Dragon Age: The Trouble With Heroes' Journeys
Alistair comes to meet me back by the fire. He gives me a silly face, blowing air out his lips and widening his eyes, acknowledging that he's coming back from the privy. It's not necessary. I have pissed outside before. So has he, many times, in the many camps we have made on our journey. He remains a very strange human.
He indulges in his little exaggerated groan while he bends down to sit and then plants his shiny knight's boots a few feet from mine. I nod and smile without thinking.
I think we've both noticed it, by now: the way the others let Alistair and I sit here by the fire, while they all take their places a little while away, just out of earshot. I know Wynne gets cold, for one. Perhaps it is because of his rank among the nobility and my position as head of the group that we are given this privilege? Or not. In any case, it's our space now.
We're a faintly ridiculous sight. To me, everything in human-occupied lands looks strange, but this must look silly even to the others. A shem Prince and an outlaw wilder sat down in the mud together wearing matching suits of armour, chatting away, sharing food and drink, arguing about battle plans. I had been trying to tie my dirty, blackened hair up into a tail without it itching me to death, but now I just give up and let it lay loose over my ears.
"Mahariel," he says. He uses my last name when he's bored.
"Your highness," I reply, and he laughs. I'm not sure if I wanted him to or not. I tell him, "You had better get used to hearing that," and he shoos me.
After half a minute's thought, he rolls his eyes. "You sound like Loghain badgering Cailan. Or my father, I suppose. Or anyone, really. I think the wind stuck one day while he has telling somebody off."
"Is he a subject for jokes?"
"Oh, pardon me. Something reminded me of the old war stories, you know? King Maric and Loghain, hiding from the Orlesian armies, fighting impossible odds together to liberate their homeland! Actually that's rather eerie, isn't it?"
I wonder if Maric looked like his son. I wonder if he joked. "They would make fine role-models," I say. "They won." A thought comes over me. Once again I realise how little I know about flat-ear history. I ask him, "How did they win it?"
"Oh well, they were careful. And brilliant, and heroic and blessed by Andraste and all that stuff. Let me see, they enlisted the help of dwarves by fighting in the Deep Roads. They won an important victory at Gwaren, I know that. And they worked together, you know. It was the two of them, all the way. Maric was the symbol of hope, the lost heir, and Loghain had the brains and the determination and, uh."
Familiar again. Alistair seems to be thinking the same thing, though he looks almost alarmed. "Maker's breath," he says, "they also fell in with a half-Orlesian bard. And some of the stories say Maric loved her."
Both of us glance for a moment at Leliana, who just waves back.
"Except she was," Alistair continues, "well, an assassin. And an elf."
We do not look at Zevran. He doesn't dare. "Go on," I say, trying to make him concentrate.
"There were conflicting reports about that part, from what I could tell. Some people said she betrayed them. Some said Loghain betrayed her. Some said Loghain did a lot of things. Poisoned the King's mind, they said sometimes. Gave him his cruelty. Made him marry. In very hushed voices, you know. I never believed a word of it, until," his eyes open again, "until right this very moment, really. I've always trusted him."
I prod him along. "And how did they win?"
"Well they assassinated the arch-mage who had commanded the efforts against them, and after the tide turned they forced the Usurper Meghren into a duel."
I had been hoping for something we could use, there. "I don't think we can force the Archdemon into a duel," I mutter.
"No, true, I expect he'll insist on safety in numbers, the Archdemon. Clever bugger. Loghain might not be so easy to sneak up on, either."
It occurs to me that it might be easier to reverse those tactics. Backstab the dragon and force the man?
"I'm not sure I see you assassinating people, anyway," Alistair says. There is no meaning to the words. No implication. Just thinking out loud.
I mutter, thinking about it.
"I mean, you're not a murderer are you?"
I think back over my list of victims, excluding the Darkspawn – shems in the forest, bandits, soldiers, commoners with too much wine and fear in them – trying to work out if any of those deaths were murder, exactly. "I am a Grey Warden," I tell him.
"Ri-i-i-ight. How exactly did that happen, anyway? I've never asked for the details."
No you haven't. We don't talk about me. I'm not important. I give him the short version. "It is the duty of my clan. The Wardens call, we answer. It is right."
Alistair just asks, "Have you considered a career in the Qunari vanguard? It sounds like you'd really fit in." I acknowledge the joke as meekly as I can. Bob my head around. He laughs.
"Is something bothering you? Or..." he sounds a bit sad, slightly pathetic, "am I bothering you? Should I not have brought up that business about my father? Wait, I thought I was the one who got upset by that?"
"Bad dreams," I tell him. It's not true. I can cope with those now. It bothers me that he apparently cannot. I have seen him waking up, slowly and trembling. Not like a King. Or a saviour. Barely like a Grey Warden, from what I hear. He gives me a sympathetic look, as though to share my pain. I almost want to slap it.
"Is that, well, something that bothers you?" he asks, misunderstanding my look. "The joining? I know the Dalish are descended from immortals."
I can guess what he's getting at. I say, "Yes, since I left the forest I've seen a lot more death than I'm used to," and leave it there. Tamlen. Duncan. Cailan. Everyone.
"And now you're sort of doomed to a short life, aren't you? Shorter than anyone's. That's a bit, you know. Ironic." I scan his face, trying to guess if he genuinely thinks this hasn't occurred to me before now. "Oh aye!" he says suddenly. By everything sacred, he's trying to do a bloody Dalish accent. "Oh yer a shemlen now, so y'are!"
I'm still trying to get a read on his expression here. He looks, well, ordinary. Humour isn't really a mask for him, is it? He doesn't contort his features when he's doing one of his jokes, he doesn't lighten his voice. On the contrary, he has to drop it an octave and try to make himself frown whenever something forces him to be serious. When someone dies or Duncan's name is mentioned. He looks like a child being forced to recite history by his hahren.
He apologises but he's still smiling. Still waiting for a response. I tell him, "We're all short-lived now," and think for a second about expanding my point. I feel like I should. Not too long ago, being called a shem would have made me spit. But it doesn't matter now, the old grudge. The darkspawn are the enemy now. We're all waiting to die. Alistair and I have the same borders to protect.
"Everything I do now, I do for Ferelden," I put in. "Do not question my–" I don't finish. I'm thinking about something else. About enemies encroaching on my border, and their friends coming back to drive us all off. About disappointed elders I'll never see again. And then battlefields. Brothers and betrayals.
"Your... grumpiness?" Alistair suggests. "No I certainly shan't question that."
Before I knew he was a Prince, before I knew how necessary he was, I considered abandoning him. I want to tell him that. I won't. He's a friend now. Somehow.
I'm not Morrigan. I don't sit over in the corner and make do. And I'm not Sten. I don't just follow orders; I care about the people I'm saving. I'm here by the fire, with the King.
And I'm not Alistair either. I'm his second. His protector. The one with the brains.
I would have abandoned him in the middle of a fight if I thought it would save this land. It is not mine. It is not the humans'. But this man and I will fight side by side until every piece of Darkspawn filth has left it.
I look at him. His healthy, rotund, glowing, fair, pale, unblemished King's face blinks a bit and his shiny chestpiece just sits there on the grass, waiting to get up and march. Always three steps behind me.
I have tried to harden him. A little bit of me has rubbed off on him, I know that. I hope it will be enough. I hate to do it, but he has to change.
Crusading with Alistair is nothing like hunting with Tamlen. I have to be the dirty one here. I have to do the killing. Take the lead.
He will become a King eventually, no matter who I have to kill in front of him. I will see him break if I have to, see him in real pain. See him pick himself up.
I'll make him do it.
And we'll not be driven from this land.