One of them had to die. Tomorrow, they would face the archdemon and one of them would die.
It was too much; too much too fast. Reina Cousland sat silently in the corridor, her head in her hands as she tried to take in everything that she had just heard. Her hair, short and flaming red with sections tied off in an alternating pattern around her crown, was mussed from her hands running through it repeatedly in frustration. Bright blue eyes threatened tears, though she contained them because she knew the hallway was possibly the worst place to break into hysterics. Her back rested against the cold stone wall, comforting her in its sturdiness and cooling the fever which seemed to be burning uncontrollably through her body. The picture of utter defeat and uncertainty, her mind reeled as she sat slumped on the floor. It had taken her months to come to terms with the fact that she would have to be the one facing the archdemon. And when she had finally accepted this reality, she had done so partially because she knew it as her duty, both to Ferelden and to her family – Maker bless their souls – but also because she knew that standing by her side as she faced the gruesome beast would be Alistair; her lover, companion, and friend.
Had her father lived, things would have been so much different. Had Arl Howe not betrayed her family and murdered them all, she would never have met those she now traveled with. But the Arl had shown his true loyalties and had slaughtered all she had ever known and loved without second thought. And by his actions, she had been drawn to Ostagar, to Duncan and the Grey Wardens, and to Alistair. The loss of the battle at Ostagar had come as a heavy blow to them both. For Alistair, he awakened in Flemeth's hut to find that the only family he had ever known had been torn cruelly away in one simple act of foolish pride and she had been witness to yet another monumental betrayal in which the lives of countless men and women – men and women she had only been privileged enough to call comrades for a few short hours – were handed carelessly over to the encroaching darkspawn horde by the treacherous Teyrn Loghain.
And so, with the death of the King on the battlefield at Ostagar, the Grey Wardens of Ferelden all but annihilated – save for her and Alistair – and the armies scattered, they had come together to complete the seemingly impossible task of raising an army anew from the combined promised forces of the different races across the land. Thank the Maker they had not been alone, or she was certain that their quest would have been lost well before it had truly began. In their travels, they had acquired others to their little band of heroes who had pledged their talents to the cause. First they had been joined by Morrigan, the shape shifting apostate daughter of Flemeth, witch of the Korcari Wilds. From the get go, she and Alistair had locked horns, taking every possibility to engage in the exchange verbal barbs and witty repartee. From Lothering, they had met and become allied with Leliana, a former Orlesian bard and cloistered sister of the Chantry and Sten, a fearsome warrior of the Qunari vanguard. As they continued, they had also obtained the considerable skills of Wynne, a kind and elderly mage of the Circle who's talent in the healing arts had saved all their lives more times than she cared to count, Zevran, their would-be assassin turned convenient ally, and Oghren, the perpetually inebriated dwarf come topside, bringing with him his fearsome skills on the battlefield.
It had taken sometime for she and Alistair to establish any sort of a rhythm, either on or off the battlefield, but once they had, they had found that they worked well together, complementing each other almost naturally. On the battlefield, they moved as one being, each one seeming to sense the other's movements before they made them and shifting their own attacks to collide simultaneously for maximum effect. Her daggers danced, slicing through armour, skin, and bone alike as though they were paper and his shield battered the enemy into submission before mowing them down with a powerful, well-placed stroke from the blade of his mentor, Duncan. Together, they fought, cutting down any number of darkspawn in a fluid whirl of death and mayhem.
Off the battlefield and away from the death and destruction which they seemed to carry like a plague, they had come to bond as well. First, as friends and comrades, she had been there for him when the grief and disappointment had closed in. He, in his turn, comforted her through the loss of her family, stood by her in her sadness and held her close when anxiety and self-doubt threatened to claim her. Then they began their subtle games and flirtatious banter, and it seemed the rest of their traveling party realized what was happening between them before they did. Gradually, they had come to mean so much more to each other, both slowly realizing that one could not do without the other. So much so, in fact, that she had found herself declaring her engagement to him in the presence of all the Teyrns and Teyrnas of the Landsmeet on the same day he rose to the throne of Ferelden.
It had been a spur of the moment action on her part, a desperate and selfish act to keep him beside her. She had been worried when he had not acknowledged her outburst during the Landsmeet. She had been afraid that he may have seen it as an attempt on her part to merely advance her social status from a mere Teyrn's daughter to Queen. But he hadn't; she thanked the Maker he hadn't. He had had been stunned, initially, when they had first had an opportunity to speak after the arguments in the assembly had finished. In truth, she had surprised herself. It had been an insane gamble on her part, but her determination had won out; she refused to leave the man she had come to care so much about for something as trivial as his royal heritage. Their mutual astonishment had been short lived, elation and sheer ecstasy taking hold within moments.
Together, they had done so much and been through so many trials, both large and small. Somehow, by some unfathomable form of destiny (or maybe it was sheer luck), they had seen through them all, alive and (mostly) unscathed. In the few short months she had known him, she had come to love Alistair more than any man she had ever known and he had come to mean far more to her than she had ever known possible. Together, they had experienced a world of 'firsts', and what a beautiful world it had been. And now, Riordan just wanted her to throw that all away, as if it were nothing.
One of them had to die. Riordan, the Grey Warden from Orlais, had made that point quite clear, as he had briefed both her and Alistair on the next day's strategy. He had promised them that, as the most senior of the three of them, he would do everything in his power to be the one to slay the ancient demi-god and take on the overwhelming tainted essence that would be the end for one of them. Though she knew, in the deepest part of her, that try as he may, Riordan would fail. The task would fall to either her or Alistair. But she had remained silent as the Orlesian man had continued to outline his plan and when he had finished she had nodded her consent.
What else was she supposed to have done? Should she have panicked and displayed the fear that was running rampant in her mind now for both men and fellow Wardens to see? No, it had been better she remained silent than appear the weak and terrified woman. Though she knew that Alistair didn't see her that way (Maker, the man had admitted she terrified HIM on the battlefield. Whether he was just saying that because it was true or because it was what she wanted to hear, she was unsure) she wasn't as certain of Riordan. No, there was nothing she could have said which could change the way events would play out. It had been best just to stay silent, allowing them all to delude themselves that the plan would work and be of some comfort.
And so she sat on the floor of Arl Eamon's Redcliffe Castle, swamped by misery and anxiety and unable to face going into her chamber. For entering her chamber would make the end that much nearer and morning would be that much closer. Maybe, if she remained in the corridor, she could keep morning at bay and the end of everything she loved would never come.
If only wishing could make it so.
Rising, she resigned herself to a restless night and made her way slowly to the room which the Arl had had prepared for her. At the doorway, she hesitated, thoughtful. If it was going to be the last night, she didn't want to spend it alone. She knew Alistair would be awake for hours yet and it would comfort her some small measure if she could be with him for at least a portion of that time, if only to soothe her frazzled mind and aching heart. She decided she would visit him, but not clad in her armour and battle-garb. It would only take her a moment to change, and then she would go. She already had her armour unbuckled and her breastplate in hand when she opened the door.
Upon entering her room, she was shocked to find Morrigan warming herself before the fire roaring in the hearth, her figure cast into silhouette by the sharp contrasts of light.
"Do not be alarmed; 'tis only I."
Closing the door and venturing deeper into the chamber, Reina set down her armour carefully and watched the woman she had slowly and almost reluctantly come to regard as a friend as her pale golden eyes sparkled with the flickering firelight reflected in them.
"What are you doing in my chamber? Is everything alright?"
"I am well. 'Tis you who are in danger. I only wish to talk. Then you may be on your own to…" she hesitated, a sneer working its way onto her face as she surveyed her leader's appearance, taking note of the undone clasps on the armour and the missing breastplate. "Do as you wish. 'Tis no matter to me."
"So talk," Reina snapped. Her voice, unusually curt, was due mostly to nerves and stress. And the bright flush Morrigan had managed to bring to her face with her comment didn't help either. She knew the assumptions she had been jumping to. There was no reason she should have been embarrassed; she and Alistair had been having… relations… for the past several months and the entire camp had been well aware of the situation. And besides, they were engaged. It was completely within their right to – and why did she even care what Morrigan thought anyhow!!
Morrigan smirked at her reaction.
"Very well. I have a plan, you see. A way out. The loop in your hole. I know what happens when the archdemon dies. I know a Grey Warden must be sacrificed. And that sacrifice could be you. I have come to say that this does not need to be. "
"Does not need to be? What do you mean?" She had her attention now. Could there be a possible light at the end of her perpetually dark tunnel?
"I offer a way out. A way out for all the Wardens, so there need be no sacrifice. A ritual… performed on the eve of battle, in the dark of night."
The line about the 'way out' had caught her attention. It was this 'ritual' that she was worried about. Also, there was something about her timing…
"Why would you not come forward with this sooner?"
"It was necessary that I wait and be sure. Now I am. Now we speak in private so no others may hear."
Suspicion raced through her. She did not fully trust Morrigan, especially when she was so forthcoming with the information. Simple facts could sometimes entail more argument to retrieve than they were worth. There was a world of difference between befriending someone and trusting to all their dark talents to save lives. And such a ritual as Morrigan would propose would surely entail some sacrifice of its own, possibly greater than that which she would be trading it for.
"Nothing comes without a price."
"Perhaps," Morrigan replied, circling to wander the room as she spoke. "But that price need not be so unbearable, especially when there is much to be gained. All I ask is that you hear what I have to say."
She halted before a large tapestry at the opposite edge of the room, which depicted in grotesque detail the fall of the Tevinter mages and the creation of the first darkspawn. It was ironic, she thought, that she should be given this room with this particular tapestry. As if she needed any more reminder of what she had sworn to defend against.
"Very well." Reina replied, reluctant. "Speak your plan."
Morrigan stood, her dark hair blending with the shadows almost seamlessly. Her eyes, smeared heavily with dark shadow, combined with the glimmering firelight, contorted her features unnaturally and added a certain level of malice to her expression. Gradually, she wound her way back to Reina's end of the chamber and began to pace before her as she laid out her scheme.
"What I propose is this: Convince Alistair to lay with me. Here, tonight. And from this ritual a child will be conceived. The child will bear the taint and when the archdemon is slain, its essence shall seek the child like a beacon. At this early stage, the child can absorb this essence and not perish. The archdemon is still destroyed, with no Grey Warden dying in the process."
She was very skeptical now, especially now that Morrigan's intentions had been revealed. And she had been right about the sacrifice; great though it was, it was not so great as the loss of Alistair's life. For she knew, that if the moment came, he would not allow her to strike the killing blow.
Reina pondered the Witch's words. She never offered anything unless she had something to gain in return. And there was much possibility for her to gain where this plan was concerned… Actually, from Morrigan's point of view, she couldn't really see a down side… She had her own agenda and it unnerved her. However, the last thing she wanted was to lose the man she loved so soon… And if this…'ritual'… was a way to prevent that from happening… But helping Morrigan to convince Alistair to sire not only another bastard heir to the throne, but a demonic child! Was anything truly worth that?
"So the child becomes a darkspawn?" she asked, voicing her fear.
Morrigan replied calmly, "Not at all. It will become something different: a child, born with the soul of an Old God. After this is done, you allow me to walk away… and you do not follow. Ever. The child will be mine to raise as I wish."
"But why Alistair? Why not Riordan?"
"Even if I thought Riordan could be convinced, he is unsuitable. I need someone who has not been tainted for long – it must be him and it must be tonight."
Her mind was still racing, trying feverishly to find purchase on what Morrigan was telling her, searching desperately for the loop in her loophole. There had to be some other way! Allowing Morrigan to walk away with a creature of that kind of power incubating in her womb… it was unthinkable.
"You actually think Alistair will agree to this?" she asked, trying to sound as confident as Morrigan. She failed when her voice trembled and cracked on the very first word.
"If you care for him as you seem to, you will convince him to. Consider what the alternative might be?"
She already had, and the thought chilled her blood in her veins.
Morrigan sensed this and proceeded to speak her very thoughts aloud. The Witch knew that she had the other woman by the throat, in a sense, and fully intended to use it to her advantage.
"Do you think Alistair will fail to do his duty as the future king and save his country? And if you take the blow instead, he loses the woman he loves. How do you think he would feel about that?"
The emotion in her words was utterly false and layered on like jelly; thick, sticky and overly sweet.
She knew how he would feel, for she knew she would feel the same: lost, empty, and, most frighteningly of all, alone. If she were the one to… she didn't even want to consider how he would react, though she knew.
Morrigan smirked as she watched the noblewoman's mind work, knowing her logic would win out in the end.
"I think you have many good reasons to tell him to save his own life. I think you should consider them carefully."
She thought she had left those thoughts, those…nightmares in the corridor. But here they were, haunting her like a bad dream the morning after, only now they had painfully come to reality.
"Wait… I want to know more about this child."
"As you wish," Morrigan replied complacently. Her complacence was only due, Reina knew, to the fact that she believed she was about to finally obtain something she desperately sought. Morrigan was never one to do anything without thought of personal gain.
"Will the child be evil? What will it become?"
"Allow me to say that what I seek is the essence of the Old God that once was and not the dark forces that corrupted it. Some things are worth preserving in this world. Make of that what you will."
"The child won't be hurt, will it?"
"Ignoring that but after one night it could barely be called a child… no, it will not be hurt. It will be changed."
"What do you intend to do with this child?"
She didn't even want to begin to imagine the devious plans Morrigan could devise with something so powerful at her virtual command.
"I do not wish to tell you."
Of course she didn't. But if Reina was going to convince Alistair to go through with this, she wanted all the details first. "I insist. I need to know what you plan."
If it was something sinister; and knowing Morrigan like she did, she had no doubt of this, she wanted to know what the woman had planned, if only so she herself could at least attempt to make plans for the future.
"The child will represent freedom for an ancient power; a chance to be reborn apart from the taint. Is that not reason enough to do it? I will raise the child apart from the rest of society and teach it to respect that from which it came. Beyond that, you need know nothing else."
Though it wrenched at her, she knew that her fiancé's sense of family would compel him to wish to see the… thing… he fathered.
"And what if Alistair wants to see the child."
"I have no doubt he may. But he will not. It is all I ask for in return."
"I see," Reina mused. "Enough about the child then."
"Then you have decided?" Morrigan's voice took on an edge of excitement Reina had rarely heard there before. And, though she felt she was selling her soul and that of her loved one to a power greater than that of the devil, she voiced her consent.
"All right, I agree. I'll do it."
"A wise decision." Morrigan replied, her tone smug. "I shall wait here, then, while you go and speak with Alistair. I urge you do be convincing."
And with that, she turned back to the fire.
Back in the corridor, Reina tried to think, tried to consider. How was she supposed to ask this of him? Worse, that she was in agreement with this plan to have another woman sleep with her betrothed. But if it prevented their death; more importantly, his death… Was this one case when the ends really justified the means? She must have thought so, because seconds later, she found herself at his door, her shaking hand knocking softly on the sturdy oak.
"Come in," he called out.
She entered to find him sitting on the edge of his bed, bent over, his elbows on his knees; a pose that depicted just how much strain he was currently under. Maker, but the sight of him always seemed to stir something in her… It was one thing to lead her into battle; that, she had done before with little challenge. It was quite another for him to not only be crowned leader of a nation, but to then order them to war mere hours after taking on such responsibility… And with what she was about to ask him…
Rising to greet her, he managed a half smile and, noticing her absence of armour, said slyly, "I see you can't sleep either. Did you have something in mind?"
'Well, I did. Before Morrigan ruined all hope of that,' she thought darkly before replying with a weak grin.
"Not really, no. Just more comfortable like this."
He smirked. "Whatever you say, my love. Oh, I also saw Morrigan outside your room earlier. And the look she gave me… that was icy, even for her. Is something up?"
She squirmed on the spot, wringing her hands, unsure of how to begin. How was she supposed to even lead up to asking him this?
"Um… Alistair? We need to talk."
He moved towards her, his face serious.
"Oh. I guess whatever Morrigan had to say, it's big. This is what I get for becoming king: Everyone always bringing you the bad news," he joked, leaning casually against the bedpost. "Well, what is it? Rats running amok? Cheese supplies run low? You can tell me, I can take it."
She fought back a grin, though her mouth betrayed her by twitching at the corners. He could always put a smile on her face, no matter the situation. That was one thing she loved so much about him. It helped her feel more at ease when the awkward moments arose.
"You know I love you, right?"
His crooked smile remained in place as he chuckled, "Can you make it sound any more ominous? Tell me already!"
She smiled, hoping to put him at ease, though it took great effort on her part and it showed. Sidling up to them, she wrapped her arms around his waist and eased him close, her eyes locked on his. Habitually, his hands found their place as well; one on her hip and the other resting just below her jaw line.
"So, come on. Tell me."
Hesitating for just a second, her gaze drifted away from his and her smile faltered considerably. She wasn't as good at delivering her lines with a straight face as he was.
"Surprise! Your wildest dreams come true: Sex with Morrigan!"
Pulling away just slightly, he stared at her for a moment, not exactly sure what to make of her comment. Maybe she had taken more of a hit than he thought in the 'little conflict' that had occurred in the Landsmeet?
"Ha-ha! All right, that's pretty funny. Nice way to cut the tension. So. What's really up?"
Reina sighed. Okay, so humour was out. She would have to settle for bluntness; something he would hopefully respond better to than her attempt at humour.
"Alistair… I… I need you to sleep with Morrigan."
"Ha-ha, cute. This is payback, right? For all the jokes?"
'Yes,' she thought sarcastically, her brain inventing a smart retort before she could stop it. 'I'm paying you back for all your jokes, all the times you made me laugh hysterically, by trying to save your life. It's brilliant. Really.'
Outwardly, she sent him a pleading gaze, her brilliant blue eyes begging him to understand. Seeing her face, the pain and anxiety in her eyes, he sobered immediately, pulling away from her entirely to pace the room.
"But… You're not joking… Are you? You're actually serious? Killed by the archdemon, or sleep with Morrigan… How does someone make that kind of choice? You're not… actually asking me this, are you? What kind of ritual is this?"
She closed her eyes and swallowed. Though she hated lying to him, there were things she just couldn't tell him and expect him to understand. Opening them, she stared into his eyes; twin pools of warm, unending tawny she lost herself in every time their eyes locked. 'Maker, I wish there was another way. Why this?'
"I –" she clenched her eyes shut again, struggling for the words. "It's some kind of ancient magic. Flemeth's, probably."
He rolled his eyes and turned away from her, unconvinced by her explanation. Not that she had really expected him to accept that answer anyhow. It was the best she could give him right now. Some secrets needed to be kept.
"Oh, well, that's reassuring. Wait, no it isn't."
Rubbing the back of his neck in frustration, he settled again on the bed, and she moved in to seat herself beside him. She could see his mind was reeling, trying to understand what she was asking of him; trying to puzzle out why she was asking it of him…
"Look, even if I was willing to entertain this idea – and I'm not saying that I am – is this really what you want me to do? Are you sure?"
'No, I'm not sure! I hate this idea! But… If it keeps you alive… I'll agree. If it keeps you alive, I'll agree to anything. Not a particularly desirable trait in a queen, but, well…'
Her gaze, full of love, never wavered from his.
"You need to trust me."
He sighed, confused. His better judgments and instincts screamed at him that this was not a good idea, yet he trusted her, as he had no other. He knew she would never ask him to do something like this lightly; to ignore all they had built steadily together for one night with a… a… creature whom he considered as close to a nemesis as he had ever known (the impending Blight and archdemon not included). She might not have been ready to explain it now, and for tonight, he would settle with that. But when things were settled, they would talk. And there would be an explanation, in full.
"I do trust you. If this is what you think is best… I'll do it," he groaned, rubbing the back of his neck yet again. "Ugh… where is she? Let's go and get this over with before I… change my mind."
She hugged him tightly, her gratitude overflowing into her vise-like embrace.
Together, they walked back into the corridor, which seemed to grow colder each time she entered it. Hand in hand, they approached the door, took one last look deep into each other's eyes, and entered.
Morrigan, upon hearing the door, turned to face them, her shadowed visage managing to conceal her excitement and anticipation. So close now…
" 'Twould seem your talk is done?"
"Greeeat. So this isn't a dream after all," Alistair groaned, voicing his displeasure. Ignoring him as usual, Morrigan continued.
"What is it to be, then? Has a decision been reached?"
She was angry, angry that it had come to this. Angry that for Morrigan, this was all just a means to her end, a game she played in which they were here pawns. She suspected now that they had been so from the very beginning. But in her anger, there was desperation, which drove her to seek any means necessary, even if those means were distasteful. Grudgingly, she replied.
"Alistair has agreed to your… request."
"You know, dinner would have been nice, maybe a bit of wine? Or… you could just knock me out first…"
Reina's mouth flickered with the ghost of a smile as he tried one last time to back out. Someday, she would explain it to him. Why all the deception and secrecy had been necessary. It was doubtful she would ever be able to convince him to believe it fully, but it was his life that was at stake, and for that, she would risk anything. Even a deal with the devil.
"Tempting. Still, I am glad to see that it has been done," Morrigan said, responding off-handedly to his comment, as was her custom when dealing with the man she had deemed a fool from the start.
She turned to Alistair, her voice alluring. A wave of jealousy washed over Reina before she could suppress it. She kept forgetting: she had agreed to this…
"Let us go somewhere more… private, Alistair. And believe me, when I say you will not hate this quite so much as you believe."
She watched them go, her emotions getting the better of her at long last as her eyes flooded with tears of frustration, jealousy, love, and a myriad of other sentiments she couldn't even begin to label. She would hold it in though. She would be strong. At least until they left the room and she could breakdown in relative privacy.
As they turned to leave, Alistair risked one last glance back at his fiancée, standing almost helplessly in the middle of the room, the firelight glimmering on her fiery red hair and adding a soft glow to her already pale skin. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but her unbelievably radiant blue eyes sparkled more brightly tonight than he remembered before and he was certain, as he turned back, her hand slid up to her cheek to brush away what could only have been a tear. Eyes clenched tight, he bit his lip and prayed it was just the light.