Guarded Love

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Chapter 47: Snake in the Grass

He didn’t last much after breakfast. In truth, Alistair wanted to slip out by an early light while Lanny was still groggy with sleep -- she was always the worst to rouse at camp. But to his surprise, not only was she up long before him but was bright eyed and slightly on fire. Apparently that was normal as no one else seemed to be panicking, though Alistair did almost toss his glass of water at her.

In trying to be polite, he chewed through the typical mountain abbey meal of gruel spiced with a touch of oatmeal and beans for the mushiest food to ever plorp in ones guts. He suspected that was all the templar’s doing, no doubt as part of lashing himself for some slight against Andraste by attacking his tastebuds head on. Lanny tried to goad him into staying with more of that tempting stable talk, but Alistair knew when he was licked.

As much fun as toiling under the hot sun while fearing a back leg kick from a horse sounded, it was knowing he’d occasionally catch her making moon eyes at the templar that drove Alistair off. He couldn’t blame Lanny for it. He was in that mood, the one that wanted to strangle love from every heart, turn it to cinder, and then kick the ash to the wind for good measure. It was a perfectly normal stage in any breakup, at least for him. After the first time he dumped Lanny and she fled up north to fight talking darkspawn, he was in such a foul fog he declared a couple necking on the palace steps to be immediately divorced in the eyes of the crown. Didn’t care what Eamon said about how that was highly irregular and would lead to rebellion. He didn’t even care to learn that the couple in fact weren’t married and now were under the fear they’d have to wed just to appease the King.

It was that kind of a dark mood, and this one felt just as bad.

Rather than turn his occasionally acrimonious tongue on his friend (while secretly wishing he could go after the templar just for a bit) Alistair rode back to the hunting lodge. After riding past where a small waterfall gurgled into a stream, he found Teagan, that bodyguard Brunt, and some of the household staff all gearing up for a trip into the woods while standing outside the door.

“Don’t stop on my account,” Alistair cheekily called while dismounting off his horse.

“Sire, you’ve returned,” Teagan was quick to smile in relief, no doubt his excuses for the King’s disappearance failing to hold any water over half a day later.

“Where have you been?”

Didn’t matter who said it, though in this case it came from that big, gruff bodyguard. Alistair’d been hearing those words if he was missing for more than an hour since his little sabbatical into the west for two or three months. Unable to explain rescuing Lanny beyond insisting it was important and no he couldn’t say why, he more or less chained an invisible collar to himself and let Eamon hold the leash. Things had cooled with Spud’s birth and the castle realizing Alistair never willingly left her for long, but people grew antsy if there’d been no sight of his idiotic face for a six or seven hours.

“I was out taking a walk to enjoy nature...with this horse. Horses love walks. When I ran into some hunters. Followed them home, had a lovely dinner. Talked about sorghum, turns out it’s a very fascinating subject. Fell asleep after that rousing conversation, woke up and I think you can figure out the rest.”

Teagan sighed, pleased with his explanation, but Brunt was less than forgiving. He folded those hams for arms and grumbled, “A likely story.”

“It’s all I’ve got,” Alistair admitted before trying to comb his hair, “now if you’ll all excuse me, I’d like to wash the road and a no doubt extensive louse collection off me.”

After the bath, where he stayed in long after the water turned to ice and his skin pickled, Alistair couldn’t take two steps before accidentally bumping into a servant. He began to wonder if they were drawing lots to see if someone could slip bells on him. The ornery part wondered what they’d do if after the last check walked out, he hid inside a wardrobe. Knowing his luck, there’d be a national panic, and they’d light the beacons from South Reach up to Amaranthine all in search for their wayward King. He’s important, kinda. Not really for decisions or anything, but you want a butt in that seat otherwise it gets cold and lonely. Vital for national goodwill and things.

As the day drew on, Alistair accomplishing little beyond picking up a book, flipping through it as fast as he could to see if there were any naughty scribbles, then yanking out the next, the servants began to ease off. No doubt they were as sick of his face as he was. Shaving, pampering, even slapping an orlesian mask on his mug wasn’t going to hide the heartbreak. Somehow he looked even uglier than usual, which really ought to break one of those laws of nature the mages were always going on about.

Teagan approached after an early supper and tried to lay out five apologies before Alistair could figure out what he was excusing himself from. “I’d intended to return to Castle Redcliffe after you were secured here. But given the...” he didn’t say Reiss’ name, didn’t have to as Alistair nudged a toe into the arm chair. A fur blanket lay stretched across his lap and he never felt more feeble.

“Go,” Alistair waved his hand. “Isn’t your wife due any day now?”

“Not for another three months,” Teagan said, but Alistair knew those worry lines skirting up the sides of his mouth. They were the same ones every expectant father had.

“You don’t have to fuss around here on my account. I know where you hide the good alcohol already,” Alistair winked, but his heart wasn’t in it. It wasn’t in for anything anymore. “Go be with her. Tell her hi, Spud can’t wait for a new niece or nephew to boss around. Oh, are you...was she going to have a certain special midwife?”

Teagan’s eyes slipped back and forth but the study was empty save the bear standing outside the door. Brunt seemed to have calmed in his duties, and on occasion Alistair caught him eyeing up one of the servants as she skipped past. It’d be just his luck that everyone would lick a lamppost on this trip but himself.

“I pray that our mutual friend will not be required and the birth will be easy, but she’s prepared on standby just in case.”

He smiled at that. Lanny’d come even if she wasn’t needed. She’d done something to help Teagan’s wife way back when during the Blight and the woman practically had a heart attack upon learning the Hero of Ferelden lived again. While the worship was a bit much for her to stay around too long, Lanny liked Kaitlyn and Teagan.

Alistair shooed him out to go be with his wife. Teagan took most of his servants with but left a few behind for fear the King may forget how to boil water on his own. Alone. He remembered what that was like, to have no one around for miles, only his soggy wits and muscles to depend upon. This wasn’t alone -- he was always surrounded at all times, at all hours of the day -- but it was loneliness. The kind one gets when people stand near but never interact with you. That one he knew well too.

The templar abbey he trained in was always full of people both younger and older than him, every one either above that bastard who wanted nothing to do with their calling to the Maker, or too terrified to engage him.

Alone was the frozen wastes blanketed in a never ending white of snow that washed away both sky and land. Loneliness was a disease that wiped away his ability to touch or speak, leaving him the silent ghost trailing through life hoping for someone to acknowledge him.

Reiss.

Alistair glanced out the window. Technically, this one faced the west giving it a beautiful view of the sunset and not in the direction of Denerim, but he could pretend. She looked at him, not out of fear or because she was supposed to, but because she wanted to.

Right?

He’d been so certain that her smiles were genuine, the laughs they shared weren’t just a subject humoring their monarch but a real connection. The way he’d slip his fingers through her hair and she’d lean into him. Was that fake too? Did she put it all on just to make him happy?

Doubt swirled through his gut while his fingers absently twisted about the ring Lanny gave him. The damn thing was too big, nearly falling off at all times, but the second he slid it off Reiss would give him a look. Not a “you should do what I say or else” one. More a “for the love of the Maker, you nearly died. Let’s not have a repeat, please” one. Once, after they’d made the beast with two backs and eight legs, he jokingly slipped it onto her thumb. Reiss was in and out, sleep always quick to glide her away, but at that she sat bolt upright and harangued him for both putting his life in danger and causing her to potentially disappoint the Hero of Ferelden.

Alistair was quick then to put it back in place, but he couldn’t stop laughing at her sudden insistence, as if someone was about to break into their room and stab his naked ass while she was entwined with him. He was so damn certain she cared, not just because she was paid to but because... Because.

Ah, shit.

There it was, that thing that bothered Lanny. What she wouldn’t voice because she knew him too well, knew he wouldn’t listen. It would have been different though. Alistair was trying to make it not so ethically awkward. He got her a job not directly answering to him. Surely that meant it wasn’t a problem. Was it too little too late? He didn’t really talk about the other ethically dubious stuff much.

Because you never think about it. You pass all that planning off on others: Karelle, Cade, Ghaleb before he left, and prior to all this Lanny. Decisions meant someone would be hurt, maybe not right away, maybe not badly, but there’d be consequences and it’d be all his fault. Each bad one terrified him to make another until he was rendered useless, happy to rely upon everyone else for a plan.

Which left the woman he loved wafting in the breeze.

Maker’s sake, did he really love her? Alistair stopped spinning the ring and glared down at his hand. Raw from gripping to the reins, the callused part of his skin rubbed off to reveal even redder flesh below. It could have been swinging around swords to fend off darkspawn, but no. His one decision after leaving a mountain of them to Lanny was this...and look at what it cost you.

The ring was superfluous now, the assassins caught and one by one tossed onto the pyre. What was the point of wearing the damn thing? He gripped onto it, about to slide the steel band over his swollen knuckle when his heart thudded awake.

No.

It was a gift from the first woman he loved. And if the second found out he took it off, she’d be pissed.

But how could she? Reiss was gone, and if he ever did see her again she’d be one face in a sea of them shadowed below City Watch helmets marching up and down the streets of Denerim. She’d never talk to him, never smile at him, never be with him again.

Alistair began to worry the ring forward when movement out the window drew his attention. Dust perforated the hazy sky, no doubt from a rider driving a horse to the brink to approach fast. Was Teagan returning? Had something bad happened? Placing both hands upon the glass, he squished his nose up against the pane and tried to stare closer. A black horse drew up to the lodge, the exhaustion in its stance evident even to a man who only suffered horses because it was better than walking. The rider barely waited for the horse to stop moving before dismounting off the side. Summer’s light burned against a mess of blonde hair knotted at the back.

Probably not Teagan then.

At the distance Alistair couldn’t make out who it was, the face a blur, but his brain kept gesturing at the all too familiar crimson tunic, the hair, the set to her gait, while his heart refused to listen. The new guest stomped upwards, about to be eclipsed by the overhang of the lodge, when she craned her head back and those summery green eyes tried to peer through every window.

“Reiss?” he gasped, his hands scattering from the pane. How could she be here? Why would she...?

A hand dug into Alistair’s shoulders, fingers pinching tight through the fancy fabric to tug him backwards. He felt the touch of a point poke in between the skin clinging to his ribs, when the entire world tasted of blue and storms. The veil snapped around him as the ring on his finger exploded into metal shrapnel doing the only thing it was designed to.

His continual breathing with no new holes was enough to throw off the attack and Alistair’s training kicked in. Dodging to the left, he kicked backwards with his foot. This sent the stabber scrambling while Alistair’s fingers searched through the room for the first thing he could use to defend himself. Books and pitchers scattered in his hunt, glass shards creating a dangerous trap while he turned to find Brunt huffing in anger and shaking off Lanny’s spell in record time.

“Son of a...” was as far as Alistair got before he threw a hard fist against the giant’s cheek. What had erupted stars in most of his foes eyes only caused the man to lean to the side and slash wildly with the blade. Shit!

His fingers reached for a hilt only to roll across his empty waist. Of course he didn’t have a sword with him, this was supposed to be a vacation!

Brunt slashed twice more towards him, leaning closer with each step and growling under his breath. Alistair leaped backwards, his hands blindly trying to find anything. Grabbing onto a bottle, he spun it around intending to break it over the man’s head, but in his panic he picked up the bottom and instead doused Brunt’s eyes in alcohol. Roaring at the no doubt very unpleasant burning sensation trying to eat his eyeballs, Brunt tried to wipe at his eyes while keeping a loose grip on the dagger.

Alistair had two choices, either run for the door, or snatch the blade from the man’s hand and finish the job. Running was the smart and also cowardly move, while trying to reach for the blade would probably get him killed. Frozen in indecision, Alistair could only slide further back into the room, smashing his side into the chair and flipping it between them.

Unfortunately, Brunt roared to life at the sound and the seven foot mountain of muscle moved in between the panicking, unarmed king and freedom. Well, you’ve really done it now.

Thinking with his muscles, Alistair snatched up an end table, scattering some of Teagan’s favorite pottery against the wall. He could get him some replacements later -- assuming he lived. Holding the table up like a shield against the bodyguard trying to kill him, Alistair jerked it at Brunt.

“If this is about you asking for a raise, normally people wait for the no before murdering their boss in cold blood,” Alistair jabbered, his brain aware of what was happening but the rest of him in denial. They’d killed all the assassins! This was supposed to be over!

Brunt sneered and slashed at the table, but the dagger’s blade was too tiny to cut through real Ferelden oak. The table chipped, breaking off sections of its fine finish -- sorry Teagan -- but kept the King well protected. Maybe, if he could hold Brunt at bay, one of the servants would come to check on him and then... Maker damn it, he had to get to the door. Alistair shoved the table at the mad man and shouted as if he was about to tame a lion. That only earned him a slow eye roll as the man stopped his attack and carefully sheathed his dagger.

Maybe Brunt realized that he was being unreasonable. He meant to kill some other head of state and got confused by how alike all the meat puppets looked. Alistair nearly convinced himself of that until the gigantic paw gripped onto the Ferelden sword at his side and yanked it out.

“Ah shit,” Alistair groaned.

Brunt swung hard, Alistair deflecting the first blow with the table, but the second split into the wood. The table cracked as Brunt yanked his sword out, prepared to take off the King’s head without any thought for tradition or procedure. With his shield little more than kindling, Alistair only had one option left. The sword swung through the air, Brunt lining up all his muscles to take him down in one blow. There was no choice now.

Dipping into the rarely used templar pools, Alistair threw every thing he had at him. Brunt was no mage, but a proper holy smite unnerved anyone with a connection to the fade, and it could knock the air out of most people’s lungs. Not expecting it, the man’s aim bounced through the kingless air. Admittedly, Alistair wasn’t betting on the sword slash missing him as he ducked down and ran full bore at Brunt.

Even with the templar attack and his two hundred or so pound frame smashing into him, the damn bear stood his ground. Alistair wasn’t the berserker in their group, but that survival instinct that Oghren insisted gave him his fighting force (instead of whatever he had hidden in a flask, as Alistair suspected) overrode his training. Fists pounded faster than he thought himself capable of, shattering against the man’s jaw, his cheek, into that massive mound of stomach muscle. Alistair did whatever it took to keep him alive.

This close and under constant assault, Brunt couldn’t hit him with the sword, but he knew the same as Alistair did that time wasn’t on the King’s side. Fatigue was waiting and if he didn’t get that damn sword out of his hand, Alistair was dead. Forgoing every damn lick of training anyone ever instilled in him, Alistair jammed an elbow into the crook of Brunt’s arm, kicked into his knee, and head butted into the sternum. He meant to hit the stomach but missed. Stars erupted in his eyes, the last one a big mistake, but Brunt’s wrist slipped downward, about to drop the blade, which Alistair could scoop back up and turn on his would be assassin.

Honing all the energy left inside of him, Alistair launched one last attack at the man, punching a left -- that he blocked -- followed by a right, also blocked, and another unexpected head butt into the arm. Brunt yelped in pain, the sword clattering to the floor. Alistair moved to snatch it up, his eyes watching the man reeling back and reaching for something on his back, when the sound of the door opening drew his fumbling attention. Realizing his mistake, Alistair moved to focus back on Brunt.

His fingers gripped onto the sword, about to snap up and draw it across the man, when he felt a poke in his side. Silly little thing, just a tiny jab that grew excruciating with a breath. Blood dribbled down his fingers as he tried to blot away the pain only to find a dagger sticking into his gut. Hot and sticky, his internal viscera clung to his sweating hand like a thick custard. The thick custard he needed to stay inside of himself so he didn’t die.

Fuck.

Stumbling backwards, Alistair’s legs gave out as the pain twanged against every nerve inside him. Every breath tossed him deeper down the pit, shock taking over his every thought as Alistair tumbled into eternal darkness.

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