The Southron Hills were an outright mess, half tainted by the Blight spreading out from Ostagar and the Korcari Wilds and half plagued by bandits and scattered refugees. Stupid bandits who apparently thought a well-armed trio were people they wanted to try and rob.
Tugging his sword out of the man’s gut with a disgusted noise as Bernard disappeared to make sure there weren’t any more bandits, Alistair looked over at Leliana as he asked, “Are all of these people addled in the head?”
“One expects so,” was her reply as she continued to carefully work a pair of arrows free of a dead woman’s back. One snapped and she cursed vehemently in Orlesian, her words making him burst out laughing despite the fact that they were surrounded by the dead. Looking up at the noise, Leliana elegantly arched a brow and asked, “You know Orlesian, Alistair?”
Nodding, he replied, “Father insisted that Cailan and I both learn it. He said it was so we could be polite but I think part of it was so we’d know if anything underhanded was said about us. ArlEamon’s wife, Isolde, is rather fond of doing that sort of thing around me.” Frowning thoughtfully, Alistair added, “You know, I don’t think anyone ever told her that I knew what she was saying. Probably wouldn’t have stopped her but still. Cailan always got so mad at her…”
He trailed off as he realized that there would never be another instance of his brother being frustrated with the woman. Leliana seemed to sense the shift in his mood because she was suddenly at his side, tugging at his arm as she said, “Come. Help me move the bodies.”
They worked quickly to collect the corpses into a pile and as they hauled the last one over, she asked, “Do you speak anything else?”
Alistair blinked at the question before replying, “Osanna, my nurse, she taught me to speak Ander when I was growing up. A lot of it was because she couldn’t speak much else when she came to Ferelden so her teaching me helped her to learn. Other than that I know a bit of Antivan that I picked up from Oriana when I was in Highever.”
“That was the elder Cousland’s wife, yes?”
He just nodded, feeling unable to answer around the lump that had formed in his throat at the thought of all those lessons. Oriana had always liked to tease him that he could probably speak Antivan fluently one day if he tried but his accent was always going to be atrocious. She’d added a moment later that that was alright as his accent was better than either Aedan’s or Fergus’, which made him laugh.
Closing his eyes against the sudden sting of tears, Alistair let out a shaky breath and said, “We were supposed to have another lesson the day after the attack happened. And I was going to…” His voice broke then and he hurriedly began fumbling at the buckles of one of his gauntlets, trying to get it off so he could wipe at his face. A slim hand stopped his motions half-born, however, and then Leliana was pressing a soft cloth to his face. Lifting his free hand to cover hers, he finished slowly, “I was going to teach Oren some more Ander.”
“You do not have to speak of them, Alistair.”
“Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll forget them if I don’t,” he replied thickly. “I know that’s silly…”
“It is never silly to think we might forget those we loved.”
Alistair blinked at the sadness in her tone and lowered the cloth to look at her. Her normally aloof nature had gentled and, for a moment, he saw the young woman who had lost a great deal underneath the bard’s exterior. Without quite knowing what he was doing, he reached out with his other hand and touched her cheek gently, murmuring, “I’m sorry.”
Blinking at him, Leliana asked, “For what?”
“For whoever you lost.”
She stared at him for a moment then stepped away from him, shaking her head as she said insistently, “It’s not important. Especially not for you to worry about.” Leliana smiled bitterly then and turned away. “I am still the enemy, Alistair,” she added as she walked away from him, leaving him next to the pile of bodies.
Frowning and wondering what her insistence on calling herself his enemy was, Alistair shook his head and decided to let it lie for the moment. Glancing over his shoulder at the bodies, he nodded to himself and got to work gathering wood to make a makeshift pyre over them.
Stupid they may have been but that didn’t mean they had to leave their bodies to rot.
That night around their shared fire, he couldn’t help but watch her where she sat across from him doing maintenance on her leathers. It had started as him trying to suss out her reasons for how she’d acted earlier and had ended up…well, it had ended up as something else entirely.
He’d become distracted by the sheen of her hair where it fell across her face, the light of the fire making the red gleam and glow like the heat of a blacksmith’s forge. How her hands were certain in their quick, simple motions, always where they needed to be to make this subtle stitch with needle and cord or that firm motion to rub oil into the leather to keep it supple. The graceful curve of her neck as she bent her head over her lap, focused and intent on her task.
As realization bloomed, he honestly wasn’t surprised. He’d always – once he’d noticed girls and later women – veered towards the less out-rightly feminine. Even before then his childhood playmates that were girls had always been the tomboys, the rough-and-tumble girls with broad grins and more than enough attitude and brawn to combat any boy. The first girl he’d actually shown interest in had been one of them, the daughter of one of the Palace Guards, but it hadn’t gone anywhere.
No man, her father had said sternly to him, wants his daughter with a bastard. Not even a King’s. It had been an embarrassing reminder of what he was and had hurt even more than one of Loghain’s scathing remarks.
He hadn’t actually kissed a girl until he was in Highever, a skinny and knobby-kneed fourteen year-old. She was a blacksmith’s daughter and wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty nor was she ashamed of the callouses she’d earned helping her father in his forge. Alistair had been so taken by her that he’d told Father of her, making Maric laugh before he’d asked warmly to hear more. And she’d been the one he’d run to when he was back in the city with his grief and pain but by then she was already betrothed to someone else.
His first had been at seventeen. Marget was several years older and one of the Cousland soldiers that he’d trained with day-in and day-out during that time. It had been more awkward than anything else but he’d learned the way of things between men and women. She’d called it off herself when Fergus took him on as his squire a year later, citing that she couldn’t be a distraction to him and didn’t think her employers would be too kind to her if they found out.
And now, he mused, at twenty years old, he found himself falling for a Fereldan-blooded Orlesian bard.
“Maker,” cursed Alistair as he closed his eyes and lifted a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. “This can only end in tears.”