Thank you to Lauren (notalwaysweak), DesiArcy, and Drakkenmensch for editing.
The fastest march in the history of Ferelden was near its completion. Redcliffe was three days in the rear; and Denerim was in sight. The capital was lit but all was not well, and none of the Grey Wardens were sleeping peacefully. Tomorrow, they would fight the Darkspawn and the Archdemon to end the Fifth Blight. Karen Cousland tossed on her bedroll. Every time she tried to clear her mind to sleep, the archdemon was there, screaming images of murder and mayhem into her brain. She could tell Alistair was having the same problems. Near the Grey Wardens’ camp were the camps of elves, dwarves, Arl Eamon’s men and mages, and flying overhead was Karen’s personal banner – the griffon rampant of the Grey Wardens, superimposed upon the laurels of House Cousland.
House Cousland. After the battle at Denerim would come the liberation of Highever Castle – and Karen would face a difficult choice indeed. As the last known remaining child of Teyrn Bryce and Teryna Eleanor, she was also, perforce, Teyrna Karen, as well as a Grey Warden, and the Queen-to-be. No wonder Karen’s thoughts churned, even without the mental shrieks of the Archdemon.
Karen’s thoughts strayed to her father and mother and she sighed. The rage over the deaths of Bryce and Eleanor had long since settled into melancholy, which wasn’t fully lifted by the slaying of Arl Howe. Though it had been rather hilarious to watch Teyrn Loghain’s mouth goldfish open and closed as Howe’s severed head rolled to a stop, as she claimed Howe’s death as vengeance for the deaths of her parents. The others, though, were very quick to catch on to her melancholy, and seldom let it last long enough to take root.
The camp smelt of sweat, blood, fire, and steel. Their camp was upwind of the camps of Eamon’s men and the dwarves, and thus it smelled much fresher than it otherwise might. Karen knew that the dwarves would be drinking far, far into the night, and would in fact be marching in the morning still drunk - though not for long, since the dwarven constitution processed alcohol far more quickly and efficiently than a human’s. To hear a Dwarf tell it, that meant that humans were absurd lightweights.
Sten was nowhere to be found. He would, presumably, be on walkabout. The towering Qunari lived for the Qun - the rigid teachings of his people - and for battle. Nothing more, or so he claimed. Even his name was not truly a name, but a title - but Karen had seen another Sten in the flickering firelight, seen the tremendous man in his unguarded moments, playing with Sirius. Actually seen him smile.
Swords, knives, axes were held in the camp armory, conveniently near the tents so they could be grabbed at a moment’s notice if the Darkspawn - or late-night raiders looking for an easy mark - decided to make an appearance. Both had happened in the recent past.
Perhaps the only person sleeping easily in the Warden Camp was the Mabari, Sirius. He had been out late and was sleeping the sleep of the highly satisfied. It was rumored that Sirius was himself a Grey Warden, and he had picked up the nickname “Barkspawn” from some of the men.
Abandoning sleep for the moment, Karen rolled to a sitting position. Her strawberry blonde hair shone in the firelight. Alistair was sitting in his usual place by the fire. Leliana – sweet, sensual Lily – was lying on her side, painting flowers on the flank of her pet nug, Schmooples, while Oghren made untoward comments from the shadows about how tasty its drumsticks would be. Karen and Leliana ignored those comments.
Leliana was softly singing one of her favorite songs while she worked. Karen, following her lessons, sang the harmony. It was so refreshing, in the dark twilight, on the eve of the end of the world, or so things felt, to see someone so focused on the light and the beauty of the world as Leliana. The two women’s light leather armor was set off to the side, giving them free and easy movement.
“You know, Karen… I was thinking. About this final battle, and what we might do after.” Leliana brushed red hair out of her soft grey eyes. She was so beautiful.
“You know that after the battle, Alistair will be King and I will be Queen.” Karen sighed. She felt her world closing off, the relatively carefree world of a wandering adventurer.
Leliana’s eyes shone. “Exactly. And I do not know what will come after that. But I do know that all nobles, besides their married spouse, have a comely maiden or handsome stable boy on the side.” Her hands grew animated as she spoke, embellishing her words with gestures. “Many of my favorite tales are of the illicit romances between married noble and simple commoner. Perhaps… perhaps we might disappear into the countryside from time to time, and pretend at being simple minstrels together.”
“Lily… you are anything but simple.” Karen rolled over and kissed her – as Alistair’s smile grew wider.
“Do you two… ever… mind if I watch?” It was the single most forward thing Alistair had ever said, and it froze Karen and Leliana in place for a moment. Karen’s mind raced; Leliana ran her fingers slowly through her red hair to give herself time to think. Before Karen could open her mouth, a slow, sexy smile spread across Leliana’s face. The look she was giving Alistair – manly, gorgeous Alistair – was enough to melt Karen’s knees and give her the exact same idea.
But only for a moment, then Lily replied, “Dear Alistair, our companion of many journeys… I think I speak for myself and Karen when I say, we do not mind if you join in.” There was a long, softening moment between the three.
Morrigan cleared her throat delicately and everyone near the fire looked up. “I was… a bit lonely, out on the edge of the camp.” She was not in her usual robes but in an exquisitely delicate nightgown. It was lacy and clearly a gift from Lily – very expensive.
Alistair – King Alistair – smiled. In the middle of this very tense night, he didn’t seem to feel his usual overt defensiveness toward Morrigan. Of course this could also be because of the events two nights past – events that Karen was right in the middle of. Morrigan, of course, had given Alistair a rather less dignified nickname, and Karen had with the grace of one raised to be a noble Lady refused to notice that the two lingered closer and closer together, or the suspiciously Morrigan-like sounds rising from Alistair’s tent on an increasingly common basis. The quickest way to drive Morrigan and Alistair apart would be to point out that she’d noticed them together, and Karen liked seeing Morrigan and Alistair together. Each softened the other’s rough edges – Morrigan made Karen’s husband-to-be sharper and quicker-witted, and Alistair was patiently drawing out Morrigan’s softer side.
Karen smiled as well. “You’re always welcome with us, Morrigan.” She took Morrigan’s hand – delicate and soft, but very strong – and guided the woman toward the fire. Her tent lay in the far corner of the camp, and it took Morrigan a lot of personal effort to guide herself out of the shell of cynicism and anger that protected her from the rest of the world, but also obscured her heart and made it more difficult for others to get closer to her.
For a few moments, Karen looked around the fire. These were not just her friends. Maker’s Breath, they were her soul mates. She would die for any of the other three here. And looking in their eyes, she knew that they would for her. Words passed her lips, almost without thinking, into the comfortable quiet, punctuated by the snap of the burning wood. Her dearest companions, their bond forged in fire and steel, each of them knew that she was talking to him or her.
“I love you.”
Morrigan looked down at herself. The life beginning its most tender, tentative form within her – her body would not even begin to show pregnancy for months – tied her to Alistair, Karen, Leliana, intimately. She made a choice. She had never, ever given her heart before in her life – not to her treacherous mother, not to anyone – but this choice was hers now. The first choice she had ever truly made in her life. “I choose to stay. I was intending to leave after this last battle – but you three mean more to me than that.” She fell quiet for a heartbeat. “Alistair, if you open your mouth and let your brainlessness show, I’ll never let you forget it.”
Alistair curled his arm protectively around Morrigan’s – and even though she was easily his equal in combat, she melted into his touch in a way she never, ever would have allowed herself to these weeks and months past when their journey began. Their bickering, which had long since taken on a companionable tone, had ceased entirely these last three days, an indication of how grave both perceived the situation to be. “I… I never wanted to be a leader. I worried about being alone, about never having another I could confide in, or show weakness to. But you three have shown me, that emotion is not weakness. That a strong person can cry when the moment calls for tears. Duncan tried to teach me that, but I was too… headstrong and angry to learn.”
“Maybe… what you just needed, Alistair, was a woman’s touch.” Karen smiled seductively. The four had come closer over their trials and difficulties than they had ever thought possible. In combat, they had learned to read each other with increasing precision – Karen and Leliana’s songs weaving a spell together as Morrigan’s more overt magicks blasted the field of enemies, and Alistair - sensitive, indomitable Alistair - forming an impassable wall at the front. And Karen and Leliana’s fighting effectiveness doubled each other in startling ways. The two were always working at the edges of a fight, their flashing daggers slicing deeper into the flesh of their enemies with each strike. Trained duelists and skilled bards, it was they who first recognized that the bond of love they shared was romantic, rather than platonic. Their songs intermingled in the dim campfire light every evening.
Alistair and Morrigan... oh my. Those two at first seemed night and day, cats and dogs. But as the companions had grown closer together, their contentious relationship had quickly taken on a sexual edge.The passion between Alistair and Morrigan was the crackling of two lightning stones held too close together, hot and electric. Their lovemaking had started as an expression of physical need; almost an extension of the competition between the two into the unlikeliest arena. Yet they had found peace in each other’s arms, in the whispered moments after their energy was spent, and in spite of their spoken resentment toward one another, the two had begun to settle into a companionable routine.
There was an unmistakable, undeniable attraction between Alistair and Karen as well. They were brother and sister Wardens, of course. In the days after Duncan’s death, when all had seemed lost despite Karen’s brave words, they had found comfort in each other’s body. As it happened, this was also a Warden tradition. The love between two warriors together could and often did become sexual, and it was easier to accept and solemnize than to try to downplay or forbid. Alistair’s gentle lovemaking had driven away Karen’s nightmares, and she had always found it easy and comforting to sleep after sex.
Now, of course, Karen was to be his wife - or Alistair was to be her husband. She wasn’t sure how it quite worked out, since though Alistair was a Thierin, he was also a bastard, and thus would normally be disinherited. It was unquestionably her own noble status that made Alistair’s kingship acceptable to the Landsmeet - and she wondered, necessarily, how the tension between the Grey Wardens, Alistair’s own need to be a good King, and her own status as the daughter of the oldest noble family in Ferelden would come to a head. To protect the kingdom, if Alistair had not agreed to rule, she may have had to put her own hat into the ring - being a Cousland came with a considerable pedigree, after all.
It was, finally, Alistair who broke the silence. “I think... that we’ve become more than just a group of warriors, fighting to stop the end of the world. Sometime, during this whole adventure... we four became a family.”
Calm spread around the fire. Unlike a week previous, when Darkspawn had attacked the camp well after dark, surprising its residents and scattering the beasts, the Wardens were surrounded by rings of their armies. Tonight, the army would keep watch while its generals slept. As much as anyone was during the time of this Blight... they were safe.
In the morning’s first light, Karen woke between the warmth of Alistair and Leliana; Morrigan’s hand on her hip. “Long day ahead,” she whispered, taking a few last moments to savor this, before the four of them began to break apart, reluctantly.