"Alistair!" Anora swept into the king's office and slammed her hands on the desk with such force that Alistair jumped in his seat. But when she spoke, it was in a near whisper. "What is the meaning of this?"
"The meaning of what?" Alistair leaned back in his chair and looked up at his wife. She glared back at him, eyes flashing, forehead drawn into an angry furrow; from her flush, she had probably just run up the stairs, and yet not a hair was out of place.
"Of this!" She stepped aside to give him a view of the door, where Erlina stood with a basket awkwardly slung over her right elbow. "It was left in the throne room, and--" She threw her arms up in the air and shook her head with a groan. "Just-- go look."
Alistair rose from his seat and beckoned Erlina into the room. She stepped forward, walking with great care, glancing down at the basket as if it might explode. It held a small bundle covered with a blue blanket, and as Alistair reached down to pull back the cloth and reveal the basket's contents, he let out a slow sigh of wonder; he could not say he was truly surprised to see a sleeping baby, not more than three months old, with a dusting of red-gold hair over the top of its head.
"It can't be," he murmured as he brushed his finger over the child's cheek, trembling with fear and amazement.
"Who?" Anora whispered the word with more force than a shout. "Alistair, do you know who this child is?"
Alistair straightened and turned to look at her. "I think so," he said. "Where was it found?"
"In the throne room, as I said. It appeared there, with no sign of anyone coming into the room or leaving. The only clue was this note -- meant, I presume, for you." Anora thrust a sheet of paper forward, and Alistair took it, then read the neat, spindly handwriting:
I am sorry. You must trust that there was no other way. I will return for him soon. -M
No exhortation to keep the child safe; she would know there was no need. That Alistair would protect his son with his life, no matter what it took.
Because whatever else this child might be, he was also Alistair's son.
Alistair folded up the paper and walked over to the fireplace. For a moment he stared into the flames, remembering a banked fireplace in Redcliffe Castle. Then he crumpled the note before committing it to the fire, watching as the ends crinkled, turned black, caught fire and dissolved into ash. Once it was gone, he turned back to Anora and exhaled, heedless of her impatient frown. "I owe you an apology, and the truth. Although I can't imagine that you haven't figured it out by now-- but you still deserve to hear me say it. Yes. You're right. The child is mine."
Anora stood stock still for a moment before letting out a breath with a shudder, and then she lowered her eyes and angled her chin toward Erlina. "Mind the door," she murmured. Erlina nodded, set the basket down on the sofa, and left, shutting the door behind her. After the soft snick of the latch, the only sound in the room was the crackling of the fire, as Anora stared at the floor, her hands balling into fists, then relaxing. When she finally looked up and met Alistair's eyes, it was not with anger, but with pain, betrayal, a desolation that hit him in the gut. "You swore not to shame me. You stood before me and you swore. That you would not be like Cailan, like Maric. That things would be different. And now..." she swept her right hand outward, an accusing finger at the babe sleeping in the basket. "Now you prove that you are no better than the rest."
Alistair lowered his head. "I'm sorry. I should have told you. But it's not what you think-- no, really," he added hastily, as if to ward off her disbelieving glare. "Whatever you're thinking, it's not what happened. You'd never come up with this one, not in a thousand years. This child-- his mother-- it's Morrigan."
"Morrigan?" Anora raised her eyebrows in disbelief. "The Witch of the Wilds? You don't seriously expect me to believe she seduced you, or forced you with magic."
"No, no, nothing like that." Alistair glanced away. "It was-- much stranger. And more complicated. It had to do with the archdemon, and the Blight, and needing a child of Grey Warden blood. I was the only suitable Warden to hand, so I... did what I had to do."
"I see." Anora turned around in a circle, pacing to the window. "So you knew there would be a child, a royal bastard, a threat to any child I might bear you, and still you did not see fit to tell me?"
Alistair spread his arms. "Morrigan has no interest in the throne of Ferelden, or any other nation. That's what she told me, and I had no reason not to believe her. Which is why I thought it safer to keep the secret. But I was wrong. You had the right to know."
Anora nodded, but did not turn around. "So, is this the last surprise? Or should I wait for another basket to show up in the throne room tomorrow?"
"No." Alistair crossed the room and stood behind her, close enough to touch her shoulder; he lifted a hand, then thought better of it. "No chance. I swear it to you, Anora. In my whole life, there's only been one other woman, and she-- well." He took a step back with a shrug. "You know who she is."
"And does she know?" Anora shifted to face him.
Alistair rubbed the side of his neck and half-smiled at the memory of the most awkward conversation of his life. "She's the one who talked me into it."
One side of Anora's mouth twitched upwards. "Why am I not surprised?" She leaned back against the window frame with a sigh. "Well. I know better than to try and talk you out of sheltering your own son. But there is, I hope, no need to convince you of the need for utmost secrecy regarding his identity."
"No." Alistair stepped aside, giving Anora room to walk to the couch. She leaned over the basket and examined the baby, from a distance, as though she feared what it might do.
"I'm sure a nursemaid can be found among the servants," she said, stepping back. "Erlina will know, and whether she can be trusted. A babe this young is unlikely to be weaned." She sat down. "Whatever compelled a nursing mother to give up her child, it must have been dire."
Alistair nodded. "She would never have brought him to me otherwise. She told me I would never see her again, or the child, in no uncertain terms. For her to go back on that word..." He felt a stab of sympathy, and even fear, as he wondered at what circumstances Morrigan might now find herself in. Then he shook his head at himself. Who could've imagined that he would ever be worried about Morrigan?
Anora stood and faced Alistair, most of the lines on her brow smoothed. "Thank you for telling me the truth, if belatedly. I will speak to Erlina, and return as soon as I find him a place. Will you be all right, alone with a baby?"
"I think I can manage to keep a sleeping child alive for a few minutes," Alistair replied with a dry smile.
"I'll be back soon." Anora left, letting the door close gently behind her, and Alistair drifted to the couch, mouth going dry as the enormity of the moment struck him.
His son. He was alone with his son. With a child who was the greatest wildcard in the history of Thedas: a babe with the soul of an old god, the archdemon that had ravaged Ferelden not even a year before. And he was here, sleeping peacefully in a basket on Alistair's couch.
But as far as Alistair could tell, he was just an ordinary baby. Alistair could sense no whiff of the taint on him, not even at close range, and he let out a sigh of relief as he reached down to lift the child out of the basket. The baby was wrapped in a pale green cloth, and as Alistair picked him up and pulled him close, he made a snuffling noise but did not wake. A sleep spell, most likely, to keep him from waking at an inopportune time. But even magical sleep wouldn't last forever. Alistair lifted the small bundle up to his shoulder, supporting the baby's legs with one hand and letting the other rest on the back of his head -- a head that fit perfectly in the curve of Alistair's palm. He closed his eyes and breathed in the sweet and earthy scent of his son, and he felt such tenderness welling up in his soul that he thought he might weep.
"My son," he whispered through the knot in his throat. He leaned his temple gently against the top of the baby's head, and he did not know whether the tears burning behind his eyes were of sorrow or joy. "How can I love you this much, when I don't even know your name?"
The boy snuffled again, then squirmed a little bit. Alistair leaned him back to look in his face, just in time to see him yawn, then open his eyes. Big, pale eyes, the same unsettling color as Morrigan's. He had Morrigan's forehead, too, and her sharp nose. But his chin was Alistair's own, and the shape of the eyes, and of course the hair -- Eamon had told him, once, that his hair had been redder when he was a baby.
Alistair sat down and laid the baby down on his legs, holding him in place with one arm on each side. He found himself unable to take his eyes off his son's face. So tiny, so fragile, so young, and yet he looked back at Alistair with something like understanding in those pale, pale eyes. "Do you know me?" Alistair murmured, lifting a thumb to stroke the baby's smooth, fat cheek. "Will I ever see you again?" Maybe not. He could not go to the servants' quarters to visit, or have the child summoned to him. It would raise too much suspicion. He thought, with an unexpected stab of sympathy, of his own father. Had Maric sent him away to Redcliffe at least partly because it was too difficult to have him nearby? Too painful, to know that his son was here, in the castle, and yet still out of reach?
"Well," he said, "you're here now. And so am I, so we should make the best of it, right?" He shifted a bit, settling the baby in his lap. "Does your mother tell you stories? I bet she doesn't. I bet she doesn't even like stories. But I like stories, so let me tell you one of my favorites: The Maiden and the Dragon. Many years ago, in a tower in the middle of the lake, there lived a pretty girl with long, long hair..."
So engrossed was he in telling the tale, that he didn't notice Anora's return, not until she cleared her throat and he looked up to see her leaning up against the door, eyebrow raised at him. "What are you doing?"
"Telling him a story." Alistair shifted the baby into his arms as he stood. "Children like stories."
Anora shook her head with a small smile. "I doubt he understood a word of what you were saying. But at least you kept him quiet. Erlina will be here shortly; she's found him a place."
"Ah." Alistair swallowed. "Good, then. Where?"
"One of the chambermaids has a sister in the Alienage with a child of about the right age. We've come up with a pretext to bring them here." Anora glanced at the baby, then at Alistair, displeasure warring with sympathy on her face. "Erlina is waiting outside."
Alistair nodded and slowly laid the baby back in his basket. He reached out to stroke his son's face one last time; the baby reached up and grabbed his finger, holding it tightly. Alistair smiled, then felt the smile wobble as he worked himself free from the strong, warm grip. He leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on his son's forehead. "You are safe here," he murmured. "I promise."
Then he drew back, turned around, and walked to the windows, unable to watch as Erlina took his son away -- his hands resting on the sill, his forehead on the glass. When he finally brought himself to look, Anora was still there, hands behind her back, her expression become one of concern.
"I'm fine," he said, answering the unasked question. "But I'd like to be alone for awhile, if you would."
"Of course," Anora replied. She left him there, through the side door that led to her chambers, and Alistair sank down in his chair, leaning forward, lacing his fingers in his hair, and tried to sort through the churning in his heart.
Three days later -- perfectly boring, uneventful days, marred by Alistair's inability to pay attention to anything for longer than a few minutes, so consumed was he by thoughts of his son, and how he might be doing -- he found himself back at his desk, attempting to write a letter to Sereda that would explain recent events without giving too much away. He had just crumpled up his fourth attempt and tossed it in the fire when a knock came at the door: Erlina.
"Come in," he said, and she did so, shutting the door behind her. "Anora isn't here; can I help you with something?"
"I have news for you." Erlina brought her heels together to stand at stiff attention. "It regards the child that was found here, in recent days."
Alistair jumped out of his seat. "What's wrong? Is he all right?" He gripped the edge of the desk, and his heart beat faster-- if something had happened to him...
"As far as we know." Erlina bowed her head. "He is gone, your majesty. The nursemaid says that a dark-haired woman came in the night, suddenly appearing at her bedside. Silently, without alerting the guards."
Alistair straightened, one vertebra at a time. "Did she give her name?"
"No, your majesty. The nurse says not. She thanked the nurse for taking care of her son, picked him up, then vanished."
Erlina nodded. "We questioned all the guards, and the other servants. No one else saw this woman, or heard her passing. She disappeared, as surely as the babe himself appeared in the throne room. We have been searching the castle, but--"
Alistair sighed and sat back down. "No need. The boy is safe, and with his mother. Call off the guards."
"If you are certain." Erlina shuffled a step backwards. "I regret I have no more information for you."
"It's fine. Thank you, Erlina."
"Your majesty." Erlina bowed, then left; Alistair let out a long, slow breath. This was easier for everyone, and better for the boy -- he should be with his mother, not a strange nursemaid and a father who didn't even dare cross the palace grounds for a quick glimpse. He could not have given his son the love and attention he deserved. But that didn't stop his heart from hurting, heavy with the knowledge that he wouldn't even be given the opportunity to try.