Loghain. Hero of Ferelden.
Gazing up at the statue, the old man chuckled beneath his breath. Long, matted hair hung thick across his eyes, the rough growth of a week's beard twitching as his lips pulled into a sneering grimace. He huddled there, his patched and tattered cloak held tight against the looming shadow.
The girl hadn't been watching, had almost stumbled beneath the weight of her basket. But when she brushed against the man he turned quick, hand going to his bare sword belt, distant, liquid eyes snapping to sharp focus. He stood for a moment, trembling there, the meager cache of fruit dropping to her feet.
The old man blinked once, twice.
He staggered then, catching his weight against the statue. Delicate features twisting into a smirk, the girl muttered something at him. Something Orleasian. Something not very polite.
Right. Loghain would overlook the Orleasian embassy. Queen Anora did have a taste for irony.
He could see it, the palace rising away across the city, stone towers and flag-topped battlements and finery. The stuff of kings. Throwing back his head, the old man laughed.
Another passerby, a young boy this time, stopped to watch. He had the same pouting features, the same eternal sneer. But the old man was too quick for him. Thick and calloused fingers caught his arm, pulling the boy near as a gasp escaped his lips.
He could smell it there, sharp and sodden on the old man's breath. "Grey Wardens."
"Grey Wardens. Where are they?"
Knees curled to her chest, she leaned her head against the stone. Below the practice yards bustled, her fingers tracing their movements across the cool, paned glass. Her army. Their army. More than they ever could have imagined. And yet here she waited, rocking against the pillows of her window seat. Almost thirty years and waiting still. At least it would not be long now.
She didn't flinch as the hand came to rest on her shoulder. He could never sneak up on her.
Bending low, he slipped onto the seat behind her, resting his chin on her shoulder as his fingers twined through her hair. Grey now, but still he told her it was beautiful. His own face was almost unchanged, perhaps more lined at the corners of his eyes and mouth. There were deep-etched smiles there, though, winking grins. Perhaps these years had not been all bad.
Burrowing closer, his breath came warm against her cheek. "Have you given it any thought?"
"Coming down to the yard. It would do them good to see you."
Still her fingers traced their patterns on the glass, but she only shook her head.
Arms slipping to her waist now, he pulled her close against his chest. She could tell from the heavy sigh that he had not expected anything more, but he had never been one to let disappointment stop him.
"Perhaps a ride then? It grows warm. Weeks with no sign of darkspawn. We could slip away, you and I. No one would have to see."
Turning now, she blinked up at him, tracing her fingers along the bold whorls of his cheek. "Zev…"
There was resignation there, but always that spark of hope, glinting mischievous and eternal behind his eyes. She had not done well by him these past few months. But still he was patient, still he was hers.
"It will be… soon. You know I…" It had all been said before. She was a woman marked, her fate set years ago. How could she expect him to understand? He who had cheated his own end time and time again?
"Some, I think, would say that it is best to enjoy the time you have."
Leaning forward, he placed a kiss between her eyes. "I will be downstairs. If you change your mind."
Her hand trailed along his arm as he slipped away, fingers lingering in one last squeeze. His chuckle was whispered, seeming to hang heavy as the door fell closed.
Little over a day's ride from Denerim but still close, much too close. A tiny spit of land overlooking the northern sea, the place was as far from Orzammar, as far from the darkspawn infested southern wilds, as could be. Isolated, remote and still conveniently under Anora's nose.
It had once been the land of Arl Howe, traitor, murderer, the best of Loghain's men. And she had granted it to the Grey Wardens, another of the queen's barbed gifts. As the gate loomed ahead, the old man grimaced. He could feel it. Stronger now. Coming, always coming. But they had told him it was inevitable. In the blood. They had said a lot of things.
But perhaps she wouldn't be here. This place was too distant, too fine. Grey Wardens shouldn't be confined to estates. There should be outposts, vigilance. That was where she would be. Unless she was already gone…
The gate was guarded, the boy there young but stiff-backed, a long scar puckering his right cheek. Part of him had to wonder what he had been before. Cutpurse? Murderer? Bastard? The Wardens had a habit of taking in strays. Come to think of it, so did she.
"State your business." He could see it in the boy's expression, the obvious distaste, the wrinkling of his once-broken nose. City Wardens. Perhaps much had changed.
"My business is my own."
"I'm sorry, sir. This is the base of the Grey Wardens. Perhaps you're looking for…" Pity now.
He spun the ragged cloak aside, the weight under which he had staggered now held fast before him. The shield. Duncan's shield. The only thing that he had left. The last thing that she had given him.
The boy blinked, mouth slackening at the symbol emblazoned there. Slowly, he shook his head. "I do… sense it… in you. I am sorry… brother." He saw the man now as if for the first time, broad shouldered and proud even beneath the filth and stink.
There was something of a smirk there, playing beneath the dark and patchy beard. Tired, yes, but somehow relieved. "Who commands here?"
"Commands?" Again he stammered unsure. "You… you'll be wanting Master Arainai."
It was the old man's turn to blink. "Master… Arainai?
"He'll be in the yard, most like. Just up the path." Stepping aside, he ushered the stranger through.
The old man hesitated only a moment, stepping round with a whispered curse.
The cobbled path curved slow, dipping round the wide and squatting fortress. He heard the shouts before he saw them, sensed the warmth and heat and laughter of comrades in arms. The edges of the broad courtyard held narrow gardens but the bulk of it was given over to the packed dirt of practice fields. Duelers, archers, men and women practicing their forms… He could count two dozen of them, maybe more. Closing his eyes, he felt it stir, reaching, sensing. Grey Wardens, every one. More women than he would have expected, elves and dwarves as well. Perhaps she was still here after all… He shook his head.
Only one thing was amiss, one thing to choke the bright and stirring dream. It whirled there at the center of the field, the familiar laugh prickling along his spine. Beset by three of the young men and still the elf moved easily, slipping between them, dancing beneath the clumsy thrusts of the Wardens' blades.
He shouldn't be here. This was Duncan's dream, his dream, her dream.
The old man found himself moving forward. He had never doubted his own strength, never cared much for the growing weariness of his own limbs. This, though, was a window to the past, the other man seemingly unchanged… whole. The unnatural agelessness of elves.
Others had marked his progress, sliding aside as the stranger lay heavy elbows on the fence. Still the fighters paid him no mind, still they…
Zevran stiffened, back still turned, holding up a warning hand.
One of the other fighters blinked, glancing toward the newcomer. "A visitor, Master."
At that, the old man let out a barking laugh, bending as his back heaved in choking gasps. When at last he looked up, the glint in his eyes was menacing. "Oh yes… Master Arainai."
He turned slow, the grin on his face equally wicked. "Ahh… I do so love what you have done with your hair." He was naked to the waist, the tattoos now spreading cross neck and shoulders and chest. One hand traced the pattern there, grin widening as the stranger's eyes narrowed.
There were some years there after all; the face was perhaps more gaunt, more lined than he remembered, the brilliant gold of his long hair now flecked with silver. The old man found himself straightening, steadying the shield as he slipped round the barricade.
The elf only quirked a brow. "I should have thought you would pawn that… to keep yourself in, shall we say, better spirits."
With a grunting cry, he threw himself forward. He was unarmed, perhaps, but he would need only his hands for this. He might even enjoy it more.
Sheathing his blades with an easy hiss, the other stepped wide, crouching low as the old man staggered past. It was all somehow too heavy, too slow. Again the elf darted round, the blow swinging wild. This was not fighting, this was not…
The sweeping leg took the old man to his knees with a pained gasp. One blade slipped free, the delicate point coming to dance against his throat. Leaning close, Zevran again dodged his hands, pulling the stranger's hair back to look into his eyes. What he saw there must have rankled; he stepped back with a disgusted sigh.
"You are drunk."
"So what if I am?"
Sheathing his blades, the elf scowled. After a long moment his offered an arm, nodding impatiently as the other hesitated. He bent low, steadying as they rose, but the old man shrugged him off.
"I'm not an invalid."
"Just a fool, yes? You do know—"
She stood framed beneath the stone arch, luminous pale against the shadows of the hall beyond. Memory, bitterness but through it all it surged, the growing beast reaching, yearning. Kindred.
She was dying, the same as he.
Beside him Zevran stiffened. He would misunderstand, couldn't understand. There was something there, flaring possessive, but with a cold and tired desperation. He knew.
Alistair found himself turning away even as his legs carried him forward. She was different now, the hair flowing thick and grey to her waist, patched and hard worn leathers replaced by a breezy tunic and breeches. But despite its lines, her face was almost unchanged, teeth playing nervous across her lips, the hurt, confusion, betrayal still staggering after all these years.
But it had been she who had betrayed him, she who had betrayed everything.
Yet there was a smile there now, small and unsure, but enough to bring his eyes round. "You're drunk."
He snorted, unable to help but mirror her. "I never got to be the drunk one."
"I remember." The laugh was muted, but her own. Again it stirred, familiar, longing. The same.
She blinked up at him. Had she felt it too?
"And now you are making up for lost time, yes? A fine job." Zevran had come to stand behind her, her companion, her consort, her constant shadow.
It was absently that she leaned against him, absently that she stroked his arm. Thirty years.
"Alistair…" She seemed to be tasting the word anew. "We have rooms. Of course, you are welcome—"
"—Truly? This man, the man who abandoned us, abandoned you on the very eve of the Blight? And you would welcome him?"
"He is a Grey Warden." Her voice was hard now, cold. He could see it then, the years of her command, the order growing, flourishing under her careful touch.
"Alistair." The hand hesitated only a moment, fingers curling, before coming to lay against his arm. "Rest now." She must have recognized his expression, for her sigh came heavy. "Then… then we will speak."
She half-turned, moving back toward the door before the smile returned. "And for Andraste's sake, bathe yourself."
She moved briskly, kneeling at the foot of the bed, before the chest waiting there. He had almost expected it to be slow, the waning spiral of these past few months but, no, that was not the way of Grey Wardens. This, though, he could feel in the grinding of his teeth. This, he had not expected.
Throwing back the lid, he could see the breath escape her. He had hated it, hated the moment that she had tucked away all that she was, but now, now he would give almost anything to close that chest again. The swords were of a pair, the same that she had borne that long ago night, the same that had set the darkspawn horde to trembling. Now she raised them before her, crossing them once, twice and again. Here was a vision he had not thought to see again, here was a vision of the world's end.
She had been but a shadow through these long and lingering days. But he had lived with shadows all his life, built his world on the facades and half truths in between. Here before him stood the one truth that he had been bold enough to taste, but she had returned only to leave him, his but never his own.
The old harness fitted well, the blades slipping behind her shoulders with practiced ease. Turning now, she smiled. It was as if no time had passed at all.
Stepping forward, he traced a finger along her flushing cheek – so youthful now – sweeping her hair back to expose the dangling earring there. "Married in Antiva" she had once joked. Near thirty years later and the jest had hardened, feeling something almost like truth. Rolling the jewel between his fingers, he shook his head.
"We knew this day would come."
"Oh yes? And what day is that?"
The tone in his voice had been too harsh, too bitter. Slowly, she turned her eyes away. Somehow this was worse than any words that could follow.
"I am a Grey Warden. I have lingered too long already. I should have left months ago."
"You are needed here."
"Still you would make me say it?"
She blinked up at him now, holding his gaze. "I would."
"But still you would go."
Crossing her arms, she turned toward the bed.
"Because he calls you."
"The taint calls me. It calls us both."
Catching her arm, he spun her round, nails biting before he could stop himself. "Did it call him then? Before the Blight? Did it call him while you bled? In the long and wondering nights when I warmed your bed?"
"Oh you did much more than that, as I recall."
No smiles, no jests, not now. "Why now?"
Her voice came whispered still. "Because it is the end."
"I once told you that I would storm the gates of the Dark City itself at your side. What is one more trip to the Deep Roads?"
Hair fell across her eyes as she shook her head. He swept it back without thinking, hand lingering there.
"There is…" Even now, the words choked. "There is… nothing for me here."
She smiled then, true and pure and youthful. "You remember what the fortune teller told you?"
He blinked. An odd memory. A past long distant.
"You will not die young. You will do what you have always done, what you do best. You, Zevran Arainai, will survive." With that she turned, slipping past him with a lingering warmth, the door closing behind her.
She rose in one fluid motion, the broad dining hall abandoned but for them. Her hair was pinned behind her now, twisted into a massive pile of braids. The leathers were new, finer than anything that she had had before, but they fit her like a second skin, capturing that lithe and dangerous grace that he had tried so hard to forget. She was grinning now.
He flushed beneath that gaze, running an awkward hand over his newly shorn neck. Close he had cut it, the grey steely and flecked with silver. It had receded, the hairline dipping deep to either side, but still the stubborn peak marked his forehead, the bristles already refusing to lay flat.
He had been almost surprised to find that man beneath the years; she, apparently, was not.
Already she had closed the gap, laughter in her eyes. With a sudden frown, she jabbed a finger beneath his chin, causing him to wince at the fresh cut there.
Again she laughed, the chuckle almost whispered. She was shaking her head, eyes wide and disbelieving still. "Where have you been?"
He caught her wrist, features stilling as he pushed it to her side. "Away. As far away from here as I could get."
It broke then, flooding behind his voice, fresh as it had been all those years ago. "No. How… how could you do it? To me? To Duncan? To yourself?"
"I did what was necessary. I always have."
"This? This is necessary? Loghain declared a hero. Loghain! And here you sit, the queen's pet Warden and her Antivian whore."
The slap rang in the broad space, his eyes watering before they felt the sting.
When she spoke again, the voice was dead, cold. "Anora has given us the support, the resources to rebuild the Wardens, to realize Duncan's dream. With the help of the Orleasians, Riodan's notes…"
"You've made more Wardens. And trapped them here."
"There are outposts still. We've… we've thrived. We've never abandoned our duty."
"So what? I was supposed to sit by and see that… that man… You spared a murderer!"
"And then I killed him."
"Loghain sacrificed himself to slay the archdemon because I told him to. So that I wouldn't have to, so that you wouldn't have to?"
"That is why the Wardens were created, why only they can stop a Blight." She seemed to be explaining all this again, the tired words falling through the quiet like stones into a pool. "Archdemons do not die. If slain they will simply move to a new host, the nearest darkspawn, the nearest creature that bears the taint."
"The nearest Warden."
"And that Warden can destroy the demon, once and for all. But always the cost is the same."
"And… you knew this?"
She sighed, pulling a chair from the table as she sank. "Not… at the time, no."
"Then why spare Loghain?"
Her head snapped up. "He was one more. One more body. One more shield to put between us and the darkspawn, to put between you and the darkspawn."
"You hoped he would die."
"I hoped you wouldn't."
"So you let a murderer, a traitor walk free, betrayed the memory of your king and dozens of Wardens… for my own good?"
"You're here aren't you?"
"Such as I am. But you think I haven't heard these excuses before? I've been told what was best for me all my life."
Her voice came whispered now. "So you finally made a decision on your own. And look where it got you."
She rose slowly, the apology clear in her eyes, in her outstretched hand. Loghain he could not abide, but there had been more, had there not? Other words… harsh and unyielding, days before the Landsmeet. They had been twined together, flesh to flesh, the flush, the sweat, still heavy on her cheeks. And she had looked up at him, then and there, and set his world reeling.
"That's a strange sentiment, coming from someone who…"
Her eyes rose to meet his, pleading now. "I didn't know what would happen. Eamon was set on making you king. We couldn't… it wouldn't have worked…"
His finger brushed her cheek, sweeping aside a fallen braid, tracing the tender flesh of her ear. Such a tiny thing, glinting golden between his fingers. There was the sudden urge to pull it away, rip it free, take what satisfaction he could in hurting her. He pushed the hand to his side.
"And that was the only reason? Or had you made your choice even then?"
"I just…" Again his fingers strained, reaching for the earring before he could pull his fist away. The nails dug into his palm, biting deep. "I just don't understand it."
"I don't think you can. He… comforted me."
"Yeah? Pretty sure he 'comforted' Leliana and Morrigan too. Probably even Oghren and the dog."
"Come, my friend, I do have some standards. Dwarves are… well, let us just say the dog smelled better."
He stepped round with whispered steps, coming as ever to stand at her shoulder. The words were light, but there was a coldness there, the smile failing to reach his eyes.
"And what of your crimes, Alistair?"
He blinked at that, her Ferelden tongue gracing the word with its native lilt, the taste lingering familiar there. He tried to remember how she had spoken to him, if his own name had even merited such warmth.
The elf, though, did not soften. Protective fingers traced her arm as he stepped round, putting his chest only a few inches from Alistair's own.
Still he was a small thing, but there was a coiled energy there, cold and threatening and familiar. "No. This you will answer for."
"Answer for what?"
"If you do not know, then you are not worth the breath it would take to explain."
With a disgusted hiss, he turned away but Alistair was quicker this time, thick fingers wrapping round his arm. Zevran spun, one hand coming hard against tender flesh of Alistair's neck as a swift kick found his knee. He crumpled gasping as the elf squatted low.
Resting elbows on his knees, he rocked forward, but there was nothing calm behind that gaze. "Where were you when she lay dying?"
All he could manage was a rattling hiss.
"Oh yes. The Blight was ended, but it was not yet over. There were weeks without knowing. Wynne nearly expired herself in the healing. Had it not been for Loghain—"
"—Do not speak to me of Loghain."
Splayed fingers found his chest, pressing his easily back down. Zevran leaned closer still, one silvery gold braid slipping across his eyes. "But that was nothing - nothing - to the pain that came before. Your selfishness, your interminable righteousness has brought more agony than the claws of any archdemon."
He had to laugh then, falling full to his back to glare at the ceiling above. "Convenient for you though, right?" Pushing up on an elbow, he fixed the elf beneath a withering smirk. "How long did you wait? Did she fall sobbing into your arms that very night? I do remember how you like to be used…"
Zevran stood with an easy grace, leaving his to struggle on his own. "It was nowhere that she had not been before."
He did goggle then, staggering as he pushed to his feet. She wouldn't meet his eyes. The elf's grin was wicked.
"So you – what? – decided to stick around for thirty years and gloat? Why are you even here?"
He hesitated, but she had turned away from them both now. "Because our dear Warden asked me to be."
"Oh, I don't doubt that. But I have to wonder… thirty years with the Grey Wardens. Why have you never become one yourself?"
She did turn then, the warning clear. "Alistair."
"They say it takes a certain… strength to survive the Joining, to master the taint. How must it feel to see these others, all of them succeeding where you know you would fail?"
He had struck home, he knew, the elf's features contorting into a sneering grimace. "I have seen far, far better men than you fall before that cup."
Alistair shrugged. "And yet here I stand."
She moved between them, the hand on his chest giving him a moment's pause. Looking down at her, he shook his head, turning back to the other man.
"Or perhaps the great Zevran is not afraid, no never that. Being a Warden comes with a price, a duty, an end. A commitment. And that just wouldn't work for you, would it?"
The blade hissed, the whisper of drawn steel, but as if came to rest against his throat, he had to blink at the hand that held it. Her eyes swam before him, liquid and pained, but she pressed the tip closer still. "You will shut up. Now."
Slowly he staggered back, raising his hands in exaggerated surrender. After a time, she too moved away, sinking heavy into one of the high backed chairs. Alistair, too, sank, resting his head in his hands. He was tired now, so tired, whatever had been stirred within him suddenly cowed and slinking away. Maker, but he could use a drink. Only Zevran hesitated, moving to stand behind her, knuckles white against the deep-carved wood.
It must have been half the night before she spoke again. "We leave within the hour. To Orzammar. To the Deep Roads. As it should be."
It fell beneath him with a dying roar, the wound fountaining sudden, blinding. Slowly, inexorably, it stilled, the flesh beneath him sliding heavy as falling rock. They were deep now, beyond the thaigs, roads lost even to the lyrium-etched records of the Dwarves. The ogre had been big, bigger than should have been possible. With a grunt, he pressed his boot to its chin, twisting the blade from its neck.
He stood panting, the quiet seeming too heavy, too still. It was slowly that he turned, eyes pinching shut against the gloom.
They had both been injured, days, weeks walking through the darkness, assaulted from outside as well as in. He couldn't remember. She had been at his side and then…
A crumpled, broken thing. He blinked once, twice, willing it to be a darkspawn, some forgotten pile of earth. Kneeling, he turned her round, feeling the sticky warmth beneath his fingers.
Still her face was unmarked, pale as sleep, pouted lips that had once mumbled against his back, his chest. He kissed them, then, lingering as the quaking took him, unable to stop a shaking hand from brushing aside those familiar braids. There it dangled still, such a tiny thing. Again his fingers traced it, turning it round in his hand, but there was no anger, no confusion now. He let the hair fall, tucking the earring safe within, looking one last time into those bright but vacant eyes.
He could hear them now, sense those places deep and deeper still. One last stolen touch closed her eyes as the old man rose. With a final cry, he turned and rushed to face the path that he had chosen.