Three Years Later
Alistair mentally called Eamon every filthy name he could think of and a few he could make up on the spot, but he was sure his expression didn't give him away. If he had learned anything in his three years on the throne, it was how to hide the emotions that tended to send his advisers into lengthy, panicky lectures that bored him to no end and always left him with the urge to throw things. So instead he bit his tongue and allowed Arl Eamon to sing the praises about the woman waiting for them in the study. Lena was intelligent, well loved by her people and friendly. She was exceptionally lovely, as well, with bright green eyes and hair the color of ripened wheat. He knew he could have done much worse in terms of an arranged marriage.
Not that it made the prospect of one any more appealing.
Alistair had managed sidestep the issue of marriage much longer than he would have anticipated. The past years had kept him busy enough to make a reasonable excuse for putting off the flood of noble daughters shoved his way with decreasing subtlety.
In that time he had adjusted to his role as king, though his unorthodox means had left the Bannorn floundering for a while, wondering how to react to this new ruler. His position as a Grey Warden combined with his actions at the Landsmeet had gained him the reputation of a warrior willing to punish those who wronged him, an image that was only strengthened further when the lords who had abandoned their holdings during the Blight were stripped of title and land within the first year of his reign. Eamon had counseled against that decision, spouting warnings of rebellion, but for the first time Alistair had put his foot down, refusing to budge on the matter. It was a turning point, he supposed, marking the moment where he had decided to become a king rather than a puppet to those who had put him there.
Wynne and Oghren alone remained of his traveling companions, steadfast in their desire to remain where they were needed as well as their friendship with him. Alistair honestly didn't know if he would have made it through that first year without them, when his grief and rage were open wounds and the temptation to hurl himself out a window began to look more and more like an option.
Oghren had taken up place as the first dwarven captain of the royal guard, and though it took more than one cracked skull for the soldiers to adjust to taking orders from him he was respected, despite his tendency to send the castle into a mad panic when he helped the king sneak out on occasion for a drink at the local tavern. These midnight outings combined with a fair sense of judgment and the return of his sense of humor had made Alistair a popular ruler, someone to be respected but well loved. It still amazed him.
But now that the land was at peace again and on its way to healing, he could no longer silence his advisers from pushing him to secure his throne. Cailan had died without an heir, and they were frantic that the same mistake not be repeated. His patience with them was rapidly evaporating, and more than once he had caused a scandal by sending some of the most powerful men in Ferelden scurrying like frightened children in the wake of his reaction to demands that he marry.
"Alistair," Wynne finally told him one day with deliberate patience, stepping over the broken crockery that had smashed against the hastily closed door. "You could at least meet with some of these prospects. No one is forcing you to make a decision now."
He knew she was right, knew they were all right. He had a limited time due to his shortened lifespan, even if he was fortunate enough to avoid the swing of a sword with his name on it one day, and Ferelden needed an heir. His objections to marriage were purely selfish and so he did not voice them, but everyone knew. It didn't matter how pretty or intelligent or friendly this Lena was.
She would never be her.
He was startled from his dark musings by a loud bark. Aiden came bounding up to him as soon as he opened the door of his office to head study where he would finally meet this bride to be. The dog was in a state of wild excitement, and promptly grasped the cuff of his sleeve in careful teeth and tried to pull him away.
"Hey, knock it off, you ruddy mutt," Alistair scolded, snatching his hand back. "If you slobber on me you'll send my staff into hysterics."
The dog barked again, dancing in place for a moment before he dashed a few steps down the hallway, then abruptly turned and looked back at him expectantly. Alistair obligingly looked, but the hallway was empty except for a maid scrubbing the floor at the far end.
"I can't follow you now. I'm busy."
Aiden whimpered and trotted a few more paces, still watching him. He began to tell the dog that he would just have to wait when he got a better look at the woman in the hall. Her back was to him and she was hunched over her work, hiding her face, but there was something annoyingly familiar in the set of her shoulders and the way she moved that made him pause.
"Your Majesty, I thought we agreed that the dog wouldn't run freely while our guests were here," Eamon said wearily behind him, recapturing his attention.
Alistair just avoided rolling his eyes at him.
The mabari had very nearly succumbed to grief after losing his mistress. He was certain the animal would have died if left to his own devices, but for unknown reason, Aiden had found purpose in tending to Alistair. He began sleeping in his room, waking him from the worst of his nightmares with rough pawing that was well intentioned, if slightly painful. Alistair had some distant recollection that some of the dogs at Ostagar had managed to recover from loss and eventually chose a new master. He wasn't sure if that's what happened here, but regardless, the animal was one of the few tangible things he had left of her.
"No, you said he shouldn't be left roaming around, and I believe I ignored you. Besides, the grounds are all muddy with the thaw. Would you rather he tracked dirt all over the castle?"
The arl did not answer, apparently deciding it prudent to choose his battles. Sensing victory, Alistair aimed a half-hearted kick at the dog, ignoring his whine of protest. "Go on, beat it. And behave yourself."
Alistair was relieved to reach the sanctuary of his apartments later that evening. To his chagrin, Eamon followed him, determined to get a confirmation before he let him escape. He did his best to ignore the persistent man, instead speaking Oghren, who had been following along at a distance. "Get rid of these people. I need to think."
Oghren nodded and raised his voice so the handful of servants as well as the guards could hear him. Alistair never went anywhere without a crowd anymore.
"Alright you lot, out! He's gotta learn to dress himself eventually. Go on, get!"
They obeyed immediately, though Alistair could hear the two guards stationing themselves outside of his room. He ground his teeth in frustration. Without looking at Eamon he stormed into his bedchamber and kicked open one of the trunks there, tossing clothes over his shoulder until he found a shirt of plain linen.
Oghren returned, rubbing his chin and looking around the mess. "Guess I was a little optimistic about the dressing yourself part."
"Lena is a lovely girl, isn't she?" Eamon prompted, paying no attention to the dwarf.
"Lovely," Alistair answered without enthusiasm. He pulled the uncomfortable shirt they had stuffed him into for this meeting over his head with more force than necessary and was grimly satisfied to hear the fabric rip. "I'm not going to argue the point."
"You'll agree to this marriage, then?"
"I've already told you that I would."
"Splendid! We had in mind to make the announcement as soon as possible and get the planning under way. By the end of the month..."
"That's far too soon."
Eamon sighed. "It's been three years, Alistair. The Landsmeet is beginning to worry. The crown of Ferelden must be secured."
"Really?" he snapped, yanking the new shirt down. "That notion escaped me the first hundred times you mentioned it. But I think it's starting to sink in now."
"I simply don't see any reason to put it off longer, if you're of a mind to remedy the problem..."
"It's too blasted soon."
"Hey, back off a little, Arl," Oghren interrupted, frowning. "He said yes, didn't he?"
"He has an obligation..."
"Don't speak to me about my obligations," Alistair snarled. "I know them. Haven't I done every wretched thing that was expected of me?"
The arl did not answer at first, and Alistair went back into the reception chamber and flopped down into a chair. He wasn't even sure what he was feeling right now, but he didn't like it.
Eamon regarded him with sympathetic eyes as he carefully weighed his next words. "She did not sacrifice herself so that you could give up on living," he said quietly.
His vision webbed red and for a moment it was hard to breathe. The arl was no amateur when it came to getting what he wanted, but never had Alistair anticipated that he would draw that particular weapon. "Eamon," Alistair said slowly through the haze of anger, and he was amazed at how even his voice remained. "Don't speak to me of Rhiann. Ever."
However the words had affected his adviser, Alistair was not going to find out through a change in expression or stance. He was far too good at disguising his emotions for that. He merely gazed back steadily, giving an obedient bob of his head. "As you wish, my liege."
Alistair sank deeper into the chair and let his head fall back as Eamon left, heaving an enormous sigh. Oghren took the seat across from him, wordlessly handing him a small amber bottle.
He glanced at it for a moment with a raised brow. "This isn't going to make me blind, is it?"
The dwarf gave a deep rumble of laughter. "Does it matter?"
"Not really," he muttered and took a long swallow.
"Don't much see why you let that blowhard boss you around anyway," Oghren said after a moment. "Isn't that the point of being king?"
"Apparently the only point to being king is to provide the next king," Alistair mumbled and took another swig.
"I'll never love anyone but you, I promise."
A small frown appeared between her eyes, and she ran gentle fingertips over his face. "Don't promise me that. I would never hold you to it," she whispered. "Promise me you'll never love anyone the same way you love me. That will be enough."
She lifted her head and kissed him, and he didn't know how to tell her that her argument was pointless. He belonged only to her.
Alistair woke up with a jolt, tears stinging his eyes. It had been so long since he wept for Rhiann, he hadn't thought he had anything left. His upcoming wedding was picking away at the scab over his heart before it was healed, reawakening the burning pain just as he had begun to stop feeling it. He shivered in the dark, his skin broken out in a cold sweat as he fought to steady his breath. The dream had been so real that for a moment he thought he could detect the subtle hint of lilacs. He shuddered all over, throwing the blankets back.
He could not do this. It felt too much like another failure on his part. Like betrayal.
His mind made up, he began collecting the few things he would need. He got dressed in the simplest of his clothes, grateful that they would be covered anyway as he dug around in a chest for a chainmail shirt of dwarven make. All of his old armor was in storage and he had no desire to alert the castle that he was up to anything. The sword belt he had once worn was in his chamber, though, and as he put it on he cringed a bit at the snug fit. It had been a while since he was forced to travel without the comforts of carriages and a dozen armed men.
At that he paused. His sword was in the next room, but the guards on the other side of the door might walk in if they heard him moving around in there. His gaze fell on the low chest that he kept shoved underneath his bed. He hadn't had the nerve to open it in three years, but he supposed now was a good a time as any.
Everything was just as he left it. Her journal was there, and he saw the very tip of a petal of the rose he had given her, pressed forever within its pages. Her betrothal brooch was there as well, as were the matching blades she had carried. He held the longsword like a holy talisman, carefully inspecting it for signs of wear. The enchantment was still strong on it – the blade was as shiny and clean as if it had been put there yesterday. Slowly, he sheathed it at his side, fighting back a new wave of threatening tears.
It was time to go.
He couldn't help but wonder how the historians would chronicle a reign that ended with the king sneaking out of his bedroom window.
Alistair pulled back the curtains and was instantly met with two simultaneous shocks. One was the face in the window – the other was the realization that he knew the face the window. That was as far as he got before a fist connected with his jaw, knocking him to the floor.
"You know, your castle is not well guarded," Zevran said conversationally as he swung into the chamber.
Alistair scrambled to his feet, his hand on the hilt of his sword. Zevran chuckled, that irritating, condescending sound that always managed to make Alistair long for violence of some kind.
"Have no fear, my old friend. I came only to talk."
He wasn't about to take his hand off of that sword hilt, if that was the elf was getting at. The shock of Zevran suddenly standing here, right in front of him, was too much to be real. He hadn't heard so much as a whisper from the bastard since he had slunk out of the castle without telling anyone. Now he said he wanted to talk? "And you thought that sneaking into my bedchamber in the dead of night was the best way to go about that, did you?" he finally managed to ask.
"Of course." A flame sparked, and now Alistair could clearly see the face of the man he had been forced to count as a companion three years ago. "Who am I to request audience with the king of Ferelden? No one. I have taken great care these years to remain no one." Zevran lit a few candles, then turned to face him. For a moment they looked each other over, noting the differences time had made. Alistair was surprised by how much a few years seemed to have aged the elf. His hair was longer and was not oiled and styled with the care that had annoyed Alistair to no end, but pulled into an untidy ponytail at the back of his head. His cloak and boots were of plain make and splattered with mud from his travels.
"You should take more care to ensure no one gets in this way again," Zevran finally said, breaking the silence and gesturing to the window.
"Believe me, I am kicking myself."
"You are not pleased to see me?"
His fist flew without warning and the assassin hit the floor with a grunt.
"I suppose I deserved that," Zevran muttered into the carpet. He stood up, gingerly touching his fingers to his lips. They came back with a smear of blood. "Somehow I always seem to forget how quickly you can move for such a large specimen."
"What do you want, Zevran?"
"I wanted to stop you from climbing out of the window, naturally."
Alistair didn't truly have a response to that. Zevran smiled at his silence. "You have grown much in your time as king, my friend, but in many ways you are still woefully predictable. When we learned that you were to be married soon, we knew it was only a matter of time before you tried to escape."
"Leliana and myself. She is guarding the hallway. We were not entirely certain which route you would take, of course."
"Leliana is here as well?" Alistair shook his head at his own stupidity. "The maid – I knew she looked familiar."
Zevran nodded. "Chantry or no, Leliana is wonderfully talented. She has been here for some time without your detection. Although, I must admit, we had both quite overlooked the dog. We did not realized he had survived, you see."
At that the chamber door nudged open and Aiden entered. He trotted past Zevran without a second glance and jumped up onto the bed, curling up to sleep. Alistair cast an accusing glare at the slumbering mabari. "You knew about this all along, didn't you?"
The dog did not deign to answer.
"So then what, you two decided you were going to stop me?" Alistair asked the elf, crossing his arms in front of him.
"Hinder you, more like. Come, come, Alistair. We both know that you wouldn't have made it two days before your damnable sense of honor turned you around again. By then the story would be on the lips of every citizen in Ferelden. Your future queen would be shamed and your ability to rule would be in question. And that would be a very sad thing. You have done splendidly thus far. So all I have truly done is rescue you from a royal headache, no?"
Alistair glowered, completely unwilling to admit Zevran was probably right. "I don't remember asking for your concern," he said moodily.
"And yet you have it, and it is yours to bear regardless." Zevran looked down, sighing as he made a show of dusting some of the dirt from his cloak. "It was what she wanted, you know."
Rage towards the assassin Alistair had thought long since buried flared up in him. "You knew her so well, did you?"
"Obviously better than yourself."
Alistair swung again, but this time Zevran was ready for him and calmly ducked the blow. "No, my friend, therapeutic as it may be for both of us to beat each other bloody, I have little desire to be hunted down as the man who killed the king of Ferelden."
Alistair snorted. Zevran shrugged in answer. "As you will then. I have less desire to die here."
Slightly mollified and feeling a little childish at what was quickly resembling a tantrum, Alistair eyed Zevran curiously and forced himself to focus. "So why this sudden desire to help me? You don't even like me."
Zevran laughed mirthlessly. "Do not disparage yourself so. For a very long time, I hated you." He said this so matter-of-factly that Alistair was taken aback. Zevran nodded to stress his point. "It's true, I'm afraid. In all the years I delivered death, never did I yearn for it. Never had I wanted to kill someone, with everything in me, until we found her atop that tower, you and I."
Alistair's eyes narrowed and his hand again went inadvertently to the hilt of his sword. Zevran simply make a scoffing sound and waved the precaution away. "Do not trouble yourself. I am over it now, as it were. You see, I realized something, before I came here. For a long time I blamed you, thinking that you should have fought harder, should have been more insistent on following her, her orders be damned." He gave Alistair a crooked smile. "But it was my own downfall as well, no? For all of us, even the qunari. We did as she asked, without question. Even...even when it went against everything we knew to be true."
Zevran's voice quavered slightly at the end of this little speech, but he rallied and flopped down into a chair. "We are not so different, you and I."
"You would compare yourself to me?"
Zevran laughed. "Outwardly, no. I have far better taste and am infinitely better looking, even bedraggled even as I am." He sighed. "But we have both known that bitter cup, Alistair. Neither of us could deny her a single thing she wanted. And above all else, she wanted you to live." He looked up at the human, and Alistair saw a sadness welling there, deep and profound. "When she entrusted this request to me, what choice did I have but to obey?"
Alistair wanted to hate him. He wanted something to take the rage and unfairness of all of it out on, but he couldn't. In Zevran's eyes he saw reflected his own pain. How ironic that this person he despised would be the only one left who could truly understand what that day had cost them both.
"So," Zevran continued, and his voice hovered closer his normal tone. "To answer your question, I am here to fulfill a promise made. If Rhiann taught me anything with her sacrifice, it is that some oaths transcend all else. I was a fool to think that mine ended with her death. I swore to protect you with my life, and so I shall, even if it occasionally means stepping in to protect you from yourself."
Alistair stared at him. "She made you promise to protect me?"
"She did indeed, although," Zevran chuckled, and it was in honest amusement this time. "Given the circumstances, I have often wondered through the years if she was truly too kind to realize that some people can never be friends, or if you simply did something to greatly annoy her before she made her request. It really could go either way."
Nearly against his will, Alistair found himself laughing. It was quiet and didn't quite leave his chest, but it was laughter, all the same.
"Leliana and I are traveling to Highever," Zevran said, and Alistair started like a stag when the hunters burst through the foliage. "We have every year on this day since … well, you were there," he said quietly. "Come with us."
He had managed to stay away from Highever since taking the crown, sending Eamon when it couldn't be avoided. Luckily, Fergus seemed to understand his hesitation, rather than being offended by it. It certainly didn't hurt that Teyrn Cousland knew he had the personal ear of the king whenever he wished it. "I don't think I can."
"It may do you some good, my friend. You have been left alone here too long with your grief and your guilt. Wynne is too prone to coddling you and Oghren would have to crawl out of his bottle to see you are not yet well."
"They've been a great help to me."
"They helped you survive, of that I have no doubt. Now it is time to return to the world and live."
"Maybe," Alistair conceded unwillingly. "But, Highever...I don't think I you could understand."
"But I do. You forget, I saw what happened between the two of you. Truly, I saw it more clearly than most, green as I was with envy. The combination of a desperate situation and the intimacy of the Joining, the knowledge that the two of you alone could hold back the darkness that crawled across the land." He smiled again, but it was little more than a bitter twist to his mouth. "Of course it had to end in tragedy. There is no room for such love in the real world."
"And so you would prefer that I forget?"
"Never that, my friend," Zevran said softly, more sincerely than Alistair had ever heard him speak. "If you were to, I may have to discount all of this and kill you after all, and that would be a colossal waste, given all I have endured. But your Rhiann wanted you to get on with your life. After all – that's what this has all come down to, no? Your life."
"I'm going to Highever."
Eamon looked up, surprised to see Alistair not only standing in the doorway of his study, but apparently ready to go. He wore a finely wrought chainmail shirt and a traveling cloak, his sword at his hip. A number of his royal guards hovered uncertainly in the hall behind him, along with Wynne and Oghren.
"Highever. I'm leaving immediately. I sent word ahead to Teyrn Cousland."
"Your Majesty," Eamon began, feeling a little desperate. "Do you really think this is the best time? There are several matters that need your immediate attention, and I know that you are feeling less then sure about your upcoming marriage..."
Alistair smiled, a genuine grin of his old humor that Eamon had not seen since the Blight. "I'll come back," he assured him, and Eamon breathed a bit easier. "I'll marry this Lena and provide the cursed rhan with its cursed heirs. I'll even try to be not miserable about it. But first, I'm going to Highever." His face fell and suddenly Eamon saw not the king of Ferelden standing before him, but the little boy who had stood before him long ago, bravery battling against grief at being sent away. "Please, understand. I have to do this."
Eamon nodded slowly. "Of course, Your Majesty."
They journeyed together on horseback this time, with as few guards as he could reasonably get away from the castle with. The first days of the trip seemed surreal with his old companions around him, each of them easily slipping back into familiar banter as if they had never been apart. Leliana rode beside him, and though her hair had grown longer and she wore the robes of a lay sister again she looked the same to him as she always had, her eyes sparkling with good humor as she smiled at him. "How are things sitting with you, Your Majesty?"
He gave her an exasperated look at the formal title that made her giggle. "I'm not really sure yet."
She nodded knowingly. He was torn between happiness at seeing that his friends were still there, and more than ever feeling the gaping hole for the one who was not.
The scars of the Blight still sliced across the land, but they were healing under his guidance, and as the procession made its way down the dusty roads the common folk would drop what they were doing and quite spontaneously cheer him as he passed.
"She would be proud of you, I think," Leliana commented, and for a moment her smile wavered ever so slightly, became soft with a hint of melancholy. "You've been a good king, as she knew you would be."
He didn't know how to answer that. "I wish you would return to court, Leliana," he said instead. "The offer still stands, you know. I'll never be able to listen to a Ferelden bard again."
She laughed lightly. "No, I am content where I am. There is much beauty to be had in simplicity." She grinned mischievously, sliding a glance at him out of the corner of her eye. "But I would be very pleased to receive invitations to royal functions. A girl needs a reason to dress up once in a while, yes?"
He chuckled beneath his breath. "I'll remember that."
There is a statue in Denerim dedicated to she who is known in the bard's tales as the Hero of Ferelden. Just inside the gates is a large stone supporting a rampant griffon. A plaque bears the name of the woman who had ended the Blight, sighting the date of her sacrifice. Every year on the anniversary of her death the people come and leave flowers around the small memorial, murmuring their thanks.
What they do not know is their hero does not rest here.
Alistair acknowledged the need for the people to pay tribute. He had the marker built as a reminder of her strength and courage.
But it didn't suit Rhiann. Not as he knew her. Not the girl who was afraid of the dark and spiders but felt right at home disemboweling darkspawn, who's eyes could sparkle with laughter or flash with determination. The woman who's soft arms and warmth surrounded him at night, her love for him and unwavering belief in his potential flowing from her as effortlessly as breathing.
At her brother's request, Rhiann was cremated and buried in Highever, in a spot of land that was peaceful and green at the edge of the cliffs, overlooking the vast expanse of sea she had spoken of so often. As the group of her friends reached the home of her brother, the others made excuses to stay behind in the castle, granting Alistair the chance to visit the spot alone. It was with trepidation that he did so, and as he approached his nerves hummed and tensed at the sight of the white stone that marked her resting place. When he knelt down, gentle grief and a strange peace rolled over him like the waves of the sea, and he suddenly saw that he was a fool for not coming here sooner.
For a long time he said nothing, wishing that she could hear him and hoping she knew that he was there, finally, and that he was so, so sorry. He longed to hold her, to tell her everything he had locked away in him. He wanted her to know he still dreamed of her at night, that she had been right all along in making him king, but he couldn't seem to get the words past the knot in his throat.
Knowing him, they would have come out wrong anyway.
Instead, he left the gift he had brought – a single red rose – and let his fingers lovingly trace her name, carved in stone.
"I miss you. Every day," he whispered.
And as the warm breeze lifted around him, carrying with it the scent of the sea and wildflowers in bloom, he knew that it was enough.
A/N: I wanted to take a moment to thank all the readers who have followed this experiment in creativity to its end. This was really just an insight into how easily my mind wanders, and your encouragement and feedback renewed my love for telling stories, even if it's not necessarily my own story to tell.
To explain myself to those who were less than happy with the road I took: I never saw this story as a happy one. There are too many areas of grey and questionable choices to make. Though I enjoyed writing Rhiann and am very pleased with the way she turned out, I always saw her as slightly unbalanced, someone who had seen too much in too short a time, who was able to meet the challenges thrown at her but perhaps not as able to forgive the circumstances that put her in that position. I tend to listen to a lot of music when I'm writing to get my mind in the right place, and her theme song in my head was "Leave Out All The Rest" by Linkin Park, if that explains anything.
But, writing the ending broke my heart as well, so as a huge thanks for all the feedback, I am working on an alternate Dark Promise ending. I'll post it separately within the next couple of days, hopefully. Like the game that has sparked our obsessions, I'll leave it to you to decide how Alistair and Rhiann's story ended.
And I have to take my hat off to David Gaider. Once you get past the leveling and mobs and tricks and traps that are required of all video games, you can find the brutally beautiful story he created of love and betrayal, duty and sacrifice. It truly is breathtaking, and I wish I could thank him for the inspiration.