Half of Ferelden must have shown up for this damn thing, a fascinating array of body odors floating through the crowds shoving near his ramshackle dais. Someone took the time to nail up a flag to cover over the hole behind him, but in their haste barely notched it in. Alistair couldn’t stop fiddling with the nail head sticking out towards him, when he wasn’t waving to his citizens or switching the bundle of blankets from one arm to the other.
The chair beside him loomed in emptiness, every third or fourth person having to comment on the lack of the Queen. He’d smile as best he could, then offer up some cheery joke about how ol’ Bea was off walking orphans or something. A few were kind enough to smile at their silly King, but more than most would linger over the silent seat. Maker, how much longer was this going to take?
Stubby fingers tugged on Alistair’s scabbard, causing his sword to pitch backwards until it jammed against the chair. He glanced down at the moon faced girl with eyes of emeralds. She began the day with her black hair braided tight and wrapped around her head like a lady should. Within an hour she had half of it down with weeds she considered flowers jammed in. “I’m bored!” she pronounced, folding her arms across her chest. “I want to play.”
Alistair had to bury a chuckle at his daughter’s obstinance. He happened to agree with her, but this was tradition. “Spud,” he warned in what passed for his father voice which couldn’t even discipline a fly for falling into his soup. For his efforts he got the slow eye roll of a two and three quarters year old. She insisted upon the three quarters even if she was nearing a full four quarters with every day.
“Why don’t you go curtsy to those men in shiny hats over there,” he said pointing at a few of the city guards. Denerim was kind enough to loan out their crew for this little meet and greet. Their polished steel helmets poked through the crowd of coiffed men and women hoping to wave at the newest addition to the palace.
For her part, his daughter looked over at two of the guards standing in as much rapt attention people paid to do it could. He thought she’d take him up on it. Someone had been teaching the princess how to properly curtsy like a lady and Spud loved it, though her approach was to grab both sides of her dress, spin around in a circle, and then squat as far as her legs allowed. Sometimes she’d forget about the squatting part and spin and spin until nearly passing out. Being only two, this of course delighted the Arls and Banns who had to find everything the princess did absolutely adorable. This time, however, she pinched up her little nose and frowned.
“Don’t want to,” she said, kicking her fancy shoe into the chair that was supposed to house her mother.
Alistair bit back a groan then reached down for her. “Come up here,” he said, tugging her up to the extra chair. Scrabbling with his help, Spud didn’t sit down to watch the crowds still sliding in and out through the reception line. Instead, she stood up in it and reached for the banner behind.
“Your Highness,” a voice whispered from behind him where a bevy of nurses, handmaidens, and other busybodies waited in case he screwed something up, “it isn’t ladylike for a princess to stand on her chair.”
Sighing, he whispered to Spud, “Pst, you’re not being a lady.”
“’S okay, I’m a dragon now,” she insisted, before giving out her feral roar that might startle a kitten.
“Your Majesty,” the voice insisted, all but jabbing him in the back of the head.
He shrugged, “Sorry, you can’t tell dragons what to do.” The woman groaned, used to dealing with Alistair’s petulant ways, but another chuckled beside him. Glancing over, he spotted the smiling lips of a city guard. Dressed in the unitarian uniform that rendered all gender down to a faceless lump it was impossible for him to tell who was hiding inside that tin can, but by the giggle he’d guess a woman.
About to ask the guard if she was all right or if standing in so much metal all day baked her brains away, Alistair’s focus was pulled to the lump in his arms transforming itself from a mass of blankets to a gaping maw demanding attention. It wasn’t a cry at this point, more a wheeze, but the moment it broke all voices across the bustling square died. Everyone turned to look at the little prince giving his first speech to the masses. It was hard to make out the words, but the gist seemed to be “I want something now!” About on par with most royalty.
“Well, good morning to you too,” Alistair cooed at his son, running a finger across those chubby cheeks. Slowly, he rocked the bundle back and forth in his arms trying to calm the cries. For a moment they stuttered, just as they had when Spud was that tiny. Maker that felt like it was just a few days ago.
At her brother’s sounds, she dropped to her knees on the chair and peered her eyes over the arm. She blinked a few times, watching the baby swaddled in the royal christening gown apparently all Theirin’s wore since Calenhad. It was so ancient, Alistair wasn’t certain which would get him in bigger trouble if he broke it, the gown or the baby wearing it.
Spud sat up and clapped her hands, “I want to hold him.”
“Ah...” He glanced over at his daughter and thought to the last time he let her hold an egg. She was very gentle with it for the first ten seconds before her toddler curiosity made her wonder if eggs could survive being dropped from a parapet. Turns out the answer is a resounding no. “Next time, Spuddy,” he said, trying to rock the prince back to sleep. The baby was having none of it, already on to Alistair’s limited tricks.
Spud folded her arms up and stuck out her bottom lip. Maker, just what he needed, two kids screaming at the top of their lungs. Slipping the prince into the crook of his arm, Alistair snaked an arm around Spud’s shoulders. Hauling her close, he planted a kiss on her forehead and mumbled, “You don’t want to hold him anyway. There’s unholy demons coming out of the back end.”
It was doubtful she understood half of what he said, but the wobbling bottom lip sucked back in and she smiled. The prince had only been in existence for a couple weeks and already he was proving to be a bigger handful than Spud ever was to both her parents. While Alistair and Spud bonded as he’d snatch her up every night to take her on a walking tour of the castle so she could drool over all his finery, the boy wanted nothing to do with either of them. And the toll he took on his mother was wearing everyone in the castle even thinner than expected.
Weighing the screams that were growing more urgent, he turned to the one woman behind him he recognized. “I’m thinking someone’s hungry. Marn,” Alistair spoke to the wet nurse who had her own one year old clinging to her skirts for the ceremony, “I hope the kitchen’s open.”
“Always is,” she said lifting the boy out of Alistair’s arms. While Marn fished out the anatomy Alistair was lacking to make his son happy, he turned back to the crowd only to have thirty pounds of princess land in his lap. “Dear Maker,” he groaned, his thighs unprepared for such an attack, “warn me next time.”
“Sorry, Daddy.” For her part Spud only smiled at her father’s pain, those emerald eyes sparkling with total sincerity. They never worked on her mother, but he melted to her whims at them.
“Come here,” he said, turning her around to sit properly on his chair that probably bore an indent from his ass. Just what it needed to get even flatter. Lifting up Spud’s hand in his, Alistair waved with ferocity at the people who really didn’t give a shit about meeting their king. They were all here for the prince, who he still had to officially name. Granted, that was the point of the day, gathering everyone in the square to tell the world that there was another little set of lungs screaming through the palace.
“Did I have a name thing?” Spud asked, kicking her heels haphazardly against the chair.
“You know you did,” he said. She’d asked the damn question a good thirty times since her nanny pulled out one of the fancier dresses and told her about today. Still, it wasn’t like he had anything better to do. Out of the corner of his eye, Alistair spotted the back of a contented baby’s head suckling away. Pinning his daughter tight in a back hug, he chuckled, “You were a handful and a half that day. Whenever anyone tried to hold you, you’d howl and howl until I’d pluck you away then boom, instant smile.”
“And Mummy was there!” Spud announced.
“Yes, your mother was there apologizing for your atrocious behavior. Quite unbecoming for a baby,” he laughed into her hair. Beyond them stood the rest of the gentry, most crowded around the few snack tables someone set up. Isolde, the self appointed godmother, floated in and out through them while Eamon hung by her side. There were few Alistair cared about out there in the crowd, but they were all supposed to care about him.
Spud tipped her head back against his chest so those ornery eyes could beam up at him, “Did I really wear the same dress as him?”
Alistair reached over to run his fingers over the hemline of his son’s dress, the ends drooping close to the ground as if the long dead sewer was daring him to mess it up. “Yes, you did. You were so tiny you fit along my arm.” Spud yanked up his forearm, her pudgy fingers darting across as if she was measuring it.
“Nu-uh,” she said, shaking her head and laughing at the absurdity of growth.
“It’s true, I swear.”
“Daddies shouldn’t tell fibs,” she said. Someone taught her that Princesses shouldn’t do that and now Spud loved to run around insisting no one else should either. It was hard to tell her to knock it off when she was technically correct.
“I’m not,” Alistair said, done in by a two year old. “Marn, you’ll back me up on this.”
His old adversary rolled an eye at him as she was currently busy fulfilling her hired role. Marn had little time for Alistair, and while she warmed up to letting the father near his children, it moved from the blood freezing breath of a frost dragon to the chill of being lost in the Frostbacks and thinking about eating your own toes. He hoped by the time his son was a year old he’d reach ‘I might put you out if you’re on fire, if I’m holding a bucket and it’s not too much work.’
Speaking of, the demanding guest of honor detached himself of his own will and began to do that newborn baby wheeze at the indignity. Spud huffed in Alistair’s lap at the cries, and he chuckled. She was going to have to get used to it, they all were again.
“Your Majesty,” a voice oozed from before him and Alistair turned from Marn trying to appease the demanding royal suckered to her tit to a demanding Bann suckered to the royal coffers.
“Bann Cyrill,” Alistair groaned, wishing he didn’t have to know that name, or any of them come to think of it. He’d tried calling all the gentry Bob for a week once when Eamon was out of court. It made for a delightful game until there was talk of rebellion and bringing in chevaliers.
“May I give blessings onto the new son of Ferelden?”
“I dunno,” Alistair shrugged, “may you?”
Cyrill’s weaselly face with the sunken in eyes darted around the dais hoping to find someone to come to his rescue. When none of the women either employed by the King or sworn to protect him offered a hand, the Bann chuckled, “Yes, quite witty, your Highness.”
He didn’t seem to be in any mood to fade back in with the happy crowds, so Alistair turned to Marn and extended his hands. “Here, give him to me.” The nursemaid shot her legendary dagger eyes through him, but Alistair only shrugged and jerked his chin at the anchored Bann. He wanted to give over his son for the damn fealty swear as much as Marn did but there wasn’t much choice.
Scooping the prince up into the crook of his arm, a limp cry echoed from those tiny lungs. Spud twisted around in his lap, her unimpressed eyes boring into the baby. She reached a finger towards him to try and touch a cheek when Alistair lifted the boy away. He spotted a pout burgeoning with her bottom lip, but there wasn’t anything he could do. It was tradition.
Cyrill placed his thumb to his lips and then against the boy’s forehead. “I, and my lands, swear fealty to protect and honor this son of Ferelden,” he said, his murky eyes glazing over. “Have you announced the name, yet?”
Alistair juggled from one arm to another the baby who was getting tired of people treating his head like a thumbprint cookie. “Trying to get some insider information to win a bet? You know how this works.”
“I would never dare cheat, your Majesty,” he mumbled, looking shocked that Alistair would dare demean him. As if all of Ferelden didn’t remember who stood with Loghain during that fateful Landsmeet, nor would they ever let him forget. Betting on the winner was the way to succeed in both horse racing and politics, but getting it wrong with only one could end in your entire family being slaughtered.
“In a minute,” Alistair said. The baby began to cry, a more pressing one than before and as his hand drifted lower Alistair figured out why. “Marn, tell me you brought another nappy.”
“That’d be the third this morning,” she said, already dutifully whipping it out of her satchel for him.
“Boy knows his feces at a few weeks old. He’ll be a natural at politics.”
“Daddy!” Spud insisted, tugging on his sleeve and throwing off his concentration of getting the damn dress off without soiling it.
He yanked his arm away from her and turned to glare at her, “What is it?”
Smoke burst through the crowds, rising maliciously as if the street suddenly caught on fire. Screams echoed all around as people began to beat feet back and forth, scrabbling to escape. In the chaos, he couldn’t tell if they were screams of fear or pain. Forgetting the change of pants, Alistair rose off his seat. With one hand wrapped around his son, he reached over to pin tight to Spud’s tiny fingers. The acrid fog rolled through the crowds, trying to reach towards the dais. It stung his eyes and sure enough, both of his children began to cry as well from the pain they couldn’t escape.
“We need to...” was as far as Alistair got when he spotted the darkness moving through the crowd. Shadows blacker than night shifted through the fog. One of them approached past the scrambles of nobles trampling each other for freedom, his head held high and a set of daggers glinting in his hands.
“Shit!” Alistair cursed, earning a glare from his daughter. “Spud,” he tugged her hand to the hem of his shirt, “hold onto this tight and don’t let go for anything.” She nodded her head, her eyes wide despite the smoke biting into them.
Glancing down at the scabbard on his hip, Alistair shifted his son to his left hand and unsheathed his sword. Maker, I hope this thing isn’t just for show. It glinted like gold in the sunlight, those damn jewels jammed into the hilt instantly nipping into his hands. Stupid, stupid, the whole thing was bloody stupid! The shadow glared up at him and slowly the cloak’s hood tipped back to reveal a man with a bronzed tan and the makings of a tattoo across his face. Of course it was a fucking Antivan Crow. Why not?
“What am I doing today? Oh just sword fighting with a fancy pants golden back scratcher while holding my infant son and daughter. Perfectly normal, why are you asking?” he babbled to himself while eyeing up the man advancing. How was he going to do this? How could he possibly fight while holding a baby? They never covered that in training!
The assassin’s lips cracked open, revealing a silver tooth glittering in his wicked smile. For a bit of flare, he rotated his daggers around his palms before letting loose a feral scream and ramming towards the dais. Alistair braced himself by knocking Spud back and trying to put his babyless shoulder in the way, when a guard leaped off the wooden platform. She heaved her sword through the air and with the help of the fall, cleaved it into the man’s shoulder.
Screaming at the agony of iron slicing apart his meat, the assassin scrabbled to stab at her sword arm, but she already yanked out her blade. Deflecting one dagger, the guard swung her arm wide and moved to slice through the air where the assassin’s head was. Ah shit! Alistair turned fully around, blocking Spud’s view of the decapitation to save their lives. He pinned her head tight to his leg, but they all heard the head splat into the ground and bounce three times before coming to a rest in the gutter.
Carefully, Alistair tried to catch his daughter’s eye, “It’s okay, Tater Tot. I’m here. It’ll be okay.”
Her eyes were open wide enough they looked white, but she bobbed her head at his words, her fingers clinging so tight to his leg they pinched flesh below. Alistair wrapped his armed hand around the back of her head and placed a kiss to the top of her head. Turning back he began to thank the guard for her bravery, when they moved out of the smoke -- a good dozen or so assassins all wearing the same black cloak and brandishing a variety of weapons.
“Sire!” The guard who protected them slunk back at the advancement until she butted up against the dais. He was out of ideas, barely had any to begin with and this. How in the void could they stop this?
The assassins came prepared, but so was the Ferelden guard. Knocking through the useless and panicking nobles came the uniforms that normally stood around in Denerim protecting it from pickpockets. Blades met with blades, the enemies falling to chaos as the good guys took on the bad ones.
“Sire,” the woman repeated again. He blinked against the smoke to find her sheathing her sword and extending a hand to him. “We should get you to safety.”
Nodding, Alistair tried to work Spud around to the guard, but his daughter shrieked and pinched even tighter. “Spud, I need you to...Sod it!” He didn’t want to hand her off until she was safe anymore than she wanted to be. Dipping to a knee, Alistair tossed his useless sword to the ground and struggled to scoop up his daughter. “Get on!” he ordered. Her tiny fingers scrabbled up, trying to traverse the finery not built for climbing. As she reached his shoulders, her hands formed a garrote against his throat.
“Let’s not choke Daddy, okay,” he tugged her hands forward before securing the baby and then leaping off the platform. As his boots hit the ground he mumbled to himself, “Your mother’s going to kill me later, anyway.” The second guard was rounding up all the handmaidens, trying to shoo them towards some building but that wasn’t who the assassins were after.
Nodding once at his life saver, Alistair jerked his head towards her. “This is your show,” he said. Barely stumbling at that, the woman turned on a copper and sped off down an alley. With a baby in his arms and a two year old clinging to his back, Alistair followed the woman through narrow passages, over drunks woken from their stupor, and down another five turns until coming to stop in a part of Denerim he’d never seen before.
The guard kicked in a door without a thought, ricocheting the boarded up wood and nails through the air. She shoved her body in the way of any shrapnel and waved them inside. “Quickly, get in.”
Musty with age and lack of use, the room loomed with unspoken words and barely cremated ghosts. He felt Spud trembling on his shoulders and he had to drop down to a knee. She clung tighter to him, not wanting to let off, but Alistair needed to breathe. Slowly, his daughter slunk down until she stood on her feet, but he didn’t rise up. Sliding around on his knees, he wiped a finger over her cheek. “Are you okay?” Her massive eyes darted over his shoulder to the guard, then back down to her father. Nodding once, she trapped her tongue between her teeth.
“Thank the Maker,” he gasped, tugging his daughter to him for a hug. “That makes one of us.” His son demanded attention as well, giving out a wail against all this ill treatment. “Yes, I know, life isn’t fair. Welcome to it,” he sighed, placing a kiss to the soft forehead.
“Sire...” the guard flattened back into the doorframe, her eyes hunting around the edges. Alistair turned away from his children to watch her. “I fear someone may have followed us.”
“Maker’s breath,” he groaned, wishing the damn fat ass in the fancy chair in the sky would see fit for one thing in his life to go right. Staggering to his feet, he nodded his head at the guard. “Right, of course they did. Why blighted wouldn’t they? Probably brought a pack of wyverns with them as well. I’m going to need your sword.”
“Your Majesty?” she drug her words out, terrified to disobey but also unwilling to let him do something stupid.
Alistair passed her the baby, which she scooped into surprisingly relaxed arms, and then snatched up her sword. “If they’re after anyone, it’s me.”
“Sire, I can’t let you...” she began.
“Yes you can, because,” he swallowed down the bramble building in his throat, “we’ve already got the backups in here that need to be kept safe. Got it?”
She looked like she wanted to argue with him, but nodded, “As you say, Sire. Ah, you should...” Shifting the baby to the crook of her arm, she yanked her helmet off. Alistair wasn’t certain what surprised him more, the steepled points to her ears, the lush gold blonde hair she knotted into a bun, or the whisper of a smile on her lips from his idiotic move.
His fingers glanced across the helmet, that deeply stupid section of his brain falling dumbstruck by an unexpected beauty appearing out of nowhere. Shaking it away, Alistair sighed, “I’m afraid that’s not going to fit me.” Tapping his forehead, he confessed, “Fat head and all.” She struggled to bite down a smile at his self deprecation.
“Here,” Alistair picked up his son out of her arms and dropped him into the helmet. The baby sat inside of it, his blue eyes opening wide at this strange, new angle on the world. Watching in concern, the guard eyed up the King as if he was mad. “Baby armor,” he explained before passing his son back to her. “And Maker is his mother going to murder me ten times over when she finds out about this.”
“Daddy...” A little hand tugged on his sleeve and he turned to find Spud with her thumb jammed tight inside her mouth. Oh Maker. “I’m scared.”
“I know, Tater Tot. But, you’ve got to be a big girl, a big sister for your brother here. He’s going to need someone to sing him songs, and...no, singing’s probably not smart. To make funny faces. Can you do that?”
Her eyes rolled up to her brother who was still gazing at this new world in shock. She sneered at the idea, wanting no part of his orders. “Please, Spuddy, you stay here with your new friend...” Alistair glanced over at the guard and faltered.
“Reiss,” she said, bouncing the helmet and baby in her arms.
“Ser Reiss. She’ll keep you safe, and maybe let you braid her hair.” That last part got Spud’s attention, her eyes lighting up as she no doubt took into account Reiss’ mounds of golden waves.
“M’kay,” Spud muttered before popping her thumb back in place. Alistair needed strength to leave them both, to abandon his children in order to drag away the ones coming to kill his family, and there was only one place he knew to find it.
Wrapping his arms around his daughter, he tugged her tight to him and whispered, “Through fire and ice, lightning and dragons, I’ll come back for you. Always.”
She smiled at the line from the book they always read together, her hands patting against him. His two year old daughter didn’t care about the dangers ahead, the possibility of getting her chubby fingers on fresh hair to braid chased away any fear. Alistair released her and snatched up the sword. It was well balanced, the hilt firm, and a guard that would actually protect his damn hand without jabbing back into his side. He ran a pinkie down his still nameless son’s cheek before turning to leave.
“Sire,” Reiss’ hand snagged onto his and he stared into her hauntingly yellow-green eyes. “Are you certain this is wise?”
“Of course not,” he snickered, extending his hand out and slapping on his armor of bravado, “it’s my idea.” Alistair slid out to face down the assassins come for him on his own terms. They’d know that the King of Ferelden was not such an easy target after all. “Oh...” he jogged back and stuck his head in, “don’t actually let Spud braid your hair. She just ties knots in it until it all has to be cut out. It’s very bad. Bye!”