Guarded Love

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Chapter 48: Alistair

Reiss leaped off her horse, surprised to find no one rushing out to tell her off. She’d had to trade it three times over for a fresh one at every stop. While aware she was getting the rawer end of the deal each time, she had no choice. Yanking the cheap sword she bought off a merchant out from under the black horse’s saddle, Reiss shoved through the open door. A head perked up from what looked like the great gathering room.

“Where’s the King?” she shouted.

The servant should have argued with her, asked who she was and demanded proof. But even when out of armor and carrying a basically overgrown cheese knife, Reiss was not someone you argued with. Her eyes blazed with ferocity to try and bury the guilt and fear lurking below, and her voice bellowed louder than the most assured Teryn. She was not about to be turned away.

Shaking like a leaf, the servant pointed up the stairs. Reiss didn’t take the time to thank her, just nodded and ran as fast as she could up them. What was she going to say? She’d thought of a few sentences on the trip out, most of them amounting to “I’m sorry, but your life is in danger and even if you hate me let me keep you from dying.” It wasn’t poetry but it’d get the job done, assuming he didn’t throw her out the second she opened the door.

As Reiss’ boots skittered to a halt on the upper floor she faced a multitude of doors, each of them shut tight. She threw open one, peering inside of a broom closet. The next was a plain bedroom with no one inside. “Maker take it all. Why didn’t I ask what room he’s in?”

“Ma’am?” another servant wandered into the hall at her outburst. This one looked familiar but so many servants had the same pink-cheeked plain scrubbed Ferleden look to them it was entirely possible she’d never met him before.

“The King, where is he?”

“He’s...” the hand paused a moment, the man not as easily bowled over.

“Please, it’s a matter of life and death,” she gulped, terror growing that she may get kicked out without even talking to Alistair. All this way, her life upended, and they could still get to him. Her only consolation was that he couldn’t be dead yet if the servants were pointing her towards him and not a body.

The man eyed her up before lifting his finger to point at the third door down the hall. “There.”

“Thank you,” Reiss gasped, already jogging towards the room. Her heart beat so loudly, it drown out nearly all sounds as the blood rushed in her ears. Time to see if you were right, Rat.

Swallowing down the quiet urge to turn and run, Reiss lifted the latch and stuck her head inside. The entire door rattled away from her as she watched the children’s bodyguard jam a dagger through Alistair’s ribcage.

“NO!” the scream ripped out her throat, ensnaring Brunt’s attentions to her. Alistair stumbled out of his hands, skittering away under his own power but the blood... So much blood coated the floor, too much.

Snarling, Reiss raised her sword and came at the man. He bent down and faster than she thought possible, snatched up a dropped sword and deflected her blade. The clanging ran up her arm, her piece of shit sword barely keeping in the hilt from his defense. Use your brain, Rat. You can do this.

“Alistair,” she called out, praying he’d respond.

Brunt dropped his shoulder back, and she mimicked the pose. This wasn’t going to be easy. Sword clanged against sword, Reiss the faster draw but not fast enough against his greater reach. Each thrust from her, even with vengeance whetting her vision, was quickly parried away. Worst of all, she could feel the edge of her sword biting and chipping with each blow. For Andraste’s sake, why didn’t she bring a shield?!

“Gah!” Reiss cried, twisting in a circle from the force behind Brunt’s attack. His eyes lit up as he realized she was bluffing with her power. Heaving his massive arm, Brunt’s swings broke again and again upon Reiss’ waning sword. Sweat poured off her hand, slacking in the cheap grip. One more and she was done for.

She had to, to get him to jam his sword...

Brunt lifted his blade high over his head and in one fell swoop drove down towards her. She had no choice but to block with it, the power reverberating through the barely holding steel and shattering. Shrapnel exploded out of the grip, pieces of her sword slicing through the air. One nipped her cheek, another embedded into her thigh, but Reiss shook off the pain, barely letting it settle.

Sweet merciful Maker, one of the shards ripped right under Brunt’s eye, the bastard shrinking back from nearly losing it. Rushing forward, Reiss tried to grab at the sword in his hands. Her fingers dug into his, her nails trying to draw blood, but he swung his free arm around and grabbed onto her wrist. Powerless, her fingers lost their grip on his as he yanked her left arm nearly out of the socket. A sneer rolled up the man’s face and she knew he was going to pay her back for the eye.

Reiss barely had time to breathe before he hurled her body downward, the floor crushing into her ribs. With one hand on her wrist, Brunt stepped his massive foot onto her forearm and lifted. Screaming in agony and rage, Reiss tried to grip onto any flesh she could reach but it was all padded in armor. The same fucking armor she wore day in and day out. Brunt shifted his foot back and forth, digging it in deeper until a cracking erupted from below. Pain battered Reiss like a ship in a hurricane, blood welling out of the shattered bone prodding up from her forearm.

Fuck. Maker damn it! She drew her arm to her, the unending agony burning through her body knocking so hard her vision swam. Whistling roared in her ears, she knew a faint was quick on its way. Sitting on her knees and nursing her arm closer, Reiss watched helplessly as Brunt picked up his fallen sword, but he didn’t turn it on her.

She was broken, her arm useless. She could put up no more fight. No, no, no! The monster grabbed onto Alistair’s hair and tugged his head up. He groaned, still alive despite the blood, but not for long.

Damn it, Reiss. Don’t fucking give up now! You’ve done this before.

Ignoring the pain, the blood slicking up her arm, the white haze fading the world around her, Reiss stood up. Brunt was too busy with his work to notice or care. She was the little elf no one noticed. Forgettable. Weak. Broken.

But she wasn’t just fighting for herself, she was protecting the one she loved. Reiss’s fingers wrapped around the grip of the dagger in her hair. No one ever asked why she wore it. It was handy, was her go to excuse. She never told anyone about the night in the refugee camp when thunder crackled the dark air and a solitary Tal Vashoth tried to steal their only food. Reiss walked away with a broken hand; he didn’t walk away at all.

Knowing she had once chance at this, Reiss waited until Brunt drew up his arm for the final blow. Alistair whimpered at the man yanking his golden hair out. Only a single snicker erupted from the assassin as he lifted his sword for the finishing kill.

Reiss launched forward, her dagger biting far into the man’s armpit up through the weakness in the armor. The one place she knew she could strike him unimpeded, because she too wore that armor. Ignoring the blood gushing against the wound and with only one hand, she drove the blade in deeper until it struck bone. Brunt shrieked, trying to whip around and slash at her, but Reiss was faster.

Yanking the dagger out, she popped up right beside him and staring deep into his eyes, drove the blade right through his throat. Past the yards of beard, Reiss didn’t stop shoving until blood spurted down the metal chest plate. Watching the panic rise as Brunt tried to throw her off, Reiss heaved her all against him, knocking the giant backwards. The pair of them tumbled to the ground together, Reiss rising higher and her fingers never releasing even as he pawed at her arm. She twisted the dagger back and forth, widening the hole and cheering the blood pouring out of the wound.

That’s right, she snickered as the panic faded to a debilitating realization. You were killed by a rat.

Without any flourish, Reiss tugged her dagger out. Air gushed from the hole, the man’s final breath freed before blood gurgled bubbles across the floor.

Alistair!

Forgetting the pain, Reiss scrabbled across the floor to him. His eyes were closed and his head thrown back, but she could see a breath rattling his chest up and down. Her bloody fingers drifted across his cheek, so cold, so pale. “Alistair, stay with me. Okay.”

He groaned as if she was trying to wake him from a pleasant nap. One eye rolled open, but it looked glassy. “Reiss?”

“Yes,” she couldn’t stop the stupid tears, her brain panicking. “I’m here to...” Maker damn it, she was here to save him! But she was too slow, too weak, too stupid.

“Good,” he sighed before his head lolled forward.

“Hey, stay with me. I’m going to...I’m gonna,” she had nothing, she knew nothing. What was she going to do? Unable to stop the tears, Reiss threw her head back and shrieked.

“Ma’am,” a voice spoke up from behind her.

She didn’t glance away from Alistair, terrified that if she did he’d die on her. “What, what is it?” Oh Maker, were they going to think she killed him? The elf that burst in on the King only to kill him and his bodyguard. It’d be the end of everything.

“Here,” the man scuttled forward through the blood. “This will help,” he passed a red bottle to her fingers.

Reiss yanked the cork out with her mouth and scooted forward, placing the lip to Alistair’s cold mouth when a thought struck her. What if it was poison? What choice did she have? Tipping it in, most of the liquid gurgled down his throat. What didn’t make it washed down his chin to join with the blood pooling down his side. It seemed to revive something in him, more groans of agony erupting from the once deathly silent throat.

Placing the empty bottle down, Reiss’ fingers circled around the hilt of the dagger lodged inside him.

“No, Ma’am!” the man grabbed onto her elbow, trying to pull her fingers away. “Leave it in, until we can cauterize the wound.”

“Cauterize? You know of medicine?”

“A little,” he bobbed his head, “I served in the blight.”

“How?” He couldn’t be more than twenty, if that.

The man blushed at that and sighed, “Bandage boys they called us, but we have to move quickly to close this. Can you help me carry him to a bed?”

“I...” Reiss’ aching arm finally struck her and she stared in horror at the mutilated bone. “No, I can’t.”

This war hardened boy followed her sight and the blood drained from his face. Compound fractures were not for the light of stomach. The pain ransacking her body somehow made her arm go numb, as if she was staring at someone else’s forearm prodding up through the tear to her shirt.

Cupping a hand to his mouth, the boy bellowed for his fellow servant who upon skipping into the room and getting a good look at the bloated corpse with blood bubbling out of his throat screamed her head off. The boy waited a minute for it to die down before he shouted that she get over and help him with the King. While whispering prayers to Andraste for having to touch so much blood, the woman and the part-time medic both heaved Alistair up and carried him to a bedroom.

The King’s head lolled against his chest as they carried him, almost no life left inside. Please. Hang on. When the pair dropped him to the bed, an aching groan broke through his paling lips. Reiss was drawn to it, her fingers cupping against that cold skin. She could feel the tears rattling through her soul but had to focus. He may look like he was about to cross the veil, but she wasn’t going to give him up.

“What do we need to do?” she asked, turning to the boy. With one foot he cranked on a set of bellows, bringing life to the fire, while tossing the end of a poker into it.

“You’re not going to like this bit. We’ve got to stop the bleeding and without a mage here I only know one way.”

Oh Maker. She’d seen this done before, on the battlefield when mages were only meant for offense and there weren’t enough potions to go around. Those who weren’t vital to the cause had to suffer with amputations and prayer as their medicine.

“Alistair,” Reiss leaned closer to him, hoping to get a glimpse into his eyes but he was too far gone. Barely a breath passed through his dangling lips. “This is going to hurt,” she explained despite him clearly being lost to a faint.

The boy looked over at Reiss. “You’re gonna have to pull out the dagger and tug up the shirt so I can...” He made the motion of pushing the poker to skin.

“I...” Reiss didn’t want to break her fingers away from Alistair’s face, convinced she was the only thing keeping him alive, but one look at the poor girl about to hit the floor and she knew it had to be her. Grimly nodding, she lifted her broken arm higher against her chest. Pain burst through her gut, threatening to splatter out what little food she scrounged on the road, but Reiss managed to tamp it down. Grabbing onto the dagger’s pommel, she glanced once back at Alistair and mouthed ‘sorry.’

Drawing it out quickly, blood gushed from the wound. Freed of its dam, red pooled over the King’s side and stained upon the bed sheets. Reiss chucked the dagger that killed...nearly killed him to the ground and tugged up his shirt. She barely had time to look away as the boy jammed the poker against the wound.

Alistair didn’t scream, even as the scent of his burning flesh and boiling blood filled the air, but he groaned in agony, his body trying to roll away from the pain coursing through it. “It’s okay,” Reiss drew her fingers over his cheek, “it’s going to help. I hope. Right?”

The boy’s shaking hands pulled the poker away from the burned skin and he dropped it to the ground. “I, uh, I think so. The bleeding’s slowing, I should, uh...Patrice?”

Wide eyed, the scared woman scampered over from her corner to snatch up the errant poker as if it was vital it be returned to its place.

“No, get some towels and bandages. I’ll try to do the only thing I was trained to do.”

Patrice was terrified, and rightly so as she barreled into the hall to fetch the supplies.

While the still nameless boy did his best to clear off the blood and try to patch up the mess, Reiss kept drawing her fingers down Alistair’s cheek. That cold, whiskery cheek plunged deeper into itself as if Alistair was fading away. Someone passed her another potion, which she was careful to get more of down his throat. If it helped, she couldn’t tell. “Will he be all right?” Reiss whispered to the Maker.

“I don’t know,” the boy sighed. Blood coated his hands which he kept wiping across his forehead to try and combat the sweat that came from someone attempting to save their King’s life. “This is bad, really bad. If we had a healer here, a proper one, then maybe...”

“Proper?” Reiss’ mind was having trouble focusing, her fingers unable to stop petting Alistair’s cheek as if that could somehow revive him.

“You know,” he tipped his head back and forth, “a mage.”

Reiss turned away from him to stare out the window. Could it? Maybe. Oh Maker, it could be her only hope. “Is there an abbey near here?”

“I don’t...” he began before Patrice sweetly spoke up.

“Aye, down the road a ride. Takes in all kinds of sick.”

“We can’t move him,” the servant interrupted.

Reiss nodded, her steps shoring before her. “I’ll go.” She knew it was the right path, but she’d have to leave him, and what if...? What if he died while she was gone? Thinking she’d left him again?

“Ma’am, you’re hurt,” the boy pointed out.

She glanced down at the broken arm and sighed, “It has to be me, for...reasons. You, Patrice, can you belt this to me like a sling? Good and tight.”

The poor girl blanched even more, but she unhooked the flimsy belt around Reiss’ midsection and with delicate fingers wrapped it first around her shoulder and then moved to pick up the bone. Pain shattered Reiss’ body, sending her almost pitching backwards, but she dug in tight with her good hand to the bedpost. Patrice paused, but Reiss bit on her tongue and nodded her to keep going. Wrapping the belt twice, she knotted it off.

“No,” Reiss grunted, “tighter. Real close or I’ll bump it.”

“Blessed Andraste, please guard us in our hour of need,” Patrice mumbled while doing as told.

Even with pain blinding her sight and shredding apart every inch of her skin, Reiss hung on until the girl stepped away. Turning her head fast, Reiss vomited on the ground, the pain too much for her. She felt herself sinking to a knee, when the medic’s hands grabbed onto her shoulder and held her in place.

“Drink this,” he jabbed a health potion to her face, but she shook it off.

“How many are there?”

“Three more remaining.”

Reiss tried to hand it back, “You’ll need them all to keep him alive.”

“And you need to not die on the trip to the abbey,” he rightly pointed out.

Groaning at the logic, Reiss tipped a quarter of the liquid into her mouth. It tingled against her tongue and a gentle cocoon wrapped around her body, trying to wash away the pain. With such little the best it could knock down were some of her bruises, but it would have to be enough. “Ration these out, keep him alive as best you can. You,” she pointed at Patrice, “I’m going to need you to help me get onto my horse.”

The girl nodded, already scampering out of the room that stank of death. “No one is to enter this room until I return,” Reiss ordered to the boy.

“What about...?”

“I don’t know who all is involved in this, so until the King is...until he’s on his feet, no one.” Reiss suspected she knew the truth but doubted anyone she told it to would believe her. If Alistair died...

Her resolve dissolved away as she stared back at the man she had to leave to save his life. Stumbling through his blood and her vomit, she bent down and placed a single kiss against his forehead. Her lips brushed over the cold skin as she whispered, “Don’t you die.”

“Ma’am,” the boy who looked older by the gristly work nodded at her, “Maker go with you.”

It wasn’t easy stuffing her ass up into the saddle, but Patrice managed. Without turning back, Reiss dug the horse into a gallop down the road. She had little to guide her beyond the woman’s vague suggestions to keep going west until smoke appeared in the horizon. The potion wore off about an hour into her ride, pain seizing up and down her arm with every jostle, and since she was on horseback those occurred every other step. A few times her vision swam, and Reiss feared she was about to tumble right off the horse to the ground, but then what? She’d be stranded in the woods, unable to mount alone and Alistair would...

Snapping her head up, she tightened her lone grip to the reins and focused down the road. Little more than a deer trail at this point, it seemed almost no one traveled it to keep the woods at bay. Tree branches littered the path, shed from a storm that was recent or... Reiss felt her breath constrict as the woods leaned tighter and tighter around her. Was this the right way?

Her daylight was dipping down right into her eyes, all but blinding her to whatever lay ahead. She tried to shield her vision with her one working hand, but that tugged the horse’s head back -- and the poor thing already hated her. Closing her eyes against the light, Reiss turned her head to the north to try and get a glimpse of the darkness when she spotted what looked like gold dancing in the air. Not a sunbeam, but speckles of gold glittered against the sun as it buffeted upward to the clouds.

Was that the strange smoke?

Tugging back on the reins, her horse gladly slowed to a trot while Reiss glared at the glittering swirls. It could be any number of things: bugs caught by the setting sun, her own dying vision as pain racked her brain, or an apostate hiding in the woods. Glaring at the path to the west, Reiss couldn’t see anything down that way but more forest ready to suck her away.

“Maker take me,” she cursed to herself while tugging the horse up the northern path. If this wasn’t it then she not only killed Alistair, she may have doomed herself as well.

The horse jangled back and forth, the motion rocking Reiss the way a cradle would an infant. Long days on the road and short nights barely spent sleeping merged with the pain coursing through her veins, all of it doing its best to lull her to sleep. She kept starting awake, once even pinched her cheeks to focus, but nothing was working. Andraste, how long will this take?

Fear that she’d chosen wrong and wasted precious time stung Reiss as she ducked under a low branch. She was about to yank the horse back around and head to the western path, when lights burst through the woods. More smoke, this of the regular variety tumbled apart the clouds, and she could swear she heard a bit of laughter in the air. Please let this be right.

Spurring her horse into a gallop, Reiss rose up off her haunches and drove towards the only hope she had left in this world. White walls rose through the forest greens, an archway towering above the open gate. She barely ducked under it while yanking back on her horse to come to a slow standstill in the middle of the courtyard. There were no signs saying what this place was, no one ran out to greet her, only the smell of bread and voices speaking behind doors admitted that anyone lived here.

“Hello,” Reiss shouted, hoping someone would come out.

“Ah,” a man’s voice rumbled above the stomping of her exhausted horse’s hooves.

She turned it around to find the source and felt the blood drain from her cheeks as the Commander of the Inquisition stepped out of a side room and glanced up at her. “Picking up or dropping off?” he asked so assuredly, Reiss had to run back through what she needed.

“Commander,” Reiss bowed her head to him.

He frowned in response and paused in wiping flour off his hands, “Most call me Cullen here.”

“Right, I need help,” Reiss sputtered, her own brain running on fumes barely able to sputter out anything coherent. His eyes wandered up to her arm tucked in a sling. “No, not that. I...I need a mage.”

That snapped his spine straight. Reiss didn’t realize he’d been warm and welcoming until it all drained away. “You’re mistaken, there are no mages here.”

“Please,” she begged. Maker it felt strange to be above the Commander, but she feared getting off her horse. It seemed to intimidate the man a bit as he folded his arms but made no direct move to throw her out. “There’s been an injury and...” Could she trust him? Would Alistair? But he trusted the man who stabbed him. “I heard that there was a mage here who could help.”

“You were misinformed,” he growled, the smoldering anger silencing Reiss’ tongue. She’d never run afoul of the Commander but Maker save her soul if she ever did. He was more terrifying than having to face down Andraste’s wrath. “If that is all...” he extended a hand to the door and began to turn away.

No! This isn’t about you! Blighted save him!

“The Hero of Ferelden!” Reiss gasped out.

Cullen froze in his turn, the muscles in his shoulders popping into rage as he whipped his head back to her. “What?!”

“I need her, I know she’s here. Please, it’s for...”

“Get out.” Not caring that she was on a horse that could easily trample him, the Commander grabbed the reins out of her hand and yanked the horse towards the gate.

“Stop,” Reiss begged, wishing she could explain, “I know her, she’s here because she...”

“You know nothing and it would be in your best interest to forget anything you think you know,” he growled, marching her away from her only hope.

Reiss fumbled forward, trying to snatch the reins away, but her broken arm smashed into the saddle horn. Her scream of agony shattered the quiet air of the abbey. Even Cullen paused in dragging her away, his eyes hunting over to make certain she wasn’t about to split apart into a demon.

“What in Andraste’s name was that?” a voice called out from behind her. “Reiss?”

She spun in the saddle, fighting through the pain wracking her spine to find the Hero standing at the top of the stairs.

“Cullen, stop!” Lana dashed forward, waving her hand to him.

He did as commanded, but sneered up at Reiss while turning to his wife. “She...”

“Is the bodyguard who...you know,” Lana was quick to intervene, a smile on her lips while the Commander cooled down in an instant. But Lana whipped her head up to Reiss, fear marring her features. “What are you doing here without him?”

“Please, I need you,” she begged, tears of pain and relief streaking down her cheeks, “Alistair’s been injured.”

“How bad?” Lana asked, her back snapping to attention.

“Gravely, he was stabbed in the...”

Reiss didn’t even have time to finish her answer before Lana whistled for a stablehand to come rushing over. “Prepare a horse,” her eyes glanced over Reiss’ sweating, staggering nag, “two horses.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the stablehand wandered off.

“Make it three,” Cullen added, dropping Reiss’ reins and marching over to his wife who was already hobbling towards a back room.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Lana asked, barely pausing to talk to her quickly catching up husband.

“I’m not letting you go alone, and the two of us riding together would slow the horse down.”

She gripped onto his arm, eyeing him up a moment before nodding. With that blessing, Cullen dashed off to help saddle up the three horses in the stable. The Hero vanished into a room she had to unlock with a key while someone was kind enough to help Reiss off her horse and onto the first prepped one.

“Here,” Cullen passed her a bottle much like the ones the bandage boy gave her. “It’ll help for now,” he tipped his head at her arm but made no mention to almost running her off.

Reiss drank it all in one go and felt a surge of energy burning through her veins. This must have been far more concentrated than whatever the hunting lodge had available as the throb in her arm died down to a dull ache. She felt so free from the pain, she glanced down to make certain the bone was still there saying hello to the world.

Slightly aware she was getting loopy from the pain medication, Reiss wrapped the reins around her hand so they wouldn’t fall off just as Lana hobbled out of the room. She had a pouch knotted tight against her back which her husband cast a concerned glance over but said nothing too. After being helped onto her horse, Lana didn’t wait for the others. She spurred it into a gallop, churning quickly to the hunting lodge. Barely rolling his eyes, Cullen lopped his horse and mounted onto it while running beside.

Reiss shook off the long fingers of sleep trying to burrow into her mind. She had to be there or they wouldn’t let Lana in to see him, to save him. A flash of Alistair laying lifeless on the ground, his blood pooling upon the floor snapped her fully awake. Yanking her horse around, Reiss followed after the mad cavalcade.

Please, Andraste, Maker, even the damn Creators if you care, keep him alive.

Let this work.

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