In which Alistair is adorable, Aedan is impossible, and Rob is annoyed.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 18: The Course of True Love)
Wednesday, 6 Solace, 9:30 Dragon
Raven woke in dawn’s first uneasy light, trying to hang onto the threads of a dream. She sighed as it vanished in a vaguely pleasant haze; she’d always been terrible at remembering dreams. She usually snapped from sleep straight into full alertness, and her mind labeled dreams as temp files to be deleted upon waking. All she remembered was that it involved Alistair—
Her bubble of calm popped like an overfilled balloon as she recalled the events of the previous night. Squinting made the large blotchy brown thing in front of her face resolve into the tree they’d slept under; she must’ve rolled over in the night. She thought about where she’d set her glasses. She thought about needing to get up soon. She definitely did not think about Alistair sleeping with his arm draped over her, his breath teasing her ear, and his body curled around hers.
She especially, absolutely did not think about how clear it was that he was happy to be there.
‘And if you believe that, I’d love to sell you a sunny beachfront resort on the shores of the Storm Coast,’ said a mocking voice inside her head.
It took a truly disconcerting amount of self-control to hold still, instead of arching back wantonly in a way that would surely wake him to new and exciting levels of embarrassment about a perfectly natural biological response. But she almost managed it.
The delicious shiver at brushing against him was immediately countered when he shifted, muttered something unintelligible, and tugged her closer in his sleep. Wide-eyed, she struggled to keep her breathing slow and even. This was in no way aided by how his cheek cuddled against the top of her head, or how his strong forearm brushed the lower curve of one breast, or how the occasional mumbles of his gravelly morning voice rumbled through his chest into her back. Or, obviously, by how… other parts of his anatomy… were nestled elsewhere, causing her imagination to produce a vast quantity of extremely unhelpful mental imagery.
But it was all for naught. A sharp intake of breath signaled his arrival into consciousness, immediately followed by a gasp and an abrupt rush of cool morning air against the back of her shirt. Softly, he whispered, “Raven… are you awake? Sweet Andraste’s holy knickers, please tell me you’re not awake…”
His fervent prayer to the Maker’s beloved prophet tipped her over the edge. She couldn’t help it. She burst out laughing.
Her mirth redoubled when she found her glasses lying atop her pack, put them on, and rolled over to see his horrified expression. As she shook with helpless giggles, his look of mortification shifted to annoyance, and finally to humor. “I guess that answers my question,” he said wryly, setting her off again.
When she finally caught her breath, he tried to awkwardly apologize for being forward. It was utterly endearing, but she hurried to reassure him. “Alistair. It’s fine; don’t worry about it. You had a normal physical reaction when you weren’t even awake. I’m not going to hold it against you.”
Because she was evil, and he was so cute when he blushed, she couldn’t help adding, “But if you want to hold that normal physical reaction against me sometime, just let me know.”
She kissed him on the tip of his nose as he sputtered, and still laughing, she rose to start the day.
The teasing camaraderie they’d maintained through packing up and heading back to camp faded when they arrived. Aedan was in the midst of taking down his tent (with more force than strictly necessary). Without looking up, he said, “Ah, the lost sheep return. Good of you to finally let us know you remain among the living. When Hohaku didn’t come back, we feared the worst, but it would seem Raven has charmed my dog nearly as well as she’s charmed my supposed comrades.”
Alistair’s arm tensed beneath Raven’s hand, but before he could leap to her defense, she did it herself. Aedan wanted to do snarky sarcasm? That was one battlefield where she was a champion.
“My goodness, Warden Cousland,” she smiled brightly. “I had no idea you possessed such skill in pretending to be pleasant while actually being offensive. If I didn’t know better, I’d mistake you for an Orlesian.”
The young nobleman bristled at that comparison, just as Raven intended. Fereldans held understandable animosity toward Orlais; their western neighbors had staged a bloody and prolonged attempt to annex them, finally repelled only three decades past. Alistair snickered; Aedan flushed, readying an angry retort.
Before things could escalate, Wynne intervened. “Good morning, children. There’s a bit of last night’s stew left for breakfast, but please be quick; we’ll be leaving shortly.” Chastened, the younger party members settled to their tasks, and got underway without further incident.
It was an extremely strange day.
Although they encountered hostile wildlife more frequently the further they traveled, the old forest still held that deep and heavy sense of peace found only in places rarely disturbed by man. Hohaku’s keen senses provided ample warning of any attack, and Wynne’s aura of calm competence minimized Rae’s nervousness about facing danger without her brother at her side.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Alistair was there in his stead. She made a mental note to tease Rob that she’d traded him for a tank who was more fun to ogle.
‘And oh,’ she thought with a smirk, as a beam of sunlight slid through the treetops to splash Alistair with a halo of golden light, ‘is he ever.’
Strangely, the thought didn’t intimidate her as it once had. They walked arm in arm when they weren’t in combat, and between silly jokes and stories, he gazed down at her with such tender admiration… the kind of look she’d stopped expecting to see at all, much less from a literal handsome prince. Having her secret in the open was a huge relief. Though their argument had twisted her in knots, their new closeness more than made up for it. She almost wondered if she should thank Aedan for his outburst the previous evening, but the other Warden’s surly glare convinced her that any hypothetical gratitude could wait.
The whole day was one pendulum swing after another. Alistair made her laugh, and Aedan growled at her for making too much noise. Alistair held her for a comforting moment after she saw her first werewolf, while Aedan jeered that real ones were clearly scarier than the pretend ones she was used to. Alistair gently helped a wounded elven hunter to reach the nearest Dalish patrol, right after Aedan blew off her advice and attacked the werewolves’ emissary on sight.
The scholar pulled off her glasses and rubbed her eyes tiredly. It didn’t seem possible to feel so elated and so annoyed at the same time. She thought wistfully about punching the future Hero of Ferelden, which was surreal – not only because of his importance to all of Thedas, but also because he was a fictional character she had herself played in the past.
Less obnoxiously, she hoped.
Cursed with the need to see every argument from all sides, Raven grew increasingly preoccupied with unraveling Aedan’s inexplicable hostility. She was distracted enough that when they stumbled upon a pleasant little camp with the still-warm embers of a cheery fire, it took Hohaku’s low growl to jog her memory. “Wait,” she cautioned the others. “It’s a trap.” A shadow flitted across her face as she remembered there was only one other person in this world who’d recognize her silly pop culture references.
“Maker’s balls, Raven, do you have to pretend there’s some big significance to everything?” he exploded. “It’s just a campsite, by the Void!” The Mabari continued to growl with his hackles raised, and the Warden added, “And you’re just taking her side again, so you can shove off.” With a reproachful glance, the dog trotted away to lie down beneath a nearby tree with an air of injured dignity.
“Aedan, I’m serious; I recognize this. It’s not real; it’s an illusion made by a demon to lure in victims. Think. Doesn’t it seem weird that the werewolves would just leave all this stuff lying out here?” Alistair and Wynne were yawning and blinking, trying to fight off the magical drowsiness coming from the cozy tent, and at her words, they stepped away. But Aedan stubbornly remained seated near the fire.
With a helpless glance at the others, Raven moved to the Warden’s side. “Look, I know you’re pissed at me right now. I’m not your biggest fan either. But I’m not making this up. It’s not safe here.”
He eyed her with sleepy irritation. “You must be mistaken. There’s nothing wrong here. It’s… fine…”
And suddenly, she couldn’t remember why she’d objected. She sat beside Aedan, trying to remember what had been so important, but she couldn’t hang onto her thoughts…
…until she was roused by an unholy screech, and the sight of Wynne freezing a demon solid before Alistair smashed it into a million sparkling pieces. She rose abruptly, dislodging Aedan’s head from where he’d fallen asleep against her shoulder. Even though she’d expected it, she still shuddered to see the tidy campsite suddenly revealed as a cobwebbed heap of scoured bones.
The young Warden’s green eyes were wide with horror as he looked up at her. Without a word, she stalked off to make camp in a safer locale.
“I suppose you’re waiting to say ‘I told you so,’” he said bitterly, a short while later. Hohaku had stayed to guard Wynne while she nullified all remnants of the demon’s ambush. Alistair was gathering firewood (very carefully; good conservation skills were a must in a magic forest where the trees could come to life and object). Raven and Aedan were left to set up camp.
She sighed wearily. “What do you want me to say, Aedan? Should I say I’m sorry for mouthing off this morning? Yeah, okay, I probably should. You were being an ass, but I didn’t need to join in, so I’m sorry. Does that help? Or should I apologize for being a useless tagalong, trying to justify my presence with advice you won’t even listen to anyway? Should I beg forgiveness for making friends with your fucking dog? You tell me what you want me to say. Because this little dance is getting real old, real quick.”
Frustration bled into her voice as she spoke, and their gazes clashed in challenge… until all at once, his face crumpled in misery and he turned away. It caught her by surprise. “Whoa, hey… are you okay?”
He gave a mirthless laugh as she came around to sit beside him in the grass. “Oh yes. Fantastic.”
She mentally kicked herself. ‘Ugh, someday I’ll learn to stop asking that stupid question.’ Aloud, she said, “Sorry, what I meant was… what’s wrong?”
“What isn’t?” The pain in his emerald eyes was haunting. “I… ugh, just forget it. You aren’t interested in listening to me whinge about my lot.”
“If I didn’t want to know, I wouldn’t ask.”
Shrugging, the young Warden studied the earth at his feet. “You know,” he said finally, “you say you’re useless, but our companions beg to differ. Alistair is smitten, obviously,” he snorted. “But the others as well. Wynne, Leliana, Zevran… even Sten drops his ‘humans are imbeciles’ attitude when he speaks with you. You aren’t the useless one.”
“Oh? Who is, then?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Well, yeah, but Morrigan is bound to come in handy eventually,” she joked, hoping to lift his melancholy.
His smile was tinged with sadness. “You said in the story you knew, someone else would’ve been with Alistair at Ostagar, if I hadn’t been. Right?”
She nodded. “It could’ve been former dwarven royalty or a casteless criminal, a Dalish elf or one from Denerim’s alienage, or a mage from Kinloch.”
The young Warden was quiet for a long moment. “You probably know Duncan visited us in Highever before all this began, recruiting for the Wardens. He mentioned me, but dropped it at Father’s first objection.” The Warden’s striking green eyes searched her face. “But he made the templars let Alistair compete in a tournament he wasn’t even supposed to be in, fought the Revered Mother over recruiting him, and finally invoked the Right of Conscription when she wouldn’t relent. I clearly didn’t merit that kind of effort.”
Raven frowned. “That’s not—“
“I begged to go to Ostagar with Fergus and our soldiers, but Father wouldn’t allow that either. He wanted me to stay in Highever, playing at teyrnship… not because I was ever meant to hold the job, but in hopes that a taste of responsibility would ‘settle me down.’ So, Fergus left, and I remained.”
His shoulders slumped, and he looked away. “I remained… and Father was hurt fighting his way to me. Mother fought off pursuit to give me time to flee. They died.” The Warden’s normally smooth voice was hoarse with grief, and it hurt her heart. “If I hadn’t been so… so worthless, I’d have left with Duncan or Fergus, and my parents could’ve saved themselves instead of throwing their lives away. They were heroes of the war with Orlais. There were songs written about them, for Andraste’s sake. I’m just a disappointing second son.” His jaw clenched. “What a fucking waste. The supposed savior of Ferelden should’ve been one of those other people. They certainly couldn’t do a worse job than I have.”
She sighed, thinking, ‘If I really were a scholar here, I could write a whole dissertation on survivor’s guilt.’ In that moment, he seemed younger than his years. It reminded her of times past, when Rob would come to her with his troubles, so without thought, Raven tugged him down to rest with his head in her lap, facing away from her so she could gently stroke his hair. Surprisingly, he allowed it, which gave her some insight on just how bad he felt.
“Aedan, I know this is hard to believe right now, but no one could do this better than you.” At his snort of disbelief, she protested, “I mean it. Do you really think an elf from Denerim’s slums would’ve been better at handling an arlessa? Or that a dwarf who’d never seen the sun before would’ve fit right in with the Dalish?” He gave a noncommittal shrug, and she continued, “The situation would suck for anyone. Trying to keep moving forward after your life has changed forever…” Rae’s voice choked at the memory of all the family and friends lost to her, but she shoved her own inconvenient feelings aside. “The thing is though… what’s really bothering you isn’t being as good as Alistair or some hypothetical other Warden.”
Aedan turned his head slightly to look back at her from the corner of his eye. “Oh? And what is it, then?”
“Being good enough to deserve your parents’ sacrifice.”
He looked away and said nothing.
“You want to know the truth? You can’t. No one could. Being so great that you deserve someone willingly laying down their life for you? It’s impossible.” Her gentle hand on his shoulder tilted him back enough to meet her gaze. “But they didn’t protect you because you were Son of the Year or had some grand destiny. They did it because they loved you, and getting you to safety meant more to them than their own lives. And I believe if they had the choice to make over again, they’d do the exact same thing.”
Tears pooled in the Warden’s emerald eyes before sliding down to dampen her tunic. “They shouldn’t.”
“That’s an opinion – one I don’t share, for the record – but at any rate, it’s done. You can’t go back and take their sacrifice from them. All you can do is remember the cost of your journey and use it to strengthen your resolve to become a man the ‘Soldier and the Seawolf’ of legend would be proud to call their son.”
The corner of his mouth quirked slightly. “Mother always hated that song.”
Raven chuckled. “That’s the one enemy no hero can ever defeat; overzealous minstrels. Though really, what did she expect, captaining a raiding vessel and gaining such an imposing nickname? Your father never stood a chance.” Aedan laughed softly, rubbing at his eyes, and she added, “See, that’s where you’re smart for planning ahead. Date the bard, get input on the lyrics.” As he sat up, laughing harder, she gave him a cheeky wink and a quick hug around the shoulders.
“I… I’m sorry. For being an arse.”
“It’s okay. I’m used to dealing with obnoxious little brothers.” Her grin widened as she saw Alistair returning to camp with firewood. “Besides, I got to spend some quality time with this one hot guy I like, so it all worked out.” The bronze-haired Warden raised an eyebrow, and she giggled.
“So,” Alistair teased, when they went for a short walk after supper, “what sort of tantrum must I throw, to get to lay my head in your lap like our fearless leader?”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Spying, were you? I thought that was Leliana’s hobby.”
“I had enough firewood, but it sounded like he needed to talk, so I went to check on Wynne and came back.” He leaned back against a broad oak tree, and after a moment to build his nerve, pulled her in against his chest. “Did it help, do you think?”
“I hope so.” She tucked her head under his chin, contentment soaking into her bones. “You know, I always thought of the Hero’s companions as being there to help him fight, and they do… but I’m starting to think they’re even more important for helping him cope with the whole thing.”
“Mmm,” he agreed, and she felt the sound against her cheek as his hands ghosted lightly over her back. “But you still haven’t answered my first question. Is there a special request process for lap access? Some sort of queue I need to join, perhaps?”
Rae laughed at his playful flirting, swatting him lightly, but then grew serious. “No, no need to stand in line… but…” She looked up at him nervously. “From the story I’m familiar with, I know you haven’t, ah… spent a lot of time in women’s laps, if you catch my meaning.”
He instantly went scarlet, which would’ve been funny if she hadn’t been so tense. “Maker’s breath,” he muttered. “I… well, no, I suppose not. Living in the Chantry, is… not exactly a life for rambunctious boys. They taught me to be a gentleman, especially in the presence of beautiful women such as yourself. That’s not so bad, is it?”
Hearing his game dialogue word for word was, as always, surreal. “No! No, not at all. I just…” Her blue eyes searched his face. “I, uh… let’s just say, there’s no queue for my lap right now, but it’s been… um, quite busy at certain times in the past.” She bit her lip worriedly. “Is that… does it bother you?”
The concern and confusion ebbed from his eyes, and he chuckled. “No, of course not. Why would it?” He gave her a blushing wink. “If anything, it’s a relief. At least one of us will know what to do with laps, hmm?”
Relieved, she kissed him soundly, and then gave him a wicked grin. “Oh, you have no idea.”
Sunday, 17 Solace, 9:30 Dragon
“I can’t believe you left me behind when there was gonna be a dragon.” Rob’s voice dripped with reproach. Do you have any idea what I went through here, while you were off doing the cool stuff?”
She snickered. “I take it all did not go smoothly?”
“Well let’s see… Sten told some kid that if he wasn’t capable of proving himself as a hunter, he wasn’t worthy of his girlfriend. Given that Zevran was banging her at the time, I’m thinking hunting skills probably weren’t the main problem. Morrigan told the clan’s storyteller his version of elven history was wrong, and then nearly got us all killed when she got busted studying some old book in the Keeper’s house-wagon-thing. Aravel. Whatever. Even Leliana was pissing off the halla shepherd, because she kept trying to hop the fence to pet the pretty white deersies. Keeper Zathrian, a.k.a. Bald Elrond, took off not long after you guys did, so it’s been like two weeks of getting called a shem and waiting to be shanked in my sleep. And you can stop laughing right now, you jerk.”
Raven’s hand over her mouth could not conceal her mirth at her brother’s annoyed recitation of events. “Sorry, sorry,” she giggled, aiming for contrite and missing completely. “Would it make you feel better to know that Bald Elrond finally had to ‘fess up to his part in the whole thing? He cast the spell that made the werewolves in the first place, and since it was made with his blood and the blood of the werewolves’ leader, ending the curse killed them both. But they agreed to it, so at least the Dalish are free of the whole mess.” She decided to forgo a description of the werewolves’ leader. Rob might forgive her for missing out on the dragon, but she didn’t want to press her luck by describing the dryad-like Lady of the Forest and her clothing of a few strategically placed twigs.
“Good; I’m more than ready to put this friendly little tribe in the rearview. Oh, there was one good thing about being stuck here. Leliana got talking about messenger birds, and Morrigan was bored, so between them and the Keeper’s assistant, they made this spell for enhancing messenger birds. They fly faster and farther, they’re smart enough to be sent to various places, and (here’s the kicker) they can even be spelled to hone in on a specific person. They only used it once so far, but it’s pretty amazing. Morrigan thought it was funny to design the spell specifically for ravens, but she was less amused when Leliana declared the first one to be adorable and named it Baron Plucky.”
She grinned broadly. “Aha, so that’s how Leli gets her ravens! I’d always wondered. That’s awesome!”
“Yeah, it’s pretty badass. We even got our first official mail out here in La-la-land.” He handed her a pair of much folded missives, and she eagerly began to read.
Sunday, 17 Solace, 9:30 Dragon
Lady Raven of Markham:
I trust this missive finds you well. As you requested, I am writing with an update on the mage-child, Shanna, and my personal health (though the latter is most assuredly unnecessary).
Shanna has begun lessons with the other apprentices. She is making greater progress in her reading and writing with the assistance of young Connor Guerrin, as you hoped. I regret to note she orders him about with her customary imperiousness. However, he seems to benefit from her guidance, so I have not yet deemed it necessary to intervene.
As for myself, I have at last resumed training. Thus far my exertions are limited to exercise without weapons work, but it is only a matter of time. Any difficulties I had with sleeping or unease are under control, and you need not concern yourself with them further.
I wish to again convey my sincere gratitude for your assistance with my recovery. I grew fond of the painting of the lake in the infirmary, and asked the Knight-Commander for permission to move it to my regular quarters. First Enchanter Irving overheard, and said you were the one who’d requested it, having asked the Tranquil to locate such a painting while I was unconscious and hang it there for my benefit. Your thoughtfulness has been a great comfort.
The Knight-Commander considered transferring me to a small Chantry in Greenfell, that I might have more pleasant environs for healing. I explained I had given you my word to monitor Shanna, and wished to remain. He understood. I shall remain at Kinloch for the foreseeable future.
In the Maker’s light,
Ser Cullen Rutherford
P.S.: Please convey my regards to Alistair.
Raven laughed. “You know,” she told Rob, “it’s impressive, in a way, how he manages to imbue every single sentence with ‘this is stupid and I don’t want to be doing it,’ even when he’s saying thank you.”
“Isn’t it, though? That Captain Goldilocks. What a charmer,” he grinned. “But check out the other letter.”
She unfolded the other scrap of paper to find a broad and childish hand, misspellings and backwards letters scratched out… and she was delighted.
Lade Lady Raven
this is the frist first letter I ever write. Connor hlp helped me with how too spell but I wrote by myself. class is ok. Ser Cullen is grumpey grumpy but I make him eat lunch and we are done with the book abowt about grifens griffons. (spelling is a pain!) i miss you after the wardens save us you will visit?
(also hug Ser Rob for me)
This time, when her eyes met Rob’s, they were suspiciously misty. “That kid, honestly.”
“Guess I better hug you, huh? I wouldn’t dare disappoint Shanna.”
He laughed and wrapped her in a bear hug. “I’m glad you’re back, by the way. Even if you’re almost as much of a pain as spelling is.”
“I missed you too,” she chuckled. “Though Aedan helped out by filling in as bratty little brother.”
“Oh? And how about the other members of your little group?” With a nod of his head, he indicated where Alistair stood with Aedan and the clan’s new Keeper. When she glanced over, the bronze-haired warrior met her gaze, and he lit up with a smile that warmed her all the way to her toes.
She only looked away when she heard Rob chuckle. “Good. We’re definitely good,” she blushed.
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 20: A Bird in the Hand)