The scouts had seen them on the road hours since, and when they come to the keep the gates are open.
In the torchlight the courtyard feels like a stage. Under the hooves of the horses the flagstones shine, wet from days of rain, and the windows above reflect diamond pinpricks, false stars, against the great black shadow of the night. Breath rises in the air and the horses steam, and all around them the voices ring, echo, hang in the air like smoke. Like a painting, Nathaniel thinks, one of those great paintings from the Marches he had been taken to see: the crush of it, everything mixed up with everything else, the prince standing in the stirrups and the little stablegirl with her hand on the bridle. Light on everything.
Ahead the Warden-Commander dismounts neatly and lands soundless. Already Varel, half-dressed in the night, is speaking with him: urgent matters, no doubt. A lost dog or twenty dead. The commander’s eyes slide over the assembled crowd while he nods, in the same silent vacancy with which he checks his tack or whets his blades; Nathaniel wonders, idly, if he spoke more before coming here—if his silence is linked inextricably to the Orlesian lilt that licks his words and turns Ferelden heads like clockwork. His mouth moves now, though Nathaniel can neither hear him nor read his lips. In the courtyard the echo seems like a living thing, a heartbeat, some coiling beast devouring sound. The hiss of the rain coming down.
“A hand, ser?” Somewhere at the horse’s head: the groom, wondering why he does not dismount. He swallows a sigh.
“No,” he says. “Asleep in the saddle. Apologies. Carry on.” Swinging his leg free starts the ache again, pops the joint of his hip and grinds the base of his spine. His thighs feel full of water and he nearly stumbles when his boots hit the ground: catches himself at the last second, absorbs the spike of pain that keeping his feet costs him. Behind him, Velanna and Sigrun have already come down from their mare; even the dwarf girl’s chatter is muted, swallowed up by the shadows and torchlight. Something comforting in it, nonetheless, and in Velanna’s occasional clipped answers. Flash of memory: on the steps, as a boy, his mother’s hand in his; Delilah in her nurse’s arms. A scene like this one. Father on his grey mare and Teyrn Loghain on his great black warhorse, neither of them speaking; his father’s hand falling on his head for a moment as he passed wordless into the hall. He blinks. Warmer now, he thinks, than then.
“Nathaniel,” the Warden-Commander says, soft, nearer than he should be. Touch of a light hand on his bracer. He turns his head. Glint of light in the commander’s red hair, tucked behind a pointed ear. The low ache of his back and arse and thighs, slipping in and out of his awareness.
“I’m here,” he says, which is a foolish thing to say.
“You aren’t hurt,” the commander says, barely a question. Already the scene dissipates: the horses led away to be rubbed down; the stable-hands and servants, unneeded, returning to their beds. The rain seems to increase with nothing to fall against. Somewhere overhead, a candle in a window goes out.
“No,” Nathaniel says. Sways on his feet. “Tired,” he says, after a moment, in a gesture towards honesty. But there are things to be done: maps to be amended, numbers to be guessed at. In this work, the commander has told him, he is especially useful: he and Sigrun. They both of them have quick eyes; they both know the cost of defeat.
“Sleep, then,” the Commander says, nearly smiling. “The rest will wait.” His accent is stronger at times like this.
Nathaniel tilts his head. “I’m all right,” he says. “A cup of tea, a bit of bread…” The thought trails off.
“Mm,” says the commander, elf-eyes shining in the dark. “Myself, I am tired. In the morning.” He touches Nathaniel’s arm again before he turns away: runs up the steps to Varel, still waiting, as if tiredness has never crossed his mind.
“All right,” Nathaniel says, to no one. A year ago he would have chafed at the kindness of it.
Around him the courtyard has emptied and darkened. A young woman emerges from the stables, saddlebags over her shoulders, and flashes through the rain towards the kitchen doors. Comes back a second later, empty-handed, wary: stops short of conversational distance. “There’s hot water,” she says, not quite at Nathaniel. “If you wanted.” She slips away again before he can reply. Above, on the ramparts, the quiet voices of the night watch.
“All right,” he says again, to himself, and goes up the steps to the keep.
+ + +
Hot water finds wounds he didn’t know he had, splinters and blisters, places where three days’ riding in wet leathers has taken its toll. Soothes the aches, too. Better still loosens the grime: he unpicks his braids and submerges his head, holds his breath as long as he can, and rises, gasping, into a world that feels somehow changed. Rings of light around all the lanterns while his eyes adjust, and steam rising from the baths. The smell of wet wood.
A clean linen shirt, a pair of loose breeches, left by some clever laundress or perhaps at someone’s suggestion—he can’t quite stomach his boots, caked in cold mud, so he leaves them, leaves all his armour. Careless, probably; that thought he ignores.
His feet lead him without much consideration: only with his hand on the latch does he doubt. He could go back, through darkened hallways to his own narrow bed: perhaps a fire has been laid there; perhaps even someone has sent for food or wine. The sheets, he knows, will be clean. His presence here has hardly been requested. The cat rubs his ankle, appearing from nowhere: winds, silent, around his legs, wanting in. A sign, perhaps. He slides the latch.
The fire is low in the chamber and the smell of elfroot and lyrium is thick enough to cut. Everything as it was: the worktable with its books and vials, the wardrobe flung open, silk slips and starched robes, leather cinches and silver pendants. Dried herbs hanging by the fire, blood lotus and deathroot, Andraste’s grace, wild ember. Anders curled softly, with his golden hair spilling on the pillow; the glimmer of a warding glyph barely visible on the floor beneath the bed. The cat, fearless, crosses its bounds: it flickers a little, admits him as he leaps onto the mattress. Anders doesn’t twitch.
Nathaniel crosses to the window: opens it to the rain, just a bit. If nothing else for the sound, and perhaps to lessen the smell of stale magic. Anders, he knows, will close it when he wakes.
When he slides into the bed it’s against Anders’s back, his side. He’s warmer, always, than Nathaniel expects: more solid somehow than he seems. The round curve of his hip fits Nathaniel’s hand like it was shaped for that purpose. Without thinking he presses a kiss to the top of Anders’s spine.
“Hm,” Anders says, shifting slightly: rolling a little. A long pause, and then “Oh, you’re back,” just quiet.
“Yes,” Nathaniel says, into golden hair. A light touch on his shoulder.
He’s asleep before Anders can say anything else.
+ + +
In the morning, the end of the rain: fog rolling in, a bell ringing. The bed is empty when he wakes save for the cat, curled at his feet.
It’s hardly the first time he’s woken here alone but he feels at sea anyway: aware, under everything, that he didn’t come to fuck. He turns his head to the sound of stone grinding stone: Anders at work in the early morning, one hand on the pestle and a quill in the other, scratching some note into his codex. He’s half-dressed, in underrobe only, his bare shoulder freckled and curved with muscle. Hair looped up in a half-knot. No cinch to narrow his waist. Lovely, Nathaniel thinks, and surprises himself by thinking it: lust runs hot in him often enough, for Anders’s clever curving mouth and long fingers; this is something else, he supposes. He is content to watch.
Anders stretches, after a moment, stained fingers skywards and shoulderblades moving. Sighs. Puts a hand to the small of his back, assessing--makes a little noise of discontent.
"Morning," Nathaniel says, with his chin on his wrist. Anders looks up at him, sharp then smiling.
"Oh," he says. "I'd forgot about you." The lines around his eyes say he's lying.
At Nathaniel's feet the cat purrs and purrs.