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The Hard Road of Our Present

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They were on the road between Lothering and South Reach when the messenger rode by. Alistair was sitting on the seat next to the driver of their wagon - a fellow named Andrew who had joined up when the army had passed through Lothering on their way to Ostagar - when the rider sped up the line. Seeing the royal livery the man was wearing, he lifted his arm to wave the man down.


The look on the man’s face when he saw him immediately made him regret the decision.


“What happened?” he asked, dreading the answer.


The messenger frowned, focusing on settling his horse to pace with the wagon’s oxen, then he answered, “Ostagar was lost. The army was routed and I’ve been ordered to Denerim to give word to the Queen.”


Alistair’s breath caught in his throat. “The King?”


“Teyrn Loghain believed him dead.”


Closing his eyes, his heart hammering against his ribs as he recalled that last conversation with Cailan, Alistair asked, “Anything else?”


“The Grey Wardens proved traitorous and the Teyrn cites them in the King’s death.” The messenger then paused before saying quietly, “He claims that you convinced them to kill King Cailan.”


It was ludicrous. Mad. Perhaps just enough that the whole of Ferelden would believe it. There were a dozen other tales that could be twisted around it involving the Couslands and the reason he’d been at Highever since their father’s death. Howe’s betrayal could easily be turned into saving the country by that vein of so-called reasoning.


Part of Alistair wanted to run and hide in the deepest hole he could find in order to escape it. Perhaps he could find a ship that would take him to the Free Marches. But Cailan’s words about duty rang in his head, warring with that old promise of Father’s, and he tried to think.


Loghain was behind them on the road, perhaps a day at the most. No doubt they would reach Denerim before him but what then? Cailan had said that Anora had agreed to back his claim but would she really go against her father? And what was to keep Loghain from simply tossing him into Fort Drakon before anyone could question a thing? He was still just an acknowledged bastard, with no political clout beyond his connection to the Couslands and his now possibly dead brother.


Looking at the rider, Alistair said, “Let me guess: I and any surviving Wardens are to be arrested on sight.” When the man nodded, he sighed. “Yet you’re not doing your duty and arresting me.”


“I’m loyal to the crown, not the Teyrn , ser. And I know when something’s wrong,” said the man in a low voice. “The Teyrn ordered his men to stand down before they would have entered the battle.”


“He…he what?” He almost couldn’t believe that. Loghain had helped construct the battle plan. Alistair had seen the plans himself during that discussion with Cailan and it could have worked. Cailan had set Loghain’s forces and the just arrived Redcliffe men up to flank the darkspawn with the Grey Wardens and the bulk of the army to draw them in once they’d figured out where the horde was coming from. And that had only been the major part of the plan that he’d seen. His brother had been good at strategy, good enough to help him when they were younger - good enough to get Loghain’s praise!


Shaking himself, Alistair found himself saying, “Ride on.”


“Ser?” repeated the rider, looking surprised.


“Ride. On,” he repeated. “Tell the Queen the same story you told me. If I can beat Loghain to Denerim, I might be able to stall him.” Alistair then frowned before he added, “And tell the Queen I’m sorry.”


The man stared at him for a moment then bowed in the saddle before he breathed, “Your Highness,” and spurred his mount onward. Alistair flinched at the title and watched the rider’s disappearing back before he turned to look at Andrew, who was white as a sheet. He then shifted in his seat and found Aedan staring at him, obviously having heard the majority of the conversation.


Then Fergus’ arm rose up from where he laid in the bed of the wagon and he called, “You have Highever’s support, Alistair. Whatever we can do.” As Aedan nodded in agreement, Alistair felt like the ground was opening up to swallow him.


“Don’t put yourselves in danger for me.”


“You’re family, remember?” pointed out Aedan, making him recall his words in that tunnel under Highever and Fergus’ as they’d left Ostagar. “Family protects family.”


Alistair closed his eyes at that and breathed, “Right.” He then turned back forward and looked ahead in the direction of Denerim. His brother might be dead…but he still had Fergus and Aedan. And Anora. They needed him now.


Much as he might hate it, he had a duty.