Seeing the ancient arches of Ostagar and the Tower of Ishal rising out of the trees ahead of them was perhaps the best thing Alistair had seen over the past days of hard travel on foot.
By the time they reached the end of the bridge and were greeted by the soldier standing guard at the end of it, he wasn’t quite so cheerful. The soldier had obviously seen the Cousland arms on the shield Aedan was carrying and called out, “Last of Highever?”
Immediately his friend flinched violently, causing Dane to growl, and Alistair answered, “The rest of the Highever troops won’t be coming. Neither will the Teryn or Arl Howe with his men.”
“Howe attacked Highever in the night a week past!” exploded Aedan angrily before Alistair could answer. “Men, women, children dead and the Teryn and Teryna with them!”
The soldier rapidly lost color in the wake of the violent words and stammered, “Uh…ah…you need to see the King. His tent’s right beyond this wall to the left.”
“Thank you,” ground out Alistair as he gripped his friend’s shoulder and steered him forward. As they started moving, he leaned forward and hissed, “Calm down. I’m sure Fergus is here.” The look he was flashed in return told him his guess about Aedan’s behavior was correct and that he didn’t rightly believe that his brother would be in camp.
As soon as they walked into the main camp, someone recognized him by the twin mabari on the pauldron of his armor. “Why in the Maker’s name are you wearing,” a random soldier started as he stormed towards them and then trailed off when they looked up at his face. “King Maric’s bastard,” the man finished in a low, shocked voice.
Gritting his teeth, impatient to get to his brother, Alistair snarled, “Yes, yes, and yes. Now if you’ll kindly get out of the way, we have urgent business with my brother.” The man went starkly silent and he dragged Aedan on past him, faintly aware of Dane growling at the man as the mabari stalked after them. He was being terribly rude now, behavior Father and his own childhood nurse Osanna would have had his head for, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.
By the time they finally reached the King’s tent – having been almost stopped two more times – Alistair was at the end of his considerable patience and simply shouted his brother’s name past the guard standing at the door. It caused a great deal of the camp to turn to look at them but it had the desired effect of having a bewildered Cailan poke his head out of his tent.
Of course, almost instantly, his expression turned furious as he dragged the pair of them inside.
“I told you to stay in Highever!” his older brother hissed as soon as the heavy fabric of the ‘door’ swung closed behind them. Cailan then seemed to notice the state both of them were in and all of his anger vanished to be replaced by concern. “What are you two doing here on your own?”
“Not by choice,” mumbled Aedan and Alistair clasped his friend’s shoulder.
“Highever was attacked,” he explained to his brother. “Arl Howe’s turned traitor. His men attacked the castle during the night and killed as many as they could. We barely escaped with our lives ourselves and only thanks to the sacrifices of too many good men and women.”
Cailan shook his head in horror then his eyes flicked to Aedan as he asked, “Bryce and Eleanor?”
Before Alistair could answer, his friend mournfully stated, “Dead by now.”
Cursing, Cailan turned away from the two of them and Alistair pushed Aedan towards one of the camp chairs before striding across the tent to stand next to his brother. Blue eyes turned to look at him and he quietly said, “Please tell me Fergus arrived safely. I don’t think Aedan can take anymore losses.”
“Yes, he’s currently out scouting the Wilds with some of his men.” Cailan paused after speaking and turned to drag him into a hug. “Thank the Maker you’re safe, little brother. If you’d died because of Howe’s treachery…”
“I didn’t,” insisted Alistair as he hugged his brother back tightly. “A lot of good people did though. Fergus’ wife and child included.”
Cailan closed his eyes, pain etched onto his face at the news, and when he reopened them they were filled with rage. “When we are done here,” he growled, “Howe will face the full wrath of the crown. I can promise you that.” He then took a breath and called out for the guard standing at the front of his tent, asking for food, drink, and cots to be brought as quickly as possible.
“You’ll stay here,” he ordered a moment later, “both of you, right here, in my tent under my watch. No arguments.”
“Howe could very well have men planted in our camp!” exploded Cailan, his calm slipping and causing Aedan to jump on the other side of the tent. He then reached out to grasp both of Alistair’s arms and hissed, “I won’t lose you, little brother. Not if I can help it.”
After a moment Alistair just nodded and breathed, “Alright.” Under the current circumstances, he could completely understand his brother’s protectiveness. “It’s going to get awfully cramped, though.”
His brother’s lips quirked into a smile as he replied, “I’m sure we’ll survive.”
At that point a trio of servants arrived, one of them carrying a pair of cots with two blankets tossed over their shoulder while the other two juggled trays of food and pitchers of something to drink. Waving Alistair aside, Cailan swiftly ordered them around and they were out of the tent as quickly as they arrived. And just in time for them to meet Loghain as he came rushing into the tent.
“What’s all of this commo -” The older man was cut off mid-word as he spotted Alistair and he frowned, looking between him and Cailan. His whole demeanor was suddenly terribly weary as he spotted the despondent Aedan cradling the Highever shield in one arm and petting Dane with the other. “Something’s happened.”
“Yes,” answered Cailan but when Alistair opened his mouth to explain it again his brother shushed him. “No, you sit, you eat, you get some of the same into that boy before he drops, and then you rest. I’ll handle things from here.”
Mouth still open, Alistair started to protest then his shoulders slumped at the prospect of not having to lead. He’d been in charge since Highever, practically dragging Aedan along, and it suddenly struck him how exhausted he was. Cailan nodded at his silent acquiescence then waved Loghain outside the tent, leaving the two younger men alone.
Turning to Aedan, Alistair sighed before moving over to his friend and gently prying the shield from his grasp. It didn’t come easy and only with the reassurance that it was nearby did he let go entirely. In the end he didn’t manage to get much into Aedan before exhaustion and grief caught up and he ended up having to lever the other boy onto one of the cots. More of the food and water went down Dane’s gullet than had gone into Aedan before the mabari settled down on the floor next to his master.
As he was leaning back in one of Cailan’s chairs and gnawing thoughtfully on a piece of cheese, Alistair looked up to see Loghain suddenly looming in the doorway. The man was simply staring at him, his expression a mix of surprise and…pride? “Ser?” he queried, confused by the sudden appearance of an emotion the older man had never shown towards him.
“Merely marveling at how wrong a judge I can be sometimes,” Loghain intoned quietly. “You did well, boy.”
Alistair snorted and said, “Not good enough. Bryce and Eleanor…” Now he choked up, recalling that terrible scene in the pantry. “A lot of people died.”
“Yet you and the Cousland boy survived to warn the rest of us.”
“That is the unfortunate tendency of life,” said Loghain. “Thinking of what you could have done different, of who else you might have saved, will only drive you mad.”
Alistair narrowed his eyes at the older man, wondering where all of this was coming from, as he asked, “Speaking from experience?” He got no answer but a thin smile and then the Teryn was gone, leaving him alone with his exhausted friend and his mabari.
Shaking himself to get rid of the shivers running up his spine at the odd encounter with Loghain, he rose and unbuckled just enough of his armor that it wouldn’t kill him laying down on the cot. Aedan was lucky that he was wearing leathers and not steel – it was so much more of a hassle. That thought was Alistair’s last before he dropped onto the cot, asleep before his head even hit the pillow that had mysteriously appeared on it.