In the twenty-eighth year of his reign, the nightmares returned, a calling from the deep. He began to relinquish his powers, spending more time at the Palace with his children and less time making public appearances. He passed his last weeks in Denerim carefully preparing his will with his advisors and their clerks and meeting with the Bannorn to ensure their support for his eldest son and heir.
And then, one morning, he was simply gone, his rooms left dark and empty.
He took little with him besides the armour on his back, his sword and an old shield. It was best to travel light, to eat and rest in the poor inns or set up camp in the forest. He'd become accustomed to the comforts that came with kingship and sleeping on a bedroll again was a harsh awakening, especially after a rain, when his damaged knee started to act up.
He met his friend, Elgar Vorneren, a Grey Warden of the Anderfels, in the tavern at Orzammar Commons and they shared a toast over muddy dwarven ale. They'd met at Weisshaupt Fortress many years ago, but he'd never expected that they would be travelling companions in this last journey. They spent the rest of the afternoon in the markets, purchasing a few days' worth of supplies.
The next morning, they ventured down into the Deep Roads, passing through the ruined intersections that had once connected the mighty thaigs. The darkspawn burrowed together in these lightless places, using dwarven crypts as their decrepit palaces.
They fought the darkspawn in the thaigs, in the roads and in winding caverns, slaughtering as many as they could find. Alistair had almost forgotten the thrill of combat, the rush of triumph he felt at putting an evil thing to the sword and knowing that it could not rise to harm an innocent.
On the fourth day, they ran out of rations.
"I'm surprised we made it this long," Elgar said. "I didn't think that we'd have to worry about going without supper."
Alistair laughed. "The darkspawn had better improve their game. I'm going to be a trifle disappointed if we perish from starvation."
On the sixth day, they were ambushed by a large party of darkspawn as they travelled through Thaig Ortan. They managed to kill most of their attackers and drove the rest back into the shadows, but Elgar was injured in the fray, his stomach punctured by a hurlock's sword.
Neither of them were healers and they'd exhausted their supply of health poultices long ago. Elgar asked Alistair to finish what the hurlock had started.
"To go – it will be a relief," Elgar said. "Then I will have rest and quiet dreams, with no nightmares to plague my sleep."
Alistair pressed his hands on either side of his friend's forehead. "Sleep well then, Grey Warden." He wrenched Elgar's head to the side, breaking his neck.
There was no fire in the Deep Roads to construct a pyre. Alistair settled for burying his friend in one of the abandoned tombs, among the sarcophagi of the ancient dwarven nobility and the symbols of their faded glory.
He wandered alone, travelling the familiar road to the Dead Trenches without rest. The nightmares followed him even in wakefulness – he remembered the gaze of the archdemon searing his face, imagined the hands of a hundred darkspawn rending his limbs, tearing ligament from bone.
On the ninth day, he curled up in a rock crevice and slept. He went to a place where the nightmares could not find him.
It was Lothering, but Lothering as he had never seen it before. It was a Lothering that could have been, but had never existed, not the desolate village circled by a refugee camp that had been raided by darkspawn.
The market square bustled with farmers setting out stock and travelling merchants exhorting the quality of their wares. He walked among them, young and vigorous once more, glad to go unrecognized in his simple clothes, his unpolished armour. When they bothered to take note of him, they treated him as a warrior, perhaps an errant knight passing along the Imperial Highway in search of worthy quests, deeds to make his name.
In the once-Lothering of long ago, the shabby hovels of the townsfolk had been little better than sheds, lodgings that the Fereldan nobility wouldn't have deemed fit for their hounds. In this new Lothering, the Lothering of dreams, the homes were still small, but the thatched roofs were sturdy, the walls made of mortar and stone. Ivy crept up the sides of the houses, verdant green leaves and curling vines grasping for the sun.
As he walked along, he started to whistle a song under his breath, although he couldn't remember where it was from, whether it was one of Leliana's tunes or a melody from the court minstrels or even a Chantry hymn, the pious lyrics long forgotten.
It was a beautiful day and the sky was blue, the kind of blue that made one's heart ache with happiness. In his renewed youth, he could remember what it had been to grow old and he was grateful to move unfettered, feeling the effortless strength of his limbs. Under the sunshine and the clear noon sky, he knew what it was to be buried underground in a world of rock and clay, the burnt umber walls of the dwarven thaigs dark and forbidding even by torchlight.
He neared a white-washed footbridge and saw her standing there, leaning her arms against the railing.
One by one, Kass plucked pink petals from rose in her hand, letting them drift down into the slow-moving stream. She didn't turn at his approach – indeed, he would have imagined she hadn't noticed him there at all, if it weren't for the faint smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
Kass stripped the rose of its last petal and held the scrap of pink between thumb and forefinger. "This flower seems to think that you still love me."
The petal slipped out from between her fingers and floated down to the stream, causing barely a ripple in the glassy, grey-green water.
He moved to her side, stooping over the low bridge railing. "I didn't know you put such trust in the opinions of vegetation. Did you ever consider asking me instead?"
She glanced over at him, her slow smile widening. Her eyes lingered on his face for a moment and then looked away, back down to the stream, her hands still toying with the thorny stem of the rose.
"No," she said. "It would spoil all the fun of not knowing."
He touched her chin, gently turning her face back towards him. His hands slid back around her neck, twining in the thick, messy waves of her hair, drawing her face up to his. Her lips parted as if to speak and he kissed her, breathing her in, a feeling like coming home and softly closing the door behind him.
He held to her to his chest, wishing that he'd thought for once to remove his steel chestplate. It was funny how unwieldy armour always managed to interfere in the most romantic scenes of his life.
"In case that doesn't fully answer your question, I will elaborate," he said. "I have never stopped loving you."
She tilted her face up at him, her eyes large and glimmering with unshed tears. "I'm sorry that I didn't tell you everything. I don't regret my decision, but I am sorry that I made it alone."
"What you are is stubborn. You knew that if you told me, you might not get your way," he said. "If you didn't have a good heart, I think you could have been a dangerous woman, my dear."
"But you understand," she said slowly, her intonation wavering between a statement and a question.
He nodded. "Yes, Kass. I do understand. And I marvel at your strength."
She released a deep sigh and tears began to run down her cheeks. She mopped them up with her fingertips, giving nervous little laughs between sniffles. "So much for strength. I'm like a leaky faucet."
"I think you've earned it," he said. "Besides, we can take you to water the garden. If you haven't already destroyed all the flowers."
She laughed, tossing the rose stem over the side of the railing. "You haven't visited the Chantry yet, have you? We should walk over there and you can see."
"The Chantry? You don't even like the Chantry."
"Well, not the inside of the Chantry, where all the preachy humans are. But the outside of the Chantry, that's different! Come on, I'll show you." She caught his hand and pulled him along, laughing, and he laughed as well, all too ready to follow her lead again.
Once they'd passed the Chanter's Board and reached the Chantry gates, he realized the source of her excitement. Around the solid stone foundations of the Lothering Chantry, there was a garden growing, budding rosebushes and trellises hung with red and white blooms.
They walked into the garden, hand in hand. A bumblebee buzzed past them, creeping deep into the folds of a blossoming flower. Somewhere in the garden, a lark was singing.
"I'm dreaming," he said.
Kass looked up at him, her face solemn. "You are. You made this place. The rest of us are just visitors here."
"So you aren't real, are you?"
She gave his hand a squeeze, her small fingers twining around his large ones. "Now I never said that. I may not be living in your realm, but I'm quite real, thank you very much!"
"But when I awaken..."
"Then this dream will be over. I'll be in my own place."
He smiled at her, the sharp, short smile he used to veil his impatience. "And where exactly will you reside? Will I be receiving an invitation to visit? You're being very mysterious."
"I'm not doing it to tease you. I just don't know the answers."
"Then you don't know if we'll meet again?"
"I can't be sure about anything here," she said. "But I hope so. I believe so. As you said, I'm very stubborn."
He turned to her and her eyes widened, seeming to drink in all the afternoon sunlight. Around them, the garden swayed in a gentle breeze, the branches bobbing as if nodding down at them, petals scattering on the ground.
"I'll find you," he said. "Even if you try to flee, because I tell bad jokes at inappropriate times and have my name stitched in all my socks and have a tendency to ramble and digress...wait, what was I saying?"
She laughed. "You were telling me how you plan to stalk me through the Fade."
"Oh, yes, of course. You're stuck with me, I'm afraid. You'll just have to endure it."
"It's a good thing I love you or eternity could feel like a very long time," she said. "You don't really still wear socks with your name stitched in them?"
"No, I gave up that little habit. It would take a rare sort of villain to be bold enough to steal the Royal Socks."
"Time has passed, hasn't it? A long time," she said.
"Yes. Nearly thirty years."
"Where are they now? Our friends?"
"Well, Oghren, he bought the Spoiled Princess over at Lake Calenhad. I think he and Felsi are still running it. No big surprise there, I think."
"I can't believe she fell for his terrible pick-up lines."
"Well, you fell for my terrible pick-up lines. I guess you female types aren't very sensible."
"How very... true," she said. "But don't stop now. I know how you like to gossip."
"Hmm, so it's juicy gossip, you want, is it? Alright, I will indulge your baser instincts," he replied. "So, if rumors are to be believed, Zevran is basically running the Crows out in Antiva. Doesn't seem to be half bad at it, either."
"He's a professional."
"Oh and the last time I saw Lelianna, she was going on a research expedition with Brother Genitivi. And if you want to hear the gory truth, she seemed a bit enamored with him, which is - well, very odd, in my opinion. But let's hope that I'm wrong and they're just very good and holy and want to go see the Sacred Ashes, because I would prefer not to contemplate the alternative."
Kass shrugged. "He's a very smart man. Some people might find that attractive."
"Well, I hope you don't."
"No. I like you." On her tiptoes, she just managed to kiss his chin, something that he'd always found quite adorable.
"Thank you, that's very – wait!" He narrowed his eyes at her, feigning suspicion. "That was an insult."
"You just implied that you're only attracted to unintelligent people and then you said you were very fond of me. I'm quite insulted. You've cut me to the quick."
"I'm sorry." She gave him an impish grin. "But you have to admit, you set me up for that one. Speaking of nasty sarcastic elves, how's Shianni? And Soris?"
"Shianni runs everything," he said. "Not simply in the Alienage. In the world. She's quite terrifying."
Kass shook her head. "You have no idea. She was even worse when we were growing up."
"Soris is another matter. He eloped with a bann's younger daughter and there was a big scandal and everyone's heads exploded. You would have liked it. It was entertaining."
She laughed, resting her head against his chest. "That would have been worth seeing."
He looked down at the top of her head, the cool white line of her neck and it occurred to him that she was burying her face against his armour to hide her tears.
"I enjoyed it immensely," he replied, smoothing a hand over her hair. "Although, I must admit, it caused a bit of mess in the Bannorn."
"Let me guess - some fool started shooting his mouth off about how you sympathize with all the dirty, filthy knife-ears who'd like to burn down nobles' homes and do all kind of foul elvish things to their wives and children."
He gave a nervous laugh. "Um, yes, that's surprisingly accurate."
She lifted her face, her eyes glistening. Her lips twitched a little at the sides, struggling into something that was not quite a smile, not quite a frown. "It would have been much worse, you know. If I'd been there."
He folded his arms around her, keeping his gaze steady upon her face, wanting to be strong for her if only to affirm the staunchness of his convictions. "I wouldn't have cared."
She closed her eyes, her wet lashes fanning against her cheek. "You might have. In time."
"No. I would have given anything to have you there."
She turned back and his eyes followed hers to the mossy Chantry wall, where white roses drooped on their branches, their bloom almost blown.
"You're good to me," she said. "I don't know why it bothers me now. It doesn't matter anymore. Tell me some more news of the world. Did Sten come storming in to invade Ferelden?"
"No, not yet anyway. Bit of a shock actually. He wasn't very happy with me when he left Denerim. I said a few things I probably shouldn't have. After Fort Drakon."
He felt her hand wriggle free from his grasp and he wondered if he'd said something wrong, if he should have protested more when she'd changed the subject. She flitted off to one of the rose bushes, brushing her fingers over a flower's tattered white petals.
"You have to admit: Sten was very good at following orders," she said. "I told him I was going to kill that archdemon and he moved earth and sky to make it happen."
"Yes," he said, watching a shaft of sunlight weave over the auburn braid looped at the back of her head. "He's quite heavy, too, I might add. My back has never been quite the same, since he decided to jump on it."
"Sorry." When she said it, it came out blunt and flat and embarrassed. That was how he knew she meant it.
"If I'd dodged him, I could have outrun you," he said.
"That's why it's sometimes necessary to have a Plan B. Or a very large Qunari friend." She turned around, her cupped hand full of white petals. A wan smile on her face, she tossed them in the air and they drifted down, sprinkling across the grass like wedding confetti.
He stepped closer, careful to avoid trampling the path of petals with his muddy boots.
She bit her lips and laughed, as he pressed a hand down upon her shoulder, as much to keep her in one place as to console her.
"I should probably tell you about your father now. And Wynne. And Cairn."
"They move through the Fade now. It's okay. I know," she murmured. "It's the living who I don't see, who I think I'm starting...not to understand," she said. "Have you been alright, Alistair? Since I've been gone?"
"I don't quite know how to respond to that," he said. "Yes, I suppose I've been just fine. I've worked things out. For a while, I wasn't sure I would. Having children, that made me happier, helped to settle me down a bit."
Her voice came soft and husky. "Children? More than one. Wow. What are their names?"
He smiled. "Well, there's Brendan, he's my eldest. And then I have two daughters, Ilona and Rowen. Of course, they aren't really children anymore, but that doesn't stop me from pretending."
"That – that's wonderful." She fidgeted with her hair, tucking loose strands back behind her ears, a sure sign that it was not quite as wonderful as she said.
"I'm sorry. I know I must sound...callous."
She shook her head. "You don't. You're just reporting the facts."
"Well, they're rather significant facts. I'd understand if you felt angry."
"It's just that sometimes, I used to think that maybe we'd – but it was just dreaming. Like you are now," she said. "I'm not anybody's mother anyway. I'm good with darkspawn, not kids. Shianni and I were the worst babysitters in the Alienage."
He tilted his head slightly, peering down into her blue-gray eyes. "I would never wish away my family, but yes, I've wondered, how things might have been, under other circumstances, in another life."
"Maybe it's best not to think about that too much," she answered, a little too quickly. "If I wasn't an elf, I wouldn't be me. If we weren't Grey Wardens, we'd never have met. One life and one set of circumstances is more than enough for anybody."
He tried for levity. "When I first saw you, I believe I did mention that the Blight brings people together. Such a great opening line. I could tell you were instantly smitten."
It was good to see her smile again. "I thought you were funny."
He contemplated that, raking a finger over the stubble on his chin. It was a bit surprising to find himself mostly clean-shaven again, having spent more than a decade with a square-cut beard that he'd initially attempted in imitation of Duncan.
"Alright. I'll accept that," he said at last. "In a good, amusing sort of way or in an odd, crazy, one-sword-short-of-an-armoury sort of way?"
Her smile grew. "Honestly?"
"Do I want to hear this? Okay, yes. Honestly."
"A little bit of both," she said. "I did think you were very handsome for a human. And, well, tall. Very big feet."
"I see. So not instantly smitten, then? Did all my wit and belligerent posturing to the mage fail to impress you?"
"Oh, c'mon now, you weren't hopelessly in love with me at Ostagar either."
He chuckled, amused to discover that, after all these years, he was still capable of blushing. "Oh, I had a little schoolboy crush even back then. It's all too embarrassing for words."
"Really? Now, this, I didn't know. I always thought you were laughing at me. Elven paranoia, I guess."
"Yes, I'm ashamed to admit that I fancied you a bit from the first, which was awkward because - well, for lots of reasons. But the Joining, that was a big one," he said."Of course, I do like to laugh at you too."
"You're not the first person to tell me that."
He embraced her, kissing the top of her head. "Besides, what can I say? Pretty, short and bossy, that's a winning combination for me. The cute ears were a bit of a bonus."
"Pretty and short, I'll give you. And I do have very nice ears, although a human is hardly qualified to judge. But -" She raised a finger, giving it a self-important shake. "I'm hardly bossy at all. You just liked to be bossed around and since I'm a nice person and I like to see you happy, I told you what to do."
He shook his head, smirking at her powers of self-delusion. "And did Daveth and Ser Jory also like to be bossed around? Because you were always tossing orders at them too, poor souls."
"Well, they listened, didn't they?" she persisted. "It can't have bothered them too much."
He raised an eyebrow at her and waited for her to relent under the sheer weight of evidence.
"Okay, you're right," she said. "I may be a little bossy. On occasion. So, tell me, do you still take orders?"
"It's been a very long time since anyone has given me an outright order," he warned. "But I think I can make an exception for you, my love."
"Then I think you should hurry up and kiss me. And this time, make it good and hard, on the lips."
He felt a smile spread across his face, warming his cheeks. He was reminded of those nights of long ago, so fraught with tension and excitement, when they had lingered late by the campfire, talking about everything and nothing and the air between them roiled with secret intents.
"Your wish is my command."
As her lips pressed against his, he closed his eyes, the perfume of roses so heavy upon them that he could feel it like a veil laid over her face, a cloak draped upon his shoulders.
The red light behind his eyelids dissolved so suddenly into darkness.
He awoke to the sound of water dripping against stone and the noise of his own ragged breathing. The pain in his back nagged at him again, his half-starved stomach joining in to chide him with a series of groans and whimpers. He ached all over.
It was difficult to take up his sword again. Over the past few hours of slumber, his hands had become numb and swollen, his knucklebones turned into ugly white knobs under reddened skin. He set to kneading at the joints of his fingers, easing the stiffness out of them until he could hold the hilt with a firm grip.
All pain aside, it would be good to fight again in the uncertain darkness, armed with the knowledge that no matter which path he took, he would always be winding a way towards her love.
Casting his shield away, he walked towards the deeper roads.