were injured can be part of the kill, in a way."

"I see," said Alistair, who didn't see at all, but he didn't suppose that was very important right then. "You can't have been that far from where Zin and I ended up -- we were rescued from Ostagar by Flemeth, and--"

"Flemeth!" Fergus straightened up in the chair and stared. "The Chasind tell a lot of stories about Flemeth, and they walk a long way around the part of the Wilds where this witch is supposed to live."

"Sensible of them," Alistair said. "I'm very grateful to her for saving our lives, and she's utterly terrifying and I hope I never see her again."

Fergus smiled crookedly. "From everything I've heard about her, I hope you never see her again, too. You and Zin both."

"Anyway," Alistair said, when the moment seemed to hang too heavily on both of them, "it's very nice to see you back in civilization again. Good for both you and Zin to discover that you do have some family left."

"Yes, of course. And I know I'm the teyrn of Highever now, and I'll try to fulfill my duties, but I... I'm not sure I can get married again." Fergus stared down at his hands. "Karsten and Cathla have already suggested, several times each, that I could just run off with them to the Wilds, that the people of the soft northlands will be fine without me."

"I suppose we would work something out," Alistair said a bit doubtfully, "if you did run off, but I know Zin would be... Wait. Wait, wait, wait. They both want to run off with you?" And then, because he had been spending entirely too much time with Zin and Zevran, "Separately or together?"

"Oh, together," Fergus said. "They do everything together."

"And does this everything include you, brother?" a fascinated voice asked from the door. Alistair jerked his head up to see Zin leaning there, looking rumpled and untidy and rather as if he'd been rolling around on the floor, wrestling with Serpent. Which seemed entirely plausible.

Fergus didn't even twitch, and that more than anything reminded Alistair that this man really had known Zin since the day he was born. Instead of turning to look at Zin, he looked at Alistair. "Are you quite sure you want him as a consort?" he asked. "I know he's pretty, but I swear his mabari has more tact and better manners."

"But I smell nicer," Zin said cheerfully. Then he sniffed cautiously at himself. "Most of the time, anyway."

"I'll risk it," Alistair said.

Zin came into the room and draped himself over the arm of Fergus's chair. "You didn't answer my question."

Fergus glared up under his brows, and Alistair was struck for the first time by the family resemblance between these two. Fergus was much darker, of course, tattoo-free, and had avoided getting his nose broken, but they had the same mouth and the same chin, and right now, the same stubborn expression. "They've offered," he said. "Which is an honor I don't deserve."

"Pft," Zin said. "You deserve to be happy. Honor has nothing to do with it."

"Happy." Fergus was all chin. "I was happy. I loved Oriana. I loved my son. I'm not -- I don't think I'll ever be that kind of happy again."

"I'm sorry," Zin said, and that apology had more real feeling in it than any Alistair had ever heard him make. "I loved them, too. I'm just hoping that one day, maybe, you can be a different kind of happy. I want that for you."

Fergus nodded slowly. "I understand."

"And if that kind of happy involves Cathla and Karsten, that would be fine with me." Zin grinned impishly, and Fergus punched his arm, not quite hard enough to push him off the arm of the chair.

"I'm the teyrn of Highever," Fergus said. The words seemed to taste bad in his mouth. "And my only living heir is going to be consort to the king of Ferelden. I can't have two Chasind lovers. They couldn't live with me, and I couldn't be away from Highever to live with them."

"Why not?" Alistair said. "Get a good seneschal, someone you trust, and you can easily spend the time between planting and harvest in the south. And don't tell me those two love the winters in the Wilds so much they'd rather be there than have the castle walls of Highever between the snow and themselves." He'd been to the south when it was snowing. Alistair couldn't imagine anyone wanting to spend time like that if they didn't have to.

"And I know you need an heir," Zin added, "someone who isn't me, I mean, but something tells me we're about to bring heir-arrangements back in fashion for the nobility. This coming year is going to see a lot of marriages, especially in the Bannorn, but people who'd rather not get married, or not get married again, will have another option."

Fergus looked up at Zin, and then over at Alistair. "The two of you," he said slowly, "are going to be absolutely terrifying together, ruling the country."

Zin smiled at Alistair. "And you didn't want to be king."

"I still don't," Alistair said promptly. "But you had your heart set on marrying high, so..." Zin started to tug out something from behind Fergus's back. "I mean, I'd be just as happy being a grape farmer in Rivain."

Zin threw the cushion he'd excavated at Alistair's head.

9.9.7

Everyone had plans, great and small, and while Alistair lay in bed and couldn't get away, he was apparently the perfect person to tell all of it to, at length. Leliana was going to find the ashes of Andraste again, or at least go back to the temple again, with Brother Genitivi and what sounded like half the chantry. She was very happy about it. Oghren was going to join the army, in a disturbingly highly-placed position, and Alistair wondered who was going to be in charge of keeping the dwarf reasonably sober, and also if the military leaders had really thought this through. Both Oghren's and Leliana's plans sounded like something he might want to look into once he was on his feet again.

Shale wanted to find out if the Tevinter mages knew anything about making a golem into a dwarf again. Wynne meant to travel with Shale, which was reassuring in its way, as just Shale alone might manage to start a war between Tevinter and Ferelden, or Tevinter and the dwarves, or both. Alistair managed to charge Wynne with trying to track down and buy back the missing alienage elves, and then to come back and be an advisor to the throne.

"And here I thought I would lead an easier life in my old age, once the Blight was over," Wynne said.

"This isn't your old age," Alistair said, wincing as she tightened one of his bandages. "You can start having your old age in, I don't know, ten years or so? Maybe."

Sten meant to go back and report on the Blight to his fellows. He said he would probably come to Ferelden again, and Alistair wondered if that really sounded sinister, in its way, or if he was just being paranoid. He'd never been very good at understanding Sten. Zevran, on the other hand, had no very immediate plans to go anywhere or do anything.

"But I may go to the alienage and look up Soris and Shianni again," he said. "They were very appealing people."

"Pretty, you mean," Alistair said. He frowned. "Zev, Shianni's been through... a lot. She's not someone you should try to, well."

"I should not remind a beautiful woman that she is beautiful?" Zevran pressed his hand to his chest, roughly in the vicinity of his heart. "My heroic but bed-ridden friend, you ask the impossible."

10.

"What if I can't even get up the steps? What if I fall over?" Alistair said, staring at the packed Landsmeet chamber and the platform at the far end.

"Then the nice guards will help you to your feet." Zin made some minute adjustment to Alistair's hair.

"And then I'm supposed to kneel. Maybe I can't get up again." He was so tightly bandaged under the armor, he wasn't sure he could get down in the first place, either.

"The grand cleric will give you a hand if you need it," Zin said. "Everyone knows you cut down an archdemon not that long ago. Being a little stiff after a fight like that isn't surprising." He kissed Alistair's cheek. "I'm more surprised you can stand at all, even with all that stuff Wynne poured into you."

"I just want to have this over with," Alistair said. "And then we can, you know."

Zin grinned. "Get married? Rebuild the country?" The grin took on an edge of wickedness. "Have wild sex?"

"All of that," Alistair muttered. "Maybe not at the same time." He caught Zin's hands before his hair could be rearranged again. "Stop that, or I'll reward you for all your hard work by making you head privy cleaner of the royal palace."

"I love you, too," Zin said. "Stop worrying. It'll be fine."

Despite everything, Alistair found himself smiling. Some unseen trumpeter played a fanfare, and he went out to his coronation.

* * *

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