The stench is familiar by now, charred rot and brimstone slaked with sweet copper and mouldered earth. It's haunted his dreams of late with more frequency, and even though he knows he's dreaming, knows what parade of horrors awaits him trying to open his eyes, he still can't help the tickle of fear in the back of his throat-a tickle in his dream, likely a blood-churning scream in reality. When he does try to wake himself, his dream-eyes open and he finds himself in the middle of Denerim as it was on the night of their victory over the archdemon; fire licks the walls of buildings like lovers, the burning streets overrun with monsters that don't know the first taste of pity. Unlike that far-past night, however, he's here in the hellscape of his dream without a whisper of an ally, and a horde of twisted fiends all singing seductively for him to join them-
Alistair sat bolt upright in his too-comfortable bed, the too-soft sheets soaked through with sweat, the dying echo of a scream on his too-dry lips. His guards have long ago learnt to demarcate his night terrors from true distress, but he still doesn't envy them having to listen to their king scream himself awake on a thrice-weekly basis-less often in recent weeks, but still disturbing, nonetheless. And his queen, how she must have worried over him. "I'm sorry, Annie," he slurred, still only half awake, and he pawed apologetically at her spot beside him, only to have his palm land flat in the depression her body had worn into the mattress, warmed only by his own thrashing. The spot had lain cool for more than a year, now, and suddenly a memory cut through the ague of his nightmare, of the last time he had seen her there, appearing for all the world in peaceful slumber, finally beyond the agony no healer had been able to expunge. "I'm so, so sorry," he breathed, closing his eyes against the tears that welled there, for the flickering visions of his nightmare were slightly more welcome than the paltry reality he had woken up to.
Theirs had been a political marriage, of course, guided in its early months by the deft influence of Leliana, who'd been Alistair's lover and who, by some confluence of luck and skill, became one of Anora's dearest friends. When Leliana's duty drew her to Val Royeaux, she left the King and Queen of Ferelden in a state of companionship that slowly grew into an unlikely kind of love, built on respect and admiration before affection and infatuation-though those aspects were hardly absent, once the two got past the awkwardness of actually having fallen in love with one another. That love saw them through the years of governance, the small miscalculations and the unreasonable defiance of even smaller nobles who chafed under the peace Alistair and his friends had bought them with blood, the whispers of discontent over the Wardens' overreach and the continued vacancy of the royal nursery. Anora and Alistair held strong through it all, each keeping the other's council, respectful even where they disagreed. They made an excellent team, in politics as in life, and by rights they should have done so for years yet; it was funny to think, but Alistair was supposed to be the one to waste away, or rather to disappear one night, after the years had turned his beard grey and his ears became attuned to the song of the Old Gods.
Instead he had to watch Anora, that brave and strong woman, fall to a wasting sickness the healers could only delay for so long. Not long after she returned to the Maker's side, Alistair's dreams began bringing him back to Denerim under siege, and he thought he might go mad with despair. But there was a country to run, and no man or woman more fitting to run it than the scion of Calenhad; so, even as a part of him wanted little more than to chase his dreams all the way into the Deep Roads, Alistair kept his head and his crown, heavy though both grew in his grief.
Even now, regret and remorse drove him to discount the disquiet he felt in his heart following his latest nightmare, and he tried to settle back into the bed to salvage a few more hours' sleep before the business of the country dragged him back out of it once more. But his heart began to pound strongly in his chest as he lay there, his blood twitching oddly in his veins until he couldn't ignore it-until he couldn't breathe, couldn't hold back strangled grasps, couldn't draw in enough air to call for help. The world went black-even in the dimness of his bedchamber, there should have been some light to see by, but he could not, and the writhing beneath his skin only increased. Oh, Maker, he thought to himself, as he felt blood and bile rising at the back of his throat. I...I'm not-
His vision returned with all of the suddenness it had fled him, and he lay paralysed, witness to the black ichor of his own heart passing from his mouth and nose, lifting to float in the air above him as though conjured by a blood mage. He would have screamed if he could have done, and though he racked his brain for his dormant templar training, the King of Ferelden was impotent to halt this magical assault. It could mean any number of things-had the wards about the palace failed? Had his own court mage, Horace, been murdered by a fanatic rueing the crown's cooperation with the Inquisition? Had the man himself betrayed him? Eventually, despite his paralysis, Alistair's continued survival-not to mention his ability to think-began eliminating possibilities, until none remained that he could comprehend. When the last of the black blood lifted from his lips, it joined the mass above him. Suddenly he could breathe again, though he lay transfixed by the blood that had been drawn out of him. It formed into a sphere, a solid ball of darkness as total as any nook of the Deep Roads, and it began to boil away, bubbling and roiling from some inner flame that gave off no smoke or sound, but worked all the same to reduce the foulness until it disappeared.
When it was gone, Alistair tried to move his arm, and found that he could do so; indeed, it was lighter than it had felt in years, and when he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, the blood left there smeared crimson against his flesh, bright and vivid even in the night's shadow. That had not happened-blood the colour blood was supposed to be-since a handful of months after his Joining. And despite the trauma of the experience, he found himself not only alive, but positively hopeful, as though a great anvil, weighing down his heart for too many years, had finally been toppled over. He was exhausted, yes, but somehow he felt free. And then he realised that the song had gone. The song whose subtle tunes he'd first heard whispered the night of his Joining, the song that had begun to intrude on his thoughts even during the day since Anora's passing. It had not simply receded to the underbelly of his awareness, either; it was gone, well and truly absent, and he could not even remember the notes.
For the first time in more than a year, when Alistair fell asleep, he did so without fear of what his dreams might bring. In the morning, he roused himself to a world a half-shade brighter than the one he'd bid goodnight, and he spent the next several days in the odd position of attempting to hide his improved outlook from his councillors and confidantes; his mourning had given him a more reserved mien than had been his wont, and this miracle, the unaccountable removal of the curse in his blood, gave buoyancy to his boyish heart in a way that he did not quite trust to endure-despite the fact that his blood ran red instead of black, and that he might well live to ninety and die in his bed in good humour, he could not afford to let the news slip until he could confirm it...such speculation could destabilise the court, and if he still cared at all for Anora, he owed more to her memory than that. And none of it-not the new lease on life, nor the political considerations-changed the fact that he was still in mourning, and he could sense the reservoir of his grief lingering in the back of his heart, waiting to catch him unawares. It had done so before, after allowing him a day or an hour or a fleeting moment of relative quiescence, only to flood his heart with a sadness that could not be begged nor bartered away.
So he was wary, despite the lightness in his flesh and the cessation of the constant hunger that had gnawed at his belly every waking moment since he had taken the cup, all those years ago. On the fifth night after the event, he sat up late in his study, scribbling a letter in a sloppy hand, musing over his changed circumstances. The letter was addressed to Anora and was destined for the fire; a great part of their romance had been in shared missives, begun at first when duties led them apart for stretches of days, eventually becoming a habit even when they could rely on sleeping in the same bed. More than once they had both sat in this very study at their desks, writing to one another in silence, trading their thoughts and feelings on vellum. It was an indulgence, to be sure, but a relatively harmless one.
The first letter he put to parchment without the hope of a reply was the most difficult of his life, and the missives since had only grown marginally easier; sometimes he let weeks turn into months before he returned to this table with a mind to send Anora another letter. He did so this night with his grieving heart lightened by an altogether different kind of loss; he was not certain he deserved the clemency he'd received, and he was not at all certain how it had been done, but he could not help but share this news with his queen.
He was near to the bottom of the vellum when a strange voice sounded from the study's entryway, catching him off his guard and causing him to break his pen against the table. "What are you writing?" The voice asked him, sounding innocently curious, of a tone and calibre he had not properly heard in far too long. When he turned to regard whomever the voice belonged to, he saw a young lady-a girl, really-in the tanned leathers of a ranger, with a long fall of raven hair loosely gathered at the base of her neck, her face open, wise beyond the dozen years he guessed she'd seen.
Questions vied for dominance in his mind as he absent-mindedly wiped the ink from his fingers onto his trousers, which stained readily, but did little to clean his flesh. "And who might you be?" won the contest, as opposed to How did you slip my guard or Did you know that thieves who announce themselves don't tend to be very successful.
"I asked you first," the girl told him, reasonably, her lips curling into a cherub's smirk. "Fair's fair; give an answer to get an answer."
Alistair was reminded, then, of the madman he and his companions (or, rather, Athadra and her companions, of which he'd been a member in good standing) confronted in the Brecilian Forest during the Fifth Blight; the old man had told them something oddly similar, when they needed his assistance. "Fair's fair," the monarch conceded, in the present, though he smirked for his own at the memory. "I'm writing a letter to my wife, in fact." This girl-thief or not-did not deserve to be burdened with the full measure of the truth.
Her smile fell, her expression growing serious. "Is she very far away?"
His own smile tightened, as the fingers of melancholy flexed about the tendrils of his heart, still distant...but not absent. "An answer for an answer," he reminded her.
Her own logic rebounded apparently made her giggle. "Fair's fair," she told him. "I'm called Kiera."
"That's a Chasind name," the king remarked, the thought passing his lips as soon as it crossed his mind. "Are your family from the Korcari Wilds?" She lacked the ochre markings of the folk, as well as the tongue, but such could be explained by having grown up as a refugee from the Blight.
"My mother was," Kiera explained. "I don't think my father was, though."
Something tickled at the back of Alistair's mind, a notion too diffuse even to be properly termed a thought, but he could not summon it to proper form. "Please, sit," he invited the girl, gesturing to a pair of chairs by the study's crackling fireplace. "Are you hungry or thirsty, Kiera?" He asked, when she had done so, and he moved to join her when she shook her head. "Now, why have you come to bother an old man at his writing desk in the middle of the night?" He wondered, once he'd sat down across from her.
The girl evidently forgot their answer-trading game, or else she sensed she would not get a proper answer from her last question, because she replied without commenting on it. "I wanted to see if I could get past the wards," she said, as though it were no more a challenge-or transgression-than climbing down a well.
Alistair's eyes narrowed and he concentrated, summoning old lessons he hadn't had cause to use in years, and there it was-a faint whisper of magic, kissing his nerves with a subtly different rhythm than the spellwork laced through the stones. Part of him-the part that had given up his sword but begrudgingly, the part that envied his younger soldiers their youth-was taken with an excited sort of fear. The rest of him was taken with a far more reasonable sort of fear, that if a girl of ten or twelve could skip through Horace's wards, she could probably put up a fight even against the King of Ferelden, and if she were an assassin, chances were at least even that he would not live to morning. Yet she could have taken him unawares as he wrote, which would have entailed the best chance of success, so it didn't stand to reason that he should be too frightened. (Unless she was truly confident she didn't need the element of surprise, in which case his being frightened would likely not help matters, regardless.) So he merely shrugged, gesturing to the room at large. "Well, it looks like you've succeeded, Kiera with the mother from the Korcari Wilds and the father from...probably not there."
"I did!" Kiera enthused, grinning in obvious pride. "Mother said to wait until she was sure she could do it without bringing the guards," she said, her face falling. "...I just wanted to see if I could. I didn't mean for you to see me." Now she began to look concerned; it was not a child's concern of a wrothful parent, but a far more sympathetic kind. "I shouldn't stay long-if Mother notes my absence, she'll be more like to try and find me here, which might get her into trouble with the guards."
The girl was obviously bright-brighter than some of the guards she seemed so worried about on her mother's behalf, at any rate-and though she didn't seem interested in malefaction, that didn't mean she wasn't dangerous. It wasn't at all clear whether the danger was greater or lesser if she simply disappeared, and so Alistair judged it prudent to try and coax her to stay, at least until he could nail down her-or her mother's-motives. "You're not worried about getting caught on the way out?" He mused, scratching his bearded jaw reflectively. "I'd think Horace wouldn't have made it any easier to leave than to get in in the first place."
A flicker of a smile returned to the girl's face. "He didn't," she agreed. "But the wards let you through both ways, so they'll let me out, just as sure as they let me in."
"But that's different," Alistair pointed out. "I'm supposed to be able to cross them without incident; strange girls with mothers from the Wilds are supposed to be kept out," he observed, though he couldn't help but be infected by her grin.
"You and your wife, aye," Kiera said. "You can pass the wards because your blood's keyed into them."
Mention of Anora had his heartstrings quivering again, and he looked into the fire, perhaps foolishly. "Indeed," he allowed, recalling his and Anora's slight unease at the pinpricks of their blood used to seal the doors and windows; it had been less blood than Horace had given over to his own phylactery, but it had still given them pause. In the end, it had been Alistair's hubris and his trust in Horace that had allowed them such personal protection-not that it had been sufficient, these years later, to keep out the half-Chasind girl. "Though my wife won't be passing through the wards any time soon," he allowed, returning his attention to Kiera. "So that means it's just me."
"Just you," the girl agreed, after a handful of heartbeats. "And anyone with your blood." She wasn't smiling, then.
"I suppose," Alistair conceded, smirking. "But that'd mean you got your hands on my blood somehow," he observed, enjoying a shallow sort of cunning. "I think I'd remember giving a smart little girl a bit of my blood...unless you wiped my memory after I did."
Kiera giggled. "That's not the reason," she said, not quite a scold. "Is there not a better reason you can think of for how your blood got in my hands?"
The cadence of her words was familiar, somehow, even though her voice was too high and her years too few to sound as deeply cunning as she did. He looked at her face, really looked, and he couldn't shake that odd sense of familiarity, almost déjà vu, that welled up in him when he looked into her golden eyes. "What is your mother's name, Kiera?"
"She's called Morrigan," the girl said, each syllable like another blow to the sternum.
That was what he'd feared-and hoped-she would say. Part of him had known from the first words out of her mouth, but it had taken him until this moment to accept it. "And that makes me…"
"Her father, yes," came another voice, from the other side of the study. It was a voice he hadn't heard in so many years that he didn't trust himself to turn, but when he did so, he saw Morrigan as only she could have been; her hair was still as black as a raven's wing, her eyes kholed and skin fair, but the passing time had given her a wariness that the arrogance of her youth had masked. "I see the years have not blessed your tongue with wit," she observed.
If there had been any doubts as to whether the interloper were an imposter, her biting remark allayed them; though it had been an insult, he found himself grinning. "There haven't been enough years to let me forget that the last time I saw you, you said it was to be the last time I saw you," he recalled. "Not that I'm complaining, mind," he hastened to add, his heart lightening with each beat as the reality sunk in.
For her part, Morrigan appeared chagrinned. "Yes, well, if there is one thing Flemeth has taught me, 'tis that we cannot stake our comfort on guarantees." She threw her gaze to the girl opposite him, who looked pensively contrite, and who, it surprised and amazed him to understand, was his daughter. "Please return to camp; we shall discuss your interpretation of my admonitions later tonight."
Kiera regarded her mother with all seriousness, as though long used to the weight of consequence for her choices. "I will be there, Mother," she vowed, before she took to her feet and offered Alistair a smile. "Until next time."
"I look forward to it," Alistair said, and he did. He watched the girl melt from the room like dawn's final shadow, and when she'd gone, he couldn't help but smile at Morrigan, who still stood in the middle of the room. "I'd wondered about the particulars of that little ritual you and Athadra talked me into, before the battle."
Though his tone was light, lighter perhaps than it had been since the onset of his grief, Morrigan flinched as though his words were weapons crudely honed and recklessly wielded. She glanced toward the bedchamber, the direction her-their-child had used to make her exit, and her face set with a grimace when her eyes returned. "Athadra is dead," she said, in a hoarse whisper almost beneath the king's hearing.
All at once, the tentative elation he had subtly entertained at the night's revelations evaporated, as those three words rose like a tide along the shoreline of his mind. "Dead," he repeated, his voice and face both flattening. He wasn't shocked, precisely-one could not have known Athadra for more than an hour and have expected her to make old bones-but still, the news was sobering. His oldest friend had finally met her match. The question of how was on his tongue when he looked up at Morrigan, and he saw her face shadowed by a pall of anguish that he could recognise from having felt the mask from the inside. The threat of tears crinkled at the corners of her eyes, and her breath shuddered, though she hardly made a sound.
He rose from his chair without a word, and she did not strike him down when he folded her into his arms and rested his chin upon the crown of her head; instead she stiffened for the sum of three heartbeats before she collapsed into his embrace, and he made sure to keep his grip supple as the silent sobs rose to the surface of her frame. He had loved Athadra as a sister, as a warrior, as a friend; the witch in his arms had loved her in an altogether different way, and though fate and their own stubbornness in hewing to it kept the two of them apart far longer than either woman would have liked, he did not begrudge the keen edge of her loss. "Let it out," he counseled, as much to say something as to offer proper advice. "Just let it out."
Her sobs turned into strangled cries against his tunic, and he kept his feet firm upon the floor to anchor her; he'd had nothing and no one but himself in the wake of Anora's death, and he knew how difficult he still found the solitude of grief. If he could provide some comfort to another pained soul, perhaps he could reclaim a piece of his own in the process. He patted her shoulders and took deep, calming breaths, remarking to himself how slight she truly was-she always loomed large in his memory, her physical stature bolstered by her magical prowess and her acerbic nature. But there was no shield against this kind of hurt, no armour or strength either mental or physical that could divert the force of this blow. Only patience could win out against this assault, and even that was hardly guaranteed. "Breathe," he reminded her, once she'd wept herself dry, still clinging to him like a raft in the midst of a flood. "Just breathe, Morrigan."