Each step forward with the hammer clenched in her hand felt as if she was walking through quicksand, and time itself seemed to stand still. In that moment of endless time when her eyes met his, memories flooded back…


Maren had just finished checking the last strap on her armor and putting it back on the stand when she heard the soft tap at the panel next to her bed. Grinning, she crossed to touch the carvings that Wynne had, reluctantly, enchanted so the catches would only respond to two peoples' touches, then slid the panel into the recess to be swept up in a fierce hug.

"Maker's breath, I didn't think Eamon would ever shut up tonight and let me go to bed. If I didn't know better, I'd think he was being long-winded on purpose."

The dwarf inhaled the freshly washed scent of Alistair's hair as he bent down to bury his face in her neck and kept her belief that Eamon had done exactly that to herself. However much he might owe to Brosca personally, and however tacitly the court accepted their relationship as long as they were discrete, she suspected Eamon strongly disapproved simply because Alistair remained reluctant to marry and secure the succession. But Alistair still trusted him, far more than she felt he should considering the man's poor judgement in the past. She also couldn't stand to waste any of their scarce time together in a pointless, and possibly acrimonious, debate, and she admitted that her reactions to the arl were colored in turn by how he had treated young Alistair.

Instead of voicing any of that, she enjoyed the feel of his arms around her at last and simply asked, "What was he blathering about?" To her surprise Alistair stiffened, and instead of answering, he stood and lifted her in his arms, covering her mouth with his with an almost desperate kiss. Mouth still on hers, he took two steps to his bed, tossing her into the center before crawling in after her to pull her close against him.

Normally this would have set her giggling and started a wrestling match with a very satisfactory and exhausting conclusion, but this time she merely took his face between her hands and made him meet her pale green eyes, certain he was trying to divert her. When she saw the pain, even anger, he was trying to hide, she had to suppress the urge to rearm and go looking for the arl. "Alright, Ali, this is me. What is it?"

He tried to look away, arms tightening around her possessively, but she held his eyes firmly with hers. "He…had another candidate he wanted to discuss. We argued."

Maren sighed, pulling his head to rest against her shoulder, not even needing to ask what he meant. "We knew this would happen, Ali."

"Maren, I don't want to marry anyone else. Ever." His voice was muffled against her shoulder, and she stroked his fair, soft hair, aching for him. "I hate it when he calls you my mistress, like you don't mean anything."

"I know you hate it, but remember who I am. Four years ago, I was nothing but a thug, and the best my family could hope for was that my sister would become someone's mistress and have his son. That word may bother you, but you're looking from the top down, salroka. From Dusttown looking up, that word is a badge of pride that means a whole family finally gets a chance at a life above the gutter." She didn't add that in Orzammar, because she hadn't had his son, she still wouldn't even be considered that much were she not already a paragon. She'd turned several attempted snubs by families of hopeful potential brides on their head by treating the word as a compliment—outside of Alistair's hearing, of course—but a word was only an insult if you had ever had any chance for something better.

"You are not a thug, Maren, and they all owe you so much even if they already seem to have forgotten that."

"Gratitude only lasts until someone's standing in the way of what you want, salroka, and I'm standing in the way of a lot of people." She knew her pragmatism puzzled him, but wasn't sure she really wanted him to ever understand the life that had shaped her, a life that had left her still baffled that someone like him could exist at all.

"Apparently yes, and I'm what they want." She buried her face in his hair at the bitterness in his voice. "Maker's breath, this girl is all of sixteen, and the only reason he suggested her was because he doesn't think her family is loyal enough to the throne! He didn't even pretend she might be a good queen or that I might like her, never mind that I'm half again her age. When Eamon accused me again of letting you distract me from my duty, I told him off finally, pointed out he was a fine one to throw around accusations since he actually married the woman he loved over what was best for his arling. I'm not sure he's speaking to me now." He seemed torn between anger and guilt, but she couldn't sense any doubts in his voice.

"Good, he needs to remember occasionally that you are the king." The again didn't escape her notice. Eamon had unsubtly hinted to her more than once that she was endangering Ferelden's peace as long as they stayed together, apparently thinking that would influence her, though he'd never said a word in front of Alistair of course. Clearly he'd been working both sides to try to erode their relationship. "Alistair, I know you don't like it, but they're never going to let us get married, and I'm okay with that. It isn't as if the Shaperate recognized casteless marriages since they don't admit we exist to begin with."

"But I'm not okay with it." His arms tightened around her as if afraid she would vanish at any moment. "Maren, you've done more for Ferelden than any of those stiff-necked banns and arls who bend my ear day in and day out, much less the girls they want me to marry, and you aren't even Ferelden."

"That doesn't help, you know. A lot of the older nobles remember the last years of the Orlesian occupation, and they don't trust any outsider, much less one in command of a small, independent army inside your borders."

He raised his head from her neck to kiss her much more gently now, hand stroking her light red hair. "I've done everything else they've asked me to do; giving you up is the one thing I won't do, my love." He got that uneasy, slightly guilty expression he always got when he was about to try to talk her into something and knew he shouldn't. "Leliana could find us a priest who'd just marry us and take care of the problem. No one would have to know unless they push me too hard."

"Sod it, Alistair, if we do that and word gets out, you're likely to have a civil war on your hands. At the very least, they'd be pushing you through the entire painful process to get the Chantry to dissolve it, and the Landsmeet would demand you marry someone 'appropriate' immediately and might not give you any say in who. And they'd make things a lot more difficult for the two of us. We've talked about this."

He seemed ready to argue, then sagged against her. "You're right. The Revered Mother would probably make it a condition of dissolving the marriage that we not see each other again. Sod it, you're a paragon, and your sister's married to the King of Orzammar now, you should have as much claim to rank as any of them!"

"And they also know that humans and dwarves rarely have children together, and that's aside from the taint from the Joining and whatever feelings they might have about a half-dwarf as their future queen or king." She spoke softly, but he kissed her forehead gently, keenly aware that lack disturbed her far more than formal recognition, and it was one with no answer. "Ali, I'm tough, your nobles are amateurs when it comes to insults, you know; they have nothing on Orzammar. The worst were usually servant caste."

He raised his head to study her curiously. "Really? I would think…I mean they're at the bottom of the castes?"

"But they're still part of it. Whether they admit it or not, most of them realize how fine a line divides them from Dusttown, and they are desperately afraid of slipping across that last bit of wire to not existing at all. It's why the caste system exists and works, and it works best on those at the bottom, salroka, to keep them from uniting with the casteless to force changes." She stroked his face gently, always amazed at how kind-hearted he had stayed through everything. "Look at the dwarves who lose caste and end up on the surface; most of the merchant guild families still have unofficial ties to high caste families in Orzammar. The Carta come from lower caste and the casteless. Those who were someone in Orzammar are still someone up here; if a member of the warrior caste is exiled, he bitches and moans but as soon as he gets to the surface, some relative or other is finding him a place." Maren wasn't certain Alistair entirely understood so she just smiled cheerfully up at him, and he seemed to forget their discussion, gathering her closer for a long, slow kiss that eventually ended any further words until dawn.


Another step forward, and she saw the flicker in his eyes, knowing he was remembering the same moments before memory swept over her again…


The Ferelden Wardens were accustomed to King Alistair's visits by now, and just as discretely turned a blind eye to his real reason for his visits. But it was still hours before Alistair and Maren were left alone long enough for even a quick hug and kiss in her study, despite the lack of fanfare at his arrival. By then, Alistair had obviously reached the end of his patience and noisily threw the lock on the door. He grinned at the dwarf as she set aside her helmet with her own sigh of frustration while her mabari settled quietly beside her desk on a well-worn blanket.

"I hope you brought discrete guards." He crossed the room in two steps, kneeling to wrap her in his arms, burying his face in her neck.

"Absolutely discrete and I picked two personal guards who just happen to owe you their lives from the Battle of Denerim." He inhaled deeply before lifting his face to hers in a long, slow kiss that said everything about the long separations they endured. "How much more do we have before we can gracefully escape for the evening and I can have you to myself? Because I'm seriously considering what emergency we can create that will occupy everyone except the two of us for a few hours."

"Just dinner. The banns won't make an appearance until tomorrow."

"Thank the Maker. And I suppose we should eat enough to keep up our energy." He leered at her mischievously, then paused, glancing to his right toward the fireplace. "Uh, not to suggest there's anything wrong with dwarven touches, but why is there an anvil in your study?"

"Ah, that." She let go of him, taking a step back almost nervously. "Well, I, um, had a thought. About our conversation when I was last in Denerim."

Alistair studied her closely, crossing his arms. "Maren, my love, you are up to something. Spit it out."

"Well, you know that the Shaperate denies even the existence of the casteless, but that doesn't mean the casteless accept that." Maren seemed intent on looking anywhere except directly at him or the anvil. "Have you ever noticed how I refer to my parents as married even if the Shaperate records me as a bastard, paragon or no?"

"I thought that was odd, but I don't pretend to understand Orzammar."

"That's because Dusttown has its own customs, salroka." She crossed to the anvil where a small round disk of stone rested, with a chisel on one side and a hammer on the other. "One of them is Splitting the Stone. For those with caste, it's frowned on, even scandalous for someone from the higher castes but it is acknowledged outside the Shaperate." Almost reverently, she picked up the hammer, staring down at the stone disc. "All we need are two witnesses to watch us split this stone in two, each taking half, and we never have to tell anyone else, Ali."

Alistair stood up, staring at the bent red head in disbelief, tinged with hope. "Maren, are you saying we could…?"

"Split the Stone and be married, at least privately? Yes." Her eyes finally met his uncertainly. "Of course it wouldn't be recognized by the Chantry either and I know it isn't quite what you want, but it's the best I can think of. And either of us can end it by destroying their half of the Stone in front of the other or one of the witnesses. No fanfare, no public humiliation, no fears the Chantry can use it to separate us for good. I mean, I don't need this, but you wanted it so badly…"

Alistair closed the distance between them in a flash, holding her so tightly that she couldn't breathe for a few moments. "You'd really do this, marry me?"

"Yes, but on one condition." The dwarf drew back from him, making him meet her pale green eyes. "Swear to me that you won't fight me if it becomes necessary to end it so you can marry someone to produce an heir or if I feel our Stone is interfering with your duty." She rested her palm lightly on his chest over his heart. "I'll always know what's in here, Ali, and I'll always be your Maren whatever happens but our lives aren't our own."

He hesitated before slowly nodding. "I know you, you won't go through with this unless I agree. So yes, I swear."

"Good, now Sigrun and Nate are waiting; I hope you don't mind them as witnesses."

"Love, I wouldn't mind Morrigan as a witness to this if we could trust her to keep her mouth shut."


Another step, and Maren's other hand reached toward the anvil, her eyes locked on his, memories coming faster now…


Sigrun grinned broadly while Nate's expression was more reserved.

"I hope you two know what you're doing. If word of this gets out…"

"It won't, Howe, unless one of you two let something slip." Brosca eyed him balefully but Sigrun just snorted.

"Salroka, no one can get a word out of either of us unless we want them to, right, Howe?"

He just snorted. "I'd like to see them try."

Alistair knelt at Maren's side and she put his hands around the chisel, guiding them to place it carefully on exactly the right spot on the stone with her left hand around his. "Just hold it like that." Seemingly completely in possession of herself, she lifted the hammer, lined it up on the head of the chisel, then gave it a brisk, experienced rap. The stone disc split into two perfect halves at which Sigrun crowed triumphantly.

"The favor of the Stone goes with such a perfect split! Well struck!" Maren grinned quickly at her, then set the hammer down on the anvil, her hands finally betraying her nervousness, shaking when she picked up one half of the disc to hand to Alistair.

"You keep this half as long as you want to be married, salroka." He laid down the chisel quickly and took the small half-disc to stare at it disbelievingly before tucking it into his pouch. Then he passed the other half to her, his eyes on her shaking hands.

"You were nervous, love? You're never nervous."

"I've also never gotten married before." She took her half, running her hands over it slowly as if memorizing the shape and texture before tucking it into her own pouch and glancing over at the blonde human standing close enough to touch. Her husband, at least of a sort, and felt something strange and a little scary at the thought. She wasn't impulsive, had never been impulsive, but here she was doing the most impulsive thing imaginable simply to ease his unhappiness. By the Stone, what had happened to that Duster who met Duncan at the Grand Proving all those years ago, the woman who thought she was too tough to ever let herself be manipulated by her emotions? Then Maren saw the glow in her husband's eyes and impulsively reached for his hands, holding his hands in hers, and consigned logic and pragmatism to the Void.


Setting the stone down on the anvil, she saw the plea in his eyes, begging her silently as she raised the hammer, feeling the assault of the far more recent memories from last night almost overwhelming her…


"You don't have to do this, Maren. If it becomes necessary while you're gone, I can call Nate or Sigrun to Denerim and destroy my half. Until then, we can…" He couldn't quite bring himself to finish, his voice thick with pain.

"We don't know how long I'll be gone, love, and I don't want any reason for you to hesitate just because I'm not here to ask and you know you would. You are the King of Ferelden first and my lover second just as I have to be Warden-Commander first. I swear to you, if I return and you're already married, I will be mistress or friend or whatever you can accept, but if you are not and you still want me, we can Split the Stone again." She was rather proud that she kept her voice even, even if she couldn't meet his eyes. "Being married to you for the past years, even if no one knew but us was…" His lips met hers in an almost desperate passion as he finally gave up the argument and nothing else was said though neither slept that night…


…then the hammer struck, shattering her half-disc of stone into powder and shards, one chip flying up to slice her hand as she let go of the hammer dully. With a cry, whether of grief or concern or some of both, Alistair jumped forward, grabbing her hand to stop the blood and quickly wrapping it in a bandage, though the pain in her hand was nothing to the sword that stabbed through her gut when her stone shattered. When he was done, he held it gently between his, neither quite meeting each other's eyes. Finally, Alistair simply pressed his lips lightly to hers, no longer arguing about what was now already done.

"Come back to me quickly, love." And with that he was gone, and the tears began to flow once he could no longer see as she turned to finish packing her bags for her trip to the west, her mabari pressing against her side in comfort.


Afterword


In many cultures, there have been less formal forms of marriage usually practiced by peasants and others who generally lacked the means to pay for formal recognition. I was recently reading an article about the use of broomstick weddings in British influenced areas through the 19th century and it struck me that the casteless in Orzammar and peasants in Ferelden would probably have their own versions of this. After all, the Chantry charges a fee for the permit to marry (something that can be mentioned in the City Elf origin,) but legal marriage only matters when the family has property to inherit. Such marriages are often almost as easily dissolved (by jumping backwards over the broomstick for instance) which led to me doing this to Brosca and Alistair. I'm sorry...