Apparently he’d had no idea that I hadn’t realized it was him with me from the beginning. He continued uncertainly. “I just thought…well, we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I thought you were willing to give in, just this once.” He trailed off, sounding disconcerted.
My anger at his presumption melted as I realized that he had done only what he’d thought I’d wanted. Obviously I’d misjudged his interest and his restraint in waiting for some clear signal from me. He hadn’t sought to trick me, to seduce me when I was at my most vulnerable. He’d intended only to give and receive some comfort in the face of what could well be the end of our time together, one way or another.
I’d certainly given him enough reason over the past weeks to believe I would be open to this. This was what had been on his mind all afternoon, deciding what I wanted. I flushed with shame at the way I’d toyed with him, not once letting him have a say in the situation. He’d been patient, waiting for me to make a decision, while I worried only about my own feelings. My cheeks flamed in the dark as I realized how shabbily I’d treated him for weeks.
I sighed. “I’m sorry, Anders,” I began but I wasn’t sure where to go from there, “sorry for using you.” He pulled away a little. In the blackness I had only the sound of his voice and the feel of his body beside me to tell me what he felt. I tried to salvage the conversation, to express how much I thought I’d wanted this with him while still making clear that I was very much in love with another man.
I ended up explaining how much he had reminded me of Alistair when I had first met him, how afraid I was that I would never again see Alistair, and how my physical frustrations had colored my actions. “I knew I was sending you these mixed signals but I couldn’t seem to stop doing it,” I said. “That’s a pathetic excuse for the way I’ve treated you but it’s the only one I have.”
He stirred but didn’t protest my words. “I’m sorry for leading you on but I honestly don’t know if I would have done this had it started differently.” The tension I had felt leave him as I’d spoken returned. “I not angry,” I continued hurriedly, laying a hand on his arm where it rested against mine, “and I can hardly complain about the results. But we won’t be repeating tonight’s diversion.”
He relaxed again and even chuckled in a self-satisfied way. I snickered a little myself, afterglow and the rush of guilt warring within me. My life took such ludicrous turns that I should have known something this personal would momentarily distract me from my larger worries. His concerns assuaged, he swept me into his arms, hugging me tightly. “If I promise never to mention it, can we at least enjoy the rest of the night?”
I had to laugh. “Again?!”
Anders didn’t answer but I could feel precisely how ready he was to start the night afresh. It was my turn to explore, my one opportunity to slake the curiosity that had been tormenting me all along. I took full advantage of it keeping firmly in my mind that this would never happen again. No matter the turns my life may take after this, whether I found myself again at Alistair’s side or back in Orzammar choosing among suitors to rule beside me and perhaps father an heir, this one night I was free to do as I wished.
With Ohgren and Sigrun were so nearby the need to be quiet became a part of the pleasure. I found myself trying to make Anders break his silence, to cry out just once. He alternated between begging me to stop and pleading with me to redouble my efforts, his rough whispers spurring me more than his words. Then he pinned me down and returned the favor.
It seemed a space out of time, the sort of effortless fun Zevran and I had once shared with no commitment or deeper emotional meaning. Finally, spent nearly to the point of immobility, I gently ejected him from my room. “The others may know you were here but I see no need to be obvious,” I said. The room was as dark as it had been the whole night but I could sense that morning approached. With a final squeeze Anders brushed his lips across my cheek and left.
I knew that sleep was out of the question, no matter how tired I may have been. If I closed my eyes now I’d not open them again for hours. I decided instead to settle for a bath and a hot breakfast, likely the last I would see for a few days. The soapy water washed the smell of the night’s pleasure from me and I hauled on my armor yet again. At least I didn’t wear plate mail like Justice and Ohgren. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk in it today much less swing my swords with heavy gauntlets weighing down my arms.
I made my way down to the kitchen and scavenged some sausages and a long loaf of bread. As I looked around I discovered a miraculously intact basket of eggs in the corner under the ruins of a table. It seemed we were destined for a hearty breakfast, indeed. I decided to take it as a good omen for the day.
I opened the door as I passed it to see whether dawn had yet broken and an elf nearly fell on me. He’d been sleeping against the door and the rude awakening flustered him enough that he could at first not tell me why he was there. I gave him a draught of ale and let him gather his wits for a moment. Finally he explained that he’d been sent as a messenger from Vigil’s Keep but that none had answered his pounding a few hours earlier. I cursed the thick stone walls and my own self-involvement as my patience expired. “Out with it, man!”
“The keep stands!” he exclaimed. “They are embattled on every side but the walls and gates have stood strong.”
I plied him with questions, most of which he could not answer as he had been outside the keep or he’d not have been able to come. He was a servant to one of the guards that had left yesterday to attack the horde from the rear and, in a lull during which both sides were regrouping, his master had sent him sneaking off to bring me word.
“You should have seen the guards in their silver armor,” the elf cried. He had been deeply moved by the bravery and daring shown both by the archers who had repeatedly exposed themselves to the enemy to force them back and the men outside who had spent their lives in keeping the Darkspawn from battering down the gates. I smiled, imagining Master Wade hammering away, fretting over every dent and scrape he would not have time to repair.
I fed the elf some of my breakfast and gave him a thick crust of bread soaked in the grease from the sausages for his journey back to the keep. I sent also the message that, with any luck, I would be confronting The Mother and thereby distracting her troops from the keep in a day or two, depending on the resistance we encountered. I heard folks stirring above as I bade him farewell. His gratitude seemed all out of proportion for my small gestures of thanks until I remembered how poorly most humans treated elves. The news he had brought had lifted an enormous weight from my conscience and I felt I owed him even more but I did not wish to make him uncomfortable.
I’d no sooner thrown more sausages and eggs in the pan than Sigrun came down the stairs, sniffing appreciatively. I shared the good news as she ate and fried up another batch as Anders and Ohgren lightheartedly shoved one another about on the steps. I was not the only one nearly giddy this morning. The moodiness of marking time the day before had dissipated. It seemed that at last an end to the uncertainty was in sight and all of us were feeling bold. We would confront The Mother soon and hear her explanation for why we should work with her, against The Architect so bent on killing Grey Wardens, rather than killing her outright.
I’d faced brood mothers before and I assumed this one would be capable of speech but otherwise little different, as The First and the other talking creatures had been physically little different from their dumb counterparts. With my body sore but happy, my mind had turned optimistic that all else would work out as well. The Mother would have to offer more than the old “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” argument, considering her attacks on the keep and the city. I felt sure tomorrow would find her lying dead at our feet.
We gathered our things and struck out, accepting the accolades of the survivors just stirring in Amaranthine as graciously as we could without stopping every ten feet. I reminded the townspeople again and again that the city guards had fought bravely and done as much to stem the tide as we had. We saw people carrying the dead Darkspawn to carts dotted about the streets.
As we left town we passed a low spot in the outskirts where a pile of the corpses was growing. The carter nearby explained that they would be burned during a celebration that night. I had no desire to smell the results of this plan so my companions and I waved a cheery goodbye and turned our feet to the north for the day’s trudge to the Dragonbone Wastes.
We encountered very few stragglers as we walked. The occasional farmer worked his fields or guarded his animals and the odd band of meandering ghouls needed mopping up but as the day wore on the land began to change. The ground grew wilder. Hills stretched away before us and the road trended steadily upward. Healthy trees and crops were replaced with scrubby bushes and sparse grass and the rich dirt in which the food of Amaranthine grew became rocky and dry. We headed for a wasteland, indeed, it seemed. Perhaps the fabled dragons that had gone there to die had scorched this land in their passing.
We stopped at a rare spring at midday to fill our skins and have a short meal but mostly we walked, chatting and joking. Anders persuaded Sigrun to try giving him a ride on her back which led to the easily-foreseen result of both sprawling in the dust of the path to which our road had dwindled. At least the cheery mood of the morning continued and our small group returned to the easy camaraderie of previous days.