Actions

Work Header

Face the Music

Work Text:

Alistair woke in the dead of night -- jolting upright, writhing body twisted in soaked sheets -- and knew it was time.

Doubling over, he pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes: "No. Maker, please. Not yet. Not yet..." But it was no use; no matter how hard he tried to push the images away, the dreams stayed close -- a tide of darkspawn, pressing in on all sides, their stink surrounding him, the song... the song...

"Dammit," he muttered, throwing off the covers and swinging his legs down to hit the floor. He'd been hearing the song for a month now, its hypnotic tune scratching at the back of his thoughts whenever his mind was quiet. But tonight the formerly distant sound was close, so close as to drown out all other thought. He stood and walked to the window and opened the shutters. A cool night breeze drifted in, bringing the scent of Lake Calenhad and the chirping of crickets and frogs. Closing his eyes, he tipped his chin back and let the bouquet of life drift over him. He could do this, he told himself. Push it all away -- the nightmares, the pounding in his temples, the crash of music -- and resist the pull to the Deep Roads another day. Just one more day.

Alistair pressed his hands against the windowsill, bathed in the moonlight, and prayed.

-x-

The sun set behind the castle, the shadows lengthening across the courtyard, and Alistair removed his helm, shaking the sweat out of his hair. "All right, enough," he said, looking out over the half-dozen recruits standing in a rough formation in front of them, all drooping with various levels of exhaustion. "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for a good day's work. Don't forget to clean your gear before you go." A groan lifted from the group, but he raised a finger and shook his head. "Hey, now, none of that. Do you need to hear the lecture again?"

"No, Ser Alistair," they muttered in unison.

"Good." He tucked the helm under his arm. "Then I'll see you all tomorrow." He watched them go, chatting with each other as they walked out of the darkening courtyard, then went alone in the other direction, toward his quarters on the main floor. Serving as Master of Arms for Arl Teagan was satisfying, but he never allowed himself to get too close to the young knights and soldiers he was teaching. Better not to open himself up to camaraderie like that again. Too close to what he'd had before, and lost.

He went into his small room, hung the shield -- bearing the arms of Redcliffe -- by the door, set his armor up on the stand, and leaned his sword against the wall. It was routine now, had been ever since Teagan had found him in Kirkwall and dragged him home. Not kicking and screaming, not quite; four years wallowing alone in the bottom of a bottle had been more than enough. Still, he had been nervous about returning to Ferelden, and most especially to court life. It had been a relief when Teagan hadn't tried to take him to Denerim or even Redcliffe, but to his own quiet seat at Rainesfere.

"My Master at Arms retired," he'd explained, while they waited for the ship that would take them back to Ferelden. "And I think you'd make a good one."

It wasn't something Alistair had ever thought of doing, but the more he'd considered the idea, the better he liked it. Teaching young fighters the art of swordplay, a new batch every few years, consulting with Teagan on military matters -- he could be a part of things, but at a distance. He spent the next few months drying out, then took his vows as a knight (not as a Templar, never a Templar; he was never swearing an oath to an organization ever again. But promising fealty to a man, especially when that man was Teagan Guerrin? That, he could stomach). Only then, as Ser Alistair of Rainesfere, did he feel ready to face the world again.

He'd spent several good years there, and then Eamon stepped down from his seat at Redcliffe, naming Teagan as heir with very little controversy. When Teagan asked Alistair to come along, keeping the same position, he'd hesitated, but only a little. One of the things he'd liked best about Rainesfere was that no one knew him there -- or if they did, they made a point of not mentioning it. But Redcliffe was different. There were memories there, both good and bad. And with Teagan's rise in station, the likelihood of Alistair meeting visitors he'd rather not see increased. But he'd made a promise, and whatever else he might feel about Redcliffe, it was the closest thing he had to a hometown. So he went, taking up his duties there, rarely leaving the castle, trying not to think much about the world outside, about everything that had happened within the city walls, about the griffon statue that stood proudly in the city square.

For the most part, he managed to avoid pomp and ritual and anything that would bring him into contact with Ferelden's other nobility, but tonight Teagan had asked him to join him at a formal dinner. "In regards to the defense of Redcliffe," the note had said, "and the mages staying here." Alistair glanced at the letter again, looking for clues in Teagan's brisk handwriting. On the whole, he tended to sympathize with the mages in the matter of the civil war, given his own experience with the Templar Order, and he agreed with Teagan's decision to provide safe harbor in Redcliffe. But even with everyone's best intentions, they still posed a threat to the citizens of the town: they made Redcliffe a target for the Templars, and the risks of a large mage population could not be denied. For the most part, Alistair trusted the mages to watch their own. But he still needed to prepare for the worst case scenario. At least he could still access his Templar abilities, if needed. Alistair glanced into the mirror at the man with the tired eyes, the creased brow. He was a lot better at planning for worst case scenarios than he used to be.

He laid his fingers against his temple with a grimace. After last night's episode, he'd drifted back to sleep -- not in bed, but in the armchair he'd dragged over to the open window, bathed in moonlight and fresh air. He'd awakened again just before dawn, not much the worse for wear other than the headache that dogged his steps throughout most of the day. But this was not the worst night he'd had in the past month, and not the first time he'd been certain that the Calling was coming for him. The sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, and the soft music he could almost hear in the distance, told him that it wouldn't be the last, either.

"Well." He stood up off the bed and stretched. "Best get to it," he muttered to himself, pulling off his sweaty shirt. "Wouldn't do to keep tonight's dignitaries waiting, whoever they are." It couldn't possibly be worse than the last formal dinner, which he had spent sitting across the table from Teyrn Fergus Cousland, answering his questions as briefly as possible as they both avoided the subject of his younger sister. Even after ten years, even after-- Alistair shook his head sharply. He managed not to think about her, most of the time. There was certainly no reason to start now.

-x-

It was always a temptation to come to dinner dressed in armor. The heavy plate would keep him safe, and excuse him from having to spend much time seated at the table. And he'd be prepared, in case anything went wrong. But after a long day in the practice yard, he was hungry, and comforting as the thought of a helm might be, wearing one would make it hard to eat. So he bathed, straightened out his hair -- he still kept it short, out of habit and defiance of fashion -- and pulled on his best shirt. "Right," he muttered at the mirror, "here goes nothing." At least he could stand to look at himself in the mirror again. When he was still in Kirkwall, eyes bloodshot from drink, getting pudgy around the waist, he'd smashed the one that came with his rented rooms. Teagan had changed all that, and Alistair owed him everything.

"Right," he said again, straightening the hem of his shirt, and he marched out of the room, up the stairs and into the Great Hall, where a table was set and waiting. He entered through one door, and a few seconds later Teagan came through another, ushering in an elven woman dressed in dark teal mage robes and followed by his seneschal, Torvald. Torvald was a few years older than Teagan, an immigrant from the Anderfels; his father had been Eamon's seneschal for many years, before being killed in the unpleasantness during the Blight. He and Alistair exchanged nods, while Teagan gestured toward him with a smile.

"Fiona, may I introduce my Master at Arms, Ser Alistair?" Teagan nodded to the woman. "Alistair, this is Grand Enchanter Fiona, the leader of the mages taking refuge here."

"M'lady." Alistair gave her a quick bow. When he looked up, Fiona was staring at him, an odd look in her eyes. "M'lady?"

"Alistair?" she said, with a queer hitch in her voice. "What is your family name, if I may ask?"

Alistair shot a glance toward Teagan, who looked back with a tiny shrug. He turned back to Fiona and shook his head. "I have none, my lady. If you must know, I'm bastard born." And whose bastard is really none of your business, he almost added, but did not. Presumably, Teagan wanted to be on good terms with Fiona and her mages; best not to ruin these negotiations before they even began.

Fiona took a step back with a careful nod. "Of course, how rude of me. You-- remind me of someone I once knew, so I-- but of course. My most abject apologies, ser."

"Accepted." Alistair looked at Teagan again, who saved him by pulling out a chair for Fiona. "So, my lord. Dinner first, or shall we open with discussion?"

"Dinner," Teagan replied, sitting down after Fiona at the head of the table; Torvald took the seat across from Fiona, and Alistair sat next to him. "I've learned not to keep you from your food." He grinned at Alistair, who half smiled, half scowled back. He might have left the Grey Wardens, but the appetite hadn't left him. As if reading his mind, Torvald handed him a slice of bread, and Alistair forced himself to slather it with butter before taking the largest bite politeness would allow.

Through the meal, he ate heartily, drank sparingly of watered wine, and tried to listen through the headache that refused to go away. Teagan, Fiona, and Torvald talked politics the whole time, with a particular focus on the Divine's upcoming conclave. "So you do not believe the Divine is sincere in her desire for peace?" Teagan asked.

Fiona looked down at her plate. "I believe Divine Justinia is sincere," she replied. "Whether the clerics agree, or the Templars intend to negotiate in good faith, I cannot say. I trust the intentions of the Divine, but almost no one else. Except you, of course, my lord." She raised a glass to him with a half-smile. "You have opened Redcliffe to mages and allowed us many freedoms. Queen Anora's generosity in welcoming us into Ferelden is appreciated, but you have gone beyond her decree in ways I had not dared to hope."

"Yes, well." Teagan caught Alistair's eye. "My nephew Connor is a mage, and his mother's terror of sending him to the Circle brought great grief onto my family. Even before it touched me personally, I had wondered if there might be a better way for mages. My hope is that you and your leadership will bring that way to fruition. Anything I can do to support that future, I will."

"I hope we prove worthy of your trust and support." Fiona took the last bite of fruit from her place, then dabbed at the corner of her mouth with a napkin. "And now, I suppose, it is time to discuss the details."

"Yes." Teagan pushed back from the table; as if by magic, a steward appeared with a bottle of brandy and two glasses. "Shall we retire to my study?"

-x-

"And so you see, I felt that breaking away from the Chantry was the only way. I knew that it would likely bring war with the Templars, but..." Fiona spread her hands. "I did not anticipate so many mages fighting against their own."

"So we need to be on our guard against other mages as well as the Templars?" Alistair asked. "Can you tell us more about them?"

"They come from two factions," Fiona replied. "A handful of mages, mostly from more permissive Circles, declared for the Chantry and now fight at the side of the Templars. Chief among them is Vivienne, First Enchanter of Montsimmard." Her lip curled in a small sneer. "Small wonder that the empress's pet, who lives mainly at court and on her noble lover's estate, does not understand the conditions that most mages faced within the Circles. More surprising, to me, was how many others followed her." She sighed. "But the real problem are those mages who saw the rebellion as an opportunity to grab power for themselves. Some are apostates; others are former Circle mages who broke from our group and struck out on their own. They are the ones responsible for most of the fighting that has spilled over into the countryside. Little better than thugs and bandits. We have disavowed them, of course. But I'm sure that makes no difference to the common people caught in the middle."

"It never does," Alistair murmured, his thoughts turning inevitably toward the time of the Blight. People had died because of darkspawn and because of politics, because of-- He shied away from the memories, as he always did. Too much of that leads to too much of this, he thought, with a glance at the decanter that sat in the middle of the table, still half-full. "Well, Grand Enchanter, I suppose it's already well known that you're here?"

Tegan nodded. "Queen Anora has made no secret of the fact that free mages are welcome in Ferelden, and word of mouth travels quickly. Unfortunately, that means the Templars will know it, too."

"Of course." Alistair leaned back in his seat. "We'll just have to set up our defenses accordingly. Patrols on the city walls and outskirts, and regularly through the town. Probably best to set your people up near the lake, so you can retreat to the boats if someone does manage a breech."

"That seems wise," Fiona agreed. "Will we have a liaison with your forces?"

Alistair glanced at Teagan, then grimaced. "Best if I do it myself," he said. "I suppose you should hear this from me rather than elsewhere: although I never took my vows, I was trained as a Templar and still retain most of the abilities."

"Ah." Fiona's expression did not change, but she took a long drink of brandy. "So."

"So," he repeated. "Just in case something... goes wrong, I should be to hand. If nothing else, my abilities are well known among the people of Redcliffe. Maybe they'll feel better if they know I'm around."

Fiona let out a quiet breath. "It is reasonable," she said. "But perhaps best not to let your abilities become too widely known. If my fellow mages thought that I had showed so little trust of them that I brought a Templar into their midst..."

"Former Templar," Alistair was quick to add. "Who never took vows, and never wanted to. If Duncan hadn't recruited me..." He bit his tongue, almost drawing blood in his haste not to say the rest, to take back the tidbits of his history that he'd dropped to a total stranger. A total stranger, he realized, that he'd just committed to spending all his time with, for the foreseeable future. What the hell was he doing?

The glass slipped out of Fiona's hands; it stopped inches from the floor, hovering in a gust of magical whirlwind. Somehow, she managed to guide it gently to the ground before turning her dark eyes on him. "Duncan." She said it calmly, even as her fingers trembled. "Duncan of the Grey Wardens? Warden-Commander of Ferelden?"

He groaned inwardly. How did she know? Well, the cat was most surely out of the bag now. "Yes," he said. "As it happens. I might be the only person in the history of Thedas to join the Templars and the Grey Wardens, and to quit them both."

"A Grey Warden. Duncan..." She turned away, eyes heavy with sadness. "I knew him. I, too, was a Grey Warden. Once, a long time ago."

"You are?" Alistair raised an eyebrow. "But I don't feel the taint in you."

"Were," she corrected him. "And no. You would not." She rose from her seat. "Thank you for the meal and the support, Arl Teagan. I will speak with you in the morning."

Once she was gone, Alistair turned a sheepish look on Teagan. "Sorry," he said.

Teagan waved off the apology. "Better for her to know. Myself, I wonder why she was so keen to know your parentage."

"So am I." Alistair sighed and slumped in his chair. "If she shelters in Redcliffe, she'll find out soon enough. Along with everything else I didn't tell her."

Teagan leaned back and rested his fingers on his chest. "This won't be an easy job for you, will it? Should I ask someone else? Ser Perth--"

"Is enjoying his well-earned retirement, and isn't trained as a Templar." Alistair sat up and straightened his shirt. "No, Teagan, it's all right. I'll be fine. Time I started facing down some of those demons anyway." While I still can, he added to himself.

-x-

When the sun rose, Alistair was already up, dressed and taking his morning exercises in the training yard. He'd always been a morning person, and he found it was the easiest time to get in some practice time alone, without recruits or anyone else watching. And the nightmares had woken him again anyway. Would he still be able to find this quiet time while stationed in the village? Looking up, half hidden in the shadows of the early morning sun, he saw Fiona watching him. Frowning, he turned away. Why was she here? Sizing him up, hoping to talk about his history more? He wondered if he should tell her everything, just to get it over with.

He closed his eyes, breathed out, and pushed all the thoughts away as he let himself become one with sword and shield, returning to the motions of his exercises. By the time he'd finished -- one knee to the ground, shield tip buried in the earth -- he'd almost forgotten her presence, to the point that he was startled to look up and see her standing there.

"Grand Enchanter," he said, standing up and brushing the dirt from his knee. "Good morning. What brings you to the practice yard?"

"I was curious," she replied. "You're going to be in charge of our defenses. Arl Teagan spoke quite highly of your skills, and I have no reason to disbelieve him; still, I wished to see for myself."

"Oh?" Alistair sheathed his sword, set his shield on his back. "Any impressions to share?"

"Very good, as advertised." Fiona nodded. "Were you trained here, in Redcliffe? Or did you learn all your skills from the Templars?"

"The Templars, mostly. I was sent to their ranks when I was ten." Alistair narrowed his eyes at her. Unlike his other slips, he hadn't dropped that little detail the night before. "And how did you know that I was fostered at Redcliffe?"

Fiona waved a hand in the air. "Teagan mentioned it. And there are rumors, as well. About your parentage. Some say Eamon Guerrin was your father. But I give more credit to the other tale I hear, that he held an even more noble title."

Alistair leaned back and crossed his arms. "All right, fine. Yes, Grand Enchanter," he said, glowering. " My father was King Maric, and my mother was a serving maid here in Redcliffe Castle. Why this should possibly concern you, I have no idea, but there it is."

"It concerns me," she murmured, turning away. "I-- I knew your father. And I-- I am, pleased, I suppose, to see some of him living on in you."

He shrugged. "If you say so. I only met him a few times, and we didn't talk much. I can't say I knew him well enough to say if we're alike or not."

"Oh, you're alike." She smiled up at him, a small smile, almost shy. "In looks, of course -- surely you know that you resemble him a great deal. Your dedication. Your good humor." She brushed a hand across his arm. "It is unfortunate that you never had the chance to know him."

"Yes, well, that was his choice. Not mine." He looked sideways at her. "How did you know him, anyway?"

"We worked together once, on a mission. When I was in the Grey Wardens," she said. "Duncan was with us as well. And your father -- King Maric -- and I, we became... close."

She lowered her eyes again, and it was then that Alistair realized that she and the king had been lovers. Of course. Maric Theirin, noble husband, legendary lover throughout Thedas. Had she borne him a bastard, too? For a mad second, he wondered how many half siblings he might have, squirreled in noble castles around Thedas.

"Well, I'm not my father. And I prefer not to be defined as his son, if it's all the same to you. Good day, Grand Enchanter." And he stomped off, not caring if she stared after him.

-x-

The rest of the day passed quickly, as Alistair met with the castle guard and city watch to discuss the particulars of his leave, packed his meager belongings, and had one last dinner with Teagan. It kept him busy enough that he did not think of Fiona or the Wardens again until he was back in his chambers, sitting on the edge of the bed while he tried to push the music and the memories away.

Memories... He wondered if she was feeling it, too. The headaches, the buzzing around the temples, the strains of distant music, like and yet unlike the voice of the archdemon. And the nightmares, worse than they'd been ten years ago. He'd warned her, once, that the effects of the Calling might come sooner to a Warden who fought a Blight and came too close to an archdemon. If they plagued him already, how much worse would it be for her?

She -- Elissa, surely after all this time he could use her name again? Elissa. He lowered his head into his hands and pressed his eyes tightly closed. Once, he had thought they would see it all through to the end, to this moment when they both felt the pull of the taint too strongly to ignore. But that had been a long time ago. Maybe she'd already fallen. Maybe she was already gone.

No. He thought he would know it, if that were her fate. He wasn't quite sure why he thought that. But he did. She was alive, somewhere, and something in his blood still called to the faint spark of her, even a thousand miles away.

"Enough," he said aloud. Wiping the tears from his cheeks, he blew out the candle, lay back against his pillow, and blocked out the song enough to get some sleep. At least he still had that much control. He wondered how much longer it would last.

-x-

"You travel light." The mage leaned against the doorframe and looked Alistair over, while pretending to examine his temporary quarters in the Gull and Lantern. The mages had moved into the upper floors of the inn, taking up all the guest rooms and whatever other spaces they could find, at Alistair's suggestion and after much gentle persuasion of Bella, the proprietor -- including kind words from Teagan and a sack or two from the treasury. Near to the docks and further from both the city gates and other residences, it was the most defensible space in the village outside the Chantry, and no one had wanted the mages moving in there. The tavern made the best compromise for everyone.

Alistair set his small pack on the bedside table. "I don't need much," he said. "And if I find something is missing, I'll just send to the castle for it."

The mage nodded to the sword on his hip. "Not unarmed, though."

He shrugged. "If I'm to see to your defenses, I can't very well do it without arms." He raised an eyebrow at her. "And you are?"

"Linnea," said the woman. "A free mage who's going to stay that way."

"And I'll do what I can to help with that." Alistair leaned back with a nod. "Well, thanks for showing me my room. Please tell the Grand Enchanter that I'll see her at dinner."

-x-

Darkness surrounds him, dark and dank and hot and dark, and he’s drowning in dirt and stench and slipping in blood. Is it darkspawn blood? His own? All he knows is that he has been fighting through this endless tunnel for hours, days, months. The sun is so far away, he can't remember what rain tastes like or how fresh air smells, there is nothing but the fight and the darkness and the heavy miasma of tainted bodies. And music -- overlaying it all is the music, the sweet song that draws him forward, the only thing that is keeping him alive -- if he still is alive, is this life or is it death? Is this what was waiting for him in the Fade all along, this endless slog of battle? Is this his punishment for walking away? For his refusal to face the archdemon in life he faces the monster's minions in death: to fight the evil, to become the evil. He feels the taint, pulsing in his blood, his heart beating in time to the music, and he steps forward, step, step, and step again, swinging his sword in one direction, his shield in the other, crunching and slicing through bones and bodies, the darkspawn screaming in rage and pain, and he answers with his own shout, almost loud enough to drown out the song but not enough, never enough, until the crashing of weapons and the gibbering of demons and the thundering music grow together in a deafening crescendo, the tide breaking over him and knocking him off his feet, carrying him away.

He scrambles for a handhold and fails, the ground crumbling beneath his fingers, and he slides down the side of a bottomless cliff, down and down and further down, into a vortex of sound and fury, the rumbling of falling rocks crashing around him; the archdemon laughs, and he knows then that death is not for him, it is only the fight and the taint and the madness, forever and forever, unless he can roll into the path of the rocks, rumbling, crashing, thundering all around--

It was the thunder that woke him, the repeated loud crashes that jarred him loose from the nightmare. Alistair opened his eyes and bolted out of bed, running to the window and throwing up the sash before pushing the shutters open. Rain, a storm, the surface-- a dream. It was still just a dream. The wind blew into the room and Alistair stood directly in its gale force, taking deep gulps of sweet humid air as rain pelted his face. Rain meant life, rain meant the surface. There was no rain in the Deep Roads... he thought of Oghren for the first time in many years, wondered what he would make of all this. Probably he'd hand Alistair a skin of whatever vile concoction he'd brewed that week. Probably Alistair would take it.

"Alistair?" A soft Orlesian voice in his ear, a gentle hand soothing his back. "Get away from there, you'll catch your death of cold."

He lowered his chin, shook his head furiously. "This storm is the only thing keeping me alive," he said. Somehow Fiona heard him over the howl of the wind -- she caught her fingers through his and drew him away from the window, guided him to a chair, wrapped a blanket around his shoulders.

The next thing he knew a steaming mug was in his hand. Tea, he thought, taking a sip. Tea with a good-sized slug of brandy, and he set it down, coughing from the sudden familiar burn. Welcome. Too welcome. "I can't," he said, "please..."

Fiona turned to the mage at her side. "Can you get me another cup of tea? Without any alcohol, if you please."

The young man bowed and turned away. Fiona took the spiked tea for herself, then settled down on her heels, free hand wrapped around Alistair's arm. "It's the Calling," she said, voice thick. "Yes?"

Alistair nodded. "For about a month now. And it's getting stronger. I don't know how much longer--" He looked up and into her eyes, which had filled with tears. "Hey." He patted her hand. "It'll be all right, I'm sure Teagan can find you a new bodyguard."

She chuckled and wiped her eyes. "Of-- of course. I was only thinking of all the Wardens I've known and lost. Too many good men and women, gone too soon."

"You can't hear it, can you?" She shook her head. "Right, no, you wouldn't be able to." And why was that? He would have to ask her, later. "Well, I was only properly with the Wardens for six months. I bet you still know more about the Calling than I do. Can we talk about it? Later? Alone."

"Whatever you need," she said, rising to her feet, and pressing a sudden kiss against his temple. "We'll talk in the morning. You'll feel better then. For now, drink your tea and get some rest." Whatever she might have said next was lost when the man arrived with the tea and some quiet words, lulling Alistair into sleep, blessed to be dreamless.

-x-

As always, the music and the terror receded with the dawn, although not as far as it had previously. Alistair got up from his chair and stretched out the kinks. Soon, he thought. Soon he would have to go.

He would have welcomed this, once, he thought. Someone had closed the window while he slept, and he opened it again, pushing aside the curtains and wincing away from the bright shaft of early morning sunlight that pierced the room. Ten years ago, he had had nothing to live for. Even five years ago, he might have felt fewer regrets. But now he had responsibilities, and Teagan. Actual reasons to stay.

"Damn Wardens," he muttered, pulling away from the window and letting the curtain fall closed. He had worked so hard to reclaim his life, and now that he had it back, it would be taken from him. It seemed so unfair.

He sighed. It might soon come down to finding another willing Templar to watch over this flock. But first he would talk to Fiona, as he had promised. Maybe she would have some ideas on how to hold out longer. Even a cure for the taint. He dressed quickly and walked across the hall to rap on her door.

The door cracked open, then pulled out all the way to reveal Fiona, already dressed. "Come in," she said, stepping aside to reveal a table in the corner already piled with food. "I thought we could speak over breakfast."

"That's a lot of breakfast," Alistair said. His stomach growled in response, and Fiona laughed.

"I was a Grey Warden," she reminded him, pulling out a chair for him. "I remember."

Despite everything, Alistair smiled, then sat down and pulled a hunk of bread off the nearest loaf. "You'd think that the Calling would negate the appetite, but no."

Fiona shook her head. "Nothing does. The hunger will stay with you. Or, so I have heard." She took her own chair and poured two cups of tea. "So, what would you like to know?"

Alistair swallowed the bite down. "I don't mean to pry, but I can't help but wonder: you say you used to be a Grey Warden. And now you aren't. Really aren't -- if there was every any taint in your blood, it's gone now."

Fiona pulled her teacup closer to her, inhaled the steam rising from its surface. "And you want to know what cured me of the taint."

He nodded. "No taint, no Calling. And none of the advantages either, but--" Alistair shrugged. "It's not as though I'm really using them. I haven't as much as sensed a darkspawn since Teagan and I came to Redcliffe, over a year ago now. I never thought of curing myself as an option because I figured it was impossible. But here you are, proof that can be possible." He leaned forward, let himself feel the hope. "So. Is it possible for me, too?"

Fiona remained silent for a long moment, looking into her tea. Then she set it down with a shake of her head. "I wish I could help you. But it was a long time ago, a long way from here, and everyone else involved is dead. And I don't understand what happened well enough to recreate it." She leaned forward and covered her hands with his. "Believe me when I say that if there were any way for me to take this burden from you, I would. Any way. But..." she lowered her eyes and pulled away. "I'm sorry."

Her voice caught on the final word, and Alistair had to restrain an impulse to comfort her, even as his own heart was falling through the floor. "I figured it was a long shot," he said, gently. "But you understand why I had to ask."

"Of course." Fiona looked up, and her brow had smoothed. "It's only natural that you would wonder."

"At least now I know," Alistair replied. "And it's still nice to be with someone who understands. I've been away from other Wardens for a long time. And I don't miss them, but-- well. I never really thought about what it meant, facing my Calling alone. There is one thing I'm wondering, though." He picked up the tea and blew the rising steam off the surface. "Does it ever come on so suddenly?"

"Suddenly?" Fiona leaned back in her chair, brows knitting. "How do you mean?"

"Not long after I met Duncan, he told me he was starting to feel the effects of the Calling," Alistair said. "Nightmares, headaches, hearing voices. But the way he described it, it was gradual. It started small, then got slowly harder to ignore over several months." Fiona nodded. "But I had my first darkspawn nightmare since leaving Kirkwall about a month ago, and they've returned almost every night since. The music started right after, almost as loud as it was during the Blight. So it doesn't make sense. But maybe I'm different because I was joined during a Blight?"

"It's possible," Fiona said. "But it does not seem likely." Her expression turned thoughtful. "Though I'll never experience the Calling myself, I have seen several Wardens submit to its summons. And as you say, it tends to be a more gradual process. Some succumb faster than others, but even so it is usually a matter of months, not weeks." She shook her head. "Something is not right."

"I suppose I shall have to find other Wardens and ask." A note of bitterness crept into Alistair's voice, much as he tried to keep it out. "I'd really hoped not to come to the Grey Wardens' attention again. Just live my life until the time came, then find my way to the Deep Roads and let it all go. And I have to admit, it's tempting. Orzammar is closer than Amaranthine. This is the purpose I was made for, after all."

"Not the only purpose," Fiona said, softly, and Alistair looked away. He'd been made to end Blights, and when the time had come for that, where had he been? Running away from the archdemon and his duties, that was where. He sighed again. The bill for that sale was finally coming due.

"I'll talk to the Wardens first," he said, heavily. "Their nearest stronghold that I know of is Vigil's Keep, on the Amaranthine coast. It would take me weeks to get there, time I may not have to spare. I could send a raven, but--"

"Perhaps you may not need to," Fiona said. "You may be making an erroneous assumption regarding the Deep Roads, and the nearness of Grey Wardens." She leaned forward, lowering her voice. "If I tell you something, do you promise not to reveal how I learned it? One former Warden to another?"

Alistair frowned. "I might not be able to agree to that, not if whatever it is poses a threat to Redcliffe. I can't keep that kind of secret from Teagan."

"I do not believe there to be any immediate danger, but I will defer to your judgment." Fiona crossed her hands in her lap. "As mages no longer bound to the Chantry, we must do business with the Carta in order to obtain our lyrium. Since Grey Wardens also require lyrium, I was able to leverage my old connections to this purpose. They have recently discovered a large vein near the surface not far from here, in an old dwarven outpost by Lake Luthias."

"And you think I might be able to find a Deep Roads entrance there?" Alistair raised an eyebrow. "I wonder why I haven't noticed it before this."

"Perhaps darkspawn do not frequent the area." Fiona shrugged. "In any case, it might be an avenue worth exploring."

"But just because there's a Deep Roads entrance doesn't mean that there are Grey Wardens," Alistair said.

"Not necessarily," Fiona agreed. "But there have also been rumors of a Warden making camp not far from the mine. And my sources claim that this lyrium vein is of particular interest to the Wardens, though they did not give a reason as to why. Regardless, there is at least one other Warden in the Hinterlands, and he may have answers for you."

Alistair acknowledged the suggestion with a nod, then fell to his breakfast in silence, letting the idea percolate. It meant dealing with the Wardens again, but at least he would only be seeking out a lone man, not the entire Order. And Lake Luthias was a whole lot closer than Amaranthine or Orzammar.

Besides, he needed to check out this rumor of the Carta staking out a lyrium mine in Redcliffe's backyard, see if it posed any threat to the arling. And he would have to inform Teagan, even if just to make plans in case he didn't come back.

"Thank you," he said belatedly, looking over the plate of bread and meat to meet Fiona's eyes. "I appreciate the information. And-- the support."

Fiona nodded. "You are welcome. Please, tell me before you go?"

"Sure." And Alistair returned to the food, plotting his next steps while he ate.

-x-

It was dicey, leaving Redcliffe these days. To traverse the back country meant dodging the encampments of mages and templars making war on each other; on the roads, bandits preyed on the people caught in the middle. Alistair wished more could be done for legitimate travelers and common folk, but he could muster only enough forces to keep the town and castle secure. He did send out and ride patrols, from time to time, but it got more dangerous every day, and now with the mages in town, he just couldn't make it a priority.

He had spent the previous day busy with preparations for his ride, leaving instructions with the other guards and having a brief meeting with Teagan, telling him enough to brief him on the situation, not enough to alarm him. He'd left a longer letter in his castle quarters, just in case he didn't come back. Then, he had kept his promise to Fiona, stopping by her room to say goodbye on his way to the stables.

They had not spoken much -- all the words had been used up the day before. "Good luck," she had said, pressing her hand between both of his. Some instinct had led him to lean over and leave a light kiss on her cheek -- maybe it was her Orlesian influence, rubbing off on him. It was odd that she'd asked him to come by for a farewell, but he supposed she had her reasons.

Now, out in the open air, alone but for his mare, Ludmilla -- Milly to everyone but the head groom -- all the demons of the past few weeks seemed far away, a bad dream. He leaned over to pat Milly's dappled neck, take a deep breath of her freshly scrubbed mane. Like everything else about his return to Ferelden, spending more time with horses had taken some getting used to, but good and patient mounts like Milly had made the task easier. She was sure-footed, too, which helped on these out-of-the-way roads that he was forced to use, riding up the sides of mountains rather than through the easier passes, skirting the edges of enemy encampments. Alistair was confident in his ability to take on a stray mage or Templar or bandit, but not a whole crew of any of them, especially not by himself.

Which was why, at the first sign of another party as he approached the Crossroads, he rode Milly into a dense grove of bushes and waited for them to pass.

Mages, he thought as they approached. Mages and... dwarves? Yes, dwarves, four of them by Alistair's count, mixed in with at least a dozen humans. Everyone was dressed in heavy black robes that covered their faces, leading horses with plain tack. No sigils, no banners, no livery, no sign of any allegiance, except for a faint sense of familiarity, of-- no, surely not. Alistair stared hard at the group, willing it not to be so. They couldn’t be the Grey Wardens Fiona had mentioned, could they?

No, not Grey Wardens. The sense of the taint would have been much stronger had even one Warden been so close by. This felt more like a single darkspawn, further away. Not Wardens then, but a victim of the Blight. Alistair felt a stab of sympathy for whomever it was -- unchecked Blight sickness was a rough way to go.

Then the group stopped right in front of his hiding place, and he held his breath, placing a quieting hand on Milly's withers. The figure at the front of the pack turned his horse around to face the rest of the group and held up a hand for attention.

"We make for our encampment," he said. His voice was smooth and cultured, and he spoke with a clear Tevinter accent. "The time is not yet right to make our approach. So we will hold in the hills, while you take care of the business in the mines. Understood?"

One of the dwarves stepped forward, the force of his nod dropping his hood backwards. Tattoos spread across his nose and forehead -- Alistair thought they were Carta markings, though he was hardly an expert. "Understood, Magister. We'll get you plenty of the stuff, no worries. As long as you have plenty of sovereigns in return."

"You will be well paid, dwarf." The magister's voice carried a weary tone that suggested a conversation held many times before. "If you return within a week's time, you will be paid even better." He paused, glanced at the slighter figure seated next to him. Were they the source of the taint that Alistair had sensed? Possibly. "I trust you know the way?"

The dwarf snorted. "Please. We've had surveyors marking out that mine for months. I could find the way blindfolded."

"No need to brag." The magister gathered up his group and rode north, toward Redcliffe; the dwarves turned around and walked the other way, in the direction that Alistair's map indicated the mine to be.

"Well, that makes my job easier," Alistair muttered to himself, once both parties were out of earshot. He cast an uneasy glance after the mages -- Tevinter magisters headed toward Redcliffe surely meant no good. Maybe he should take care of that first? But the leader had indicated that they would make no move toward the city or castle for a few days at least. That gave him more than enough time to ride to the mines, figure out what was going on there, then come back and take care of this threat. Besides, he trusted his soldiers. With Fiona's help, the castle knights and the city watch could surely take care of a few magisters, no matter how powerful.

-x-

Alistair followed the pack of dwarves through the underbrush, leading Milly, keeping his helm visor down and shield device obscured. When they reached the waterfall, he ducked under a rock and waited for them to show him the way in. Once they were gone, he tied Milly to a nearby post -- a loose knot, so that she could work her way free if he didn't return -- and patted her nose.

"I'll be back," he half-promised, and then he went through the half-open stone door behind the waterfall. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light, and another moment for him to believe what he was seeing: a huge space dug out of the heart of the mountain, at least hundreds of feet overhead, and a stone bridge crossing a fathomless chasm.

"Maker's breath," he murmured to himself, blinking against the dimness. A few beams of light cascaded in through cracks in the rocks, showing the bridge and, on the other side, a low building lit with torches. As always, Alistair wondered what had kept them alight for thousands of years.

The dwarves were already gone. Odd, that; he didn't think they'd had time to vanish into the building. Alistair left his sword sheathed, but pulled the shield off his back and ventured onto the bridge. It was solid, of course, and Alistair took a moment to marvel at the carvings. Stark, straight lines and right angles, just like Orzammar. He ran a finger along the top of the bridge's stone wall, and came away with a fine tracing of dust. Not heavily traveled, then, at least not recently.

How could this have been here, and the Guerrins never knew about it? Alistair glanced down into the chasm, then back at the fortress across the bridge. Clearly this wasn't new -- there hadn't been any Deep Roads expansion in millennia. So how--

The motion came from the corner of his eye; Alistair just had time to raise his shield to deflect one arrow, and twisted as another flew past his ear. He pulled his sword and stepped back to take quick stock of the situation -- three dwarves emerging from behind a pile of rubble, two more archers behind them. He couldn't stay on the bridge; it was too easy to get flanked, so despite being outnumbered he raised his sword overhead and charged straight at the nearest of the dwarves, bellowing a wordless war cry. He swung the sword at his first attacker, catching up the heads of two hand axes with the edge of the blade; and then, with a twist of his arm, sent both weapons flying. Alistair smashed the disarmed attacker's face with his shield and pushed him aside before turning to the next man, making sure to leave the chasm at his back -- a higher risk of falling, perhaps, but at least no one could sneak up on him from behind.

The next opponent was a beardy fellow with a giant war axe, like the ones Oghren had often used. Alistair remembered sparring with his old companion, and he stepped closer, inside the radius of the handle; as the dwarf swung, Alistair deflected the wooden handle with the flat of his blade, then twisted everything upward to catch the dwarf in his neck. As he fell, a lance of pain hit Alistair in his side: it was an arrow, and Alistair pulled it out from between his ribs with a grimace before whirling to meet the third attacker. He met her sword with his, wincing with every swing and hampered by his need to use the shield to deflect the attacks of the archers, but somehow between the pain and the dodging he found an opening in her attack and caught her in the face with his blade.

Panting, he turned to the archers and charged again, raising his shield to block the incoming volley, but it never came -- instead, he heard the scrabbling of boots on loose stone as they undertook a hasty retreat, in two separate directions if he wasn't mistaken. Alistair considered trying to follow, but instead he stopped, leaning against one of the fallen walls to examine his wound. It wasn't too deep, mostly just a scratch, but irritating that the arrowhead just happened to catch a gap in the armor. He dug through his pack and pulled out a poultice, unbuckling his armor just enough to slap the treated cloth over the scrape.

He followed his doctoring with a gulp of water, then stood to get a better look at this side of the bridge. There were two paths, one over the edge of a cliff and the other past a long, low building cut into the side of the rock. He didn't sense any other Wardens, but the song was louder here, the whisper becoming more insistent as he turned toward the building. So he followed the call.

It was several minutes of walking, past more buildings and down stairs. The twisting and turning corridor was hewn from stone that sparkled with red light from crystals growing out of the walls, and Alistair realized he was looking at the largest vein of lyrium he'd ever seen. But not blue, like regular lyrium, but a deep, brilliant red, redder than blood or a sunset before a storm.

He had never developed the Templars’ sensitivity to lyrium. On his past forays into the Deep Roads, lyrium had just been another rock to him. But this red stuff was different. He could feel it eating at him, in concert with the music in the back of his mind, its tune not dissimilar to the taint singing in his blood. The red-colored lyrium called, and something deep in his bones answered. He reached out a hand, stretching his fingers toward the crystals, seeking for answers, a connection, something.....

"Hey, stop!" An arrow flashed between his fingertips and the lyrium, and he snatched his hand back as if burned. He whirled around, the spell broken, and stared at the cloaked figure who approached, lowering the bow in her hands. "You touch that, and you're dead."

"I'm dead anyway," he said, turning to face her as she approached. She was a dwarf, slight of figure, with a tendril of yellow hair escaping her hood. He didn't think he'd seen her with the group on the hill, or among the archers in the hall, but under that hood he couldn't be sure.

She stopped, cocked her head to the side. "Are you? You're too tall to be Legion."

"Permit me to introduce myself." Alistair placed his hands behind his back and bowed, a sardonic twist to his mouth. "Ser Alistair of Redcliffe, local master-at-arms, and also a Grey Warden making way to his Calling." Or, maybe not really, but it seemed easier than trying to explain the whole mess to a total stranger. She was a dwarf; she'd probably accept that at face value.

"Ah." She inclined her head in a nod. "Bianca, local representative of the Dwarven Merchants Guild. Not dead, hoping to keep it that way."

"I'll see what I can do." He turned back toward the red rocks. Their call still nagged at him, but it was easier to shove aside now. "So, what is it?"

"We don't properly know," she said. "It's lyrium, obviously, and something happened to change it. Also, it changes people who come into contact with it for too long. Even dwarves -- our natural resistance to red lyrium is a lot lower than to the regular kind."

Alistair looked at her. "Changes them? Changes them how?"

"To put it bluntly?" She raised an eyebrow, and he nodded. "It makes them crazy. Paranoid, violent, voices in their head, delusions, all that business."

"Delusions," Alistair said to himself, stepping back from the lyrium and Bianca both. "So maybe that's why." Maybe this red lyrium was affecting him, giving him the delusion of the Calling. But why now? Could it really be affecting him from this far away?

He looked up and Bianca was looking at him, but she didn't ask the question etched on her face: Why what? Good; it saved him having to come up with a lie. Maybe he wasn't a Warden anymore, obligated to keep their secrets, but he tried not to broadcast them any more than necessary. Instead, he asked a question of his own. "If it's so dangerous, why are you here?"

Bianca shrugged. "We have a customer. And before you ask, no; I don't know why they want it, or what they plan to do with it. Not my business."

"Well, I can tell you one thing." Alistair came closer to the cluster of red crystals, listening to their call again. "This lyrium is tainted. Like the darkspawn. It's like it's become infected with the Blight."

"Huh." Bianca sniffed, as though she could smell the taint on the air. "And you can tell this because you're a Grey Warden?"

Alistair nodded. "So whoever your buyer is, whatever they want it for, you might advise them to stay away, unless they want to end up dead. And you should take care, too."

"Oh, I will." Bianca shuddered. "I've heard enough to know that this crap is bad news. But it wouldn't be the first time I've stood to make a fortune off bad news." She warded off whatever he might have said next with a raised hand and a hard stare. "Don't want to hear it, Warden. One of the reasons we dwarves have so much respect for your order is that you stay out of everyone's way. Unless you have reason to believe this hunk of rock is going to cause the next Blight -- and you'd need to present some pretty compelling evidence, for me to turn down what these clients are offering -- you aren't going to talk me out of it. Good luck, Warden."

It was a farewell, and she followed it up by leaving, following the vein further down the tunnel. Alistair thought about following her, correcting her misapprehensions about his role and Grey Warden neutrality, trying to argue her out of it, but he figured it would be fruitless, and he needed to get back to Redcliffe. This was a potential threat, all right -- the lyrium itself, and the lengths that people seemed willing to go to get it. Nothing good could come of the Carta and the Merchants Guild waging war in Redcliffe's backyard. And if those Tevinter magisters were the ones paying a fortune to get ahold of it, trouble was almost certain. He had to get back to Teagan and Fiona and warn them both.

-x-

Alistair stepped out of the mine and grabbed a deep breath, letting his lungs fill with the sweet clean air, free from taint and fear. Milly, still tethered to the gate, nosed at his arm, and he buried his hands in her mane. "Good girl," he muttered absently. "Thanks for waiting." She whuffed at him, and he pulled the last sugar cube from his pocket. "All right, time to get back, try and put all these pieces together, then decide what to do with them." Would Fiona know anything about the red lyrium? If she didn't, he was sure she would want to, if nothing else regarding the danger of her mages' supply getting tainted with the stuff. Hopefully he could catch her before she left for the Conclave. He untied Milly and led her out from behind the waterfall before heaving himself up on her back.

It took about three times longer than it ought to have, avoiding main roads and war camps and battlegrounds, but he made it back without incident until he was almost upon the city walls. There was an odd shimmering around the gate, and a hooded figure stood next to it, staff in one hand, book in the other. Alistair drew his sword and galloped up to him. "Hey," he called out. "Hey, you aren't--"

The figure turned, hood falling to reveal the face of a woman with pale blond hair. With a start, Alistair recognized the robes -- she was one of the party he had seen on his way to the mine. She swung her staff in a circle, throwing a blast of red light straight into Alistair's chest before he could bring up his shield. The force knocked him off his horse and he tumbled, head over feet, down to the ground, hitting hard. He lay there for a second, completely winded, head spinning; once he was oriented, he jumped back up -- and the mage was gone. Along with Milly -- she must have run back for town, but why hadn't he heard her go? He shook his head, still ringing from the blow, and started walking.

The gates were closed, but they opened at his approach, the gateman looking down at him with a nod that turned into a double-take. "Ser Alistair!"

Alistair waved back up at him. "Good afternoon, Lockey. Did you see my horse come back ahead of me?"

Lockey gaped back at him. "Well-- no. No one has seen her. You--" He shook his head. "You should get up to the castle. Arl Teagan's been very worried, y'see."

For just an afternoon away? That wasn't like Teagan. Maybe he'd found Alistair's note, and Alistair winced at the thought; he hadn't meant to worry Teagan for nothing. "I'll go there directly, thank you. And if you do see Milly, make sure she gets safely to the stables."

"Of- of course, ser." Alistair turned up the hillside path that led to the castle; he was still eager to talk to Fiona, but it could wait. Halfway up, he paused and looked back at the town. It was bustling, but was it his imagination, or did he see fewer mages walking about? Perhaps they'd already left for the Conclave. But then why hadn't he seen them on the road?

When he arrived at the castle gate, it was hanging open, and a few guards milled about the courtyard. As he stepped through, they snapped to attention, wide-eyed with surprise. "Ser Alistair! You came back!"

"Yes, and I'm sorry to have worried you all." Alistair pulled off his helm and scratched the back of his neck. "I didn't intend to cause such a fuss."

One of the men, a senior guard named Kerry, lifted an eyebrow at him. "Then maybe you shouldn't have disappeared with no word for three months. Arl's been beside himself with worry, especially with-- well, everything that happened."

"Three..." Alistair felt his hand go slack, the helm dropped to the ground. "It's been-- that's ridiculous! I was only gone for a day."

Kerry's brows knitted into a frown. "Those damned mages. I knew it." He turned his head to the side, spat on the ground. "I knew letting them in here was trouble. Even before the magister showed up."

"The magister came here? Already? But I thought..." Alistair shook his head. What on earth was going on?

Kerry snapped back to attention. "You should go inside. The Arl can explain it better than me, I think."

"All right, thank you Kerry." Alistair walked past him, stopped by a clap to his arm. He turned, and Kerry looked at him, solemn.

"I'm glad you're safe, ser. It's good to have you back. Even if it does mean I'm demoted back to my old job."

"Thanks." Alistair lightly punched Kerry on the arm. "We'll talk about that demotion later." He turned and walked up the steps, into the castle, better understanding the gasps and whispers that followed him through the halls. Word of his return must have preceded him, because he had barely stepped into the Great Hall before Teagan was on him, pulling him into a hug.

"Thank the Maker you're back." Teagan stepped away, the lines on his face deeper than they had been a day-- no, three months ago. "Whatever happened to you?"

"I haven't the faintest idea," Alistair said. "I rode up to the mines, found some useful information, and turned around to ride back. By my reckoning, I wasn't even gone a full day. You certainly shouldn't have had time to find my note." He looked around, noted the emptiness of the hall. "Where's Fiona? Is she in town?"

Teagan sagged. "There is so much to tell you. You missed -- rather a lot. And I never saw any note. Things got hectic right after you left, so we never had time to look."

"Huh." Alistair wrinkled his nose. "Kerry said it's been three months, How is that even possible?"

"Magic," Teagan said grimly. "Magic and betrayal. Come, let's sit in my office. It's a bit of a long story, and I also have something for you."

-x-

It took Teagan an hour to tell the full story of what Alistair had missed: the failure of the Conclave, the death of the Divine, the magister's invasion of Redcliffe. When the tale was done, Alistair leaned back in his chair and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Maker," he whispered. "I'm sorry you had to go through all that. And that I wasn't here to help."

"It wouldn't have mattered," Teagan said. "Either the magister would have killed you, or you would have been forced out of the castle with the rest of us."

"But I'm a Templar," Alistair reminded him. "I might have been able to tip the balance. Somehow."

"Well, it all came out all right, I suppose. The Inquisitor took care of the magister, and got the mages out of Redcliffe in the bargain. A part of me is sorry to see them conscripted, but they had their chance at freedom, and they blew it." Teagan snorted. "Allying with Tevinter cultists! What did they think would happen?"

"I suppose they were desperate, with the Divine dead and no one else with the power or inclination to broker a treaty." Alistair shook his head. "That doesn't excuse the way she broke your trust, of course. But-- knowing she was a Warden, I guess I'm not surprised. They do what it takes to get the job done. Anyway, at least now I know what happened to me. I must have been caught in one of those time vortexes and hurtled forward three months."

Teagan sat bolt upright. "Your investigation! What did you find in the mines?"

"A strange sort of lyrium," Alistair said. "It's red, for one thing, and much deadlier than the regular kind."

"The Venatori had it, too." Teagan picked up a sheet of parchment from his desk and began scanning down it with a finger. "There was something in the Inquisition's report... Ah, yes. The Inquisitor said the entire castle was filled with the stuff during her trip to the future. Red lyrium, growing out of the walls and infecting everyone inside it, even the non-mages." He shuddered. "Horrific stuff." Setting down the report, he raised an eyebrow at Alistair. "And you're saying there are veins of it on my land? And various dwarf factions intend to mine and sell it? I don't like the sound of that, not one bit." He leaned back, steepling his fingers on the desk. "But we don't have the resources to stop them, either. The Inquisition cleared out the worst of the fighting in this area, for which I'm grateful, but we still need to patrol the roads and guard the city walls."

Alistair looked down at his hands, then let out a long sigh. "I suppose I'll have to find the Grey Wardens, tell them what I know. With luck I can track down this fellow who's supposed to be working the Hinterlands, but if not I'll have to make for one of the bases. "

"Must you?" Teagan looked up at him with a small frown. "You don't owe the Grey Wardens anything, Alistair."

"I know, but..." Alistair kicked out his heels, shoving his seat away from the desk. "If they're all feeling the call of this red lyrium, not knowing what it is... Maybe they've already found out the truth on their own, but if they haven't, it could be trouble." It was what Duncan would have wanted. And if she-- if Elissa was feeling this too, if she went to her death not knowing... He shook his head. "I at least have to try."

"All right." Teagan stood up, and Alistair joined him. "When I was in Denerim, there were rumors that all of the Grey Wardens had left Ferelden, pulling back into Orlais. Maybe you can find them there. I hate to lose you here, with so much going on, but if it's what you have to do..."

Alistair nodded. "It is. I'm sorry."

"Then go, and if you decide to stay with the Wardens, I understand that too." Teagan held out his hand, and Alistair took it. "Oh! I almost forgot." He pulled out of Alistair's grasp and pulled a rolled-up parchment from his desk. "Fiona left you this."

"Did she?" Despite everything, Alistair felt a twinge of guilt. It was entirely fair to say that the circumstances that had driven Fiona from Redcliffe before his return were her own doing. And yet he wished she were here, to talk over everything he had learned in the Deep Roads. For all their differences, he found her easy to talk to. He took the letter from Teagan's hand. "Thank you."

Teagan nodded. "When will you leave?"

"As soon as possible. Most likely in the morning. I hear you've named Kerry as my replacement?

"Indeed," Teagan said. "He seemed the obvious choice, and still does, unless you have a different suggestion."

"No, that's perfect." Alistair held out a hand. "Thank you, Teagan, for everything. I'll come back as soon as I can."

Teagan looked at Alistair's outstretched hand, then gathered him into an embrace. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I hope you don't. I hope you find what you've been really looking for out there instead."

Alistair snorted, patted his foster uncle and best friend on the back. "Maybe," he muttered. "This time, maybe you're right."

-x-

When Alistair woke the next morning, he realized he had slept-- not well, exactly, but better than he had in a month. He still heard the music and felt its pull, but knowing the source was somewhere outside him, not a betrayal by his own blood, made it easier to ignore. Even, somehow, in his dream, less a nightmare now, more confused, a jumble of images and memories and fears, bathed in an eerie red light.

The sun was rising and his few possessions were packed; just one task remained before he could leave. Alistair got dressed and then sat in the hard wooden chair in the corner of his cell, settling back in his seat with the letter Fiona had left for him. He couldn't really imagine what the Grand Enchanter might have to say to him after the disaster that had befallen Redcliffe and her mages. But whatever it was, he had to know.

Dear Alistair,

I do not know whether this letter will reach you, or if you will ever return to Redcliffe. Perhaps the Calling was true, after all, and you are three months dead as I write this; perhaps you found the Grey Wardens and saw fit to return to the fold; perhaps you are on some other errand that I will never even guess. But even if the effort is futile, I feel the need to write you regardless, to let you know that I thought of you, that I wanted to tell my side of the story.

You have heard, I am certain, of my disastrous attempt to take a Tevinter magister as an ally. The best one could say for my plan is that it was ill-thought out, but you must believe me when I say I saw no other choice. Only Divine Justinia could be trusted to negotiate a genuine peace, and with her dead, I could imagine no path beyond brutal, bloody, endless war -- a war the mages could not win without outside support. If I had known of the Inquisition first-- but never mind. All the justifications seem hollow, now. We would have been used by the Venatori; now we are used by the Inquisition, to better ends, at least. Perhaps it is a happier outcome than I should have hoped for. The pill is bitter, but it is mine to swallow.

I wish I could have seen you, just one more time. There are things I wish to tell you, things that must be said in person, not entrusted to a letter, not even with a courier as trustworthy as Arl Teagan. (He is a good man, your uncle. I hope you know how fortunate you are to have him.) If you do come back, if you are willing to forgive my wrongs, if you wish to come find me, I will be with the Inquisition forces at Haven.

The opportunity to know you, even for only a short time, has meant more to me than I can ever say. Wherever he might be, I am certain your father is proud of you. Keep making him proud. Perhaps one day I will see you again.

Until then, I remain your servant,

Grand Enchanter Fiona

He rolled up the paper with a small frown. Self-justifications, recriminations, mysterious hints, and whispers. And the answers, if there were any answers, would only be at Haven.

Haven, where the Inquisition gathered, filled with the faithful and soldiers from all over Ferelden. People who might know his face, his name, his past. Bad enough that he had to see the Wardens again. He could run into almost anyone at Haven -- in particular, the left hand of the Divine, whom he would really rather avoid.

The Wardens had to take him back. Elissa's friends were another matter entirely.

No. The edge of the note crumpled as he tightened his fist, and he set it aside before he could damage it further. He would tell Teagan to send word to Fiona of his survival, and perhaps someday he would seek her out, but for now he had a duty to the Wardens.

"A duty to the Wardens," he muttered, splaying his fingers to study them. Not a phrase he ever thought he'd utter again. But the taste in his mouth was less sour, now. He set the letter in the top of his pack and lifted it to his shoulder. It was a long journey to Montsimmard; long past time for him to get started.