Guarded Love

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Chapter 25: Camping

Unfortunately, after getting the princess to finally lay her head down and nod off, a dozen people rushed the King asking questions and insisting he return to make toasts. Alistair was so surrounded by the horde, he could only cast an occasional eye back at the woman trailing behind him and shrug. Then he’d return to playing the genial idiot for the gentry who’d laugh uproariously. After the dance involving fire and kicking, the group of advisors, Arls, and King wound up in a drawing room, pretending to sample the notes of wines. She tried to hide a smirk when Alistair pulled out a bottle of koomtra and insisted it was an ancient blend from Tevinter.

Reiss didn’t realize she’d nodded off until the King gently squeezed her shoulder, startling her awake. “This is going to take, Maker only knows how long and we’ve got a long day ahead. If you want to head on up to bed, I’d advise escaping now.”

“Are you certain? I can stay and...?” she’d glanced around at the others all crumpling into balls at the koomtra’s kick.

“We’ll try talking in the morning while everyone else is sleeping this off.”

She’d gotten through the long night surrounded by other shemlan by pretending none of it happened -- that she didn’t roll around on the ground making out with the King -- but at the way his eyes seemed to be memorizing every line of her face, Reiss felt her heart surge. Trying to not blush she giddily drew to her feet and attempted to sleep with hope rising in her stomach.

When she woke the next morning, bright enough eyed to be able to see and nothing more, she expected to have to wait an hour or so to rouse Alistair before they could discuss the kiss. Reiss slid out of her bed, her bare feet landing upon the cold stones when the King’s wrathful voice echoed through the walls.

“-- was I supposed to do, Eamon?”

The Chancellor’s more controlled tone dropped lower into a growl, “Do you have any comprehension of the damage you have done with our relations to the Enchanter’s College?”

“She threatened the life of the Queen. Maker’s sake, I thought you’d be on my side for this one,” Alistair thundered. Rising stiff legged, Reiss cracked open her door and peered an eye out to watch the man pacing back and forth in his room. He wore the same outfit from the night before, but the buttons were all popped open, and he had a flour sack towel wrapped around his head. What did she miss?

Eamon stood beside him, rooted to his spot against the agitated King. “That’s what she said, exactly? A threat upon the life of Queen Beatrice?”

“Well,” Alistair’s mad pacing slowed and he blinked against the man, “not in those words no, but that was the gist.”

“You would condemn a woman because of how you interpreted her words?”

“There’s no interpretation there. I know what she was getting at, thinking I’d have a jolly laugh at the idea of being a widower. And condemn? Not even close. Big deal, she’s back to that tower up north. Oh, truly she’s been tossed into the void itself with that punishment.”

Eamon didn’t look about to budge, both hands pushing onto his cane, “Your Majesty, don’t you think you’re being a bit too harsh on the girl?”

“No,” Alistair twisted around. While Reiss had seen him on occasion snap at others, Eamon always received an almost bashful reverence from the man, but not this time. The King’s face lit up with a simmering rage she only got a glimpse of...right before she kissed him. “I don’t care if she thought it was all part of some flirty meandering on her part. She wished, imagined Spud without a mother. Whether that was malice or not, my head’ll explode in hot bolts if I have to look upon anyone who’d do that.”

“Sire...”

“I’ll put up with a lot, Eamon. I have, over the years, done plenty of things you’ve all made me do,” he paused and glared fully upon the old man, “Lanny for one.” At that Eamon grimaced, his eyes racing towards the floor away from the King. “But I’m not budging on this. I don’t care, let Fiona hate me. Maybe she’ll finally get off her fancy throne and respond to a letter for once.”

“What shall we do about the vacancy? There are matters that require a mage’s knowledge and it seems unlikely that the College will send another after this debacle,” Eamon continued on. Reiss felt a breath escape through her clenched lungs, the man seemed willing to let Linaya’s banishment hold. And Maker’s sake, it wasn’t as if the mage was any true rival for you. He never seemed to have any interest in her. But...did he have any interest in an elven woman serving as a bodyguard?

Alistair stomped away from Eamon and glanced down his hallway. He must have caught the sliver of Reiss trying to stare through the gap as he closed his eyes, shrugged and slowly shook his head at her. They weren’t going to be talking this morning either. Flipping around he picked up Eamon’s conversation, “I don’t care. Find a hedge witch, maybe ask one of the Dalish to pitch in. We’ll find someone, or we’ll manage as we did for the years as the College was figuring itself out.”

The Chancellor looked as if he wanted to grab the King by his collar and drag him to the corner for punishment, but instead he sighed, “As you say, Sire. We shall somehow make it work.”

A smart ass grin rose upon the King’s cheeks and he whipped back, “Sorry I went and ruined the pool for everyone. I guess the castle will have to find someone else’s personal life to bet on.”

“I...” Eamon rose up higher, his face unreadable but a hint of a blush broke upon his cheeks, “I have no recollection of what you mean.”

“Sure you don’t. Andraste’s sword, Philipe’s gonna spit in my porridge for weeks now. Good thing I never eat it. Now, are we done or...?”

“You are to dress quickly, the Dalish entourage is already waiting for the royal caravan outside the Denerim gates.”

Alistair scrubbed his face up and down with his hands, “Of blighted course they are. Right,” he turned back to the peeping elf and gave a small signal between them. “Give me a few minutes to get things in hand and...” Before he could finish the sentence, three servants rushed in, all prepared to slap the King into his traveling gear as quick as possible.

Groaning, the King gave into their machinations and Reiss slipped back into her room. Later. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t going to be seeing him on the trip to the wilds. They could talk later.

It took half the day before Reiss realized that it was never going to happen. While she rode on a horse ahead of the King, he was continually flanked by people either checking on his status or needing to share upon their thoughts of the day. Even when they’d dismount to make camp, water their horses, or take a piss people would flag the man down and talk his ear off. Her only hope of being alone with him would be in either wandering off into the woods together -- certain to send every Bann and Dalish guardian into a tizzy -- or join him in his tent, which was also warmed by Arl Teagan and a few other important diplomats.

She’d tried to act nonchalant for the first day, while wearing a secret smile to herself whenever glancing over and catching the King’s eye. By the second, the secret smile faded and doubt crept into its place. He was being kind to her by ignoring the mistake, hoping that what she’d done would vanish into the ether if they both pretended it didn’t happen. They were both besides themselves with anger and sometimes the brain would become uncontrollable during combat. It was foolish of her to think there was anything more to it than working off steam for a brief heat of the moment. Certainly no chance for a King to feel anything like butterflies lifting through his gut for a forgettable elf.

After the third day of traveling, Reiss felt despair nesting in her brain, her stomach continually sour from the oily foods on the road. She tried to paper over it, pretending that it was the cold or a rock in her boot, and convince herself in general she was fine about it all. It didn’t help that their trek into the Kokari Wilds kept them abreast of any proper structures and corralled into tents. She despised camping.

The dalish made quick work of establishing sites, finding kindling and capturing game for dinner often before the shemlan had time to dismount. While the Banns kept clustered together as if for warmth and protection against the dangerous elven influence, Reiss would often squat by the fire. She’d traded a few words with the dalish. The First only asked a brisk exchange, in no mood to deal with outsiders, but one of the men traveling with seemed to be warming to the elf accompanying the King.

“Did it hurt?” she asked, pointing at the blue tattoos vining across the man’s forehead and down his chin.

He stopped snapping sticks to toss into the fire and turned slowly to her, “They are a covenant with our gods, a promise to forever honor what the Elvhen truly are and never forget where we came from.”

“Oh,” she shrank down upon herself, regretting the question.

The man gently nudged into her shoulder and snickered, “It hurt immeasurably. Took me three months to finish the design. The Keeper thought I’d wind up with only half from the way I’d squeal in pain.”

“I don’t think I’d have the stomach for it,” Reiss admitted. She was fascinated by them, the marks of her people, but something she knew nothing about. They were beautiful, his almost exactly like the Inquisitor’s, but sometimes the idea of the vallaslin shook her to the core. Her parents fear of anything too elven roared up from its depths at the strangest of times.

The man smiled wide, “I’ve found that women tend to have higher pain thresholds for such things.”

“Comes with the territory, I suppose,” Reiss sighed. As the sun slipped lower across the horizon, the shadows flitted through trees, each crack of a branch amplifying up her anxiety. The first night on the ground she hadn’t slept a wink, her hand clinging raw to the grip of her dagger. By the second, she’d managed to coerce a sleeping draught from one of the dalish and fell into a dreamless slumber. Some of the potion remained, but Reiss feared that there’d be diminishing results.

She rose up to her legs and began to pace the perimeter of the campsite. Tents littered the area without any thought to incoming raids, no one had even dug a bear pitt or lined it with spikes and... Calm down, Reiss. This isn’t the camp. You’re not there. It’s okay. She breathed slowly, taking in gulps of air.

A branch snapped behind her and Reiss whipped around, her dagger already drawn to find not grey skin rummaging through their stores, but Arl Teagen walking to the fire. He’d been all smiles, carrying a rabbit for supper, but at the elf’s threat he froze and began to lift his hands.

“Maker’s sake, I’m sorry, I heard...thought,” Reiss sheathed her dagger instantly and tried to plead with the Arl she threatened a second time. “It was my mistake, forgive me,” she blubbered and stomped out of the clearing. Behind her she heard Teagan whispering to the others, the concern growing that the elf bodyguard was going mad, but she walked away from it all. She had to or else she feared she was about to shatter to pieces. It was so long ago, the scars healed and fears shuttered, but sleeping on the ground, waking to bird song next to her head, sitting beside a bonfire for warmth all ripped the wound wide open.

Reiss collapsed onto a log. It didn’t overlook anything impressive, no beautiful waterfall breaking through the clearing indigo from the night’s sky, nor a glenn dotted with fireflies. It was just more black forest, hissing and creaking as it waited to ensnare another into its unforgiving grip. At least it wasn’t a shoreline. The pounding of waves would draw nightmares more assuredly than any knife wielding clown ever could. Sometimes she’d awake in a start from a nightmare, feeling the sand rubbing raw against her back as her blood pounded in her veins like the surf shattering apart rocks.

“Mind if I, uh, sit down...or, stand awkwardly so the log doesn’t break,” the King appeared through the mist. Reiss turned to look over her shoulder at him, expecting to see a dozen aides hovering around him, but they all scattered either back to the fire or out of fear of the crazed elf.

“Go ahead,” she said, scooting further to the side on the log so there’d be room. Hesitant at first, the King prodded into the wood with his fingers to make certain it didn’t crack in half before gently lowering his royal backside to it.

“No fire ants rushing out to chew my flesh off, that’s a plus,” he smiled at the night air.

She wanted to ask if that happened before, but Reiss felt a thousand pins jabbing into her flesh. It ached to be clawed up, the detritus washed clean to heal but there was only salt water around to...no, they were near a river, a fresh one that wouldn’t make her eyes sting with every blink. Silence thundered upon the pair of them, the King absently tapping a rhythm against his knee while Reiss felt herself sinking deeper into her pit.

“I hate camping.”

He whipped his head over to her at that and she blanched. She meant to keep it contained inside, the words rattling against her tongue with every long night and too short day.

“It’s not for everyone,” the King admitted, “got a whole flock of Banns back there that just discovered the difference between poison oak and the regular kind. Shoulda set out with a lot more poultices apparently. They’re all getting real nice and friendly to the dalish mages with sweet words and hopes that they can cure it.” He grinned at the image of the nobility having to cozy up to the people they were working valiantly to kick off their land. It would have drawn a snicker to Reiss if she wasn’t in such a dour mood. “Or...” Alistair caught on that she wasn’t concerned with the poison leaves or bugs, “is there more to it?”

“I...” she swallowed hard. How much of her past did she have to keep dropping onto the poor man’s head? How little of it could he possibly care for? “I spent a year upon the shores outside Kirkwall in a refugee camp.”

“Oh,” his voice drifted away, the King’s eyes wandering out to the silent forest.

“There were so many of us displaced by the blight, nowhere to go, nothing to our name, and...and,” she worried her fingers together, a nail digging into each callus, “we were nothing, no one in Kirkwall was about to let a bunch of poor elves into the city. Some fled further west to Nevarra but the ships were demanding even more coin and those of us without had to settle for...”

It was horrific for the elf that grew up in fields and countryside, with real walls and a roof, to cut down poles and knot up moth eaten tarps to form her first tent. Nearly a month passed before they had enough to make one with four sides, canvas being scrounged by the quickest and biggest of the lot. There was never silence; below the pounding of the waves washing away their foundation was a continual moaning from every lesser person mourning what they’d lost. And Reiss...

“We lived in a shanty town, if it could even be called that. Surviving on the scraps that were scrounged up across the beach -- Maker did I get good at scraping out the last of the meat on spiny crabs. Salt stung the air, the surf pounding only feet away but if we traveled any further from it then we faced the rogue Qunari who claimed the land as their own.” Grey faces peering from behind gaps in the tent walls, all three children huddled together for warmth while the sticks of driftwood burnt away to ash. They watched silently upon cliffs overlooking the camp, sometimes sneaking close to peer in, and on one occasion...

“What about your parents?” Alistair’s voice broke her quivering memory, the blood pooling down her arm not real, the break to her hand long healed.

Reiss tried to smile to fight back the sting in her heart, but it wouldn’t take. Instead tears gurgled as she said, “When darkspawn attacked my home, they captured my mother. Were dragging her off to...I don’t know.” She felt the King stiffen beside her, his throat swallowing rapidly. “My father, he ran forward and stopped them but...it was too late for my mother. She, they, um,” Reiss’ hand rubbed hard against her nose, as if it was a cold causing her to sniffle and not the tears percolating behind, “the blade went through her shoulder and blood splattered...”

A hand gently cupped her arm and she broke from the dark forest to find Alistair’s warm eyes pleading with her to stop. “You don’t have to tell me, it has to hurt.”

“All right,” she nodded, trying to yank back the memory of her mother’s final scream. The same one she’d hear echoing in her throat when Reiss faced her own death.

“What, um,” his eyes wandered down to the hand still clinging to her. Alistair didn’t pull it back, but he began to circle his fingers up and down across her skin. “What happened to your father?”

“Blight, from trying to save our mother. Went quick. He knew something wasn’t right a day outside of our home and ordered me to take my brother and sister as far from the darkspawn as I could get. It was my job to protect them because no one else would. And then he...” Reiss groaned and tipped her head up to the stars. So far south they looked achingly familiar. She hadn’t been this close to South Reach since the blight.

“I used to tell myself stories that my father picked up a sword and ran into battle, helped to defeat the darkspawn and end the blight. But, no, it’s impossible. He died a ghoul, either by his own hand or someone else’s.”

“We fought so many,” the King’s lips barely moved as if he was nearly frozen solid at the sickening thought.

“You gave them peace,” Reiss didn’t touch him but she wanted to brush her fingers across his cheek. “For a time people helped, they took pity on the elven children, elven orphans fleeing the chaos. Kirkwall was a different story.” Her words tumbled in a low growl at the memory of standing barefoot with a screaming five year old famished with hunger and sea sick in front of an uncaring and suspicious templar.

“How old were you?”

“Fourteen, but to the guards any elf above toddler stage is a danger. They already know how to steal, can bring in diseases, will add nothing to the city but chaos. Nearly all of us were banished, scrabbling up the coast to find anywhere to stay. We couldn’t afford to move on, and had nowhere to return back to. It was the most soul crushing experience of my life.” Hunger was her new normal, barely enough food to go around for a single meal a day. Reiss would often skip two or three in favor of her siblings, Lorace complaining the loudest, which often drew the attention of others in the camp. Every few weeks they’d have to scatter with their things, the guards from Kirkwall sent to clear out the trash for fear of a plague infecting the city. Something was always lost, broken, or stolen, leaving Reiss with constant diminishing returns with each passing day.

“It all changed when Atisha fell ill. I was so certain she was going to die and it’d be all my fault. She’d been hunting for water at a creek and nearly everyone sent there came down with the same ailment -- two of which didn’t live to the next sunrise. My only hope was getting into the city. By that time the blight itself had ended and I guess Kirkwall didn’t care as much about keeping Fereldens out. We snuck in through an old smugglers tunnel and found a healer willing to save my sister.”

Reiss’ story fell silent as she remembered the long days sitting in the fetid room, her knees upon the rotten boards while holding her sister’s clammy hand. But even through the constant smell of feces in the air, they had a roof, there was a floor, no salt water bit apart their skin, no insects tried to lay eggs inside open sores, and there was a real cot. It was her first taste of hope in a year and it was the sewer for the rest of the city.

“A mage in Kirkwall was helping to heal refugees?” Alistair asked. He sounded both shocked and impressed.

“And he didn’t even ask for any payment. I’d have done anything he asked to save Atisha to pay him back, but he only smiled wistfully and said ‘We Fereldens need to stick together.’ I can’t remember his name.”

“Have to be bold as a bright red cod piece to openly practice magic in Kirkwall,” he whispered to himself. “Glad to know there were some good ones mixed in with the chantry exploding bad ones.”

Reiss knew nothing of that, “I was long gone by then. A woman was running a sort of boarding service for refugees - in exchange for work they were guaranteed a place to sleep and food. Atisha and I took it up, doing our best to secure a place for Lorace who at six wasn’t capable of much yet. Over time even he took odd jobs working for the tanner or assisting in the smelter. We were exhausted beyond measure, crawling into a cot after twelve hour days, but we were alive.”

People wondered about the soldier recruit who never complained about her blisters, was always dressed in her full armor, and seemed able to stand from sun up to sun down. Some would jokingly whisper that she was a secret spirit of duty given form to whip them all into shape. But all Reiss feared was that if she didn’t do everything asked of her, she’d be kicked out into the world without a bed or walls. While she was proud to serve in the Inquisition and found it more than fair, if they’d ordered her to crawl upon her belly upon a field of glass she’d do it without a second thought if only to never have to wander again.

“Why didn’t you return home?”

Reiss broke away from her memories to turn to the King. He appeared ragged as if having finished running through the woods at the behest of wolves, a shudder to his breath and skin flush. At her look he continued, “To Ferelden once the blight was over. I...”

She caught on and nodded, “The ships, yes, we heard of them sent by you to recall the displaced citizens. I was,” Reiss licked her lips and found herself admitting the truth, “what home was there to return to? What deed we had on the land died with my parents and even if I, not even eighteen at the time, could have laid a claim, what human would honor an elf’s word? There was no protection of an alienage, only a single elf family born in a generation and dead in the same.”

“I’m sorry,” he murmured, not striking back at her comment on humans. He seemed as aware of the short comings of the Banns as she did.

“Also, I...I don’t think I could look upon the ground again,” Reiss sputtered out, tears dripping down her cheeks. “Not where my mother...”

“Ostagaar,” Alistair whispered, “the battle, so many of my fellow wardens and, I understand. That I really, really get.”

His fingers clung to her arm, not pulsing tight to the skin but softly worrying her muscle up and down as if he was massaging it. Reiss glanced over at them, hypnotized by the strange intimacy. She didn’t want him to stop, but he seemed barely aware he was doing it, his focus beyond her and deeper into the Kokari Wilds. Little of the battles of the blight reached an elf knee deep in fish guts in the Free Marches. There was a massive celebration when the archdemon fell and everyone carried around a portrait of the Hero of Ferelden on their shoulders, offering it drinks as if she was there to share in them. Even with nothing to her name, Reiss chipped in two coppers for the woman who rescued her family.

“Are you,” Alistair spoke, his voice hoarse, “are you okay to continue? It’ll be a few more days of this I’m afraid.”

“I will prevail,” Reiss said, slotting back on her armor. For a moment those sweet eyes wandered over the profile of her face, as if he intended to challenge her on it, but he folded downward. Still, those royal fingers continued to pet her arm. Was he trying to comfort her or did it run the other way?

“When was the last time you saw your sister and brother?”

Reiss blinked, not expecting that question at all. “Um,” she tried to run the calculations in her head but her stomach opened up at the great gulf in years. “Not for a long time. When I turned eighteen I was of the age to accept migrant work. With a group we’d travel the Free Marches taking work wherever it was needed, usually harvesting and the like. I had to leave Atisha and Lorace behind in Kirkwall but it meant more money I could send back to them. And...” her teeth bit into her lip trying to suck back in the tears, “we write often.”

“But it’s not the same,” he released his comforting hold and let his hand drop to the log. The King didn’t lean away from Reiss, his shadow falling across her knees from the campfire flickering behind them.

“No, it’s not. I...I’ve bothered you for far too long, I’m certain,” she pawed at her cheeks, trying to mop up the fall of tears. “And I should apologize to Arl Teagan for once again threatening him with a dagger.” She was serious but she couldn’t stop the snicker at the absurdity of it all.

Alistair laughed, “That’s becoming a thing for you two. I’m expecting you’ll start celebrating every holiday by holding the Arl hostage for a few hours. It’d spice up Wintersend for certain.”

With no idea how to respond, Reiss only gulped down the last of her emotion and nodded solemnly at the man. If she squinted she could only see the crown or the boss she answered to. But when he’d crack that floppy smile and tug his hair upward, it obliterated into dust leaving butterflies in its wake. It seemed a fool’s dream, beyond that, and regardless of any advice she may have received, Reiss accepted that it would never be more. Offering up her apologies again, Reiss stood and began to slide around the log.

The King remained seated, his eyes staring out into the dark forest that held untold horrors within. “I haven’t forgotten,” he whispered to the air. It was enough to pause Reiss, her eyes lifting. Absently reaching behind him, Alistair picked up her hand in his. Such a small move, but her heart brightened at how his fingers threaded through hers. His warmth enveloped her palm as he spoke, “And I do want to talk about the knotty bits of it all, believe me. There’s a lot of various things on my mind, things that have nothing to do with the proper placement of drainage ditches. Things I’d, um, beyond imagination want to talk to you about but...”

Like a butterfly cracking out of its cocoon, hope erupted inside of her. Turning over her shoulder, she stared deep into the man’s eyes. He absently swung their hands together while those dimples dug in deep from the brightest smile of them all. Maker’s breath, sometimes he nearly knocked her off her feet with that. She wanted to kiss those lips, to run her tongue across them, suck his bottom lip into her mouth and do other things to his body that drew a blush to her cheeks even in the abstract. But...breaking away from his gaze, she watched the caravan circling the fire -- at least a dozen eyes occasionally glancing over at their King waiting for him to finish with his unhinged bodyguard. This wasn’t the place nor the time.

“There will be time later,” Reiss breathed as she squeezed his hand once before releasing it into the wild.

Alistair instantly tugged on his hair, a blush breaking upon those smiling cheeks as he gasped, “Maker’s breath, I hope so.”

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