Guarded Love

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Chapter 26: Damn

On the whole, things were going well. Alistair’s metric for well was that no one had threatened to flay someone alive and stretch their entrails through the trees like party decorations. That low of a bar was the only one they’d managed to cross. The dalish town or whatever they kept calling it because, as they kept insisting, the lone wanderers didn’t build cities was achingly quaint. With bright pops of the primary colors dashed across eaves bearing nothing but curves and gentle slopes it was the kind of place that made one expect to find white haired grannies selling their homemade quilts on every corner.

Instead, about two dozen hardened Dalish warriors watched the human caravans with wary eyes, their arms all crossed tight enough to let a hand drift down to a hilt. But, behind the razor sharp edge, lurked the bits that made a place a home. Children rampaged often from one fire to another, the smaller ones begging the bigger ones to slow up and let them have a go at using a bow. He’d often drift off from another argument courtesy of a Bann insisting the place was fetid and must be condemned to smile at the kids playing a rousing game of “halla.” Alistair wasn’t certain what the rules there were, if any, but it’d remind him of the hazy afternoons when Spud would shake off her minders, drop to her knees and become their pet mabari Sprinkle Toes. He had to play the cat Sprinkle Toes was always chasing, of course.

Maker he missed that squirt. It’d only been a week and all he wanted to do was pull up stakes and head right back to her. Every night he wrote a little letter about the day’s excitement even though Spud couldn’t read and there’d be no one to deliver it before their return. It gave him something to do and also created the illusion the King was working extra hard.

When he wasn’t missing his kids, or accidentally paying a bit of attention to the continuing arguments, he’d glance over at the woman at his side and do his damnedest to not sigh. Everyone kept the two of them continually occupied. If not crowds swarming the King, once they arrived in the hamlet the Dalish took it upon themselves to specially welcome the elf in his employ. He wasn’t certain what all was involved but after an hour’s disappearance she returned with berries and twigs in her hair, her boots sloshing, and a growl on her face. After that minor hazing, the local elves folded Reiss into their groups, often speaking elvhen to her while glaring over at the shemlan trying to not lose a pint of blood to the insects. How’d he forget about those from the first time in the Kokari Wilds?

There’d been barely any chances for him to even get close or whisper a question in her ear all while he kept drifting off watching the curve of her guarded smile -- the armor slipping off courtesy of her people. When she grew exhausted from either a day of tramping back and forth across swampy waters, or dealing with swampy politicians, a crinkle formed in the bow of her upper lip. Alistair came to look for it, and in turn found himself aching to skirt his finger across it, to kiss her full on once again. Maybe try with his tongue. He still had the hang of it after all these years warming the bench.

Maker but she was beautiful.

It struck him worst of all when the Keeper, her squad, the Bann and his posse all trekked up to the Dalish’s hard fought dam. Water pounded against the rocks, the elven created lake full to bursting from rains that never seemed to stop, while down below the little hamlet waited serenely. It was a source of contention because the Banns thought the Dalish had no right to take a claim upon water that would wind towards theirs, while the Dalish argued uncontrolled flooding would wipe out their village. After three days or bickering over the proper shade of red to paint a barn, this was an easy one to give to the elves.

Proud of her accomplishment in building the first ever Dalish dam since ye olden times, the Keeper moved a few levers and pulleys to open up a lock and send a stream of water bursting over the edge. It shot out like a toddler fleeing bath time, tumbling down the rocky slope and sliding over a controlled river right to the Dalish’s doorstep. A rather pretty marvel, the King was about to comment when he turned to Reiss and his breath rolled up into a knot.

With sunlight highlighting behind her and water spraying into the air, a rainbow arced from the side of her head -- the blue skirting close to her ears before all of it vanished into the ether. She was smiling, not politely to deal with people, but a true one that lit up those summery eyes as the wash of sun turned her hair even more golden and shimmery. Alistair feared he was about to collapse to his knees and give thanks to Andraste or the Maker for such a beautiful sight.

Then the Bann clapped him on the shoulder, completely shattered the moment, and they got a long lecture on how the dam worked. Apparently the Keeper, having little knowledge of foundational structures, took to inquiring with various shemlan, and after gathering enough knowledge plus a hint of magic something something... He wasn’t listening. He was too busy acting like that idiotic twenty year old all over again, nodding along as someone else handled all the decisions while waiting for an opportunity to grab the pretty girl’s hand and tug her into the tall grass for some smooching. There was also a lot of picking grasshoppers out of unmentionable areas he remembered, but the wiggly bugs were worth it.

After five days, with nothing truly decided but lots of certain sounded words given, Alistair was ready to depart. The elves and Banns remained at a stalemate but it was one that could hold for a few years. While the land was returning to its once fertile stage it wasn’t there yet, which made the Banns more susceptible to agreement. And while the Dalish were repopulating, and reproducing at numbers beyond what the wanderers would dare, there was no chance they could have a true army for many years. That also made them more willing to listen to the human’s side of things. He knew that it would all come to a head and it wasn’t going to be a happy answer for all, but for now it was a begrudging peace.

To celebrate the last day of the shemlan invading their territory the elves decided to throw a party of their own. While there was no life size replica of Alistair carved from cheese it was a lot of fun, or would be if not for the rains sheeting off the gutters and splattering against quaint red and green porches.

“It seems your send off is not as festive as we’d have liked,” Niala approached Alistair. He’d perched himself by the window, at first curious about the beautiful rosette etched into the glass, then drawn by the pounding of rain. It also kept him from having to interact with any Banns.

Placing down his mug of warmed brandywine, he turned and smiled at the elf. She’d softened since they’d reached the forests. At least there was less of that implied eye rolling wafting in his direction. “It’s not so bad, rains are good for farmers and it’s not as if you can control the weather,” he paused and glanced out at the blackened skies. The sun trundled off to bed a few hours ago, and the moon had no chance to break through such a mob of clouds. It was as pitch black as the void itself out there.

Blinking at a thought, he turned back to the mage clinging to her staff and asked, “You can’t actually control the weather, right?”

There was that implied eye roll, the woman pursing her lips as she shifted her staff to the side. “No, your Highness. Not for hours at least.”

“Contained blizzards and the like,” he countered, remembering a few of Lanny’s particular feats in the height of summer when they thought they were about to die from heat exhaustion. Alistair frowned at that memory. This close to Ostagaar, thoughts of Lanny dug up the conflicting emotions he thought he buried years ago.

“Ah, good,” Niala spoke, drawing Alistair out of his own reflection. He turned to watch Reiss step cautiously over the floor. While the dalish stood out thanks to their vibrant colors and dominant personalities her grey metal blended her into the background. It worked particularly well when she’d stand cross armed watching the others to the point a Bann nearly stepped on her boot. But when she lifted her head into the flickering torchlight, a smile broke upon her lips and Alistair couldn’t see anything else in the room.

“First,” she nodded at Niala, then turned to him, “Ser.”

Either unaware of the rising tension or not caring, Niala sighed, “You may take over the duties of tending to him.”

“Ah, what?” Reiss scrunched up her cute face and turned to the mage.

“Is that not what elves in the shemlan cities do? Care for the humans who cannot find their asses without one person each holding a cheek for them?”

“As King I get three, in case one can’t handle their duty,” Alistair spoke up, laughing at the idea. He glanced over and caught a look racing upon Reiss’ face. While he was by far no expert on the languages of body or womanly thoughts, it didn’t seem to be a happy one at the Dalish calling her to the carpet.

“Excellent for you, your Kingness,” Niala bowed and waltzed off to her fellow elves -- all of whom were spinning like mad in circles and dancing with far more heart than anyone had at Denerim.

Alistair picked up his mug and took a drink, savoring the warmth dripping down his throat before it hit the stomach and bloomed across his body. After wiping off his mouth he turned and spotted Reiss standing awkwardly beside but not near him. “Ready to head home?” he began, his eyes swinging out the window to the embattled land beyond. It wasn’t much, a lot of scrag brush and rocky hills surrounded by moats of dead earth, but they were making it beautiful.

“I,” Reiss slipped in beside him, her own bright green eyes hunting over the land. They’d wandered across dozens of seedlings springing from the ground, but none of them were as fresh and pure as the color of her eyes. Which was another fact Alistair shouldn’t have been thinking of when he was supposed to be paying attention to the Dalish’s attempts at irrigation.

At her silence, Alistair picked up the conversation, “I’m aching to get back. Sit in my chair for a few hours, sleep on my bed that doesn’t have a rock buried under the mattress which I just bet Letali did. I’ve seen the way he keeps giggling when I look away.”

“Perhaps he has a bit of a crush on you,” Reiss whispered, her beautiful lashes fanned out as she didn’t quite laugh at the idea.

That was Alistair’s job. “Maker’s sake, someone should have a healer inspect the man’s eyesight and fast before he puts an arrow in a dark place.”

She snickered at that outburst, and it drew a smile to his cheeks as well. A soft sigh broke from those tempting lips and Reiss beamed her full attention upon him. How badly he wanted to wrap his arms around her, pull her body tight to his, kiss those petal lips, and make a mess of her taut bun sending blonde hair flying everywhere. Instead, Alistair cupped both hands around his mug and shifted on his feet, hoping to distract his body with alcohol.

“I would very much like to return home,” Reiss whispered. He’d expected that, given her revulsion to camping, yet it wasn’t a shudder ratcheting up her spine. No, a burning desire so obvious even Alistair could catch on roared in the depths of those greens.

“Well, um,” he realized his mug was empty and moved to put it down. “It doesn’t escape my notice that...” Alistair turned his head back to note that the Dalish were all clustered around the hearth of the fire while the Banns flocked to proper tables. “We seem to be alone.”

Her eyes shot open wide at that fact and she glanced behind him as if to make certain he wasn’t lying. “So it would appear, and I’m talking like one of Lune’s blighted romance novel characters.” A vibrant blush erupted upon her cheeks as she continued to chastise herself under her breath, though he heard a soft rant about velvet encasing something.

“I...” Maker’s sake, what the hell was he going to say? He’d thought about it, sure. I liked that you kissed me, a whole bunch. It was nice. Wanna do it again? Andraste’s big toe, he was thirty-seven years old and he never managed to get better than charring himself bright red at the thought of doing things without a tent. Lanny found it adorable for reasons that made him question her sanity at times, even if it paid off for him. And the others...

Alistair knew it was as much about the crown as him, maybe not in the attention paying parts of his brain, but his heart slushed that fact around often. If he wasn’t King they’d have skipped right on past without giving him the time of day. After ending things with the last woman, he found himself wondering not what kept anyone from wanting him but why Lanny ever did. Seemed the height of stupidity on her end, really. He’d been happy to play the part of lustful royalty, and while of course the lamppost licking was often on his mind, he found himself missing the smaller intimate moments more. Maybe not more. 70:30. Silly handholding, brushing her hair behind her ears, giggling like mad over the dumb things they kept whispering to each other. The other women would go along with it, some seeming to find a sort of peace but it never lasted because it wasn’t right. They liked the idea of being a king’s mistress without taking into account the reality of being with him, and he liked it even less.

What bound his tongue wasn’t the fear that Reiss was only in it for the power or attention but that she wasn’t and he would completely screw it all up in under five minutes. A whisper flowed through his veins -- which hatched after Seheron when he broke Lanny’s heart again -- that Alistair would never know that true fairy tale love again. Because of his title, because he came with enough baggage to fill a chateau, no woman could ever love the man without the shiny hat.

And she was staring at him in concern because he just fell slack jawed and stupid for far too long. Alistair snatched up his mug and put it to his lips, hoping to find liquid courage inside, only to remember that the damn thing was empty. Uncertain what to do, he tipped his head back and pretended to drink, making a big show of wiping the imaginary excess off and giving an exhale of approval. Maker’s sake he was a moron.

“So, that thing we need to talk about,” Alistair rounded about talking without saying. She nodded her head, her eyes boring into the ground as she worried her fingers together in knots. “When you, you know...”

“Kicked you to the ground,” Reiss spoke solemnly before raising her face up and a wicked grin lifting her lips.

A breath of his hesitation vanished and Alistair dug through his hair, fluffing it up higher and chuckling, “Maker, I know better than to attempt a frontal assault on you.” He’d been serious but a blush burned up her cheeks and when the potential innuendo hit him he groaned, his head flopping up to the roof festooned with potted plants. “Which, that is to mean, a hem, why do pretty ladies always steal away my ability to make words good?”

With her head tipped down, he could only see a wash of the golden hair, a cupful of her cheek and one green eye quickly overflowing with surprise. “You think I’m pretty?” Reiss whispered to the floor.

“Is this a trick question?” Alistair felt a scoff rising in his throat. He wanted to tell her she knew she was gorgeous, like dawn’s light but not when you were staggering out of bed with a hangover. The birds folding your laundry and squirrels bringing breakfast kind of dawn. A brightness burned off her that chased away the creeping shadows and lifted them off his heart. Even aware of the dozens of eyes shifting around the small hut, Alistair picked up her hand in his. She responded to it, her gloved fingers twisting around to fold into his, as he leaned near her slightly red ear.

“I think you’re beautiful,” he whispered. Either it was his imagination, or a small shiver ran up and down her spine. Reiss crested her face towards his until those tempting lips were within closing distance. To keep himself steady, he focused on her eyes, chasing a daisy yellow sparkle of color within the green fields.

Lifting a shoulder, she confessed, “You’re rather attractive yourself.”

That did it. Leaning forward, Alistair’s free hand moved to cup her cheek. She caught on, her lips pursing in anticipation as he moved achingly close to kiss her.

“Help!” echoed through the quiet stupor of the celebrants followed by the door slamming open.

Alistair snapped his head away and let his hand fall off her warm cheek, but their clasped fingers remained intertwined. An elf stood in the doorway, impossible to tell who by the dark light and shapeless armor, but Niala was quick to leap to their side.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s the dam,” bedraggled beyond measure, the elf looked as if he swam the river to get inside. Barely wiping mud off the blue tattoos across his cheek, he took in a breath and cried, “It’s broken.”

“Elgar’non show mercy,” Niala gasped, flipping back to her people, “Everyone to the dam!” Alistair rose off his seat, absently reaching for a sword that wasn’t there. The move drew the panicking First’s attention, her eyes narrowing upon the King. “If we don’t stop this...” she whispered.

He nodded, catching on quickly. “She said everyone,” Alistair clapped his hands, jostling a few of the traveling servants to their feet. At his glare the rest of the Banns began to rise. “Go and collect the others, mobilize them...”

Niala squared her shoulders and he caught a glimmer of a protection spell, golden stars fading off her skin as it dissipated, “Many will remain in the village, sandbag the banks to keep the river at bay. The rest of us shall have to repair the dam itself.”

“Understood,” Alistair nodded once. He reached over to tug his cloak off the tack and had it thrust into his hands by Reiss. She’d already knotted hers on and was waiting for him to follow suit. Niala and her people were the first out, the woman directing most to the sandbag locations and doling out orders. Of course Alistair had to repeat them to his fellows because they suddenly couldn’t understand the elf or something. They amounted to, “Do as she told you, and don’t Maker damn argue or we’ll all be dead. Got it?”

Torches were impossible in the torrent of rain thundering through the skies, so Niala lit up a few crystals and tossed them to the various parties. She moved to hand one to Alistair, but chucked it at Reiss instead. The river itself normally crested a few houses away, but even at this distance and by the darkness, Alistair could see the waves rippling over the banks and heading towards all the dalish worked for. If they didn’t pull this off it could all be done in by nature itself in a single night.

Niala directed the first of her hunters up the path to the broken dam, before slipping over to Alistair, “Sire, perhaps it is best if you remain indoors, in case of...”

“You need hands, we’ll worry about the costs of cleaning the royal hems later.” He tried to wrap his cloak tighter to his skin, but the wind kept yanking it behind as if attempting to choke him to death. Just what he needed on top of assassins, the weather itself working to kill him.

For a moment the First shared a look with his bodyguard, before sighing in acquiescence and leading the charge up the path. What had once been a polite and relaxing walk in the woods became utter treachery. Every three steps, Alistair’s foot sunk into mud, the water pooling up over his boot and sloshing deep through the leather. Rain made the field of vision winnow down to as far as you could wave your hand, which meant everyone had to cling arm to arm to keep from losing anyone. And under it all was the ever pressing cold of the south, far more bitter even by late spring than what they got in the mountains. It bit and hissed against exposed skin, wetted by rain, and turning it all to ice. He’d be lucky if he ever warmed up again.

Scrambling tighter together the group finally reached the summit to find a cluster of the crystals lit up as hunters hauled up stones from a pile beside the bank. “We lost a lot, First Niala,” one shouted, her entire bottom half coated in mud. A river gushed out of the hole in the middle of the dam, rocks scattered down the incline and all of it threatening to buckle at a moment’s notice. That would send nearly the entire lake down upon the village wiping out Maker only knew how many.

She nodded solemnly, “I can try and hold the water back, fill in the hole as fast as possible.” Every elf picked up a stone and scurried towards the bank, ready to perform their duty. Folding her hands together once, Niala ripped apart the veil. The hairs across Alistair’s body lifted from the metallic twang mixing into the air as a blue force launched out of the mage’s hand to wrap around the lake. A whistle burst from his lungs at the power on display, the woman easily holding in place gallons upon gallons of angry water against the natural pull of the world. Glancing over, Alistair noticed the prickling of sweat building on her brow and amended maybe not so easily.

Niala grunted out a, “Now,” and every elf scurried across the soaking wet rocks, attempting to slot back in a fresh stone to make up for the missing ones.

Alistair reached over to pick up a rock, when Reiss grabbed onto his hands. Confused, he caught her sight by the light of the crystal in her hands. “Ser,” she shook her head slowly, “that is not wise for you. By any measure of the word.”

“There aren’t a lot of options,” he pointed out. Water bulged against the magical barrier, a small fist of it trying to work its way free. Grunting, Niala drug it back with all her force. He knew mages, knew the power of ones sometimes beyond their limits. If they didn’t finish this quick, it was going to break and then they were back at the beginning.

Reiss tugged herself closer to him and dropped the lighted crystal in his blisteringly cold fingers, “Please.”

Grumbling, but accepting that she was probably right, he released his grip on the rock and stumbled back by Niala. He couldn’t offer her any assistance, templars being trained to do the exact opposite with mages, but he could at least hold a light up near her face so she could see the work better. While he was banished to being the light keeper, Reiss snatched up a rock and followed the rest of the the dalish. She moved as certainly as she had when running across the roof -- paying no heed to the slippery footing or the slope, but Alistair found himself holding his breath silently praying she’d be okay. It’d be a long way down if one of them tripped.

Brick by brick, the elves moved quickly, far faster than seemed possible, the group not bickering or wasting time grandstanding. There was a job and if they failed, they all lost. Slowly, the hole clogged up until only a slither of water trickled through it. Reiss staggered to a halt beside the bank. Her hair was matted against her head from the constant spray, the metal of her armor glinting by the haunting blue of the spell. She turned back, trying to figure out what was next when one of the elves dropped to his knees and with a handful of mud, attempted to seal in any major cracks. Not even pausing, she dug fist first into the muck and followed suit. Alistair shifted on his toes while the woman patted her hands along the cracks of a dam that could break at any seconds, her face right next to the oncoming danger. Would she even have a chance to scream before the water smothered her?

Not helping, Alistair. Think of happy dry things far, far away from the torrential downpour of the Maker dropping a damn ocean upon them. He glanced down at Niala and found her eyes screwed up tight. A dribble of blood pooled down her mouth from her teeth biting into her tongue as she struggled against the pressure of nature fighting her mana dump. What I wouldn’t give for a vial of lyrium right now.

Her eyes flailing open, Niala only had time to shout, “Watch out!” when her magic faltered and a bubble of water punched through the rocks, sending them scattering down the dry waterfall. Every elf scattered towards opposite sides of the banks, but their First was strong and she reinforced her own barrier, dragging the uncooperative water back to its bed.

“Please, go quickly,” she whispered. There was no time for the others to mourn the loss of their work, more rocks passed hand to hand to try and refill the gap.

Feet scrabbling in the mud turned Alistair and his glowing stone away from Niala to highlight an older elf. He looked panic stricken, his eyes a deathly white by the glow of magic in the air. “First, please, you must help.”

“We are trying, Belan,” she hissed, her eyes screwed up tight.

The man glanced over at the piles of his brethren stumbling across each other to fix the dam, when he turned back to the woman holding everything at bay. “Not that, First. It’s my son. Please!” he shrieked, clinging to her robes.

Niala’s eyes shot open and Alistair flinched, whipping his head back to the lake, but the water remained in place. “Iohn? What of him?”

“The river, it’s taken him. I can’t...please, only screams and,” he yanked Niala back and forth causing the barrier to wobble. “You have to help me!”

Alistair tried to politely pick the distraught man off the woman, which earned the shemlan the wrathful glare he’d been expecting. “I can help you. Show me where your son is,” he said quickly, the man nodding wildly. He didn’t put up much fuss about a human offering a helping hand, there weren’t a lot of options.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” the man cried to both, already scampering away down the hill.

Wiping the water out of his face, Alistair turned to follow when a voice called out in the darkness, “Alistair!” He started at hearing his name without any fancy titles before it and turned to spot Reiss glaring at him. “What are you doing?”

“Saving one person, you keep saving everyone else. I’ll do my best to not die!” he shouted, trying to sound cheery.

“You damn well better not,” she hollered back, accepting her fate as Reiss returned to spackling in mud before the entire thing collapsed killing them all.

The old man twisted quickly back down the hill, barely pausing while the far heavier human stumbled against the worn away path that was nothing but a muddy pit. Alistair risked a glance up at the skies, wishing that the clouds would part for a moment, only to have a fat wet raindrop plop onto his forehead and drip down into an eye. “Thanks,” he groaned to himself, trying to shake off the hanging sense of doom about all of this. Turning back, the dalish man shouted something in elvhen, but Alistair couldn’t make it out over the rains whomping into the churned earth and the river rapids washing back and forth like a vengeful sea from the winds.

“Coming,” he tried, hoping that’d suffice while suckering his boot out of the mud and half hopping towards the old man’s side. “Where’s your boy? Trapped in a closet or hiding under a bed?” He threw out a few theories and some of Spud’s preferred ‘I don’t want to go to bed and I mean it’ spots.

With a finger trembling like a branch in this storm, the old man gestured out towards the river. He couldn’t be serious. Alistair yanked the light crystal higher, but it couldn’t pierce further than a few feet against the impenetrable shadow blanketing the area. “How do you...?” he began when a scream broke above the white rushing of the waves. High pitched and gargling, it sounded like a child that was terrified beyond measure and reaching a point of exhaustion.

“Sweet Maker,” Alistair ran towards the bank’s edge, river water washing across his shoes as he raised up as high on his toes as he could manage. By the narrowest band of the light’s spray he caught the whispered edge of a lump clinging to something in the middle of the river. The water parted around it like the single boulder in the middle of a battlefield. He held his breath until a head, almost ghostly white, swung up and screamed into the night.

“Right, okay,” how the hell was he going to pull this off? He moved to dip a foot into the river, but the current yanked him off balance. Before Alistair could plummet into the flooded river and need rescuing himself, the old man’s hands grabbed onto his upper arm steadying him. Turning to offer thanks, Alistair spotted a line of rope sitting beside a boat. An idea percolated in his brain and he asked the man if there was a bow around.

Belan gave him a slow scowl, but as his son shrieked again, he dashed off while Alistair knotted the rope around a tree at the edge of the river. Thank the Maker the thing was long, probably planned for an anchor. When the man returned with the bow, Alistair plucked up an arrow and began to tie a knot around it. “What are you doing?” Belan shrieked, his son’s terror echoing in the father. Blessed Andraste, how he knew that feeling.

“This’ll work, I think,” Alistair plucked up the weighted arrow and tried to slot it into the Dalish bow. “I’ve never seen it done but I read about a serial, written by a dwarf.” Straightening his back, he locked his left elbow and slowly tugged the drawstring back. The arrow’s tip slotted into place above his thumb for guidance as he realized he had no idea what to shoot at. Darkness filled the other side of the bank. He could keep shooting blindly while having to fish the damn arrow back every time, but that would take forever.

The father seemed aware of this, and plucking up a lantern he ran up to the bank and heaved it across the river with all his might. Alistair followed the arc of the light, his eyes honing in on the spark as it fought against the rain and for a brief second illuminated the bark of a tree before falling extinguished to the muddy ground. His fingers let the arrow fly, the rope weighting it terribly so the course slipped downward fast. Please be enough draw to reach the end and stick in the damn tree! Tenderly picking up the slack rope, Alistair tugged towards the other side and felt it stick tight into something.

Okay, good, that was the easy part of this. Tossing the bow back at the man, Alistair unclasped his cloak and without any ceremony waded into the river. The father began to chase after, but he whipped around, “Stay back, hold the rope in case this all goes badly.” Which it probably will because it was your dumb idea.

The river pounded against his body, trying to knock his legs out from under him, but Alistair kept the rope wrapped around his fist while the other held the crystal aloft. It worked pretty well until he crossed the first sandbar and his body plummeted into the icy water. Flailing from the force, Alistair’s feet slammed away from out under him and he snapped with the rope.

Maker’s jangling coin purse! Pain seared up his shoulder but damn it all, he kept a grip to the rope. Watching the water thundering over the crystal still jammed in his hand, he accepted there was only one way to get to the kid while still being able to see. Shaking his head and trying to will away the cold biting up into his bones, Alistair opened his mouth and crammed the light crystal inside. It barely fit and tasted of a salty iron, but a beam of illumination lit up from his mouth like he was a walking light house.

Straining every muscle in his upper body, Alistair fought against the current to grip onto the rope with his second hand and slowly, painstakingly crawled to the boy. The cries began to slip down to whimpers, the child uncertain what was coming for him and the man with a crystal for a mouth unable to answer. He bobbed and weaved through the river, the depths slipping away until Alistair’s feet had no hope of touching the bottom. Twisting his head, the light skirted across a log bursting out of the river and there attached to it was a small hand.

The boy was still there. Craning his head back, Alistair managed to get the light to land upon the child’s eyes, his body awash in a haunted red glow as he blinked against it, but those hands didn’t dare break away from his only salvation. “I’m here to rescue you,” Alistair tried to say, but it came out like the strangled gargle of a mabari mid yawn. The boy cowered closer to the log, more than likely terrified of the river monster come to eat his soul.

Andraste’s flaming buttresses, Alistair bit off the strain burning across his arms, his shoulders screaming in rage as he fought the force of the river and tried to tug himself closer. When he butted into the log, he froze as a creaking sound erupted from the drowned wood. So close he could see the child; debris from the river splattered against his face and hair and he tried to cower tight to the log. Ever so gently, Alistair reached a hand towards him. The fingers lightly grazed the kid’s head as he knocked a stick off, when without the grip, Alistair’s body slammed into the log.

“Oh Maker,” he groaned, jagged edges of driftwood digging into the back of his ribs. Tipping forward, he forgot to bite down on the crystal and their only light source plummeted out of his jaws and skipped down the river. Looking like a haunted fish it darted through and fro down the stream until striking a series of boulders and cracking in half. Alistair hissed at that and doubled his grip on the rope.

“Come on, get on my shoulders,” he instructed to the kid but the boy was frozen in terror. “It’s like a piggy back. You like that game, yes?”

“Idunno,” the kid moaned, his face buried into his waterlogged salvation. Maker only knew how long he could remain clinging to it and if that thing would even survive this level of flooding.

“Here,” Alistair tried to rise up onto the log, but another crack echoed from deeper into the depths. Right, not smart. Reaching out blindly, he picked up the kid’s fingers and worked them to his shoulder. At first they hung there limply, but when he reached for the second, the boy dug down tight. Alistair almost yelped from the pinch, but he shouldn’t discourage it. “Are you on?”

The boy didn’t answer, only nodded his head hard, the chin digging into Alistair’s shoulder. “Okay, hold on tight. We’re going to the shore.”

Gritting every part of him that could be gritted and girded, Alistair inched along the rope. The boy’s hands slipped around his shoulders to do the far too familiar choke hold that his daughter perfected. It wasn’t too bad until the current tugged on the much smaller body, collapsing Alistair’s windpipe. He’d have to pause and tug the boy’s hands away just to get in a breath before resuming. All the while, the boy whimpered beside his ear, the cry continuous.

“I fell into a river once,” Alistair began to talk. The flood slopped filthy water into his mouth, some of it he swallowed, more went up his nose, but he kept talking, that fatherly instinct needing to soothe the scared boy. “I was six and I thought I saw a fish.”

He reached forward, prepared to grab tightly to the rope, when he felt the section behind him fall slack. Oh shit! It finally snapped free. Alistair wrapped a hand behind himself around the boy while clinging knuckle white to the rope. The current whipped them back and forth, both man and child tossed into a whirlpool. Unable to see, Alistair had no idea when the water would wash into his throat or down his nose -- the blackness strangling him without reason or remorse.

Their only chance was if he kept tugging forward on the only bit of rope still attached to the tree. And if that one broke as well, he was going to join with that light crystal wherever it went in the void. He tried to tell the boy to hang on, but water gushed into his mouth. Having to trust that the dalish child was smart enough to know how to survive, Alistair let go of him.

Thank you blessed Andraste! The heavy weight clinging to him didn’t wash away with the rapids. Reaching as far as he could, Alistair renewed his tug, but it was even slower going as they fought directly against the current. Beside his ear, the whimpering doubled in terror.

“That fish I saw, I wanted it to be a mermaid. Do you know what mermaids are?”

The boy buried his face in his neck, not saying a word aside from the terror whimpers. Taking that as a yes, Alistair continued his tale while inching forward, “Well, I’d never been in a river before, not even a lake or pond. Baths were pretty iffy at that age too. So...” Bubbles snorted out of his mouth as he drank more of the water. Whipping his head back and forth like a dog with a bee in its ear, the cold wrapped around his dying limbs. Its icy ache impaled nails into every joint, crushed the nerve and begged for him to give in.

“Without knowing a damn thing about swimming, I leap feet first into the river,” Alistair said, not about to give up. He reached a hand forward, but the grip slipped off the frozen, waterlogged rope. This sent his face plummeting into the river, sucking down enough water and fish poop he’d probably grow gills. Beside him the child howled, his own face cresting near the waves. Alistair moved to comfort him as best he could, when something tugged on the rope.

The movement threw him off, almost sending him tumbling backwards. Quickly, Alistair knotted both hands around the rope as the tugging increased. Jerky at first, it grew into a smooth, slow motion tugging him closer to the shoreline. A lantern beat against the darkness, illuminating four or five shadows clustered beside the tree. They were saved!

He felt a laugh growing in his belly that sprouted legs when his feet hit the sandbar. Standing up, Alistair kept one hand on the rope for balance and used the other to pin the boy to his back. With all the dexterity of a drunkard after last call, Alistair stumbled to the shoreline. Hands plucked the boy off his back, kisses being peppered across the kid’s filthy face, as Alistair tumbled to the muddy ground. That finally knocked the laugh free, a jolly one echoing from him to the others gathered around, the ones that grabbed onto the rope and pulled them both to safety.

Lifting his head, he caught the smiling but also worried face of Reiss. She extended a hand to him, but he groaned, uncertain if his muscles would cooperate. Instead of tugging him upward, she cupped his shoulder and leaned closer, “What did I tell you about not dying?”

“It’s all good,” Alistair glanced over his shoulder to watch the boy hoisted up in his ecstatic and teary father’s arms. A few other aunts and uncles or however the dalish did it flocked around, trying to inspect him for damage. “It was worth it.”

Turning back around, he watched a tender moment rise through her pretty face, Reiss following the happy family reunion. Aware that squatting in the rain wasn’t going to do much for his health, Alistair staggered to his feet. She was quick to snap away from the elves to help heave him up. Even with the audience, Alistair let his hand slip behind her back to guide himself upward and whispered, “Besides, I had you to rescue me.”

“Sire,” Niala shouted, rushing towards the man exhausted and beaten but also triumphant beyond measure. “What you have done for us is...”

“Forget it, gah,” Alistair reached between his vest and found a waterlogged stick jammed against his skin, “Please tell me you got the damn dam fixed.”

“Yes, thankfully. It should hold until the rains stop and we can properly reinforce it. This could have been a greater tragedy if you weren’t here.” The First was a mess, a few blood vessels having popped against her cheeks leaving them looking like speckled red paint. But she wore a smile too, aware of how close it all came.

“That’s how alliances work, or so I’m told,” Alistair groaned, taking stock of how many new bruises he was going to find in the morning.

“Are you hurt?” Reiss slid closer under his arm. He hadn’t thought to move it off her, at first grateful for the balance and now for her warmth. Both of them looked like drowned rats, but a heat radiated off her that drew Alistair to want to wrap both his arms around her tiny body and never let go.

“I’ve been better,” he answered truthfully, “been worse too, come to think of it.”

“Come, we should get you inside and dried off before you catch your death,” Niala interrupted. She didn’t cast a curious glance at the King and bodyguard clinging together, only gestured to the house they all ran out of what felt five hours ago.

“Don’t be silly, takes more than a little swim to kill me. I never get sick,” Alistair grinned. Accepting his fate, he released his hold on Reiss and began to follow after the First and her exhausted clan. Out of the darkness, a pair of hands wrapped around his leg, sticking him in place.

“Iohn!” a voice chastised, “let the King alone!”

But Alistair was so used to a child suddenly latching onto him, he didn’t even blink as he turned to face the boy. “Was there something you wanted?” he asked.

Iohn rubbed his face into Alistair’s knee before glancing up and beaming a pair of golden eyes upon him, “What happened to you in the river, with the mermaid?”

“Oh that, I...” Alistair knotted up his soaking wet hair, wringing it out against the kid on accident. “It was a story I told to keep him, occupy the kid from, you know. Uh...” Bending down, Alistair tugged the boy closer to whisper in his ear. “Just between you and me, I leaped into the river, with my legs tucked up tight, and quickly learned it was only a foot deep. But I did learn to swim after that.”

Laughing at the story, the boy released his hold on Alistair’s leg to quickly wrap once around his neck and hug him tight. Before he thought to return it, Iohn dashed off to join his kin but a warmth spread up through Alistair’s heart as well as an ache. He missed his children terribly. “Right,” Alistair staggered up and smiled first at Reiss and then Niala, “what I need is a change of clothes, a big blanket, and all the alcohol you can warm up tonight.”

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