Chapter 1: Diversions and Necessities
“You know, some girls get jewelry from their betrothed,” Elissa told him as they descended the stairs into the lower reaches of the palace, heading for the royal vault. “Is that why you’ve dragged me down here? To give me a diamond the size of a dragon’s egg?”
“You forget, my love, I know you. You wouldn’t know what to do with a ring the size of your fist,” Alistair bantered back. “It’d never fit under your gauntlets.”
“Oh, yes, I do! I’d shove it up your…”
“That sounds… diverting.” Alistair flashed a cheeky grin back at her, loving Elissa’s bell-like laugh as it echoed through the stairwell, and trying not think about how… quiet everything would be without her, all too soon.
He stopped, and unlocked the door with the keys he hadn’t quite had to beg off the seneschal, even though he was the king.
Almost the king. Sort of the king? I mean, he had the crown, and the Chantry had blessed him, but it didn’t feel… real. He shouldn’t be here, surrounded by carved chests and elaborate armor on jewel-studded stands. He was a bastard child who should be sleeping in the stables… not wearing fur and fine leather doublets and having someone shave for him…
Plus, that damn circlet was heavier than it looked. It left a line on his hair. Was that a thing? Crown hair?
Elissa bumped him deliberately. “None of that,” she ordered. “This is yours, Alistair. Yours. You belong here.”
She could always tell when he was brooding. “So you keep telling me,” he sighed, and looked around.
“So why did you bring me down here? I trust you had a reason aside from finding a ring large enough to shove up your ass?” Elissa fidgeted. “You know I have a lot of planning to do. That… Mhairi, for a recruit she’s rather pushy. She wanted to leave yesterday.”
“Merely eager, my dear,” Alistair grinned at her for a moment, hiding his despair at the necessity of what they were about to do. His smile shifted into a pout. “Elissa, I’m trying to do something romantic here. Can we maintain a semblance of decorum?”
“Get on with it,” she mumbled, trying to hide behind her hair at his gentle remonstrance. “You know I don’t do… that… well.”
Alistair spun on his heel, and after an unnecessary survey of the treasure room, nodded once - purely for show, as he knew exactly where it was, as he had put it there himself two months before.
Two months. Two months was all they had had, and now she… he shook himself, and crossed over to the elaborately carved sword rack with determination, and drew the sword resting upon it, turning back to his fiancée (such a lovely word for someone he could never hope to deserve), cradling the gleaming red steel blade in his gloved hand. “Here,” he said, clearing his throat to try to sound more… confident. “I want you to use this as one of your swords.”
Elissa’s eyes flicked up to his, startled with recognition. “Alistair…”
“It’s my father’s sword. Well, you know that. You tried to get me to carry it enough, didn’t you?” He tried for a laugh and fell far short. “Yes, well, Duncan said it repelled darkspawn corruption. It’s not… precisely a romantic gesture. It’s also a practical gift.” He watched her nervously.
“Alistair, this is a national treasure. I can’t take…”
“You can and will.” His voice came out far more commanding than he intended. His wife-to-be … Maker’s Breath, she was flushing. A very good sign. “I want you to,” he said more softly. “You’ll take it and…” he cleared his throat, set the first sword back on its stand, and drew his own sword from his hip.
Neither of them walked around unarmed, even in the midst of the palace. His love had learned her lesson with the death of her parents, and his rule was still too young, too untested, to risk betrayal from men at arms whose loyalty hadn’t been earned.
His sword - his most prized possession other than the lovely set of figurines and runes Elissa had given him over their time together - gleamed with the special enchantments Sandal had etched into it. She had had it made for him in Orzamaar - spending almost every copper she had hoarded for months to get him a weapon that would truly belong to him - not just some random hand-me-down from his father or his brother. A sword worthy of a king.
The Rose’s Thorn, he had called it immediately.
He had kissed her until she had stopped laughing at the corny name, and they had promptly forgotten the sword in favor of finding a far better pastime in their tiny, cramped little bed upstairs from Tapsters Tavern.
“I can’t leave you without a weapon.” Crap, she was crying. “I can’t, Alistair…”
“I want my father’s sword - the sword of the Theirins - in your left hand, and mine in your right,” he whispered, his voice thick. He would not cry. If this whole damned gesture dissolved into sniveling, Zevran would make fun of him forever, and Leliana would scowl, and Wynne would scold him… “I may not be able to come with you, Elissa, but… please? For me?”
She swallowed, and drew her own weapons slowly, glancing behind her, like she thought a guard would come running through the door and run her through for pulling a sword on her sovereign.
He snorted softly, because unlike most of the kingdom, she saw him as such. Possibly the only person in the country who thought of him as their king… and he had to send her away.
Was it possible to die of a broken heart? It certainly hurt bad enough.
But she was talking, and he had missed it.
“Choose,” she ordered weakly, the blades shaking, despite the muscles he was aware supported them. “The Cousland sword stays here - I’d give you that - It would probably be poetic, or something, to exchange family swords as a betrothal, right? - but my father wasn’t a swordsman, and it shows in his weapon. You need something… better. Maybe I should give it back to Fergus…” she babbled, a single tear dropping down her cheek. “But if you’re giving me Thorn, you need Starfang or…” the tears overfilled, and she dropped her weapons, letting them clang, muffled against the thick carpet as she flung herself at him. “I don’t want to leave. Don’t make me leave you.”
“I know. I don’t want it either,” his arms tightened around her back. The longing in his voice dripped over his lips, and he snuffled into her hair, pulling her tighter yet.
She always smelled like evergreens and saltwater. He had no idea how she managed it. “I’m so sorry it’s necessary. Really, I am. Eamon says…”
“You know he just wants me out of the way so that you’ll properly consider a different bride,” she mumbled into his neck. “He hates me. So does his wife, for exposing her lies.”
“The truth of that doesn’t deny the additional truth that I - we - need a Warden Commander at Vigil’s Keep we can trust. That… limits the candidates severely, to you, you, and… oh, yes, you.” He chuckled into her hair. “It’s only a little while, my dear. A few months, at the most. I swear I won’t even look at other girls… even if they bring me delectable cheeses and compliment my hair.”
She snorted and thumped him.
“Ouch! I bruise easily!”
“Good, you’ll have something to remember me by,” her voice broke. “And when they fade, you’ll forget me…”
“What nonsense,” Alistair bent and kissed her. “Eamon won’t change my mind. I’m very stubborn, my love. I think you might have noticed. You, however, should exercise caution with all those handsome Wardens already arrived from the Anderfels. Here I’ll be, studying statecraft, pining, and bored out of my mind, while you are off having adventures with burly, strapping men dedicated to serving your every desire…” his imagination failed him. It was all too likely that his dragon of a betrothed would find someone new. Someone… better.
He wasn’t that naïve, to think that it wasn’t possible. Who was he, after all?
She pulled away, “Well, when you put it like that… I have a strapping young man at my beck and call right here. Why leave at all?” she pulled him back down to her lips, kissing away his doubt, for the moment anyway.
“He’s going to be a king, too,” Alistair whispered into her mouth, when they finally stopped for breath. It took a while. She was so… distracting, and he could hold his breath for a long time. “Beauty, muscles, and power… quite a catch, I’d say, despite his lack of a brain. Better not let him get away.”
Elissa giggled, and with a final glance over her shoulder, reached down between them and loosened his belt. “I want you, my King. Here, now. Before Isolde can come give me a lecture about being ‘obvious’ about our relationship before the vows are said.”
“In the Royal Vault? Sounds perfectly discreet to me.” Alistair’s eyebrow raised and his mouth quirked sideways. “I’ll get the door.”
She always had the best ideas.
Two days later, she had already left - leaving him just a simple note in lieu of a formal good-bye.
He smoothed it out, it being rather rumpled and tear-stained - Maker only knew why, Elissa would be the first person to argue that she never cried, and Alistair would the first person to back her up, as he valued his life.
My King, My Love,
I didn’t want to drag it out, make a farce of our feelings for each other for the satisfaction of a bunch of nosy biddies in the throne room. Forgive me? It means - you mean - too much for me to trivialize how much this hurts.
So I’ve taken Mhairi and we’ve set off. Write to me, will you? I… You know I’ll miss you. You, no doubt, would think of something flowery and precious to declare to me in a letter like this, but I… You know I’m not good with words, love.
I’ll do this job. I’ll come home. And then you and I won’t be parted again, and we’ll really get down to that business of making an heir. Maybe we’ll even get married first. I suppose Eamon will insist?
Don’t worry, I have the swords. Starfang is yours, now - I snuck into your room this morning and left it under your bed. Be safe and wise, my King. Keep Zevran with you - he can watch for poisons, and suggest a taster…
Shit, this is hard. I’m… worried for you. I know it’s silly. You can take care of yourself.
Damn it, I wrote ’shit’ in my first love letter, and I know you’ll keep it anyway, you’re such a sap.
You’re my sap. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not good enough. I’ll challenge every damn one of them to a duel if they even try. I’m not that far away.
Remember - no one can tell a king what to do. Trust yourself - you know what’s right, what’s fair, even if the rest of the nobs can’t see what’s in front of their face.
Wait for me. I will come back, darkspawn or no darkspawn, as soon as I can. I love you. I’ll write, even though I’m crap at it.
Can you even read my handwriting? Aldous always said it was completely illegible… I bet you have lovely, scripted handwriting. Seems like the sort of thing they’d teach in the Chantry.
Maker, I already miss you. So much. Be good. What am I saying? I know you will be. You’re always good. Not like me. I’ll… try not to get into too much trouble.
Alistair folded it up again - the folds were already well-worn. Eamon was staring at him, bemused. “I… need some exercise,” he attempted.
“You’re not going after her,” Eamon started.
Alistair’s eyes narrowed, “Are you going to stop me?”
Eamon glanced at the Guard Captain, who raised a single eyebrow and shrugged. “There are rumors of bandits on the North Road,” the captain pressed his lips together as soon as Eamon glared at him. “I was going to take a few men out and have a go at them, Your Majesty. First thing on the agenda this morning.”
“I knew I liked you,” Alistair declared, and stood. “I’ll just get my things. See my horse saddled, and… whatever else needs to be done before we go see Eli… these bandits.”
It took four hours of other ‘things’ before Alistair, already mounted on his horse, finally got to ride through the gates of the palace, Zevran and Ser Wulfred at his side. He suspected Elissa had given her orders, but the hound’s company was more than welcome. “What, no heralds and trumpeters?” he asked the elf.
“It was no trouble to dose them, my friend,” Zevran sighed. “If the story is that you’re killing bandits, then you might not want the bandits to see and hear you coming, yes?”
“That, and Elissa might run away if she hears me clattering down the road to Vigil’s Keep with someone shouting ‘Make Way for the King!” Alistair fidgeted with his reins. “I wish we could walk.”
“She’s walking, is she not? You have a chance at catching up to her this way.” Wulfy barked excitedly in agreement.
“You’re surprisingly practical for an Antivan. And we’ll never catch up to her before she reaches the Keep, if we have to walk the horses the whole time, and nod politely to people that greet us. It’s a business trip, not a bloody procession.”
“And isn’t it nice to have a chance to wear these boots, instead of wear them out?” Zevran sighed, showing off his shiny new footwear. “A going away present, from your bride-to-be. She knows just what I like. Her letter… it was sweet, was it not?”
“Wait, she gave you a present? She only gave me her sword… that’s not fair! And her letter was…,” Alistair scowled, “When did you read my letter? How did…”
Zevran flipped it out between his fingers and handed it over. “I started out as a pickpocket my friend. The skills never leave you entirely. Next time, keep it against your heart, and challenge my skills. It’s more romantic, in any case. I will happily confess to her that you kept it against your skin. She rarely blushes, but when she does, it’s very pretty, is it not?”
Alistair frowned, and tucked it into an inner pocket. “I doubt I could hide it anywhere that you wouldn’t find it.”
“You could keep it in your smallclothes. Then I would only be able to access it when you’re out of them.” His friend smirked at him. “Of course, I could have the fun of trying to get you out of them. You’ll miss your amour, your bodies will long for each other. I could help…” Wulfy growled at the elf. “Or… perhaps not, as her dog seems determined to defend your honor.”
“Absolutely not,” Alistair blanched and cleared his throat, “Zev, you might have heard the news – I’m engaged.”
“Well, you cannot blame me for trying,” Zevran shrugged. “Engaged individuals back home are often more susceptible to seduction. They’ve caught their intended, and want a little fun before they settle down. You might have felt the same.”
“I won’t play her false,” Alistair hissed, “She’d kill me, and then you, and then me again.”
“True.” Zevran sighed, “But we would leave beautiful corpses, no? And it’s not everyone who can boast of being killed by the Hero of Fereldan.”
“She hates that title,” Alistair smiled, his eyes dreamy. “Think she’ll be happy to see me?”
Zevran eyed him sideways, “Undoubtedly. Not that she’ll show it.”
Chapter 2: Polite Investigations vs. Interference
The road was longer than it should have been, and finding the bandits that they were meant to be tracking down slowed them down even more. “I don’t remember travel taking this long before,” Alistair whined, as he cleaned Starfang after the initial fight.
Elissa would have his hide if he didn’t keep her sword pristine.
“Ah yes, having your love along to speed the roads and ease your pains at the end of a long day,” teased Zevran. “Not all of us are so lucky, my friend, as to be able to travel with our head in the clouds and our eyes fixed on the hindquarters of a beautiful woman. That would make the miles pass all too quickly, yes?”
“She was our leader,” Alistair hissed, with reddened cheeks, “I followed her, like the rest of you…”
“Rather more closely than the rest of us, excepting perhaps Leliana…”
“Stop. You’re talking about my… almost wife. And the queen - someday. You should have more respect for her… position.”
“Oh, let’s talk about positions! I have a myriad of suggestions for you both! When she comes home, triumphant, eager, and willing, you should…”
“STOP. We manage to be creative enough, all on our own.”
“Speaking of Leliana, did you three ever…” Zevran waggled his eyebrows deliberately.
“Of course not!”
“What a shame. I bet she would have been willing…”
“Elissa wouldn’t have been.”
“But not you?” Zevran leaned back on his horse, a smirk on his face. “Interesting. Not just a Chantry boy, hmmm?”
“I didn’t say that,” Alistair coughed. “It never came up.”
“But you are,” Zevran cocked his head at his trousers, and Alistair hastily adjusted his cloak to cover his lap. “You cannot hide from me, Your Majesties. Or is it... Your Highness?”
“Go elsewhere,” Alistair ordered.
“I’m not your vassal.”
Alistair stood, “Fine, then I’ll go elsewhere.” He flounced off in a huff.
“Don’t go far, Your Majesty!” The Captain yelled after him. “We don’t know if we found all the bandits.”
Alistair ducked into the woods, pretending to himself that he was just going to relieve himself. Unfortunately, the damn elven assassin was right. Thinking about Elissa in - that way - had left him painfully aching. Perhaps, if he could get far enough away from his company…
“Well, what do we have here?” A dwarf propped up against a tree with her legs crossed eyed him deliberately. “I wasn’t even trying to lay a trap for a king. None too smart, are you?”
Alistair straightened, “On the contrary, I’m here… looking for bandits. I appear to have found one. Guards!” he yelled. Just behind him the brush rustled, and Zevran poked his head out. “Arrest this woman,” he ordered.
“Am I allowed to arrest people?” Zevran, rather than making himself useful, sounded fascinated by the very idea. “Do I get to use the stocks?”
“I haven’t done nothing,” the dwarf spat on the ground. “Could have killed him three times while he was stumbling about looking for a private place to do his business.”
The Captain shoved aside a branch and glared at him impotently. “Your Majesty…”
“Yes, yes, you told me not to go far. I didn’t go far. And I appear to have found another bandit,” he nodded at the woman before him.
“Never said I was a bandit,” she corrected him. “As a matter of fact, I’m a mercenary.” She uncrossed her legs. “I heard those bastards say that the king himself was coming after ‘em, and thought you might need an extra axe.”
Alistair frowned, “And why would I hire some random person who interrupted me when I needed to…”
She leaned forward, a wicked smile on her face. “Do you really want me to answer that, Your Majesties?”
Zevran cackled, “I like her. Must we arrest her? It seems rude, when we've only just met.”
“We do have a list of vacancies to be filled, after the battle at Denerim, sire,” the Captain muttered.
“Fine,” Alistair bit off, his ears red. “Interview her, if you like,” He turned away. “Now, if you’re done blackmailing me, can a man have some privacy?”
“As you wish,” the woman grinned, and flicked her eyes at his breeches. “But if you ask me, you could use a… hand?”
“No, thank you,” Alistair sputtered. “I’m…”
“Engaged, yes, I heard.” The woman shrugged. “Pity. Guess I lose that bet, then. I told them it was all political.” Around them a dozen bandits all popped up out of the bushes. “Take them, men,” she ordered.
He didn’t kill her, though it was close. Instead, he bound her and sent her back, with a couple of armed guards to Denerim to await trial for banditry, blackmail, and attempted regicide. He wouldn’t be able to make the blackmail stick, but a longer list looked more impressive. How Elissa had managed to recruit everyone to help with the Blight, he would never understand – the woman had volunteered, and yet he still ended up throwing her in prison.
He settled into his ostentatious tent that evening, and sunk into the ridiculous number of pillows that the servants seemed to think were necessary for his comfort, missing Elissa even more, and now scared even to think about… relieving himself.
Tomorrow, he told himself. Tomorrow he would see her, and that would make all of this worth it.
Their romantic reunion didn’t go quite the way he had pictured it. Mind, you, he was used to it. Few things did.
“What the Void are you doing here?” His lovely betrothed hissed at him at the crossroads where their paths had intersected. He was pretty sure a few guards behind him chuckled. “You’re supposed to be in Denerim!”
“Bandits,” He stammered, “On the North Road. We needed to… with the Guard depleted after Denerim…”
She deflated a bit. Apparently, she hadn’t found it likely that he had a legitimate reason for leaving Denerim. “I apologize, Your Majesty, I shouldn’t have questioned…”
“Stop that,” he ordered, rather commanding, if he did say so himself. “The point is, I’m here.” He cleared his throat. “I missed you,” he tried. “And I couldn’t let you leave without saying a proper goodbye.”
She flushed, “I… missed you, too.” She raised up on her toes and pecked his cheek.
“There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” He asked, his voice quiet.
“Don’t push your luck.”
Alistair sniffed, and glanced up at the Keep before them, an outline on the horizon. “I don’t suppose I could…”
“Wardens cannot involve themselves in the affairs of nations, and that should go both ways,” Elissa sounded suitably miserable. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but…”
He sighed, “Then… can I politely investigate the smoke in the distance?”
Her head snapped up, and she blanched, “Shit! Mhairi!”
“Warden Commander, Ma’am?”
“We’re moving out! NOW!” She took off, and then stopped, before turning and running back and throwing herself at him. “I love you,” she whispered, “Don’t forget that. Whatever happens.” She kissed him full on the lips and then flung herself away from him. “Go back to Denerim. I’ll write. Soon. Ish. Soonish. Depending on if that’s a fire-fire or something worse.”
“I love you, too,” Alistair grinned. “Go get ‘em.” She marched off, at top speed, her hips swinging beguilingly. Alistair nudged the Guard Captain. “That’s my girl.”
The Guard Captain's lips twitched, “And a fine one she is, sire.”
Chapter 3: Subtlety and Security
Denerim was boring. Booor-ing.
Three weeks later, he had written to his bride-to-be three times (the stack of unsent letters much larger, naturally, but it was best not to annoy her – no reason to make her question her taste in men when the wedding date wasn't official yet...), and she had finally written back. “She’s busy,” he had told Eamon, Teagan and whoever else would listen, “Those darkspawn won’t kill themselves!”
But now her letter had arrived, and it… was better than he had hoped for.
“Only she would ever start a letter to me like that,” he told Ser Wulfred fondly. The dog wuffed grumpily. “Oh, and I suppose she should have written to you, first?” The dog rose and turned his back on him deliberately. “Ha! See, she does like me best!” The dog whined, pitifully. “I’m sorry, no, you’re right. We’re both the best.”
I’m sorry I haven’t written before now. Truly, I am. It’s been… hectic. You cannot believe the mess I discovered upon my arrival at the Keep. Fires were just the start. As you always say, ‘Surprise! More darkspawn!’ And a mage who had definitely not killed the Templars confining him until my arrival, and all those multitudes of strapping Wardens you bribed me with mostly dead, other than a handful, including a seneschal and a treasurer sent by Weisshaupt, of all places. Can you believe their audacity? As if I’m going to embezzle when all I must do is ask you, if funds run short.
Not that I would, but I know I could, my King. Use your money to rebuild the country. I’ll figure something out. We got by during the Blight just fine – I know a Keep is more expensive than a small camp, but I’m resourceful.
I’ve added to the ranks already - Oghren volunteered, for one. It was nice to see a friendly face, I admit. I conscripted the mage, Anders, that I mentioned earlier. And a… not-so-friendly face as well. Nathaniel Howe.
Alistair scowled. “Tell me you didn’t.” He turned to Wulfy, “Tell me she didn’t do it?” The dog groaned and stretched out his legs on the bed. “After his father killed her father?”
“Stop looking like that. He… he was a prisoner here, trying to steal back a few of the family heirlooms. He was in the Marches when his father killed my family. I don’t believe in carrying on the sins of the father. That he tried to kill me next is entirely a different matter. He didn’t know the truth. He’s been disillusioned about his father’s character, and is, so far, an asset. If they wish, I’ll be putting them through the Joining shortly. Mhairi is rather pushy about it – I wish I could be more upfront about the risks. It feels – duplicitous, and worse, I don’t know why she was recruited at all. Her volunteering seems… like she thinks we’re something to aspire to. You know better than I how much Wardens are the opposite of heroes… until there’s a Blight.
It will be strange, saying the words without you. I’ll hear your voice when I say them. It’s not about our brothers and sisters for me, not anymore. It’s about you, and preserving the life – and country - I want to build with you. That might not be a good thing. My loyalties are divided. Perhaps we should have just allowed the Grey Wardens to bring in an Orlesian.
I think my seneschal thinks I’m hopeless. Darkspawn keep popping up in the hills, and every time I ride out, they’ve wiped out another farm. As if that weren’t demoralizing enough, the local nobles are plotting against my life. I’m very tempted to ask you for help… but I know Eamon would never consent. I need more Wardens, but no… Weisshaupt sent me a treasurer. They need to sort their priorities.
I’m not sure what to do about Oghren. He and Felsi are married, and have a baby, Alistair. This… this is a difficult life for a family man. Oghren says he wants to be a Warden, but… I hesitate. I need Wardens, it’s true, but how can I doom a friend to a short life? How can I do that to anyone?
Your letters were lovely, by the way. I especially enjoyed the naughty bits. More of those, please. I need the distraction. Before she left Leliana told me about a few… things, to stave off the least parts of missing you – but it’s no substitute at all.
Obviously don’t let Eamon or Isolde get hold of this letter.
I will try to write more often. I’ll be heading out into the Wending Wood, my King, and eventually the Blackmarsh, to investigate certain claims. More on that later, but for now, I need to keep a few secrets. I don’t want to cause panic.
Don’t worry about me, Alistair. I can take care of myself. And I have your country’s safety well in hand. Nothing will happen to Ferelden, if I can help it.
Being without you feels like half of me has been left behind in Denerim. Tell Wulfy I could have used him out here, but that his orders stand. He is to protect my King at any cost.
I love you, I love you, I love you. If I say it enough, will you believe it?
Say ‘Hello’ to Zevran. I’m sure Leliana has left already, and last I heard from Wynne she was heading to Tevinter, of all places, and taking Shale. I sent her a note – it would be nice to see her again before she leaves.
Alistair frowned at the letter. “What’s all this about nobles plotting against my lady?” He looked at Wulfy, who closed his eyes, unworried. “We can’t have that.” He threw his legs out of his bed, and rang the bell for a footman. “Fetch me Zevran, would you? Have him meet me in my study.”
“Right away, Your Majesty.”
“You want me to do what?” Zevran sat on the Royal Desk, crosslegged, his crotch uncomfortably close. Alistair shifted his chair back pointedly.
“I would be grateful if you could foil a plot between the Amaranthine nobles. They’re trying to kill Elissa. I can’t just let her…”
“Your Majesty,” Eamon started. “The throne cannot interfere in the business of Grey Wardens…”
“I’m not asking you, Eamon. You’re about as subtle as a battering ram. I’ll let you know if I need one of those.” He turned back to the Crow. “I need someone who knows my girl. Who better than to save her life than the man who tried to take it?”
“I’m flattered that you hold me in such high regard,” Zevran began, “But-”
“Don’t refuse me quite yet. I’ll pay you anything you ask.”
“I can ask quite a lot.” Zevran leaned forward and touched his chin. “Are you sure you want to afford my fee?”
“Anything you ask within reason,” Alistair qualified.
“Hmmm.” Zevran sighed. “Fine. But before I leave this place, you need to hire a taster, and start dosing yourself with these antidotes. Elissa left her instructions, and I've finally found an apothecary to deal with the Palace - unofficially.” He flipped him a list. “Can’t have the King drinking the wrong tea.”
“I hardly think a taster is necessary,” Eamon started.
“You were poisoned by a blood mage just last year,” Alistair reminded him, scanning the list. “I’m hiring a taster. Anora isn’t entirely without support. Children learn from their parents. And Zevran’s boss was her father.” He allowed himself a smug smile. “Nothing like a man on the inside.”
“Mmm,” Zevran agreed, with a lascivious grin that made Alistair frown, sure he was being made fun of.
“Very well, Your Majesty.”
“If one more person ‘Your Majesty’s’ me in the next five minutes I’m going to run them through,” he muttered. “But you’ll go, Zevran?”
“Of course. And I’ll do it for… half my usual fee. For the memories, you understand.” The elf winked. “For a kiss, I’ll cut it down another quarter. Money is tight, yes?”
“Sorry, my kisses are spoken for,” Alistair fumbled, as Eamon sighed in the background. “Submit your expenses to the seneschal. He’ll see you get paid.”
“Done!” Zevran swung his legs down from the desk. “I will keep you posted on any… developments.” The elf fluttered his fingers at him as he departed with a wink. “And I’ll be sure to greet your Lady appropriately.”
“Do you trust him, Your Majesty?” Eamon proved his simile with the blunt words.
Alistair pinned his erstwhile guardian with a look – hopefully one that shouted ‘regal’ rather than ‘bratty’. “Rather more than you, if I’m being honest.” Eamon pressed his lips together. “Isolde can talk you into anything, and you know it. Hello, blood mage tutor? Hello, sending the king’s son to the Chantry?” He allowed himself a laugh, “She has the worst ideas. You must realize that now.”
At least Eamon didn’t bother defending himself. “What about trusting him with the… reputation of your intended?”
Alistair snorted, “If he tries anything, she’ll geld him herself.” That seemed to impress Eamon, the man’s eyebrows raised significantly. “Besides, she’s already turned him down at least twice. Zevran… keeps himself busy, but he can take a hint, when his parts are on the line.” He turned back toward the Desk of Doing, as he’d been calling it in his own head lately. “On to other business? Have you heard from Teagan or Connor? How is the rebuilding at Redcliffe going? Has the new windmill been completed?”
Chapter 4: Subterfuge and Spycraft
Elissa’s next letter didn’t arrive for another month, and what it contained made him blanch.
My King, my Alistair, My Cheesy,
Well, that was bracing! It’s not every day a girl gets to go into the Fade, find Justice, rescue a whole village from death, and defeat a blood mage and the ghost of a dragon!
Unfortunately, the Warden I was searching for had died, but… at least I have Justice to take some of the pressure off. Makes it a little easier to put the puzzle pieces together, and he’s brilliant in a fight.
Alistair had to read it twice before he realized. “She’s talking about a literal spirit of Justice, isn’t she?” He asked Wulfy, in a resigned voice. “Maker, Elissa, what will you recruit into the Order next – nugs?” Wulfy grunted. “No, that’s a terrible idea. Can you imagine a nug with the Calling? Ew.”
That said, I’m not having much luck finding out much information about the assassination plot. I have a single lead – a Wolfson in Amaranthine - but we’ve been so busy in the surrounding villages fighting darkspawn that I haven’t had a minute to track him down. Don’t worry though – I’ll get to it. Just… my people take priority over my life. I couldn’t face them as a Warden Commander or their queen or even their Arlessa if I didn’t try.
Speaking of darkspawn - we need a better early warning system. Any ideas, oh, brilliant sovereign?
I’m going to head into the Winding Wood soon – there’s a problem with caravans, apparently, and I need to make sure it isn’t darkspawn related. If we can’t guarantee the safety of trade caravans, we will have problems, won’t we?
I’m very tempted to write and ask you for money, love. The fortress doors into the Deep Roads need repairing in the worst way, and funds are always short.
Alistair blinked twice. “Wulfy, is she trying to tell me that Howe’s Keep literally opens into the Deep Roads? How in Thedas did he get away with that?” He frowned, “I never heard of the Howe’s having any connection to the Grey Wardens – but perhaps… perhaps I should poke about a bit.” He grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled himself a reminder. “Surely that sort of access isn’t common, though?”
Ser Wulfred woofed noncommittally.
“Well, you’re no help,” Alistair frowned, before picking back up the letter and continuing.
Perhaps this is why Weisshaupt sent a treasurer… to keep me focused on the necessities. I cannot believe how expensive arrows have gotten since the Blight – trying to keep Nathaniel in arrows is running me into the poorhouse. He’s probably too old to start training with daggers, though.
Don’t tell him I said that. He’s three years older than me, and a bit sensitive.
Anders (the mage I spoke of before) is turning out to be most useful. He’s a healer. It’s almost like old times – or one of Oghren’s bad jokes. A mage, a rogue, and two warriors walk into a bar…
Don’t be jealous, Cheesy. Justice could never replace my King. Someone has to spring the traps, you know.
Speaking of healers, I got a letter from Wynne. She’s going to be in Amaranthine soon, before she leaves for Tevinter. Can you believe she’s going to the Imperium? I’m hoping to meet her there before she leaves. Perhaps she’ll have made you some new socks! I’ll forward them immediately, if so.
“She’s so thoughtful,” Alistair murmured to himself. “I should let her know that I have enough socks for once. I probably have enough socks to supply an army. Such riches!” He raised an eyebrow at the Mabari at his feet. “I daresay I even have enough to give you a few to chew on. Interested?”
Wulfy flicked his ears up, and sat up.
“As soon as I finish here, then,” Alistair grinned at the dog, relieved that the bribe meant he wouldn’t still be moping about Elissa leaving him behind. “And maybe I’ll ask Cook for a beef bone, too. We could both use a treat, hmmm? I bet there’s cheese.”
The dog barked, enthusiastically, and Alistair turned back to the letter.
Still on the lookout for recruits. Oghren is going home with Felsi and Nugget. I can’t recruit a family man. I can’t – especially since I suspect this whole thing started because of a sexual fantasy, of all the damn things. I don’t suppose you could give him his old job back? We have to do something – they have a baby to think of.
“No problem at all, my dear,” he murmured. “Oghren was excellent, and there have been complaints about his departure.” Of course, the captains had also professed their relief about the smell – but Oghren smelled much better now that Felsi had a hand in how often he bathed.
Nugget is very sweet. Do you think we’ll ever – but it’s probably best not to think such things.
No word from Morrigan, I imagine. Of course not. Nevermind. But maybe you’ve heard from Leliana?
I’m hearing wonderful things about you from the messengers who come through with my mail. It seems the King is rebuilding villages, kissing babies, taking down bandits, and giving slavers what-for. You never tell me anything like that in your letters. Still they get better all the time - such creativity! I’ll be home soon, love, and I expect a full demonstration.
I’ll write again, as soon as I can. It might be a few weeks. We’ll be sleeping rough while we deal with the Wood.
But in the meantime, I am happy to report that the creep factor is significantly improved in the Blackmarsh, and as King of Ferelden, you could see if anyone is interested in trying to a build a life there again. Amazing how a blood mage necromancer drives down property values in a neighborhood. With her gone, it’s almost… pleasant. Good fishing in the lake, too. Nathaniel and I had a go and caught six! Even Anders was full that night. Usually that man is a bottomless pit – he puts our Warden appetites to shame.
Yours, With Love,
A disappearing village? A whole village had disappeared, and no one had told him about it? “Eamon!” He yelled at the top of his lungs. “What is this nonsense about an entire village disappearing? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“What?” Eamon shoved his head into his office, impatient. The older man had been increasingly curmudgeonly lately. “What are you talking about?”
“The Blackmarsh,” Alistair waved the letter towards the man, but snatched it back before he could focus on the letters. “Uh, uh, you don’t get to read my private mail, Eamon. The naughty bits are for my eyes only.” He folded it up carefully, wishing there were more naughty bits. He’d have to hint to Elissa that creativity worked both ways. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“That village was abandoned ages ago,” Eamon spoke slowly, as if to a child, and Alistair’s eyes narrowed at the possible condescension. “It’s been years and years since anyone lived there. Before your father took the throne, Alistair. It’s well known to be haunted.”
“Elissa says that she took care of the issue – a small thing involving a maleficar taking the entire village and tucking them away in the Fade,” Alistair sniffed, as if it were a minor matter instead of a miracle, and tucked the letter into a drawer, locking it carefully. “It’s not darkspawn, but her business took her in that direction, and thought she’d do us a favor.” His eyes softened. “She’s so thoughtful – killing undead creepy things for me? She shouldn’t have. But perhaps… we could see if there are any heirs to inform? Some relatives must remain among the living?” He tapped his desk thoughtfully. “Is there any news from Zevran?”
“Yes,” Eamon admitted. “He’s waiting to see you.”
“You kept him waiting?” Alistair groaned, “Eamon-”
“He’s a Crow. You didn’t tell me that when you invited him to stay as a beloved compatriot of the Blight!”
“He would be so touched to hear you say that.”
Eamon slammed his fist down on his desk. “You don’t just invite lethal trained assassins to stay in the Palace, Alistair! You don’t honor them with banquets and give them the ear of the sovereign.”
“Not that it matters, but he’s a former Crow, Eamon. And I trust him with my life.” Alistair waved him out, feeling quite regal indeed. “Show him in, and you can take your leave.”
Eamon removed himself, looking grumpier than ever, and Zevran entered, just to perch himself on the side of the Desk of Doing. “Your Majesty! My Friend! I have news! Unfortunately, there was no way to get such delicate information to your betrothed… she is never home!” Zevran tutted. “I don’t suppose you could… but no, I have no doubt your correspondence is being watched.”
Alistair’s ears turned pink. “It is?”
“Most certainly,” the elf purred. “Your last three letters had all been opened at least thrice – not counting me, of course. The process leaves residual wax upon the parchment when it pools, and the edges of the seals didn’t overlap properly. Your enemies’ spies need taking to task for such sloppy work, but that’s another matter,” he tutted, “I have excellent news, and a solution to your beloved’s problem. You need to travel into Amaranthine.”
Alistair snorted, taking in his overflowing desk and the surrounding area. “Ha ha, very funny, Zevran. In that case, I’ll just pack up all this ruling stuff and be gone in an hour.”
“Oh, my sweetest King,” Zevran sighed, “have you no imagination? But the messenger must be you. Here is my plan – you are ill – contagious even – we can bribe the physician, and the apothecary. You shut yourself away from the court – you wouldn’t want to infect them with your temporary disease. And then, you slip out your window, to where I wait, breathless, for your company. From there, you ride, incognito – I’ll provide the disguise – for Amaranthine. There, you will remain hidden, except from your true love. This Wolfson – he was in on the plot. I had to kill him. But I have his information, and knowledge of his appointment with the Warden.” The assassin looked at his fingers, spreading them to see the nails, polished and refined like the rest of the elf. “Your love gets her information, keeps her appointment, and the King of Ferelden remains unbiased in Warden matters. A perfect outcome.”
“So… I become Wolfson? Why not you?” Alistair despaired. “I have a million things to do!”
“Because I was seen with him,” Zevran’s nose twitched. “And there was a small matter about a young lady, who turned out to be someone’s wife. Unfortunately, it seems I should not return to Amaranthine... unless you can provide me with a pardon.”
“You didn’t kill someone’s husband, did you?”
“…No?” Zevran frowned, “I can’t be sure. I kill a lot of people, and I don't ask if any of them are married first.”
“Never mind, I don’t want to know.” Alistair rubbed his eyes. “When is Elissa supposed to meet this Wolfson?”
“In nine days.” Zevran beamed. “I knew you would come around. Two days to prove your illness to Eamon, and then another two for travel. Then we establish your presence as Wolfson, and…”
“And park me to wait for Elissa, who may not have the money.”
“Oh, she will have the money. That money is going to pay my fee.” Zevran chuckled. “It is perfect. You get to help her, she gets to help you, and you get to lay with your fiancée outside the hearing range of Eamon. A nice man, but a bit stuffy. You will make her squeal for me, yes?”
“Always,” Alistair replied absently, ignoring Zevran’s vocal delight. “There’s only one problem – I’m not sick. Not even a sniffle. Haven’t been for years.”
“One step ahead of you, my friend.” The assassin lifted a small bottle. “How much do you trust me?”
Chapter 5: Naughtiness and Not-Quite-Introductions
A long chapter, to make up for the lack of posting around the holidays.
Amaranthine was dry, unlike most of the Northern Coast, and it therefore recommended itself to Alistair.
It had taken three days – and more gold than he wanted to think about - for the entire Commission on the King’s Health to convince Eamon that he needed rest and quarantine more than bloodletting and purging, but they’d still made the city in plenty of time. Zevran faded away into the shadowy corners he was most suited to immediately upon arrival – and avoiding the Guard Captain who looked a little too aware for his own good. The inn he’d booked himself into under an alibi was mostly clean – and vastly better than most of the accommodations they’d been subjected to under the Blight. The barmaids were a little too friendly, but he just redirected them to another customer, one who, presumably, didn’t have a fiancée that would geld him if he were tempted.
He would see her this afternoon, out by the gates, and he decided to go out early, and wait. Elissa preferred earliness, and he’d never known her to be anything less than prompt.
He waited for hours. His beard itched, and he scratched it, absentmindedly, as he watched a pair of children bicker over a wheeled horse. Back home, Eamon would have realized his ruse by now. But he couldn’t help that. When he saw her –
And then he did, and his breath stopped.
She always had that effect on him. “El – I mean, Warden Commander,” he greeted her, eyes widening slightly. She would recognize, him, right? I mean, it was only a beard… and an obviously fake one at that.
She frowned, but her grey eyes twinkling. “Wolfson, I presume? You have information for me?”
“Do you have the money?”
She shifted subtly, so that her weight adjusted to her other leg. She’d found herself some new armor – something that made her look like she could battle the entire Palace Guard and seduce him at the end of it. Overall, he approved – it was a good look on her – and something to consider later, if they could find enough Guards to play along. “I thought maybe… we could work out another arrangement?”
Alistair nearly choked. “Um, if the information isn’t worth it…” She did recognize him, right? She didn’t go around flirting with random information brokers behind his back, did she?
She pouted. “I have your money… Wolfson. But don’t you think it’s a trifle public to be talking assassination, here in the streets? Couldn’t we take this somewhere more… private?” She raised her eyebrow, mocking him. “Perhaps somewhere with… cheese? You look like a man who appreciates a good cheese.”
Alistair relaxed immediately, and glanced around them, but they were just a mercenary and a warrior woman in exceptional armor, discussing business at the gates. “I… I suppose I could invite you to my private room, back at the inn…”
She gasped, “Sir, are you propositioning me?” And winked. “Very well, lead the way… Wolfson.”
Alistair’s head spun, as she followed him, nodding to the man behind the counter and the barmaid as if she was a regular.
She probably was. For all that she’d only been drunk once that he knew of, and that for excellent reasons, she was a frequent patron of taverns for the information they provided.
A few ribald comments followed them up the stairs to his modestly appointed room – at least one of them from a barmaid with her nose out of joint. Elissa barely glanced around her before she slammed the door shut with her foot, and threw herself at him.
He landed on the bed with her propped up over him, keeping the armor weight off him. “Is it real?” She asked, breathily, touching his whiskers gently.
“Uh, no. Spirit gum and horsehair,” Alistair muttered. “Zevran made it for me.”
She frowned. “You should think about growing yours out. It suits you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Alistair stared up at her, a million conversation topics whirring through his head. “Are you going to let me up?”
She smirked and climbed off him. “So – Wolfson, was it?” She was breathing heavy. “You know who I am…”
“Is that a trick question?” Her raised eyebrow made Alistair choke again. “Sorry. You’re the Warden Commander, of course.”
“That’s right,” she began to remove her armor, slowly, piece by piece, as if shy, not looking him in the eye. “I’m a very grateful Warden Commander, to anyone who can give me information.”
“Anyone?” She rolled her eyes at him. “Oh. Sorry. Um, that’s… me?” His brain stuttered, as she removed the breastplate, revealing her gambeson, pulled over her head in the next minute, leaving her in only her transparent undertunic. “Elissa, is this…”
“Shush,” she whispered, putting her fingers over his mouth, and climbing back on his lap. “I’m the Warden Commander, Cheesy. If you want to play, anyway?” She tilted her head slightly, and waggled her eyebrows. “Strangers meeting by chance, ending in a night of lust in a seedy tavern. They both need something from each other – and it’s not information or money. It sounds like a Tethras novel, doesn’t it?”
He swallowed, hard, but finally understanding. “Yes, Warden Commander. I have your… information. But I’ll need something – in exchange.”
Her eyes lit up, and then her eyelids fell, demure. “You can have anything, Wolfson. My very life is at stake.”
“What of your King?” Alistair challenged brazenly.
“What good am I to him if I’m dead?” She lifted her eyes to his. “He’s not here...”
“And we are. And I’m sure you’ve been very lonely,” Alistair breathed, and lifted the transparent tunic off and over her head, trailing his fingers over her hot skin. “Very well, then.” His voice broke again and he cleared it impatiently. “How grateful are you?”
She laughed, light, and settled on the ground before him. “Very grateful?”
She had him out of his trousers in the next minute, licking her lips at his half-mast member as if it was something to savor, and then she was around him, and his head had gone dizzy. “Maker’s Breath, Elissa.”
She popped off him, pouting. “Warden Commander.”
“Right, my bad.” She stroked him again, and swallowed him down.
Her hands were hot, burning against his cooler skin when he had to stop her, to drop back into the seedy information broker he was supposed to be. “That will do,” his cheeks flushed from her exertions. “I… Have another use for that mouth of yours, Warden Commander.”
“Oh?” She rose, loosening her the rest of her armor, and peeling off her leggings. “And what would that be.”
His mouth captured hers in a hungry kiss that swallowed her surprise. Their tongues jousted in a frustrated battle, and he tasted himself on her lips. Groaning, he broke away, as she threw off his tunic and yanked at his pants. Elissa shoved him at the bed, and crawled over him, eyes like a feral Mabari as she settled on his cock, hissing as she hilted him fully. “Shit,” she gasped. “Maker, can you feel how tight…” she shivered, and he cupped her buttocks, shifting her forward so that she would cry out. “Been too long.”
“Your King must not care for you properly,” he growled. “I wouldn’t be able to keep myself away, if you were mine.” He thrust up, deliberately, as she met him halfway – after all their months together she could anticipate his movements, even off the battlefield. “I’d be plowing you every night, every morning, until your belly swelled with my seed.”
Elissa cried out, again, desperate, wordless.
“Oh, you like that.” She attacked his smirking mouth, wild, slamming down without her previous measured control. “You want me to fill you. Would you tell the King you were carrying his child?”
She shook – so close.
The heat rose in his own gut, burning for release. “Now then, Warden Commander, I want you to serve me.” He gripped her hips and ground her against him, once, twice, faster and faster until her release washed over him, tightening as he thickened.
“Always, my King,” she gasped.
“Such service should be rewarded,” he managed, and pinched her clit, sending her over the edge again, tits thrust in his face as she continued to ride, muscled hips slapping against his own thighs. Her fingers traced his abdomen, her mouth gaping wide and pink as she sucked air into her lungs. She leaned over him, cupping the back of his neck, tangling her fingers in his hair.
And he came, with a groan loud enough for the entire tavern to hear.
Elissa began to laugh, rolling off him. “You never cease to surprise me, Cheesy.” She shoved at his shoulder. “And you’re still blushing. You don’t get to blush after that, my love.” She curled in his arms, running her hands over his collarbone.
“I try, my dear. Have you keep you interested, after all.” Alistair trailed out-of-character kisses up her neck and down her torso.
“Do I really have to pay you?” She asked grumpily. “I wasn’t joking about how tight funds are.”
“Um, yes. Sorry about that. It’s the ruse, you see.”
“That’s Wolfson, for now. Warden Commander, I have to pay an assassin with that money. Wolfson was in on the plot.”
“Shit,” she cursed, and sat up. “Zevran’s fleecing you? I’m going to kill that seedy elf…”
“Zevran’s saving your majestic ass,” he corrected, and pulled her back down around her waist. “As am I. I have the information. It’s Whatshisname behind the whole thing. With Lady Whatsit participating wholeheartedly.”
She snorted, “Oh yes, crystal clear. I can see why you had to deliver such delicate information yourself.” She ran her hand down his torso, and tucked her head back into the circle of his arm. “I can’t stay, you know. It’s just one night.”
“And here I thought we had something, Warden Commander,” he chided, teasing, but his face sober. “I know, my dragon.”
The endearment broke her. “Cheesy- I’ve missed you. Maker – I can’t even tell you how much.”
“Shhh,” it was his turn to cover her mouth. “I’m Wolfson. ‘Twould never do for the King of Ferelden to end up in second rate inn with his betrothed before their wedding. Think of her reputation. Eamon would have her exiled for ruining the King’s chastity. Think of all those years in the Chantry, wasted.”
Her face melted, and she pulled him tighter. “It won’t be long now. But you should send more troops to Amaranthine. I need the men to protect the town. The darkspawn – they’re planning something.”
“Darkspawn don’t plot. They don’t use tactics.”
“These do. And they talk. I’ve already made inquiries to Weisshaupt, but… protect our people, love.” She touched his face, where it felt like the beard was beginning to fall apart. “Promise me you’ll think about the beard. It looks handsome.”
“I will,” he stroked her skin some more, trying to fill his empty hands with her warmth, and nuzzled her neck, breathing her in. “I didn’t realize how hard it would be to have you gone.”
“Me, either,” she breathed. “I think of you constantly.” She nuzzled his neck. “How you’d look. What you would say. How you’d hold me…”
Someone rapped on the door, hard. “Warden Commander? Are you in there?” It was an educated voice, light and melodic. “The waitress says you came in here hours ago.”
“Yes, Anders!” She called out, leaving his arms, and pulling on her trousers over her bare arse, and shrugging into her tunic. “Just… having a bit of a lie down.”
“A lie down?” Anders giggled. “Is that what they’re calling it now? Should I wait downstairs?”
“Please,” her voice was strangled, and Alistair stifled his own laughter, as she sat down to lace her boots. “And don’t tell anyone!”
“Too late,” a noble, complaining sort of voice instructed. “We’re all here, Warden Commander.”
“Shit,” she hissed. “Go downstairs, Howe! Now. You, too, Sigrun!”
“Sigrun?” Alistair broke his silence. “Who’s Sigrun?”
“Um… a dwarven recruit, former Legion of the Dead,” Elissa flushed. “She’s excellent with daggers. We needed her skill set in the worst way.”
“He’s still in there with you?” Anders sounded delighted. “That’s stamina! Expected of you, milady, but… I’ve yet to meet someone who can keep up with me now that I’ve been through the Joining… Can I meet such a-”
“NO!” Elissa gripped the bed beneath her. “No, you can’t.”
“I want to meet them,” Alistair whined.
“And if they recognize you?” Elissa shot a glance back at him, and then melted. “Wolfson – it’s going to get back to the King. The rumors…”
“Oh,” he colored. “I see your point.” He cleared his throat. “Perhaps I should… cover myself?”
She glanced at his body with regret. Alistair couldn’t resist flexing a little, to make her sigh. “Yes, I would say so. And perhaps…” She reached over and smoothed his beard. “Don’t stay in Amaranthine, Your Majesty. I will be fine, I promise.” She hugged him and repeated. “I’ll be fine. Promise.”
“Your Majesty?” A new voice crowed. “Warden Commander… do you have the King in there? Wow!”
“Sigrun! Please!” Elissa covered her face. “It’s not what it looks – er, sounds like.”
“That explains the stamina,” Howe said gravely. “Your Majesty, I ask for your forbearance. I will… remove my companions, and endeavor to keep them quiet with a mug of ale.”
“The cheap stuff,” Elissa ordered. “You know how broke I am. I’ll be down… shortly. Talk to no one. I can’t take you lot anywhere.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Anders cackled. “It’s nice to almost meet you – Wolfson.”
“Likewise,” Alistair chuckled. The footsteps retreated, and he sighed, and wrapped his arms around her from the back. “They seem nice.”
“They’re great,” she grumbled, sitting back down on the bed. “Except when they’re acting like children.”
“Business as usual, then,” Alistair kissed her neck gently, and she shivered. “Go on, then. Armor on, milady Cousland. Time to be the Warden Commander. I’ll pay off your tab with the innkeeper.”
“What about your money?”
“I’ll make it right with Zevran. Can’t have the only Grey Wardens in Ferelden drinking cheap ale.” He pretended to think. “Perhaps I could knight him? Ser Zev?”
“On a scale of one to ten how much would that piss off Eamon?”
“At least an eight. Zevran is an elf and an assassin. He might be a hero of the Blight, but that only goes so far.”
“Do it.” She kissed his cheek, and finished strapping on her breastplate. “The offer is worth something anyway. And then pay him when he refuses. Tell Fergus I need my dowry, if it gets too bad. Believe me, I’ve considered it.”
Alistair, still bare, scrambled around to find the letter. “And this is what you… er… paid for, my dear. Information on Lord Whathisname and Lady Whatsit.”
“Thank you,” she tucked the page under her arm, and touched his cheek. “Be careful.”
“Me?” Alistair shook his head. “Someone has to spring the traps, remember?” Her exasperated sigh was music to his ears.
But never had a door shutting ever seemed so loud.
He left the city an hour later, to meet Zevran at the hanged man’s house right outside of town. “Did you get what you came for?”
“Yes,” Alistair glanced back at the gates, and saw Elissa standing next to the Guard Captain, watching him go. “Yes, and my contact did as well. And more.”
“Excellent. Did you take my advice with the fingers and the twisting?”
Alistair just shook his head, and kicked his horse ahead. “Come on. Back to Denerim. And you know, that other thing.”
“No. I brought that. Just in case things went south. I’m talking about the throne. It was too heavy to carry. And I can carry a lot.”
Chapter 6: Various Wastes of Time and Wintersend
“Your behavior is childish and juvenile.”
The smell of leather and books, mixed with his uncle’s voice and cologne took him back to Redcliffe, and the day he had shattered his mother’s amulet. Eamon had used the same tone back then, but their positions were reversed now, with him behind the Desk of Doing, ever so busy and important. “I thought you were educated too well to be redundant,” He didn’t look up from his work. “And you lost your chance to scold me when you gave me to the Chantry at ten years of age, Uncle.” He didn’t bother to leech any of his pain out of his voice. It shouldn’t have still hurt so much – but it did.
“That’s ‘Your Majesty’.” He still didn’t look up from the paperwork. “It’s disgraceful how easy it is to forget the title when you’re upset with me.”
“Your Majesty, you can’t continue to leave the Palace every time you think your betrothed needs assistance. She’s the Hero of the Fifth Blight – surely she can take care of herself?”
“Oh, really?” He did look up then, “Funny, I thought I was King, not you?”
“You are, of course.” This said through clenched teeth.
“Then let me King my way.” He sorted through the next round of papers, finding assorted colored envelopes, a potpourri of mixed scents hitting him in the face like Sten’s Asala. “Ugh, get rid of these… they’re making me sick.” He held them out.
Eamon breathed through his mouth. “I’m afraid I cannot. Isolde is planning a ball. For Wintersend. Those are the RSVPs. You need to familiarize yourself with the guest list.”
“No, thank you. I plan on keeping the season quietly this year, in meditation and solitude. Perhaps I’ll take Wulfy out for a walk and contemplate the true meaning of life. We could visit the Chantry, and listen to the Revered Mother speak of life renewed...”
“It’s tradition,” Eamon chastised. “And these are… eligible young women.”
“Even less interested, Eamon. You were there - I’m engaged. It wouldn’t do to raise hopes just to have Elissa smash them into a wall upon her return. Delicate things, hopes. They wouldn’t hold up to my dragon.”
“Alistair, there are darkspawn, and your… lady is a Grey Warden Commander.”
“As am I.”
“That is debatable. Things happen.”
“And I have been present for many of those things. Enough that, as you say, I know she can take care of herself.”
“You must be King first, Your Majesty. And the country needs an heir.”
“We’re… working on it.”
“Hmmm,” Eamon stared at him for a minute. “I’m going to let that go, given the circumstances. This is not a Blight, Alistair. Your country needs their King. They need you.” He took a deep breath, “Which is why Isolde has arranged for several young ladies to attend the Wintersend Ball. If your betrothed should fall in battle, you need to prepare yourself for the eventuality of taking another bride.”
“That’s ‘Your Majesty’.” Alistair’s fingers tightened around his pen. “And I will not court my second wife before I marry the first. I hope our guests have a lovely time, but I want nothing to do with any ‘ladies’ Isolde has picked out. If I’m forced to attend, tell the caterers to triple stock the cheese tray, as I will be haunting it all evening.”
Someone knocked on the door, “Enter!” Alistair and Eamon called out in sync, and he glared at the rueful Arl before him.
A messenger poked his head through, “Your Majesty, I have a letter here from Amaranthine.” The messenger’s eyes tracked to Eamon, and he flushed. Alistair held out his hand.
“Give it here.” The messenger stepped around Eamon gently, and laid it in his hand. “That will be all.”
Alistair waited until the door was shut before asking, “Eamon, how many of the letters have you been reading?”
“You haven’t been telling me everything.”
“It’s my private mail.”
“Royalty doesn’t get privacy, Your Majesty. The good of the kingdom must come before…”
“Get out of here,” Alistair was proud that he kept his voice so even. “I need not to see you for a while. And after this, if I even suspect that you are doing anything of the sort, I will see you exiled. I’m sure that someone in the Free Marches will be happy to see you and your charming wife.”
Eamon bowed, and left without a word, and Alistair leaned back in his chair, staring at the letter.
“Oh, Elissa,” he muttered, “Like I thought, I’m making a hash of this.” The letter shook in his hands. “Maybe this will tell me you’re coming home soon?” He grabbed his dagger and ripped it open, partially tearing the letter inside. He smoothed the ragged edges out with his thumb before reading.
I’ll be out of touch for a while – I have to go back into the Deep Roads, to look for something I can’t explain. It’s a theory so impossible – but it explains the talking darkspawn.
I have to look for a new recruit’s sister – I don’t think I’ll make her a Warden, but she’s invaluable as a mage. You can’t believe the things she can do with roots and vines. I’m glad she’s on our side now. Oh! And I’ve solved the little problem with caravans in the Wending Wood. Trade should pick up now – let the Merchant’s Guild know?
Howe seems rather taken with her – but I hope he doesn’t start anything. I have a wealth of understanding and pity for Wynne and Sten, for putting up with you and I flirting our way across Ferelden after the last few months.
Try not to worry for me, Cheesy. I’ll be fine – it’s just going underground for a while. Piece of cheesecake, right? Been there, done that, have the armor.
That day in Amaranthine was magical. Let’s play again, soon?
“No such luck,” Alistair sighed, and tucked the letter into his tunic, against his heart. At least she was still alive.
The ball was a level of tediousness that Alistair had never before experienced. Even the celebrations after the archdemon was slain hadn’t reached this level of horror. Those parties had been combined with their engagement ball. And at the Coronation Ball, Elissa was there to keep him company – and had done an excellent job at keeping the many feminine predators away from him. He’d danced – poorly – with several of the older matrons, while Elissa fended off his admirers and her own in every direction. He’d enjoyed himself as well as could be expected, given that they tried to set him up with daughters and granddaughters and nieces.
Those parties had been genteel, and courteous. This… this was a free for all.
Zevran had spiked the punch. There had already been a fistfight from two of the minor Arls who challenged each other over a question of livestock. In his attempt to remove himself from their argument, he had discovered two of the ladies Isolde had recruited for the occasion curved around each other in one of the little curtained alcoves with benches. Unsure of the manners involved with such a rude interruption, he had congratulated them politely, bowed, and walked away, pulling the curtain shut.
Only to be cornered by a certain Lady Isobel, only identifiable from the description Eamon had given him, all fluttering lashes and figurative hidden daggers. “I understand that Arlessa Cousland is unable to attend this evening?” The woman had run her hand down his chest. “How lonely you must be, Your Majesty.”
“Quite,” Alistair tried to walk through her. “Excuse me, I must see to my guests.”
The woman had the audacity to back him into a corner. “The rumor is that she’s in over her head. That she won’t be coming back to the Palace. I heard that she’d taken a lover in Amaranthine. A… Wolfson – an information broker, I understand?”
Alistair coughed, “Ah, yes, a misunderstanding. She told me all about the situation. On the contrary, your future Queen is as-” he searched for an appropriate phrase, “Chaste as ever.”
The woman smirked, “I’m sure she is.” Her smile was the stuff of snakes – the bitey kind. “Tell me, Your Majesty – between her duties with the Wardens and Amaranthine – do you think she’ll often be in court?”
“I expect her as soon as the situation in the North has been settled. When she does, we will make a formal announcement of our intentions and set the happy day,” Alistair assured her. “I’ll be sure to tell her you inquired as to her workload. I’m sure she’ll be touched by the concern.”
This seemed to make her pause, but the woman rallied. “In the meantime, Your Majesty, if you find yourself without… companionship, I will be staying in the city with my Grandmother for some time. She’s elderly, you know, quite deaf, and with my mother gone…” she sighed, “Home is lonely, with only my father for company. We could… comfort each other.” She batted her eyelashes, letting them fall to her cheeks in a feeble intent at innocence. “My intended died at Ostagar. A knight in your brother’s service. I miss him more than words can say..”
Alistair swallowed. “In that case,” he lifted his hand, and waved down a page. “My good man, please see Lady Isobel to her grandmother’s house. She’s quite overtaken by the season – she’s grieving both her mother and intended.”
“That’s not what-” The girl was surprisingly strong, digging in her heels even against the slippery tile floor as the servant attempted to steer her back to the entrance.
“Did I misunderstand?” Alistair blinked at her. “As you say, we are both grieving those lost at Ostagar. I would rather spend the Feastday remembering them, in solitude, and honoring their memory. I assumed, since we had so much in common, milady, that you felt the same.”
The woman sputtered, “I have no desire to leave the party.”
“Shame, then, as you will be doing just that,” Alistair bowed. “Excuse me, Lady Isobel. I have guests to see to, as I said before. I hope time eases your grief.” He strode away, nodding at the guards who were marching towards the shrieking woman he left behind. “See to that, will you? I believe she’s staying with her grandmother and needs an escort home.”
“Right away, Your Majesty.”
Alistair relocated himself to the dais, and sat on his throne, back straight and trying very hard to look interested in the music, in the dancing – but even the cheeseplate that a thoughtful servant brought to him didn’t spark his interest.
“Your Majesty,” another young lady curtseyed before him. She had excellent posture, wide shoulders, a delicate nose that had been broken at least once, and freckles that she didn’t try to hide with powder. She looked like a real person. He’d have to try to be polite… “You look… diverted.” Her mouth twitched.
“It’s a wonderful party, isn’t it?” He replied automatically. “The staff has outdone themselves.”
“Forgive me for finding it as dull as iron daggers, then, and my apologies to the staff,” the woman laughed, and he jerked, looking at her again. “I’m Ser Regina, Your Majesty. I apologize for my forwardness.”
“I’m engaged, you know,” Alistair rose, intending to leave. “As well as excessively fatigued that the women here think they can have me with a giggle and a flirty fan. I don’t wish to be rude, Ser Regina, but-”
“I’m not interested in men,” the woman blurted out, with her hand extended to stop his forward progress. Her freckles were now fading in comparison with the red of her cheeks. Alistair frowned, “And yet… my aunt insisted I should talk to you. She’s a good sort – apparently you danced with her at your coronation? Nice of you – uncle doesn’t take her out much. He’s such a homebody.” The relief must have shown on his face, because she laughed. “Exactly. I think we can help each other. Perhaps we can find something to talk about?” She nodded at the blade at his hip. “Is that the Hero of Ferelden’s sword? I’ve never seen it’s like.”
“It is.” Alistair beamed, and stepped down to hold out his hand. She shook it, instead of making him kiss it. Better and better. “She gave it to me, before she left. It’s called Starfang.”
“What a lovely gesture,” her eyes shone with some deep-seated grief. “My own weapon isn’t as fine, but they serve me well.” She shifted uncomfortably. “I prefer a great-axe, myself. Auntie wouldn’t let me bring it to the ball. It would have kept the lordlings from grabbing my ass, if she had.”
“Ah, a ‘smash-em-once-over-the-head’ and never let them get up again, eh?” Alistair nodded, impressed. “I imagine you do well enough. Could have used you, during the Blight.” That explained the broad shoulders under her ballgown, then.
The woman rolled her eyes. “I begged father to let me go to Ostagar. He refused.”
“Just as well, considering.”
“Yes, well, I had a… partner, there, who never made it out.” A shadow fell over her face. “I’m sorry. I… it’s been a hard season for me.”
“I lost my mentor and my brother that day,” Alistair said gently. “I do not begrudge you your grief.”
The knight laughed, bitter. “Yes, well, my uncle wouldn’t approve. Berenice was… a part of Cailan’s private guard. Common-born, but she was recommended for the position by Anora herself.” She sniffed, “Probably knew that Cailan was chasing skirts in his spare time. Berry wouldn’t have given him the time of day.”
“I am sorry for your loss.”
“And I, yours.” She sighed and nodded out at the festivities. “How soon they all forget.” She wrapped her arms around her waist. “It’s hard not to despise them for it.”
“Not everyone has,” Alistair sighed. “But yes. Seems like they’re determined to, even while Elissa is out there fighting for us all. In the meantime, I’m forced to sit here and look pretty.”
Regina snorted, “No offense, but I’ve seen prettier.”
“None taken.” He hesitated, “It’s the crown, isn’t it? It crushes my hair.” She laughed again, and Alistair hesitated, “If you don’t mind me asking… why are you in Denerim, Ser?”
“I’m looking for a job,” she was frank. “I can’t stay in Father’s house any longer – he keeps wanting to marry me off, now that Berry’s gone. He respected our ‘arrangement’ as he called it, until she was formally declared dead, and now sees no point in not selling me off for his own ends. Fuck that.”
Alistair choked on his wine. “Um, quite. What kind of work are you looking for?”
“I was hoping you’d have a suggestion. Now that you’ve had to retire so many of Loghain’s men-”
“Retire. Makes it sound better than leaving them lying in alleyways and halls in pools of their own blood.”
She colored, “Yes, well – forgive me for being so bold, but I was hoping you might consider taking me on in the Guard.” She looked away. “I’m sorry, it’s presumptuous, I know. But – I need to do something. And the Guard – it feels like honoring Berry. We always intended to live here together. Our… relationship wouldn’t cause as much attention in a large place like Denerim, we thought.” She stared off into the distance.
“Report to the training grounds in the morning.” Alistair set down his cup firmly, and took a slice of cheese. “I’ll make sure that the Captain gives you a fair chance.” He hoped he was making the right choice – her lover had been one of Anora’s, but it was past time for him to make some changes in the Guard.
“Thank you, sire.” Her face lit up with delight.
He shook his head, “And here, you were doing so well.” He bit into the cheese. “You must feel at least as out of place here as I do – though you’re hiding it rather better. And… I could use eyes in the Guard. Still discovering who I can trust, you see.” Perhaps if he didn’t try to tiptoe around the issue, he’d be more successful making friends and influencing people.
“Your trust honors me, Your Majesty.” She bowed, and then accepted a cup of mead from a passing waiter.
Alistair lifted his cup again, “To Wintersend, and new beginnings?”
She lifted her own. “To new beginnings.” She grinned, “And to the party not being a total waste of time.” They tapped them together, and drank.
Chapter 7: Collusion and Conclusions
The next letter from Elissa was too long for her to be rejoicing in coming home, victorious.
I know, I want me to come home too. But I know who is behind the darkspawn uprising now. It’s a creature called the Architect. I’ve talked with him. He’s… trying to give the darkspawn control, to prevent them from being controlled by archdemons, or something.
It’s madness. It goes against everything that I thought the Grey Wardens stood for – and yet, he claims it’s to prevent future Blights. And he has Wardens volunteering to work with him.
I’m going to fight him soon – I have to stop him. I think he inadvertently started the Blight, with his misguided plans. I’m so confused – I wish you were here.
“Misguided?” Alistair sputtered. “A misguided darkspawn?” He frowned, “The Architect… now why does that sound so familiar?” He stood, however, staring at his Warden armor on its rack across the room – displayed like a trophy, polished and resplendent, despite the scratches and dents from the months of hard battles. He lowered his eyes to the letter once more.
I still don’t have enough Wardens for this – so I need you to strengthen your defenses in case I fail. Eamon will help – the bulk of the Redcliffe Knights are still in Denerim, correct? And you have the palace guard, and the local Templars. I expect them to strike at Amaranthine. If you could send a few there, to bolster the locals, I would greatly appreciate it. If it’s not Amaranthine, it will be Vigil’s Keep – remember the feint they used with Redcliffe, to take the focus off Denerim? I suspect this is much the same. Where are they most likely to strike – the city full of civilians, or the defended fortress? I know which I’d choose.
And now for the difficult part. If I fall in battle, you need to know several things:
One, that you are going to be the best King since Calenhad. I know it. You are a hard worker, compassionate, and wise. You’ll do wonderfully, Cheesy. I hope I’m there to see them build the statues of you. Riding a griffon, I think…
“Hmmm,” Alistair mused. “A griffon statue. They need one of those in Redcliffe. For her, obviously, not me. I mean, who builds a memorial to themselves, right?” Wulfy groaned. “Exactly. I’m glad you see it my way.”
Two, that the Deep Roads are connected under Vigil’s Keep. I told you before – but I think it’s likely that many of the older castles and keeps around Thedas are likely linked in this way. It makes sense for the extensive trade the dwarves were known for – and might explain why darkspawn emerge at such locations such as Redcliffe, or Lothering. These entrances must be investigated and secured, for the good of our country.
Three, that I will love you forever, and won’t hold it against you if you are forced to take another bride to have an heir. Mind you, Morrigan’s child would be the eldest – but finding her seems… unlikely if not impossible. That said, I want you to promise that you’ll try – you’ve always wanted a family, and even if there isn’t love, perhaps you can achieve respect. You loving someone else doesn’t cheapen what we had for each other, either. If it happens, I forbid you to feel guilty about it. I would be happy for you – even elated that you aren’t lonely. You’ve been by yourself for most of your life – you deserve companionship.
This letter has become sappier than I intended, but I have just one last thing – if I do fall, I’ve left final instructions for you and Fergus regarding my personal belongings in the Vault. Howe will deliver them personally – and if he falls, the task will fall to Sigrun.
You will ever be the only one, my love, my Cheesy.
Maker be with you, if you believe in that crap. I want to believe today, so that I feel like someone is watching over you. Hug Wulfy for me – he’s such a good boy.
I’m sorry, you’re both good boys.
Alistair folded the letter back up and locked it away in his drawer. “Well, that’s just nonsense,” he huffed. Wulfy’s ears perked up. “I’m a Warden, and I have a duty.” The dog sat up, and barked. “Once again, you’re exactly correct, Ser.” He stared at his armor across the room, daring it to defy him, and then, slowly, removed his crown from his head, and set it on the desk, resisting the impulse to attractively ruffle his hair. He strode for the bell pull, and rang it twice, deliberately, and had the pleasure to hear pounding footsteps thunder down the corridor.
“Get me the Captain of the Guard,” he ordered, still staring at his Warden armor. “We need to ride for Amaranthine. The darkspawn are planning an attack.” The page backed up a step. “Move!”
“This is insanity,” Eamon fumed, while Zevran leaned languidly against the stairs leading to the Palace doors. “You can’t possibly leave Denerim at a time like this. It’s Cailan all over again.”
“Except that I, unlike my unfortunate brother, have had the benefit of war experience outside of a textbook,” Alistair informed him. “I have also both seen and killed an archdemon. And I remain a Grey Warden, whatever you prefer to ignore.” He slung his bags on the back of the horse, adjusting them to fit the steed comfortably. The royal groom stood helplessly to one side, shoved out of the way in favor of him tending his own horse. Perhaps sleeping in a stable did have some benefits.
“Alistair, you are the King.”
“I am aware.” Alistair turned back to Eamon, “It’s funny, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. Might as well get some good out of our excellent library here, and it’s not like I’m sleeping well. Bad dreams, I’m sorry to say. I’ve learned all sorts of things. For example, did you know, Amaranthine is our oldest port, and a key center of trade with the Free Marches? You might say it’s important, strategically. Yes?” He drawled the last word, fishing for an answer.
“Of course it is. But the Warden Commander is the Arlessa of Amaranthine, she is responsible for the defense of…”
“Funny thing about betrothals,” Alistair projected over Eamon’s arguments. “They are commonly used to tie houses together, ensuring protection and alliances between Arldoms, insulating them from threats. Elissa is a Cousland, and I’ve taken the liberty of notifying Fergus that his sister may need assistance. What kind of fiancé would I be, if I just let her struggle on her own? I can’t help her defend Vigil’s Keep, because of that ‘non-interference’ policy, but Amaranthine? She’s a Fereldan Arlessa, and my betrothed. I am bound by our agreement to support and defend her lands, as well as the other way around.” He winked, “I read the small print, Eamon.”
“She isn’t, however,” Alistair beamed. “I think I’ve figured something out, stupid as I am. I think you arranged for her to become Arlessa, so that she’d have to choose between the Grey Wardens and Ferelden. Which is more important – innocents or the Keep?” He shrugged. “Why not both? I can ride, and bolster the city’s defenses, and she can concentrate on the Keep itself. A win-win situation, yes?”
“That would be the best outcome,” Eamon admitted.
“And we don’t lose a key port, only to waste money rebuilding it, while we’re already stretched thin.” Alistair finally turned and faced him. “Admit it, Uncle. I chose my bride well. She is a responsible and intelligent leader, despite her lack of social graces. I don’t need someone diplomatic and full of frippery. I need her – practical, and capable of slaying the monsters both figurative and literal – that plague this kingdom. Ferelden needs a warrior queen. Admit it – you were wrong.”
Eamon inclined his head, “You do make a powerful argument, Your Majesty.”
“Good, then we understand each other.” Alistair grinned. “Now, don’t let Isolde let any blood mages into the Palace, don’t read my personal mail while I’m gone, and try to keep those infernal women of the court out of my smallclothes drawer. I lost four pairs just last week alone. Any more and I’ll have to go without. The scandal!”
Eamon laughed, despite himself. “I will do my best.” Alistair held out his hand, and Eamon shook it. “Maker speed your way, Alistair.”
“And yours.” Alistair let go, and mounted the horse. “Come on, Wulfy. We have work to do.”
Chapter 8: Defend or Retreat
Having a rotten month, so I'm going to make myself happier by posting more of this story.
Alistair stood on the ramparts of Amaranthine, his cape whipping in the brisk sea air. His hair looked a fright, he had no doubt – but there were worse fates.
Such as being just a short ride from his lady, and still being unable to see her again. Such as being in charge of the defense of Ferelden's oldest port, outside of Denerim, knowing that they couldn't hold for long, without help. Help that was a long time arriving.
There hadn’t been a sign of darkspawn for the three days he’d been here, but they were coming. He could feel them. They were building up – waiting for something. It wouldn’t be long now.
The Amaranthine Captain of the Guard had let him into the city, and his troops – as few as they were – were camped just inside the city gates.
Elissa hadn’t responded to his hastily written letter. He feared the worst, even as he was trying not to think about it.
A messenger saluted to his left, and he turned away from the view of the roads. “Word from Vigil’s Keep, Your Majesty. It’s directed to the Commanding Officer, but... it's from the Warden Commander...”
He grabbed the missive out of the man’s hand, popping the wax with the griffon seal.
“Shall I wait for your reply?”
He ignored him, in favor of reading.
To the General in charge at Amaranthine,
Vigil’s Keep has been attacked by ground forces – and I don’t mean the sort that pop out of the ground. I mean a formal army of ground troops, led by the Architect. A direct offensive.
But that isn’t even the strangest thing. The darkspawn are fighting themselves. The Architect is trying to loosen the hold the Archdemon has on their race in general. I don’t know how to explain – but it’s the truth. You have to believe me.
In light of this, I am sending someone to help you defend Amaranthine. He will not make himself known to you – I don’t want to cause a scene. You may call him ‘the Messenger’, if you happen to run into him. Keep an eye out for a darkspawn fighting his own kind. That will be him. The leader of the other faction is ‘The Mother’. I don’t imagine you will see her, but I want you to be aware of her existence. If you see tentacles, run.
The darkspawn are coming. But so am I.
Warden Commander of Ferelden
Alistair cursed. “What on Thedas, Elissa?” He walked immediately to a nearby torch and burned the letter, flipping back to the rider once it was ashes. “Did you read that note?”
“No, Your Majesty!”
“Good,” his smile was tight, and felt dishonest. “Go get something to eat and report to the Captain of the Guard.” His shoulders felt tight under his armor and he shifted to adjust them as he stared back out towards the road. He tried to concentrate, but there were so many darkspawn just over the horizon…
There was no way he could sense just one, on his side or not.
And did he want to?
But Elissa had never lied, or misled him. If she thought this darkspawn Messenger was an ally… however temporary…
“Maker’s Breath, Elissa,” he muttered. “What have you gotten yourself into now?”
The attack came just after sundown, as he expected. Whatever these new sort of darkspawn thought, some of them were still subject to light sensitivity. Alistair was ready with torches and the reflected light of thousands of candles, and their shock lasted just long enough for him to signal the archers to fire their first volley into the stunned creatures’ eyes.
But the initial joy at first strike was short lived, the outerwalls soon broke, and the boiling oil used up before even a third of the enemy was down. He had few choices – let them have the city or…
The refugees that crowded the city had been gathered at the docks – loaded onto a ship and launched into the harbor. Darkspawn, to his knowledge, did not swim, and didn’t use boats. He’d done what he could to save his subjects. He was running out of time to choose his own fate.
That didn’t mean it felt like enough when the gates breached anyway. “Your Majesty! We have to get you to safety!” His general tugged at him. “Your boat…”
“I can’t leave,” Alistair snarled and jerked away. He wouldn't fail her like this.
“We’re losing this battle,” the general insisted. “You must retreat…”
Flashes of Cailan, overwhelmed and despairing, and then bloody and impaled on the rack at Ostagar invaded his memory, but he held firm. “We haven’t lost yet,” he turned, and ran down the stairs. “Tell the infantry to engage the enemy, and…” a lesson from the third Blight slithered into his head. “And prepare to set fire to the city.”
“WHAT?” The general stopped in his tracks.
“You heard me,” Alistair flipped back around, “If we burn the city, the darkspawn lose their prize. They won’t be able to march on Denerim with no base to fortify here. It’s a sacrifice, but we can rebuild Amaranthine.”
The general’s mouth worked wordlessly, forming unspoken protests.
“Do it!” Just then, in the distance, a horn blew, and Alistair’s head whipped back around. “It can’t be…” He ran back to the battlements, ripping a spyglass out of the lookout’s hand, and focused it.
The Griffon banner of the Grey Wardens. And at the head of the forces, Elissa, with her winged helm and two swords crossed on her back. The Rose’s Thorn, and his father’s. He smiled, wider.
There was hope. “My Lady Dragon to the rescue,” he breathed, lowering the glass.
“Your Majesty!” The general was tugging at him again - like one of the lapdogs the Orlesian ambassador favored. “You must retreat!”
“Oh, fine,” he huffed, and handed off the spyglass. “Reinforcements have arrived in any case.” He glanced back, knowing she couldn’t see him. “Don’t burn the city, after all, my good man. El – the Warden Commander has arrived. She’ll take care of all,” he waved his hand around generically, “this mess. And you… you’ll stay to help her.”
“Very good, Your Majesty. Just go!”
Alistair let himself be herded towards the harbor, and took his place on the rowboat, headed to an island where the larger ship waited to take him back to Denerim. His eyes fixed on the city, hating that he was so close, and yet so far from her side.
But if he’d stayed, she would never have forgiven him. Ferelden had to come first. She’d told him that. And most of the time, he agreed.
But he still couldn’t drag his eyes away.
It felt like a retreat, in more ways than one. “Maker be with her,” he demanded.
He hoped the Maker was listening.
Chapter 9: Good News and Bad
Second chapter of the day
The news of Elissa’s victory at Vigil’s Keep waited for him upon his disembarking on the Denerim docks, happy news in a scrap of scribbled paper, held in Eamon’s shaking hands. “And Amaranthine?” He smoothed the news and handed it back to his uncle.
“Early reports say that it stands,” the Arl admitted. “Teryn Cousland has sent troops to help protect it, I understand.”
“Nice of him,” Alistair grinned at his advisor. “Any other reports of the Warden Commander’s whereabouts?”
Eamon hesitated. “No, Sir. But there are a few… unopened letters for you, back at the Palace.” His mouth stretched tight. “I saw them placed in the vault.”
Alistair blinked, “You mean you listened to me?”
“I have no wish to be exiled, Your Majesty.”
He snorted, “Call me ‘Alistair’.”
“You cannot have it both ways, My King.” Eamon’s voice was dry. “But you were correct – I have been overstepping my authority. I – I apologize. It’s hard for me to remember that you aren’t the ten year old urchin covered in mud any longer.” He lifted his chin. “You should know, I’ve arranged for Teagan to take my place as Arl of Redcliffe.”
“Eamon!” Alistair stopped and turned back to his uncle. “You… that’s your home.”
“Not without Connor. It will pass to Teagan now.” He looked away. “Isolde can’t bear to go back, Your Majesty. And I… I have little desire to return as well. It’s better this way. Teagan is younger than I, and more fit. He defended the city honorably during the Blight from his own nephew. My mind is made up.”
“What about Rainesfere?”
“The lands are adjacent,” Eamon drooped. “He should, with a little help, be able to manage both. He might still marry – though so far he seems disinclined.”
Alistair reached out and held his uncle’s shoulder. “I respect your decision, Uncle. And… You are welcome here in Denerim. Although…” he hesitated. “I don’t suppose you’d stay at your own house, instead of the Palace? Especially after the wedding?”
“Isolde is already ordering new curtains,” Eamon admitted. “She has no desire to live under the same roof with Elissa.” He sighed, “It’s a shame they can’t get along.”
“Not really.” Alistair mused, as they approached the Palace gates. “I don’t want to live with Isolde either. If they liked each other, I’d have to be gracious.”
Eamon’s mouth twitched, almost imperceptibly. “Very well, Your Majesty. We will remove ourselves from your home forthwith.” He shrugged, “I preferred the old drapes, personally. But the woman will have her way.”
“Excellent.” Alistair marched up. “Now, fetch those letters and - would someone have me a bath drawn? I need food and about 40 hours sleep.”
His uncle left with a bow, laughing.
About thirty minutes later, Alistair propped himself up in a bed with an unholy amount of feather pillows, two letters from Elissa at his side, and Ser Wulfy stretched out and taking up more than his fair share.
Dearest of Kings,
Amaranthine is safe, thanks to you. I’m riding back to the Keep now. Thank you, Cheesy. I hated to ask, but… well, they are on the direct route to Denerim. You’re not stupid, love.
There’s so much I want to say, but I’m so tired. The last few weeks have been exhausting – in and out of the Deep Roads, meeting new and unusual darkspawn and killing them- mostly. I haven’t had much of a chance to get at the Architect yet – but it will happen. Don’t worry – despite my sparing of the Messenger, I still intend to kill the Architect for being a damn fool, if nothing else. We might have gone another age without a Blight, if it weren’t for his incessant tunneling.
You, however, have not escaped my wrath. You traveled to Amaranthine yourself, my King. Your General hemmed and hawed, skirting the issue, but I know you, Cheesy. You did, didn’t you?
I ought to turn you over my knee and spank you for putting yourself at risk. You don’t have an heir – and I know you don’t want Anora on the throne. I’m going to make you promise never to do it again. I’ll use any means necessary.
All my love,
Alistair felt his ears heat, as he addressed Ser Wulfred. “Well, she could do that anyway. I wouldn’t mind.”
The dog whimpered and covered his eyes with his leg.
“Well, you don’t have to watch, you know. The kennels are quite comfortable, I understand.” Alistair folded the letter, and opened the next.
I regret to inform you that Warden Commander Cousland, has been injured in battle…
The blood roared into his ears.
…with a darkspawn calling himself ‘the Architect’, and in a subsequent fight with a creature called ‘a Broodmother’. Her wounds are healing, under the care of Warden Anders, but I am currently acting in her absence.
The wounds consisted of a slash across the stomach – shallow, thankfully – caused by whipping tentacles; severe magical burns caused by the Architect, stab wounds in her thighs caused by his dwarven companion, and a single puncture through her right shoulder. None were life threatening, thanks to Warden Anders’ quick action on the field of battle.
I am happy to say that we prevailed in the end. Our Warden Commander is an inspiration to all of us.
Long Live the King. Long Live his Queen.
Warden Nathaniel Howe
“Well, that last title is a trifle premature,” Alistair found something to criticize given the author of the letter. “I don’t suppose I can justify a trip to Vigil’s Keep?”
But Wulfy slept, and so his question was left unanswered.
Alistair rolled over, wide awake now, his hand still resting on the letters, and mind whirring with a million tasks undone, hugging one of the many pillows to his chest.
No, he couldn’t justify the trip. But he could send healers. In gratitude, with the King’s blessing for a quick recovery.
He’d write first thing in the morning.
It took a few weeks for her next to arrive – he’d sent five letters of his own, besides the more formal one accompanying the healers, admitting his guilt and offering to let her ‘punish’ him for his imbecilic behavior upon her return to the Palace before she sent one in return.
I knew it, damn it. You couldn’t just let your general take care of it. That’s why you have generals, Cheesy.
I am grateful, though. I was so afraid I would have to let Amaranthine burn.
I know from your last that Howe – that cheeky bastard – wrote to you to tell you of my injuries. I suppose I’m grateful. But I’m up and hobbling around now, thanks to Anders.
Speaking of Anders, I do have some bad news. Anders and Justice have… abandoned their post. And the Wardens entirely. I knew he was a reluctant conscription, so I shouldn’t be surprised. But the worse news is that I suspect they are… together. The body Justice was possessing was left behind, with a note in Anders handwriting requesting it be returned to his widow. I’m worried he consented to become an abomination.
Alistair lifted an eyebrow at the letter, and then looked at the sleeping dog. “No one saw that coming, hmmm?”
I know. It was an epically bad idea to recruit a spirit from the start, but… I needed people. And Justice was a brilliant fighter for the cause. Don’t look at me like that. I’m not infallible, you know. Sometimes I make bad choices.
I tried to have them trailed, but all I could determine is that he took a ship to the Free Marches from Amaranthine. I suspect either Ostwick or Kirkwall. Probably Kirkwall – what I hear from our brothers and sisters there isn’t reassuring but at least it’s not darkspawn.
After our last battle, I suspect Anders wants to stay as far away from darkspawn as he can.
Word from across the Waking Sea is limited, but improving, as I reach out. Weisshaupt’s instructions have never been constant – but I’m endeavoring to build a relationship with my counterparts in Orlais and around the Free Marches, at the very least. We need to talk to each other, now that the borders aren’t closed.
Um… you did remember to open the borders again, yes? Just checking!
I think I’ll be able to head home, quite soon. While I will remain Warden Commander in name, Orlais is sending someone to take over at Vigil’s Keep so that I can return to court and administer my duties there. A few of my people will come with me – we’ll be reopening the Warden’s office in Denerim. I’ll work out of there for the foreseeable future. Perhaps we’ll even find some new volunteers! I’m done conscripting for the foreseeable future.
I’ll be very, very happy to see you again, Cheesy. It’s been lonely.
I hope you’ll be pleased to see me, as beat up as I am. As soon as my replacement arrives, and I bring them up to date, I will depart. Perhaps I’ll be on my way by the time you receive this.
At least I’m fairly certain you never loved me for my looks. Those have changed a bit - few more lines, a couple scars. I’ll never be able to wear an off-shoulder dress again without showing off the marks. Leliana will probably weep, but I can’t say I mind.
Until we meet again, and that soon, all my love,
Alistair tapped the letter, thinking, and then rose from the bed – careful not to disturb the still snoring Ser Wulfy, and slipped into his robe. He made his way down the hall to Zevran’s room, and rapped, softly. Giggles came from within and he cringed when the door opened and the rogue, naked to his waist with loose ties gapping suggestively, appeared.
“Your Majesties!” The elf’s eyes twinkled. “Looking for… companionship?”
“NO!” Alistair coughed. “I mean, no, thank you. Actually… I have a job for you, if you’re interested.”
“Oh?” Zevran stepped into the hall and closed the door. “Can it wait for morning? I’d hate to disappoint the lovely ladies…”
“Ladies? As in, more than one?” Alistair stammered, and then shook his head. “I don’t want to know. But, yes, it can, I think. I need you to trace someone for Elissa. An Anders – she thinks he left for the Free Marches. Kirkwall, most likely, but maybe Ostwick?”
“Anything for the Lady Warden,” Zevran pressed his lips together. “Have me a description ready by morning, and I will depart posthaste.”
“Excellent,” Alistair straightened. “I’ll just let you get back to your… company.”
Zevran opened the door, “Is your Dragon coming home, then?”
Alistair turned back, smiling with relief and joy. “Yes. Quite soon.” He sighed, “Thank the Maker.”
“Or someone, anyway,” Zevran winked. “Sleep well, Your Majesties.”
“And you as well, my friend.”
Word came during his office hours. A soft tap at the study door, and Alistair’s ‘Enter’ was answered with a beaming servant. “Yes?” He was already rising, the heavy chair pushed back with audible scrapes against the too-expensive carpet. Ser Wulfred bounded out of the room as soon as the door was cracked wide enough for him to squeeze through. Alistair followed the dog, similar instincts driving both of them.
“Your Majesty, she’s reached the city!”
Alistair beamed, grabbed the crown and shoved it on his head. “How does my hair look?”
“Liar,” he clapped the poor man on the back, and walked as fast as he dared to the doors of the Palace. “Maker… I’m as nervous as a schoolboy!”
“You don’t look it, Your Majesty.” The loyal man stated kindly, helping him into a more formal coat handed off by another servant. “You look regal, if I may dare.”
“Good man.” He straightened. “Her rooms are prepared? She’s been injured. She’ll need to rest, and I would like some time alone with her as soon as possible…”
“Of course,” the man smiled. “I will let Warden Commander Cousland’s ladies know.”
“And have Ser Regina invited to dinner tomorrow,” Alistair ordered. “I think they’ll like each other. Elissa will need a sparring partner, and a friend.” He paused, “Make that the day after tomorrow. I’m feeling rather greedy about her company.”
Alistair bounced on the balls of his feet, unable to contain his energy. “I’m going to meet her at the steps of the Palace. Are the people greeting her as she deserves?”
“Flinging prophet’s laurel at her feet.” The man reported. “She’s taking her time. Kissing babies and so on…”
“That’s my girl, always playing the hero,” Alistair sighed blissfully, and nodded at the guards. “Open, please.”
They swung both doors open wide, and Alistair took the prepared rose from the servant’s hand. “What’s she wearing?”
“…her armor, Your Majesty?”
“Damn, she’ll look better than me, then.” He shrugged. “Can’t have everything, I suppose.” He stepped out, and raised his chin, hoping that the sun would catch the light from his crown attractively.
As he stepped out, she entered the gates, Wulfy jumping like a puppy around her thighs to her joyous laughter. She released her horse to a waiting groom. Then her eyes locked with his.
He took a single step forward, and then they were running towards each other, her limping, but his step sure and confident, for once in his life. He swung her up and around and breathed in as she buried her face in his neck, smelling the sea and evergreens.
“I missed you.”
He wasn’t sure which one of them said it first, but he held her all the tighter, until she gasped with pain. He set her down, feeling guilty. “Sorry.” She traced his cheek with her gauntlet, and he ran his thumb across a fading scar under her eye. “That looks like a close one.”
“There were closer,” she laughed away her brush with death, and took his hand. “You look nearly as happy as Wulfy to see me.” She saw his other hand and froze. “Alistair…”
“Um… it’s a new tradition,” he blushed. “A rose for the Dragon, upon her return to her King’s side.”
“Oh, Cheesy,” she breathed, and took it. “You’re so Maker-damned romantic.” Wulfy whined, and she patted his head to soothe him.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” He cleared his throat, projecting his voice. “Lady Cousland, I’m thrilled to have you return safely,” he began formally, and then grabbed her again, lifting her up against him. “Oh, forget it. I didn’t write it anyway. Welcome home, Elissa.”
She bent her head down and kissed him, and he nearly dropped her, before she wrapped her legs, her lips wincing at the movement, around his hips, and held on while their mouths slanted across each other. The court whispered, servants and nobles alike at the open affection between them, but he could have cared less. Her lips tasted like wine, and he groaned when they finally parted. “How am I supposed to get anything done today after this?”
“You aren’t,” she ordered. “I’m well enough to travel, but not to work. Healer’s orders. And I demand the attention of my betrothed to keep me company while I mend. It’s allowed - one of those nagging courtesy things Mother tried to teach me.” She let him lower her down, and they started to walk inside, her limping worse now. “Damned dwarf woman tried to take my left leg off when I tried to fight her. She used to be one of those Silent Sisters that they have in Orzamaar – you know the ones that cut out their tongues - before she joined the Wardens. She's unstoppable, now.”
“Wow. That’s… wow,” Alistair stammered, and then recovered his equilibrium, leaning towards her. “Will you show me the scars later?”
She laughed, shoving him gently. “Naughty.”
“Oh, are they in places I shouldn’t see?” He blinked innocently. “Milady Dragon, I didn’t mean to be inappropriate.”
Her disbelieving huff made him smile even wider.
Of course, it was never that easy. The staff was eager to serve her, and nosy as all get out. He wasn’t allowed to stay while she bathed; Ser Wulfred was positively smug about it, too. He had to rebuff curious well-wishers for both of them, the gits interrupting her homecoming and their reunion with their damnable curiosity.
He was tired of answering pointed questions about their wedding with vague deflections. By the end of the day, he had half a mind to summon a Revered Mother to the Palace that evening, just to get the damned thing over with. He would have, too, if he could have gotten away with it without open rebellion. Two civil wars in a year were probably two wars too many, even if the second was for such an excellent reason.
It took hours before he was finally knocking on her sitting room door, and bid, “For the Maker’s sake, just come in! It’s not like every woman in the place hasn’t already seen me…” he opened the door and she flushed clear down to the low neckline of her sleeping gown. “…Naked.” She smiled, her eyes shining. “It’s you.” She tucked her hair behind her ear. “I didn’t think you’d be able to break away.”
“Hello to you, too.” He beamed a little, shutting the door after him. Her fire guttered in the draft from the chimney – he didn’t want to start a hearth fire. “It’s lovely to have you here.”
“It’s good to be here,” she glanced around her at the opulence. “I think. I’ve been living in a stone castle from something like four ages ago. This… luxury will take some getting used to again.” She winced, as she lowered her raised leg and tried to rise, and he waved her back down, urgently. She laid back. “Thank you, Your Majesty. I don’t want to tell you how much riding again made me ache.” Wulfy grumbled from his choice place on her sofa.
“I could tell.” He approached, and sat across from her, running a finger along her ankle. There was another scar there. “You’re limping.”
“Temporary, the healers claim.” She looked away. “I hope so, anyway. I have things to do. I can’t just… lay about all day. And I don’t want to limp down the aisle.” She colored. “I mean, assuming…”
“Milady Dragon, you cannot possibly believe I would play you false?”
“The servants were whispering about you and some lady knight.” She still wasn’t looking at him.
He moved over to sit next to her and tilted her chin up. “After Amaranthine, you honestly think that I would…”
“I did tell you that if I died you should marry again.” Her face stayed down, solemn and far too sad for his preference.
“And I told Eamon I wasn’t going to court my second wife before I married the first,” his voice was harsh. “Ser Regina lost her lover at Ostagar, in Cailan’s Guard.”
Elissa met his eyes at last, sorrowful. “I’m so sorry for her loss.”
“We had something in common besides losing people at Ostagar,” Alistair smirked mischievously. “Like preferring women.”
Elissa coughed. “Oh!”
“Changes a few things? Yes. I found her a place with my Guard. She needed an excuse to not marry right away – her father was getting rather pushy. These nobles – always shoving people around where they don’t want to be, and with people they don’t want to be with.”
“And who do you want to be with?”
“You have to ask?”
Elissa wrapped her hand around his, and he twisted his fingers into hers, palm warm. “You’re settling in.”
“Somewhat,” he admitted, shyly. “Eamon and I had it out. They’ve removed themselves to their manor here, he and Isolde. He understands better now, what is between us.”
“Maker,” Elissa turned bright red. “You didn’t tell him we were…”
“In so many words, yes.” Alistair rushed to fill up the void left by her embarrassment as she scooted away. “He chose to overlook it, at the time.”
“I hope he keeps it to himself,” she muttered. “If he tells Isolde, my reputation will be…”
“Your reputation won’t matter a whit.” Alistair tugged her back to lean against him. “Because it doesn’t matter to me. It can’t. You deflowered me, if I recall correctly. It was a mutual thing.”
She snorted, “Right. If only the gossips cared if their King was a virgin.”
“They should. If Cailan hadn’t stuck himself into anything that moved maybe he’d have conceived with his wife.”
“Those are just rumors, Cheesy,” she leaned against his shoulder. “Yes, he was working with Celene, but we don’t know.”
“I choose to believe the various servant girls,” Alistair said gently.
Elissa gasped. “Those poor women. Poor Anora.”
“Anora knew. She was probably hoping, since she couldn’t conceive, that he would father a bastard to put on the throne instead. One she could raise.” He shrugged. “It’s all in how you look at it. If Maric hadn’t been with my mother, Ferelden might be better…”
“Without you, Ferelden would have fallen to the Blight,” Elissa pulled his jaw to face her and kiss him. “Don’t undervalue yourself, Your Majesty.” She tried to deepen the kiss, press herself closer, and winced, jerking away. “Ow. That hurts.”
“Don’t do that, then,” Alistair ordered.
“At least there won’t be any caboodling for Isolde to whisper about for a bit.” She looked away.
“I don’t care what she says. We’re doing our duty.” He lifted his chin. “We need to set a date now you are home.”
Elissa took a deep breath. “Right. The wedding. The Royal Wedding. With flowers, and a poufy dress that looks ridiculous on me, and ladies in waiting and the Divine in attendance…”
Alistair watched her face blanche in terror. “Hey, we can keep it small. Smallish. Well, smallish compared to Anora and Cailan… and we’ll go on a tour of the kingdom when we’re done. A wedding tour – just you and me and four dozen of our most trusted guards.”
She went limp, leaning against him in relief. “Do you mean it?”
“Every word.” He pecked her cheek gently. “And we could see about letting you wear dress armor, if you really hate the idea of the gown. Though I think you would be breathtaking…”
She cupped his cheek. “You’re so good, Cheesy. I don’t deserve you.”
“You have that backwards, my dear.” He pulled her closer yet. “Don’t panic, in any case. I won’t let them run roughshod over you. If they want me as King, they get you as Queen. On our terms.”
“Maker, what have we done?”
“Save our country. You’re up to twice now. Making rather a habit of it, actually.” He ran his fingers through her still damp hair, she leaned into his chest. It took several minutes of silence before he realized she’d fallen asleep against him. Scared to move, lest he wake her, he closed his own eyes, just for a moment.
“…Your Majesty,” a whispered voice made him jerk awake.
“Shhh,” he managed, rubbing his eyes. “You’ll wake her.”
“Sire, you missed dinner.” The girl was wringing her hands. “Do you want a bite in here?”
“Yes, that would be lovely.” He groaned. “Is Eamon angry?”
“No sir. We… told a fib.” The girl colored. “That you and the Hero had requested dinner in her chambers, so that you could… get reacquainted.”
Alistair chuckled, “Thank you.” He would have to fight the rumors the next day, but it was worth it. Elissa still looked so tired – circles under her eyes even while she slept. “What time is it?”
“8th bell has rung,” the girl backed away, and rolled in a tray. “I took the liberty of bringing the best cheeses in the cellar, and some nice fruit… and the meat pies the cook remembered your lady’s father preferring when he waited on Maric.”
“It smells amazing,” Elissa’s eyes had opened, and were gleaming with greed. “Thank you… what was your name?”
“Minnie, Warden Commander, Ser,” the girl curtseyed, face glowing.
“Thank you, Minnie. Tell Cook we’re grateful.” She groaned and stretched, face distorted with a moment’s pain as her hand flew to her shoulder. “Could you have a healer send up some elfroot draughts?”
“Already done, milady,” she beamed, and pulled out a basket from under the tea cart. “The staff is very grateful you’re home safe…” she paused. “Am I to wish you both well? My Mam was saying you’d be married as soon as you were back. Said that you couldn’t keep your hands off each other – even in the middle of the courtyard!”
Elissa glanced at Alistair, flushing. “Yes. Quite soon. Tell the staff that we’ll have the banns published as soon as we can.” Her breath shook in her chest. “His Majesty and I don’t want to wait longer than necessary.”
Alistair’s smile conquered his professional demeanor, and he took her hands and squeezed them gently.
“I wish you both joy. And… will you be requiring a body servant when you wish to retire?” The cheeky maid grinned.
“That depends on his Majesty’s assistance,” Elissa winked back at her. “But tell them you took care of it, if you would.” She waved her hand at her nightgown. “I do know how to dress and undress myself.”
“Of course. I’m the soul of discretion, I am.” She giggled. “Good night, Your Majesty. Milady Cousland… er, Warden Commander, Ser.”
As soon as the door was shut, Elissa leaned forward, reaching for a cheese wedge. Alistair slapped her fingers. She pouted. “There’s no one here to stand on ceremony, Cheesy.”
“I’m here.” His smile grew broader. “You should sit still. Get used to people serving you.”
Elissa eye’s narrowed. “What are you plotting?”
“Just saving you effort. Or are you not tearing up every time you move?”
“Ugh. I hate being helpless.” She laid back against the cushions, though. “Go on, then. Feed me, dammit.”
He gathered a little plate of tidbits, and two of the meat pies, and placed it in her hands. “I would, but I’m starving myself. Warden appetites, you know.”
Her eyes were dark. “Believe me, I know. Maker.”
Her food was already half gone when Alistair spoke again. “I have a surprise for you. An engagement gift, if you like.”
Elissa flushed. “You didn’t need to get me anything.”
“Oh, I didn’t. Unless you count sending a certain rogue to the Free Marches as ‘something’.” He wrapped his spare hand around her foot and stroked. “Zevran found Anders.”
“He didn’t!” She nearly dropped her plate. “Where? How?!”
“He’s unwilling to disclose all his sources, but Anders is working as a healer in Darktown – that horrible area just underneath the city proper.”
“Oh, Anders…” Elissa’s face worked with worry. “But he’s all right?”
“There are a few worrisome rumors about blood mages – when are there not? - but Zevran is already on his way back.” He smiled. “In time for the wedding. Assuming he doesn’t get sidetracked, anyway.”
“Sidetracked,” she muttered, “with a pretty face, you mean.”
“Something like that. He liked Kirkwall, it turned out. Says he met a charming Dalish clan just outside of the town. Made note of their welcoming ways for later.”
“He did always like the Dalish,” she murmured, face gentling.
“So… did you want me to send for Anders? Drag him back to his duty?” He held his breath, but she shook her head.
“Anders’ heart was never with the Wardens. It was a means to an end for him – a way to escape the Circle. I wish him well.” She laughed, roughly. “All he ever wanted was a pretty girl and a decent meal. I hope he finds them in Kirkwall.”
“A man after my own heart, then,” Alistair sighed, and leaned over to kiss the cheese crumbs off her lips. “May he have luck as good as mine.”
Chapter 11: A Mostly Horrible, Very Bad Day (With a Couple Perfect Moments)
Happy Valentine's Day! Here's a wedding chapter, in honor of the occasion.
Distinctly NSFW towards the end. You'll see it coming. (snicker/snort)
The morning of the wedding dawned clear and bright. Birds sang in the garden, flower petals drifted from the blooming trees like they had a job to perform. Alistair’s crown was polished to shiny perfection, and his hair was just this side of rakish.
It was destined to be a horrible day.
The curses emerging from Elissa’s room were audible four doors down. “Maker’s Breath! Loosen these damn laces, Hilary!”
“But milady, the dress won’t drape properly without…”
“Bugger the wrinkles! I’ll wear armor! What do I fucking care about whether it looks like I have tits for a bunch of leering old men who should have retired before Maric died? Do you want me to pass out at the altar?”
“His Majesty would prefer…”
“Don’t lie to me. Me wearing armor was Alistair’s idea.” There was silence for a few moments, wherein Elissa’s truth shut up the simpering ladies in waiting. He grinned just a little bit wider, while his body servant adjusted his sleeves and cape to fall correctly. He sucked in his stomach and turned sideways. It wasn’t that bad, but he could use a little more exercise.
His body servant spoke but didn’t criticize his primping. Good man. “Apparently the ladies find it unlikely that the King and his Dragon converse regularly about wedding fashion,” the man’s eyes twinkled at him, and Alistair winked.
“Well, we have to talk about something other than the state of the Kingdom. One can’t reminisce about their own heroism constantly, after all. It dulls as a conversation topic after the first four months.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Eamon’s voice echoed from behind him. The man looked older, lately, and he’d taken to carrying a cane. “You look well, Alistair. Like your father on his wedding day.”
Alistair made a face in the mirror. “That’s ‘Your Majesty’.”
“Hmmm, not today.” His advisor’s face appeared in the mirror, eyes shining. “I think today, you’re my ward.” He cleared his throat. “Your father – and your mother – would be proud, my boy.”
“Really?” Alistair humphed skeptically. “Well, I am marrying the highest born woman in Ferelden. What’s not to be proud of?”
Eamon cleared his throat. “You know, I had that pendant of your mother’s repaired, but it disappeared from my office while I was indisposed.”
“…Indisposed. Such a lovely word for ‘poisoned and then trapped by a demon summoned by your own son’.”
Eamon winced, and then shrugged. “Yes, well, I wish I had it for you to wear today.” He stared down at his feet. “You should have something of hers.”
“I do, as it turns out.”
Eamon’s eyes flashed up, surprised. “Then it was… you found and…”
“Elissa, actually. I had described the thing to her, not expecting anything to come of it. But wonder of wonders, there’s actually someone in the world that listens to me.” He swallowed, but pressed on, fingering the fine fabric and hating that his hands were soft enough now not to catch at the delicate silk threads. “At the time we weren’t certain you would survive. So she… borrowed it.” Alistair colored, but continued, in a sing-song fashion. “She said, that maybe it meant you cared after all.” He pulled it out from under his tunic, touching it. “It means a bit more now, than just a memento of a mother I never knew.”
Eamon stared at him, and then stepped forward and embraced him. Alistair rocked back in surprise, before embracing him in return, tight across the shoulders. Alistair let go first, stepping back. “Such liberties with your sovereign. You’ll wrinkle me.”
Eamon chuckled, “Forgive me, Your Majesty.”
“Just this once.” He stared back at himself in the mirror. “Do you think I’ll shame her?”
“Who, your bride?”
“No, my mother. I… I wish, I wish I knew that she was proud of me. I found Goldanna, you know.” Eamon flinched. “She’s a shrew. I half expect her to show up at the Chantry today, demanding titles and money.”
“You don’t need to worry about her.” Eamon met his eyes. “She is of no concern.”
“Oh, I’m not concerned. I just… if that’s what my mother was like, then…” his chuckle rang hollow, “Well, one must think of one’s children.”
“Your mother was nothing like her. In any way.” Eamon clasped his shoulder. “Trust me, Alistair. She would be proud to claim you, if she could.”
Whoever thought that it was a good idea for the groom to wait at the head of the Chantry for the bride to be delivered to him had never been a groom, Alistair was certain. The urge to fidget, to scratch underneath the stiff linen tunic, to stroke the silk cape, to hum, or generally embarrass himself was overwhelming. Teagan standing behind him kept him from the worst lapse in manners only by constantly muttering warnings and poking him in the back.
He was going to have bruises by the time Elissa showed. If she showed.
Leliana was gliding down the aisle now, winking at him cheekily. Elissa had demanded to delay the marriage until her friend could witness it. That had caused an awful stink – an Orlesian bard in the wedding party?
But in this, as everything, Alistair backed her. Even given Leliana’s feelings towards his soon-to-be-wife, it seemed right to have her there.
The back doors gaped wider, and Alistair, unable to resist, tugged at his collar. It had fit well enough that morning, but… “Stop that,” Teagan hissed.
There was nothing past the doors but footmen, one on either side. “Where is she?” His stomach sunk.
And then the organ started, and Fergus appeared, with a woman on his arm who looked…
Well, she looked distinctly uncomfortable, her eyes lowered in what would probably pass for demure with the onlookers, but Alistair knew for a fact was sheer rage.
Those eyes lifted towards him, though, and then… they flashed, catching the light of the thousands of candles and bowls of Andraste’s Fire scattered through the Chantry. She took a step forward, dragging Fergus with her, her lips determined and her steps never faltering.
And then she smiled, transforming her face from sullen into pure joy, and he smiled back.
She’d refused to wear white – the second scandal. Instead, she wore cloth of gold over a silk undergown, elaborately embroidered with lilies and Andraste’s Grace. She glowed under the headcovering she’d nearly refused to wear – giving in only as long as it wasn’t concealing her face. “He knows what I look like, scars and all,” she’d argued. “There’s no point. He knows he’s not getting a beauty.”
On the contrary, he’d never seen anything so beautiful as his furious warrior bride.
She arrived at the base of the stairs where he waited, a little sooner than the wedding march demanded, and Fergus handed her off to him with a whispered, “Hurt her and I’ll stage a coup, Your Majesty.”
“If I hurt her, I’ll arm the rebellion,” Alistair quipped back, and took her hand, concentrating on not letting his own shake.
Maker, it was actually happening. Somehow, he didn’t think they’d ever get this far.
Fergus kissed her cheek, and when Elissa turned back, he realized her eyes were shining with unshed tears. Heedless of his immaculate gloves, he wiped them away, ruining them forever. It was worth it. “There now, is marrying me that horrible?”
“You have no idea,” she managed, squeezing his hand. “But I love you anyway.”
“Good. Tell me that again in half an hour, after the interminable sermon about Andraste’s love for the Maker.”
That made her laugh, and they turned to the unamused Revered Mother waiting at the top of the stairs and ascended together.
Alistair had been allowed to read the traditional message – a formal approval by the sovereign being logical on the day of his wedding - and silently mouthed whole portions of it to keep Elissa smiling. It wasn’t hard to remember – most of it was trite and predictable. By the end of the homily, Elissa’s shoulders were shaking with laughter and the Revered Mother looked about ready to hit him over the head with her copy of the Chant.
Worth it, to have Elissa not glaring at him like she wished she had a sword to run him through.
His part was easy. “I swear upon the Maker and the Holy Andraste I will love this woman for the rest of my days,” the words tripped off his tongue almost too quickly to be understood. He’d been swearing that vow to himself since before the first time she’d kissed him. It was the first time he’d said it in public, though.
And then it was Elissa’s turn, and the quiet after the Revered Mother’s prompt went on a bit.
Long enough to make him nervous. She glanced at him, and nearly whispered, “I swear…”
He half-smiled, and Elissa relaxed, and tightened her grip on his hands, pulling them closer to her. “I swear upon the Maker, and the Holy Andraste, to love this man for the rest of my days.”
And then he was kissing her, and the rest of the service passed in a blur, including the coronation where he was almost positive he wasn’t supposed to kneel, but did anyway, just to keep Elissa’s poor suffering knees company. The Revered Mother was kind enough not to draw attention to his mistake.
The wedding dinner lasted forever, with insincere toasts, and pointed hints about their fertility that had Elissa’s lips tightening, and his hand on her knee squeezing to keep her from murdering their wedding guests.
“I know, it’s tempting, my Queen, but imagine the paperwork, before you act?” That gained him a shy kiss, even in front of all the people constantly staring.
“Only because you asked, my King,” she whispered back, her eyes mischieveous as they met his.
They were finally allowed to make their escape – a planned flight, staged by Teagan and abetted by the castle servants, who knew all the shortcuts through the palace. The chivaree would take place outside his suite – but they would be spending the night in hers.
It was a small amount of privacy, the only one he could wrangle for them. But at least they weren’t going to have to display the bedsheets from the windows as they did during the Storm Age. That was just barbaric.
Now that they were settled, however, with the doors locked, and the servants refused and dismissed, Elissa hardly looked ‘in the mood’. She was jerking at the laces tying up her back impatiently, and Alistair approached her cautiously. “May I assist, my Queen?”
The title – he hoped it was the title – made her shudder. “Maker’s Breath, Cheesy, don’t call me that. Not tonight, please?”
“Of course, my Dragon.” The endearment made her sag under his hands in relief. “Can I help?”
“Please,” she muttered through clenched teeth. “They’re so tight. Just… cut them.”
“They do lovely things for your breasts, though,” Alistair confessed, pulling out Duncan’s dagger. He was supposed to be carrying some useless thing studded with rubies and so on, but he’d overridden the body servant on the matter. He had wanted something of Duncan’s with him on his wedding day. Duncan’s dagger, his mother’s amulet, and his father’s crown.
Three guesses which meant the most, and the first two didn’t count.
“Who gives a fuck about how my breasts look when I can’t breathe?”
“Quite right, rude of me to notice,” Alistair sliced through the laces, and the whole gown slid forward off her shoulders, leaving her in just the embroidered shift. She let it fall, and he took a risk, slipping his hands first over her shoulders, and then down her arms, and across her ribs, to pull her back against him. “Is that better?” He rubbed over her ribs, gently, feeling the relieved rise and fall of her deeper breaths.
“Always.” He pushed her hair to the side, kissing the join of her shoulder to her neck until she shivered. She was so stiff…
He wanted to tell her that they didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to do. “Forget this,” he announced.
She spun in his arms, frowning. “Cheesy, you know we have to…”
“Fuck the fucking consummation.” He paused, wondering if that was redundant thrice over, and then let it go as a lost cause. He rubbed her back through her clothes. “Elissa, I’m not going to let this get creepy, okay? I don’t want you if you don’t want me. We have the rest of our lives to…”
She blinked, and out of nowhere, laughed. “Where on Thedas did you get that idea?”
He felt his face heat. “Um… your body language?”
“I just need to relax, is all,” she smirked. “You stripping could help.”
“As my Dragon wishes,” Alistair stepped away and unlaced his own gambeson, one eyebrow raised in what he hoped was a teasing manner. He turned away and let it fall – letting the absurdity of the situation and his own whimsy carry him onward.
As a young boy, he’d never thought to marry at all. If he had, he would never have imagined his wedding to be like this opulent presentation of manners. It would be just him, and a woman, who presumably cared about him, and about what they could do to make each other happy. That’s all it should have been about.
But perhaps it wasn’t too late.
He fisted his hand in the neck of his shirt and pulled it over his head, letting the expensive fabric flutter to the ground as he flexed his back and wriggled his ass in what he knew were too-tight pants.
Elissa’s soft exclamation and subsequent giggle were all the encouragement he needed to break into a Remigold, bowing to a nonexistent partner to display his assets all the better to the woman behind him, and stretching out his leg in a parody of the regimented dance.
Elissa hummed, and he closed his eyes, and danced, her delighted laughter all the music he needed.
He indulged in some not strictly regulation hip swivels for her benefit, feeling the ghost of hands across his shoulders as she moved to join him. His hand drifted to his waistline, loosening his laces. When her hands touched his chest, his breath caught, and then released as they dropped to his waist, tugging and loosening further. “Elissa…”
“Shhh,” she whispered. “I… I want this.” Her breasts – when had she undressed? While she was watching him? – grazed his chest. “It’s been weeks, Alistair, weeks of me having my body criticized and molded into someone else’s idea of beauty. Tonight, I want you to help me take it back.” Her hand cupped his cheek, pulling him down to meet her mouth. Her other hand shifted at the damnably tight pants, dragging them below his cheeks, letting him hang free. “So naughty…” she breathed, stroking him.
“Manuel insisted that smallclothes ruined the line of the trousers,” he choked. “Pantylines?”
She slapped his ass and he moaned. “That’s for standing before a Chantry mother with no smallclothes on. And this,” she did it again, “Is for Amaranthine.” He opened his eyes, not bothering to disguise the want. “But then, you’d better swat me too. I took mine off before I put on the stockings.”
His eyes widened – she was still wearing those – nearly transparent fine lace and silk stretching up past her knees, fastened to a scrap of a belt that surely he should have seen with as tight as the gown had hugged her. “Maker’s Breath.” His hands trembled as they dropped to her hips. “I…”
“You like them, then?” She spun around, showing the back, where the ribbons flopped against her upper thighs, just below the perfect curve of her muscular ass. “I don’t have to take them off, Cheesy. They’re the only thing I was wearing today that I enjoyed.”
Bold, he grabbed her ass and squeezed, deliberately, slipping his fingers under the ribbons. “How in the world did your women not object?”
She shrugged, her silky hair falling across his chest. “They told me my husband would like it. It seems they were right about one thing, at least. I received all sorts of otherwise dubious information about my wedding night. I’m supposed to let you do whatever you like, while thinking of the future of Ferelden. Now there’s a sexy thought,” She snorted. “Ferelden will be the last thing on my mind, with you naked on top of me.” Alistair groaned, and she smirked over her shoulder. “Serve me?”
“Tell me how.” He slid his hand around her waist, pulling her against him.
“I’m delicate,” she batted her eyes, “having recently been injured.”
Now that he looked, the new scars were visible, twisting lines at the junction of her left leg and hip, tracing underneath to her most delicate area. “It would be my honor,” Alistair dropped to his knees, and her breath caught. He snatched her up, and legs spread against his chest, walked her back to her bed, turned down demurely for their presence.
Down the hall, voices began singing bawdy songs in peerless tune. “They hired professionals?” Elissa choked.
“Only the best for the King and Queen,” Alistair managed from between her legs. He tipped her knee out a bit further. “Enjoy the music.” Coming from so far away, it sounded almost pleasant instead of the disturbance it was meant to be.
His lips touched her and she jerked. “Too much,” she managed, so he crawled up and kissed her instead, twisting so she rested on top of him. Her mouth was intoxicating, and he sunk into it, losing his train of thought until she was pressing against him and moaning. He pulled his head away at last, and walked his fingers down her back, and around her thigh to reach her apex, and began to play, little circles and squiggles along the line of her, carefully avoiding the most tender area.
“Mmm.” He slid the tip of his finger in, ever so gently, pressing and circling and never going deeper than the first knuckle. She gasped, digging her fingers into the sheets. “Oh, that’s…”
She arched into his hand, and so he settled her on her back, and knelt again between her legs. “I am at your service,” he breathed, and buried his nose against her nub, nuzzling gently until she spread a little wider to accommodate his presence.
He stroked, and she hummed again, louder, and dropped her fingers to play with his hair, tangling up with his crown. She grabbed the accessory, frowned as if she’d forgotten it was there, put it back, and pressed the back of his head to increase the pressure instead. Alistair moaned into her, and she giggled. “Like that, do you?”
“Always, my Dragon.”
“Good,” she purred. “Show me how much.”
He doubled his exertions, sliding a single finger inside and crooking, moving gently still, until her hips rocked impatiently into his hand. He narrowed his tongue, and circled her, teasing, playing until she groaned and grabbed his hand. “Wait.”
He stopped, outwardly patient, and inwardly straining at the limits she imposed. Tonight was on her terms, and he was all too eager to obey, however his body longed to bury himself in her.
She was shivering, relaxing, and finally she breathed, “Continue.”
Chuckling, he bent down and began again.
It took less time to bring her to the edge this time, but again she stopped him with a gasp. “Cheesy…”
He groaned, pulling away to sink his forehead into the featherbed. “You’re going to kill me.”
She snickered, “It’s going to kill you if I don’t orgasm?”
He raised his eyes up just enough to see over her pelvis, and her face softened at the desperation in his eyes. “I don’t deserve you.”
“Let’s not start that again,” he ordered.
She reached out to rub his lower lip, pouty and slick. “Come here, then, love.” He rose at her touch, meeting her mouth, tasting of watered wine.
Her thighs slipped against his member as he moved over her, covering her, “Maker, Elissa. Please.”
Her hand shook, stroking down his side, to cup his buttock. “All right, Alistair. Take me.”
She said it like an order, and he, ever the dutiful soldier, could only obey. He slammed into her, gentleness gone, paused, and slid out, making her feel every inch of pleasure he could provide. Back in, hard, dragging slow in retreat.
She panted beneath him, fingers digging into his right cheek, back arched, breasts on display. He knelt and captured one, nibbling it like the finest cheese as she whined. “Damn it, Alistair, move.”
It was all he could do not to come at that moment, between the push and pull of their lovemaking, the scent of their sex heavy in the air, the slick between her legs, and the exquisite sounds coming from her lips.
He wanted a million things – to taste her again, hot and slick on his tongue. To bend her over and pound into her until they both saw stars. To have her mount him and ride like the legendary warrior she was.
And to let her cover him with her mouth and take him sweetly to the edge of ecstasy, spilling into her mouth.
“Maker, Cheesy!” He realized he’d given voice to his desires too late, as she squirmed, her eyes burning into his as he redoubled his efforts. “Don’t stop!”
He lost his breath, but it didn’t matter. Gasping, he met her halfway, until she shoved herself upward and rode his lap, slapping into him with sounds equally obscene and divine. She cried out, but kept going, slamming down all the harder.
He choked and came, and a lesser version of himself might have been embarrassed at the whimper that came from his lips. But Elissa was there, cradling him there against her breasts, damp with each other’s sweat. She took the crown from his head and set it aside. “Shh, Cheesy. I have you now.”
“I certainly hope so,” he managed after a moment, “Or this whole day was rather pointless.”
He could always make her laugh, and she tipped them both sideways with barely a wince. “That it would be. At least this part was… nice?”
“Nice, she says. My head nearly explodes – again – and she says it was nice.”
She snuggled to his chest. “I’m going to like sleeping with you again.”
She giggled and stroked his hair back away from his eyes. “Wouldn’t miss it.” He kissed her again, responding despite himself.
It had been much longer than weeks. “I don’t suppose…”
“Oh, I think we’re just getting started.” She rolled him on his back. “My turn to do the work, I think.”
Chapter 12: Parry and Thrust
Ha ha ha ha. Did you think this fic was over?!
Well, think again. You aren't that lucky!
She was more right than she knew. A year later, the honeymoon was over – well, for the kingdom, anyway.
A lot had been accomplished. Denerim was rebuilt. Redcliffe was rebuilt – and a tasteful griffon statue was erected in the town square in honor of the Heroes of the Fifth Blight. Much to Teagan’s pleasure, it hadn’t even cost him anything – Elissa had used her dowry to pay for the whole damn thing and then skirted Alistair’s objections to being honored in such a way by saying it was a monument to all their unlikely friends.
“Oh, that is sneaky,” he had approved, with narrowed eyes responding to her overly-innocent ones. “I’ll allow it. I suppose.” He couldn’t help that she was particularly convincing in private.
He knew things were stressful for her in the Palace, but she still went daily to the reopened Warden offices, now staffed with her senior officers. He didn’t like having a Howe that close, but… the man didn’t seem to have any ulterior motives. And if Elissa could forgive and forget, surely he could do the same?
Alistair tried to refocus on his work. There were the usual murmurs of discontent out of Gwaren – Anora was always trying to drum up support for herself in the city of her birth. But the only thing that the greater populace seemed to be upset about was something, sadly, outside both his and Elissa’s control.
A year since their wedding, and not even a single ‘maybe this time’. Her cycles remained regular – and he knew far too much about them, as did the Royal Physician.
It wasn’t just about an heir. A family of his own was something to dream about, until he’d realized all too late that Wardens didn’t have children. Elissa was putting too much pressure on herself by far, taking herbal supplements, talking to healers and even writing to Weisshaupt on the subject.
There had been no reply. Naturally. Weisshaupt didn’t bother to send word to their Commanders unless money was involved. And they were still irritated that Wardens were on the throne of Ferelden in the first place.
The stress steeped into everything, following them around like the overly spiced scent of that strong Antivan tea that had become all the rage in Denerim. Whispers haunted both of them as they moved about their business.
And Elissa had woken up two nights ago screaming. “I dreamt I had become a broodmother,” she’d gasped, holding onto him all too tightly. “Cheesy, if I do get pregnant, you don’t think… the baby wouldn’t be one of…”
“Of course not,” he’d soothed, and held her until the weeping stopped, and she fell back into an uneasy sleep.
How quickly her ‘when’ became an ‘if’.
Slumber didn’t come for him again that night. And the next morning, Elissa had picked at her breakfast, and then disappeared into the city until late that evening.
When she returned, he was already in bed, trying to concentrate on a new installment of Swords and Shields. “You know,” he stated, frowning at the page, “it doesn’t seem right for the Captain to just murder someone outright. It’s completely outside her character alignment.” He gasped, eyes wide, hoping to make her laugh, “You don’t think she’s been framed?!”
Elissa’s smile was tight, and she didn’t answer.
“Oh, quite insightful, Your Majesty,” he continued in a high-pitched voice, and dropped it down into his own, deeper tones, “And how was your day, my dear?”
She sat down on the bed. “I… sent someone after Morrigan.”
Alistair stared at her for a moment. “Why.”
“You know why.”
“Because she’s your friend and you’re worried about her?”
Elissa turned her head away.
“I see.” Alistair reached out to touch her ankle. “My Dragon, it took Eamon and Isolde years to conceive.”
“I know.” She looked up. “But even if I have a child, Morrigan’s will be the eldest.”
“And a bastard.”
“That shouldn’t matter, Cheesy.”
“But it does. You know it does. Maric could have had a million brats before Cailan and they all would have been overlooked in favor of his legitimate son.”
“We could change that.”
“I doubt the Landsmeet would agree.” He struggled to keep his voice light. “Is this about your dream last night? Love, Morrigan told you not to follow her. She wanted to raise the child on her own. And where in the world do you think she’ll be?”
“I don’t know. But I’ve sent some of my best out to look, all the same.” Her lower lip trembled. “I’m afraid I can’t…”
Alistair grabbed her shoulders and forced her to look in his eyes. “I don’t care. I probably can’t either.”
She wrenched free. “Exactly. Morrigan’s child is probably our last shot at having someone of your blood line on the throne, Your Majesty.”
“Don’t call me Your Majesty.”
“My King, then,” she wiped her eyes. “I don’t want Ferelden to fall into war again if you… perhaps you should have a mistress.”
“Who are you, and what have you done with my Dragon?” Alistair, in contrast to his harsh voice, took her hand gently. “I don’t want a mistress.”
“It might be best…”
“I don’t care what’s best. I care about you.” Her hand lay cold and listless in his, but he wrapped his other around it. “Find Morrigan, if you must. But don’t do it for me. Or for Ferelden. Do it because you’re worried about a friend who might need help. She is alone with a small child, by this time.” The thought was strange – that somewhere he had a child that he’d never know. With luck, they would look more like their mother… “Elissa, I love you. If it’s not your child, I don’t want a child.”
“You would doom your country into civil war for love?”
“I would trust the Landsmeet to name my successor, as they’ve done for hundreds of years. There are a few possibilities besides Anora. Your brother, for example… and there’s always-”
“Teagan?” She shuddered, “He’s grown so cold lately. I thought he liked me, when we were fighting for Redcliffe. But even he judges my inability to conceive.”
“I doubt it has ever crossed his mind,” Alistair responded, truthfully. “He’s not Eamon.” Elissa’s dark look told him everything he needed to know. “Ah. I’ve lit upon the principal offender, I see. Isolde as well, or…”
“I haven’t spoken to Isolde since the wedding. And I won’t. I’m quite happy to let everyone else gossip about us, without fanning the flames with a cat fight in the dining hall.”
“I bet you would win.”
Elissa snickered in spite of herself. “You think?”
“Well, you could name a champion, if you’re in doubt. Ser Regina would fight for you.”
“Ah, yes. And that would start a few rumors as well.”
“Well, the old biddies have to have something to talk about. Eamon especially.”
She giggled and slumped against him. His own relief that she was touching him willingly rolled off him in waves. “So you’re not angry?”
“I’m livid, my dear, but not at you. And, for once, it’s not because of Morrigan. She’s not worth the exertion. I worry for her child, growing up with such a mother. And I’m furious that anyone is judging your based on your body parts and whether or not you use them.” He nudged her. “That’s not just Eamon. That’s you, too. I know you’d make a wonderful mother, but you shouldn’t feel like you have to do it.”
“Cheesy, you’re too good.”
“Don’t I keep telling you not to start that again?” She laughed and leaned back to kiss his chin. “You know, we could practice a bit more. I understand that practice is the key to perfection.”
“Muscle memory?” Elissa raised one of her perfectly sculpted eyebrows. “Form and function?”
“Parry and thrust?”
Her laughter as she pulled him down over her echoed off the high ceiling. “I love you, Cheesy.”
“Whatever for, I can’t imagine.”
Chapter 13: Wishful Thinking meets Practicality
It was another two months before she brought it up again. “You know, they’re your child, too.”
“My dear, haven’t we had this discussion?”
The look in her eyes told him that the conversation wasn’t over.
“They’re already better off than me, having a mother at all!” Alistair bent his head over his letters, realizing that Elissa wasn’t the sort to bring it up without a reason. “Have you found her?”
She sat down before him, fiddling with her gambeson. “A woman, who might have been with child. Several months old, but a lead, nonetheless.”
The news smacked him in the face. What had he thought, that Morrigan would disappear into the ether without a trace, never to be heard from again? He chastised himself - Thedas wasn’t that large. “I see. That… changes things, I suppose.”
Elissa stared at him, her eyes sad. “Do I have your permission to go, Your Majesty?”
“You never needed it.” He cleared his throat. “Love. I would never stop you from doing what you must. But you shouldn’t give up on us.”
“My cycles have all but stopped.”
He closed his eyes. “They were never regular. And the physician says there’s no chance it’s because…”
“I have no other signs of pregnancy, Alistair.”
“Perhaps the problem lies with me. Cailan didn’t conceive either… Or we could ask someone we trust to-“
“Maker Forbid!” Her lip curled. “Alistair, I couldn’t…”
“And yet you’re so willing to shackle me to a mistress.”
She shuddered, “Not willing. Never willing. I would be horribly jealous and evil about it.”
“You? Evil? Never.” He pushed his chair back and went to kneel before her. “I know you want what is best for Ferelden. But perhaps what is best for Ferelden is having my line die with me. Have you thought of that?”
Her fingers traced the line of his crown through his hair. “Is that how you really feel?”
“I’d rather have a child so that we can have a child, not so that we can doom them to this job.” His smile was sad, and tight. “It’s no sinecure.”
Her shoulders drooped further, “I’m going to go after Morrigan.”
“It’s not going to change anything.”
“It will if I take the child.”
Alistair rocked back on his heels, standing in a swift movement that absolutely did not make his knees ache. “No. I forbid it.”
“Because they might be a mage?”
“Because you don’t take a child from his mother!”
“I could bring them both back.”
“No…” He stood and walked away. “I couldn’t manage with Morrigan here, watching… and the rumors!”
“We can manage rumors. We do it every day.”
He closed his eyes and leaned against the window frame. “Elissa. It’s cruel. They – he, she – they’re just a baby. A baby with an Old God soul. Probably.” Would it be monstrous? He wished, for a moment, that there was a way for him to know. “A baby shouldn’t have to be raised with whispers.”
Elissa stood, the rustling of her clothing loud against the stony silence of the room. “First you tell me to do what I must, and then you forbid me?”
“You know why. Think, Elissa. Do you want to be a mother so badly that you’d take another woman’s baby?”
“Morrigan might return with me! We’re friends. The only reason she had this child was so one of us didn’t have to die! She might not even want it. She did it as a gift – for us, Alistair.”
Alistair turned, stunned, “Do you honestly believe that Morrigan doesn’t…”
“I don’t know,” Elissa was crying, he realized, all too late. “I don’t know. But I do think she’ll understand my – our desire – to know she’s all right. That the child is all right. And I don’t think she’ll resent an honest offer of a place for them both to stop running and rest.” She waved her hands around her. “Between you and me, Denerim is the safest city in Southern Thedas. If she loves her child, she will see what a good option it is.”
“And if she’s made other arrangements?”
“Then we’re no worse off,” Elissa wiped her cheeks, stubbornly. “I won’t see your son or daughter raised in a hut in the woods, Alistair. I won’t let them be abused as Morrigan was, as you were. I won’t. I won’t!”
He half expected her to stamp her foot in a childish tantrum. “Then go. See my child safe. See that your friend is well.”
Her shoulders relaxed, “Thank you, My King.”
“Send word, will you?” He stepped to her and took her hands in his. “You never write enough, when you’re away.”
“I’ll leave Howe in charge here and take a few of the younger recruits. Ariane, I think.”
“That sounds wise.” He cleared his throat. “When?”
“The gossipmongers will have less wares for their stalls, if they don’t see me preparing for an expedition.”
“So wise.” He kissed her hands. “Be safe.”
She lifted a shaky hand and traced the single tear that lined his own cheek. “Always.”
Chapter 14: The Tables Turn
I know it's been forever. But I got word today that a dear friend needs a distraction.
Here is the first of a few, anyway, that are ready to go up. I hope it helps.
She was gone for months, again.
The letters were plentiful, at first, and then trickled off, as she grew further and further away from the sort of civilization that allowed for luxuries like letters.
She stumbled back into the castle in the middle of the night, at Summersend. Alone.
He didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. Instead he caught her, scared to ask.
“I found her,” she was crying – Elissa didn’t cry. But her face was wet when he kissed the tears away. “She… gave me a gift. Another gift. You can’t say Morrigan isn’t our friend now.”
Alistair tightened his arms around her. “Maker’s Breath. What now?”
“She loves him,” she sobbed into his doublet.
His breath caught. “I have a son?”
“I followed her, as far as I could. Through a mirror,” Elissa pushed back. “She’s found something extraordinary, Cheesy.” Her eyes were awed. “I don’t know how she managed it, but… they’re safe.”
“Where are they?”
Elissa smiled, “I cannot say.” He scowled, and she laughed through her tears, “No, I literally don’t know. I followed her – somewhere in Orlais, perhaps? The mountains could have been the Frostbacks, from the other side…” She shrugged, “Safe. And your son…” her eyes were soft again, “he’s so loved. She’s… gentle with him, as I’ve never seen her.”
Alistair shivered, and kissed the palm of her hand. “Then I am content.” He wasn’t, exactly, but it was good to know, all the same.
Elissa cleared her throat. “Her gift, though…” she lifted a scroll, ancient. “I can barely read it; the writing is so archaic. I’m going to get Dolores Guerrin on it straight away, but I think… I think it’s about a cure for the Blight.”
He grabbed her shoulders, “Are you certain?”
“As certain as I can be, with my limited education,” she cupped his face with both hands. “I’ve missed you, my King.”
“Don’t leave me again,” he ordered. “Better yet, let me go with you. It’s been nothing but work, work, work, and oh, yes, more work, with some politics thrown in for good measure. I could use a vacation.”
She laughed, still sad, but recovering, “You know that’s impossible, my King.”
“Is it?” He tilted his eyebrow at her. “We’ll see about that.”
As it was, it was years before they heard the rumor.
Elissa merely looked at him, the question unspoken. She’d been working night and day to unravel the mysteries in Morrigan’s gift, but with little progress. They made it through the dinner easily enough, dismissing the claims of the man spreading the tale ever so politely.
They were getting better at this.
But when they retired for the evening, Alistair couldn’t settle.
It had been a long few years. A man, alive, who looked like his missing father.
“Will you not sit, my King?” Alistair paused in his pacing to look at her. Her eyes, lined a bit now with age and sunshine, shadowed with ongoing grief, and so full of love for him that it took his breath away.
He stood up straight. “If there was a chance your father lived, what would you do?” He didn’t have to ask.
“You can’t go.”
“Are you going to stop me?”
She didn’t answer, merely went to her armor stand and started putting on her training gear. She threw him her sword – still, after all these years, never more than an arms-length away.
“Am I supposed to fight you for it?”
She looked at him, sober, and tossed her head back, binding it in a thick braid, and still not saying a word. On went her practice greaves, and her gloves, and then she left the room.
Alistair didn’t bother to change, just followed her lead, down the stairs, and to the center courtyard, where his Queen usually practiced. She drew her swords, back to him, and he fought.
It had been hard in recent months to find the time to train. He’d given up sorely needed sleep in favor of maintaining his physique and honing his skills. He wasn’t even close to being in top form – nobody that ate as much cheese as he did could expect to stay as svelte as they were when they were 20. His muscles were more developed, now, and his weight provided a good counterbalance to her quick moves meant to knock him off his feet. But even at his best, he’d never been able to beat his wife. She played with him, never smirking or even smiling with satisfaction as he struggled to keep up with her, batting his Thorn away like a rapier with her own heavy weapons.
He refused to give in, however, and even at this time of night, there were servants and scribes coming out to watch the King and his Queen have a wordless argument.
She was panting. Small satisfaction, as Alistair was sweating like a roast nug. Her nose was pinched, and white around the edges. He was blocking more than he was advancing, but he could see her arms were shaking – if not quite as bad as his were.
Finally, just as he was about to yield, she dropped her weapons in the dirt, glaring at him, face flushed with fury. “Fine.” She bit off. “Go on.” She pivoted on her heel and left him there, alone, with wide-eyed employees whispering behind their hands.
“I will,” Alistair whispered, but it gave him no satisfaction.
He didn’t sleep that night, instead working up instructions for Eamon and Elissa and Teagan to carry out in his absence.
Elissa knew best where to find his heir. Perhaps Morrigan would come forward – perhaps she wouldn’t. But if he succeeded…
If he succeeded, he wouldn’t be stuck in the Palace any longer. He could help Elissa with the Wardens. Help her figure out why the darkspawn had never left. Help her find the cure. He could help her carry the burden of their taint, and the guilt of her barrenness. He could help her.
He’d only ever wanted that. He’d never wanted to lead, never wanted to be a figurehead. If his father lived, he wouldn’t have to worry about an heir, not for years. And perhaps… perhaps if he could help his Dragon, they could still manage to conceive. They weren’t that old – not yet.
He slipped into their room at dawn, blinking when he realized that she was still sitting by the window in her practice leathers. She spoke. “I’m sorry."
“For leaving you – as often as I have. And then throwing a fit the moment that you have a quest instead of me.” She looked down at her lap. “I’m a spoiled brat, my King. I was raised that way – indulged and petted. I’ve been shortsighted, throwing you towards the throne, when it’s never made you happy, just to keep Anora out of it. Everything I’ve done has been selfish, self-serving.” That old habit of twisting the loose threads around her finger had appeared, and she spoke to it, instead of him. “If I would go looking for your son, why shouldn’t you seek your father? Double standards ill become either of us, my King.”
He wouldn’t have said that, but… “Apology accepted.”
She looked up, blinking, “Just like that?”
“It’s fair, to say I shouldn’t go. That the kingdom needs me.” Alistair let his mouth twist up, and he pulled his filthy tunic off over his head. “If I go, and fail, I will promise this will be the last selfish thing I do for myself. After this, I’ll come back, and be king, and do all the things I’m supposed to do. I swear it.”
Elissa snorted, “You don’t have a selfish bone in your body, Cheesy.”
“I have a lot of bones,” he deadpanned, picking up a cloth to bathe himself for the day. “Are you sure?
She rose, and approached him, taking the cloth from his hands and wetting it. “I’m sure.”
“I would have slept with you and Leliana.”
She dropped the cloth, and bent over to pick it up. “What?”
“You know the night I’m talking about. When Leliana confessed her feelings for you. If you had asked me, I would have done it. And not for you – for me.”
He watched her swallow in the mirror, eyes wide with shock. “I had no idea…” she shook herself. “I don’t suppose you’d consider Leliana as a mistress then?”
“No,” he smiled, whimsically. “An Orlesian bard for a mistress is something that the Court could never stomach.” He pursed his lips as she bathed him, enjoying her touch. “But that’s just one example.” He turned to look her in the eyes. “I’m going to go. I need to go.”
“You can’t go alone.” She ducked away from his serious expression. “It’s not safe. If there really is someone out there holding your father captive… Alistair, listen. You need help. Let me write to Zevran, or even…”
He put a finger on her lips, and then, when it didn’t work, talked over her. “No, my lady Dragon. It has to be me, and me alone. He’s my father. If I want to drag him back here and let him take my job away, it should be me.”
“Not. Alone.” She bit his finger, and while he yelped, she kept speaking. “I have… a few ideas. There’s a Warden in Kirkwall – Stroud. He’s looking into Deep Road Entrances with Howe. I’ll write to him. He’ll know somebody.”
“Elissa. I can’t use Warden resources for this.”
“Don’t Elissa me.” She rolled her neck, “Cheesy, you don’t seem to realize how lucky we were. I’ve done a lot of reading about the Blights. Ours was hardly even a Blight! And I don’t know if that’s because Urthimiel was just a pansy ass archdemon, or if it was because we nipped it in the bud so early, or if maybe Flemeth was… doing something on the side.” She frowned at him, where he was still holding his finger, rolled her eyes, and took his hand to examine the teeth marks. “Pshht, I didn’t even break the skin, you big baby.”
“Then don’t shush me.” She snapped her jaws at him, giggling for a moment before donning a serious face. “You know what happened with Anora when Cailan died. I can’t allow that again. I’ll give you six months – no more, no less, and you have to let me scout ahead and find companions for you. No one you’ve worked with, but you’re going to need a ship – and Kirkwall is the best place, short of Gwaren, to find a ship. And you can’t go to Gwaren – Anora would know in minutes. And you can’t leave from here – Eamon would find you out.”
Ever the strategist. “Amaranthine to Kirkwall, then?”
“I’ll have Stroud or Nathaniel meet you there.” She rubbed her forehead. “I’m not up to this, Cheesy. I’m not a real Queen, not like Anora was. They don’t like me. I’m not diplomatic. I’m not anything they need.”
“You’ll do fine.” Alistair hugged her tight to him. “If anyone gives you any lip, just challenge them to single combat. Pile up a few bodies, and everyone will listen. Remember Loghain?”
She snorted and hugged him tighter. “That was you.”
“You told me to do it!” He whined.
She sighed and squeezed him. “I know.” She paused, “My cycles are regular again. Something in the latest batch of that potion I got from World of Thedas is doing the trick. Do you want to…”
She was in his arms before she could finish, and he laid her on the bed, pulling at her leather vest strings with his teeth. He frowned and spat them out. “This is horribly impractical. I don’t see how the Guard Captain manages to be patient while her lover removes everything with his lips. May I use my hands, love?”
Her body shook, hopefully not with laughter. “Of course, Cheesy.”
“Good.” He kissed her once. “There are other things I want to do with my mouth.”