Frowning down at the map he’d brought with him from the Palace, Bernard asked, “You’re certain any further south would be a death trap, Alistair?”
“Not certain but…” The younger man paused as he raked his fingers through hair that had been short but was steadily growing longer. Normally Bernard would have recommended he keep it but Alistair was different than the usual man. Longer hair only made him look more like his brother, which was something they were trying to avoid enough with his obviously Theirin features. “I overheard a few of the Wardens at Ostagar talking. They mentioned sections of land in the Korcari Wilds having been tainted beyond saving by the darkspawn, which just doesn’t sound like something we want or need to encounter.”
“It is best to be cautious, yes?” asked Leliana, who was sitting on the opposite side of the fire than they were, carefully putting fletching on several new arrows. She then tilted her head sideways at Alistair and hummed, which made the young man twitch.
Snorting, Bernard said, “I’m assuming she’s come to the same conclusion I have. You need a haircut, lad.” As Alistair blinked and lifted a hand towards his hair, he kindly added, “It makes you look like your brother.”
He expected a response from the boy but certainly not the one he got. Alistair’s eyes went wide with an expression that was a mix of horror and fear and he looked hurriedly between the two of them. “Shears?” he asked, his voice a bare whisper.
For a moment there was silence then Leliana put her arrows aside with a soft clack of the wooden shafts and reached into the bag at her side to pull out a small pair of shears. Instead of the somewhat aloof expression she usually wore – at least, that was the one Bernard always observed – she looked all too gentle. Extending a hand, she softly said, “Come. You’ll only make a mess doing it yourself.”
Alistair stiffened then nodded, not glancing at him once as he got up from their side of the fire and walked to hers. The young man stood for a moment, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, then he sat down in front of the bard’s perch on a log. As Leliana scooted forward and began running her fingers through his hair in an attempt to straighten it, she said primly, “As you were, Captain. We still need a way to our next destination.”
Next destination. As if he really knew where he was going .
Shaking his head slightly at the words, Bernard tilted his head back down towards the map. He’d never really formed a concrete plan before they’d fled the Palace; there hadn’t been time . With the capture by the Dalish, his own recovery from very nearly becoming a werewolf, and the bandits that had been plaguing their trail all through the Southron Hills, he hadn’t had any further opportunities to sit down and get a real look either.
Now they couldn’t go further south because of supposed…tainting, was it?
Leaning over to tap a note on the map, he finally said, “There’s not very many major villages in this part of Ferelden. Of course there’s Lothering but it’s a fair straight shot up from Ostagar. If the horde there followed the road and the trail of those fleeing the battle, that probably isn’t a good destination for us.” Running a hand through his own hair, which was also getting shaggier than he usually wore it, Bernard continued, “Of course, that effectively cuts us off from Redcliffe, which might provide refuge for us. Arl Eamon…”
“Never liked me,” Alistair noted quietly. He glanced up at the young man, who was staring off into the dark of the night as Leliana clipped small sections of his hair away with deft precision. Hazel eyes flicked towards him then and Alistair forced a smile. “Cailan always said it was just because he didn’t know me but I’m pretty sure Eamon never forgave Father for loving a woman besides his sister.”
Leliana scoffed at that, saying, “It is perfectly natural for one to find love again after it has been lost.” Her voice then softened as she moved her focus on his head. “And it is cruel to take one’s ire out upon a child.”
Alistair just shrugged slightly, not putting enough movement into it to jostle her ministrations, and grumbled, “I was used to it. Loghain never held back the fact that he hated me.”
She tutted softly at that but said nothing, though her eyes turned over to catch Bernard’s. He was a little surprised that she allowed him to read her but, then again, he’d accepted her offer of aid, hadn’t he? Perhaps it wasn’t so surprising after all.
What he read in her gaze was the same anger at the Teyrn’s action that burned in himself. He could give the man his due as a general but he loathed men who looked down upon those weaker than them. And the child Alistair had once been, reminded constantly of his supposed place in the world despite the father and brother that had obviously loved him, certainly fit under the weaker category.
Turning his attention back to the map, Bernard sealed a hand over his mouth to still the rather unsavory comments he wanted to say aloud. The boy was obviously already in a state over his hair and he didn’t want to add to that.
“We go north then,” he finally stated, dropping the hand to tap two fingers on the Bannorn. “We’re almost directly south of South Reach right now and can stop there or one of its outlying villages to restock our supplies.”
“And after that?” asked Alistair.
Leliana let out a hum before Bernard could reply and said lightly, “There is much land in the Bannorn, is there not?” She then smiled and winked at him. “Plenty of places for us to hide ourselves for a while.”
Inclining his head towards her, he replied, “The lady has the way of it.” He swept his hand across the whole of the Bannorn, from Lake Calenhad all the way to Denerim, and said, “Fields and forest and a bevy of hills to get lost in. We’ll be able to hide there well and perhaps have a bit of a breather to get a handle on things. Figure out our next definite move.”
“Be easier if we knew what was going on,” grumbled Alistair. “It doesn’t help that we’ve been avoiding people.”
Bernard started to open his mouth but Leliana beat him to a response, flicking the fingers of her free hand hard against one of Alistair’s ears. As the young man yelped and jumped, she sharply said, “We avoid people because you are very obviously who you are.”
With a huff, he crossed his arms and turned to glare up at her until she forced his head back around to continue clipping at his hair. Alistair then looked grumpily at Bernard and said, “I can’t help that. We’ve already covered up the pauldron on my armor. It’s not like I can just change my appearance at will.”
“You can’t,” he gruffly noted before nodding to the young woman perched behind him. “But she’s a bard. She knows how to hide in plain sight and charm the pants off a man with a look.”
Leliana laughed merrily, one of most honest sounds he’d heard out of her since she’d joined them, and tilted her head respectfully towards him. “Perhaps a few pretty words to get a little bit more out of him,” she intoned playfully. Then she brushed stray hairs off of Alistair’s shoulder before leaning forward to peer at the side of his face, reaching around after a moment to turn his face towards her. The young man blinked at her, obviously confused, but she seemed to see something that pleased her and leaned back with a nod. “It will be difficult but I think he can be taught. Surely someone gave you instruction about the Ferelden court, no?”
“Anora did. Father and Cailan wanted to protect me from it and she wanted me able to stand on my own,” replied Alistair shortly. He then frowned and tilted his head back to look at her from upside down. “What exactly are you going to be teaching?”
“Why, to hide in plain sight! If you succeed, even those who know you best would not be able to pick you out standing right in front of them.”
“…when do we start?”
“We start now.”
Bernard just watched the pair of them, his attention seemingly fully on the map but really mostly on them. He was no bard but he knew how to read people …and they were both smitten . Leliana hid it better than Alistair – though it was likely that she was more strongly ignoring it than the young man was also – but he could see it. Despite the start of her involvement with them, he’d already deemed her honest and it had taken balls to tell him the whole sordid affair revolving out from her mistress’ hand.
The boy could do worse for a pairing than a girl with obvious wit and skill at politics. Landsmeet would have a fit at her being an Orlesian bard but that could be dealt with by reminding them that some of their own kin carried the blood.
He’d let that whole matter sort itself on it’s own, however. If it worked out, it worked out. If not…at least they found something good for a little while.
Turning his attention fully to the map, Bernard picked up the string lying nearby as well as the short stick of charcoal that he’d been using to make notes ever since fishing them out of the belongings of one of the many bandits they’d had to kill. Who knew that such an annoyance would end up useful to their travels?