The first one found us in Denerim on our last day as we made our way through the construction repairing the gates. Zevran had stayed behind a few days to do — well, whatever it is a former assassin does in a major metropolis. Shopping, probably. Maybe a manicure. He'd simply waved us off and told us that he would find us later - in a cheerfully ominous voice, no less.
And so it was just the three of us on their way east toward the Amaranthine, the dog, myself, and Alistair, starting out early in the morning with a spring in our steps and light hearts — as light as Blight-tainted war veterans could be, at any rate.
"I've had about enough of politics," I remarked to no one in particular. This early the roadway was mostly empty, save for a few farm carts trundling into the city with supplies for the market. They were the only ones on their way out of Denerim. Even with the Blight ended, there was enough chaos in the countryside that folk were keeping themselves close to home and the law and order of the new Queen's men.
"I could tell. The courtiers were beginning to get a distinctly terrified look whenever you passed them in the hall. It was becoming quite entertaining, actually." Alistair whistled to himself as he walked, absently, and with the morning sunshine glinting off his reddish-gold hair he looked burnished and golden and fine.
Of course it was the dog who figured it out first - Alistair and I both were more keen on noticing bandits, or hurlocks, or dragons ("You never know, they do call it Dragon's Peak, after all," said Alistair when I noticed him watching the sky.) — neither of us kept an eye out for stealthy little shadows picking their way along behind us.
My dog, however, sniffed the air and then stretched out on his forepaws, sticking his rear into the air with a happy wiggle.
"Do you smell something interesting, boy?" I asked, grinning at it. I could always use another pair of torn up knickers. Or maybe a cake.
He barked twice, happily, and ran off. When he came back, he had his massive jaws wrapped gently around the arm of a boy half his weight, so dirty and wiggly that it was almost impossible to tell if he was human, elf, dwarf or genlock.
The boy stuck his chin into the air and glared at us, howling in an almost incomprehensible accent, "I ain't goin' back. I'm gonna be a Grey Warden."
I sighed and traded looks with Alistair. As one we turned around and headed back to the gates.
"Heel, pup. And don't let him go, but be gentle. I know you haven't had breakfast yet but you know how little boy disagrees with you."
The dog whined softly and scuffed its feet.
The urchin didn't even have the good sense to look terrified.
"But Sister —" I smiled, ready to level my best persuasion at her.
"We are a Chantry house, and while we do have an orphanage, we will not tolerate impudent whelps who cannot learn to behave themselves." The sister looked down her nose at the wiggling child, who was doing his level best to get loose from the dog's clutch. "Or at the very least, boys who cannot learn to refrain from stealing sacramental wine from the Revered Mother's chambers."
I blinked and looked at the boy, impressed despite myself, "You nicked wine from the Revered Mother?"
He muttered, "Swapped it for a new pocket knife." He squirmed a little more and glowered at the dog.
"Excellent." I sighed and smiled sweetly at the sister, "Surely there must be someone - family, or perhaps an old family friend, who might take the boy in?"
"I don't care if you're the Grey Warden that saved the entire kingdom. That child is a menace and doomed to nothing but a life of destruction and chaos. He has no place here in the Chantry." The sister folded her arms in front of her considerable bosom and looked about as persuaded as a rock wall.
I caught something then, a flicker of expression across Alistair's features from where he leaned against the doorway behind me. No place for him. Well. That sorted that, then. I let out another little sigh and studied the boy. His arm was covered thoroughly in drool and he kept trying to wipe his hand on his tunic, which was difficult when the dog wouldn't let go of his hold.
"Andraste's frilly pink knickers. Fine. Come along, boy, if you're traveling with us you'll first have a bath, and some decent clothes, and then I will give you a firm explanation of the rules." I put my hand on the child's shoulder and wiggled my finger at the dog, who let the boy go and bounced off with a happy wiggle. "But before all of that - what's your name?"
Under all the dirt and glowering and ferocity a sudden brightness took hold as the boy looked up at me, and I saw that he had hazel eyes and unexpectedly a dimple. I noticed that because he grinned. "Tristan."
The next one was an accident, pure and simple, and to this day I will not accept full blame - or credit - for her arrival in our lives. The Amarinthine had been shockingly neglected in Howe's last days, stripped for what money it could provide and left unprotected. With the press of the darkspawn horde moving in from the south and west, refugees and worse had pushed west and north, towards Highever and the coast.
We'd settled into the Arl's castle and gone about putting it to rights, and never did I thank my mother more than those early days when the operations of a castle and city fortifications fell to me. Alistair is a fine leader, much though he prefers to let me do it, but his training was for the field and the sword. He wasn't as comfortable arranging servants and supply orders as he was ordering guard rotations.
I did notice that he made sure we never ran out of cheese, though. The man has his priorities.
The teyrn of Highever had precious few men to spare, but he sent a few of his older veterans, men whose worth was less in their sword arm and more in the experience they had to share with the young. Alistair and I had no shortage of young men and women swarming to join the Grey Wardens, and most if not all were amenable to signing their swords up to defend the keep and lands surrounding it while they trained and waited to be joined in the Order.
I did not tell them how much their young enthusiastic faces broke my heart. I felt the call of darkness in my blood, quieted but not fully quiescent, and I was in no great hurry to bestow the taint upon them. There was time yet. The Blight was ended and though there were darkspawn left in the world, there were also reinforcements from Orlais. The Wardens would not falter in Ferelden anytime soon.
That essential task seen to, the day to day of the life in the keep fell to me, the Warden Commander. And when it began to drive me stark raving bonkers, I did the wholly natural thing - I put on my best traveling armor, grabbed my sword, took my lover by the hand and went hunting.
The fact that I was more likely to come back with bandit corpses than a deer did not escape my cook, who shot me a baleful look as we rode from the keep. I'd gotten word last night that one of the coastal villages nearby was having some difficulty with bandits who lived in sea caves and raided the village at night by small boat; it seemed worth investigating and I'd sent a troop out to the village at once to have a look.
When my chatelaine chased me down with a book of fabric samples asking for input on the draperies, I decided it was a bloody excellent time to follow my troopers and see how they were doing. Purely for training purposes, of course.
"Smoke and the sea," Alistair said, turning his head into the breeze. His hand was on his sword and he swung his shield around, eyes narrowing. "We should be nearing Halfmoon village by now." The road curved and looped, barely more than a trail, across lumpy tufts of hardy seagrass and scrub. It made for poor visibility for what may lie around the next bend.
"Too much smoke," I agreed.
Let me not say that I enjoy being right. We walked into the site of a massacre. Halfmoon was little more than a circle of stone and mortar huts crouched in the lee of a cliff, surrounding a small sandy bay. These were fisher folk and poor, and as we descended the sloping road to the village, we saw that they'd not been able to fight back.
To this day I know not why the bandits had turned brutal. My troopers may have surprised them. Maybe they'd just delighted in sport. Whatever the reason, it'd been a brutal fight. Coming upon the killing in the night my troopers had made quick work of the bandits, but few of the villagers had survived, and the smoke from the burning homes rose thick into the air. Even with the sea breeze it lingered well through the next day when Alistair and I arrived.
There were few injuries among my men and while Alistair checked the north side of the village, I checked the south. I don't know what drew me, exactly, save that it was the side closest to the harbor. I was rounding a corner of one of the buildings when I heard it - the softest little hiccuping sound.
I stopped, and heard it again. Then silence. My eyes searched the piles of fishing nets and traps, the overturned dinghy, the pile of broken crates - and then I saw it. A tiny corner of cloth, embroidered with small ducks.
I'd never known anything to be embroidered with ducks that didn't belong to a small child, and I have to say my heart hopped up into my throat for a moment. I'd seen a lot of very terrible things in my life, short though it was. I didn't know if I wanted to look.
And then the hiccup sounded again and I couldn't stop myself - I knelt on the sandy ground next to the nets and began to move aside the debris, carefully. Someone had made a hollow in what looked to be nothing more than trash, and inside it was a snugly wrapped child. It couldn't have been more than a year old, all huge head and wobbly limbs, and its nose was red and running.
The sole survivor of Halfmoon was christened Eleanor, after my mother. Alistair swore that she looked like me, but I scoffed at him, and change the subject. Redheads are common in the west, I tell him, and distract him with a kiss or something to eat. He is not a complicated man to distract, when he's willing.
Tristan and Eleanor and Roderick and Jessabel and Timon. I watched from my spot curled up in a plump armchair in my warm study, drowsy from the heat of the fire, as the children sat staring up at Alistair, enraptured. Firelight flickered across Alistair as he leapt and waved his arms, making shadow dragons on the wall.
"And so! The mighty Grey Warden leapt into the air as if flying, and slew the great beast where it foundered, flailing its wings!" The children gasped and oohed - well, except for Tristan, who at thirteen was entirely too old for this. Or so he claimed. He still watched, though, sitting with his back up against my chair, his hair curling about the ears. It grew so fast.
In the firelight I remembered the strange light of the Fade, the distant, half-formed memory of a dream that I'd once shared with Alistair. I remembered the children in his dream, laughing and running about. And pie. Something about pie.
I had other dreams, sometimes. Not blight-ridden, but cold, still. Dreams where he sat on an iron throne, new lines on his face, solemn and wise and weary. Dreams where our lives had taken a different course. Dreams where Morrigan had not gone into the west, heavy with a child that I knew would bring new tidings. Strange tidings - perhaps dark, perhaps not. Dreams where Alistair or I lay on an altar, the archdemon dead and one of us with it.
But of all the dreams this life was the one I had chosen, the one I could not imagine losing. The shadow dragon slain, Alistair fell over dramatically only to be swarmed on by the children, laughing and scampering and climbing atop him.
"All right, you horde of misbehaving nugs, off, off," came Alistair's voice from beneath the mound of wiggling children. "What does your mother -feed- you? Maker, I think you've crushed my — ooh, careful there my dear, that is not a place for knees—"
I laughed and got up from my chair, ruffling Tristan's hair. "Come along, you lot, I believe you've won. Now. Who would like some pie?"
A chorus of cheers and one mildly pained 'oof' answered me, and I smiled, and could not imagine a better way to end the day.