Disclaimer: "Dragon Age: Origins" and all its expansions and additional content is the property of Bioware and EA Games. Large portions of written content within the game, as well as Dragon's Age: The Stolen Throne, and Dragon's Age: Calling, are the creation of David Gaider. Original scenarios and characters are used under the creative license of the writer, ItalianEmpress1985. No profit is being made and the following story is for entertainment purposes only.
Words From the Author: Another late chapter . . . sometimes I kind of hate and love the Holidays with equal measure. That and chaos breeds writer's block, so my apologies.
When I had writer's block, I was goofing off on Azalea Dolls (Empress aren't you too old to play with dolls? No. :P) There are now several Tudors and Game of Thrones versions from both Dragon Age and the Fate and Forbearance world on my Deviant Art profile, if anyone's curious. I've linked to a few in my profile, and if you are interested the rest can be found in that same gallery. Nothing to get excited about, but it was VERY fun and I thought I'd share.
Mentioned in this chapter is the infamous Remigold dance, no one ever said what it entailed, so now we have 'the Empress' version of that dance. ;) Plus, it is performed to Highever's own Battle Hymn which was largely inspired by Nox Arcana's 'Highland Storm' I'll forever think of that as the official theme music for House Cousland. "NEVER CONCEDE THE HIGHGROUND!" Which is apropos I think, since that family has traditionally lived on the 'high ground' :p Anyway, you can find a link to that theme in my profile, listed in extras under 'musical inspiration'
As musical inspiration goes, I also listened to the eerie and deceivingly titled 'Warrior of Light' from the Game of Thrones Season Two soundtrack, which was played several times, but also during a creepy 'birth' scene, and it really gave me goosebumps while I was writing the last two sections of the chapter. That also is listed under extras in 'musical inspiration'
Another thing, is that the ring in this chapter is from the companion in question in-game and is given to that companion's PC love interest, if the in-game romance goes well. I've modified both its use and the reason for gifting it, but it is the same ring.
Now, coming to a close on this LONG note, this is the final chapter for THIS Part One of Fate and Forbearance, so you know I've saved some good stuff for you (well, maybe not 'good' in the traditional sense) but I hope you find it worth the wait, and I like closing out 2012 with this last chapter. Remember to keep an eye out for Part Two: Fate and Forbearance: Power and Prophecy in 2013. So either keep me on author alert and FFnet SHOULD send out a notice that there's a new story, or just check in after the first of the year. Though I'm going to take some time to do a run through of part one for continuity checks before I put a bow on this baby, but its always easier to write intro chapters than finales ;)
This chapter is quite long, but its my gift to you, both for the holidays and for sticking it out with me even as we were waiting for more chapters. Happy Holidays to all of you, and thank you from the bottom of my heart for your interest, reviews and support. Urthemiel may think he's top banana around here, but its you ladies and gents that are a pretty big deal. So thank you very much again, and be sure to stop in to part two after this part one finale, if you're still enjoying the story.
Thank you for stopping by, and watch out for low flying dragons.
Chapter Fifty Eight:
Beginning of the End
Why did fate deceive me?
Everything's turned out so wrong.
- Within Temptation
June 23'rd, 9:31, Dragon Age
Bright flags festooned the marketplace, one of several in the city of Highever, the crowds gathering for the midday rush. The city docks were swarming with activity, the waters around them populated heavily that day with twin masthead brigantines from Rivain, and smaller cargo runners that had to be maneuvered quite carefully between the larger vessels. Anxious citizens waited on the quays, only moving aside when wagons full of cargo almost ran them over, as the interested shoppers all tried to get a first look at the newest goods.
Street vendors brought rolling carts of handicrafts and treats, the scent of sweet rolls and candies and salted meat all mingling together, nearly surpassing the collected stench of gathered citzenry, a cover of perfumed oils doused liberally over sweating bodies. Only the hard laborers seemed to lack a care for odor, pressing onward as they hauled carts of rock up the steep street, sweat pouring from sooty brows. Rope connected them, a large pulley wheel dug into the cobbles four blocks upward.
The teyrn wanted his stone and there was nothing good waiting for those that didn't deliver, and honest hard work was met with the much more preferable reward of good coin.
Such was the whisper on the streets, moving about cobbles and store-fronts like a breeze of gossip unbound. Where had Teyrn Fergus hidden the family coffers? Surely Howe's men would've found it? Yet, the premiere family maintained their reputation as the wealthiest nobles in Ferelden, though now there were just the two of them. It was a mystery surely, and as young Harold Hewitt, reminding himself constantly that it was to be Harold Tannen now, tried not to listen, the murmurs reached his ears as he wove his way about a city as foreign to him as the wealth the people discussed.
Highever was so big, the terraced streets making the boy feel as if a misstep would send him rolling down the levels of the city until he landed at the docks, dropping off into the sea to be forgotten. Carved ages beyond any recollection past the words in history books, to mimic a giant stairway leading to the great castle, gave it an orderly appearance from far off. Once you were immersed in Highever's streets, however, it was all too easy to get turned around and quite terribly lost.
He wrapped a fist around the polished leather of his sword belt, the short blade itself tapping against his leg from inside the sheath. Everything had been sized down for him, his sword a half-length made of fine steel with silverite filigree, his suit shortened to half-mail over boiled leather, festooned with an engraved willow tree, that Her Majesty had explained was now to be his family sigil.
'Its important to remember who we are , Master Harold, very important.'
Her keen eyes sharp on him as she demanded his complacency and he was all too willing to oblige the queen. Harold imagined that if he didn't, things wouldn't go so well for him. He wasn't a stupid boy, his real father, not the fabricated parent his rescuers had turned into his father, had often schooled him as best as he could.
Sometimes he felt strangled by the new role he had to play. In Greenfell, he'd been a farmer's boy, with the warmth and security of a good home, the gentle love of his mother, her voice lulling him to sleep in a bed that had been Harold's own. His brother George told him grand tales that kept his mind turning until the morning bells from the chantry rang out, and Harold was expected to help in the many chores around the farm. It was a simple life, he knew that even at his ten years, knew that without being told, but it was a good one, and now . . . it was gone, and there was no one to mourn his family. Instead they offered condolences on the man they believed to be his father, Mayor Tannen, a man that Harold barely knew, while his actual father was forgotten.
It made him want to cry, but while Greenfell had let him remain a boy, growing at a rate as slow and nurtured as the beets his family farm had taken pride in, Highever was different. The city demanded that he grow up. So he stifled his tears and tried to do what was expected of him.
A set of painted ladies sneered at him as he turned a corner, leaning against the back of a building with smoke and music leaking from a half-cracked door. One reached out playfully with a gloved hand. "Look at the pretty boy run, so fast, we like them fast. You come and see me in a few years when you've gotten bigger, pretty boy."
Harold ignored them, booted feet hitting the stones with as much speed as he could muster. He nearly tumbled into a man carrying a stack of books, the tomes falling to slap their bound covers against the cobbles.
"Hey, slow down ya half wit!"
The man screamed and Harold would've helped anyway, except he was late to the practice yard already, having slept through the chantry bells in the eighth morning hour. There were other boys that he was supposed to meet in the courtyard outside the bunkhouse, where his bed for the night had been. That would've been much closer, but by the time Harold had risen, the courtyard was empty of all but passing vendors and the customers that had gotten out of bed before the noon hour. Now he was forced to make the trek up to the yards on his own, hoping he didn't get lost.
Castle Cousland stood high on the cliffs, a stony husk of a beast overlooking its city, and served as a reminder of his direction. The yards themselves had been kept intact, left alone for the most part, just as much as the city was left to its own devices. The people were loyal enough to the Cousland family, but there were whispers from the other boys in the bunkhouse, that the people had nary blinked an eye when Rendon Howe was named their liege lord instead, just went on with their lives like nothing had happened.
'That old arl, he did nay nothin' to the city neither, weren't stupid my pap says, knew that the city was better let be. Did a number on the castle though. Must've hated Teyrn Cousland somethin' fierce. Probably wanted the money to himself, I wager.'
A fourteen year old boy by the name of Gus, though Harold didn't think that was his real name, had gone on half the night, until the ward of the bunkhouse had come in, blustering at the lot of them to go to sleep.
Harold had kept to his silence, but he listened, like his father had always told him to. 'A wise man knows when it is better to listen to other men flap their gums, while keeping his still and silent. You learn a lot more from the guff of others than from your own.'
He was thinking back on that, concentrating on the lie his past had been molded into, when he slammed into a rolling cart, so hard he nearly saw stars, falling back on his haunches in the road. Before he could hoist himself up, a robed fellow had hauled him to his feet, peering with beady eyes from beneath a ratty hood.
It seemed far too hot that day for robes, and amongst the finely dressed nobility and the proud peasantry and merchants, his hard-scrabble appearance was even more out of place. Perhaps the man was from the chantry, some of the affirmed brothers and sisters took no break from their vestments. Harold even wondered if they bathed in them.
"S-sorry, ser, I wasn't watching . . ." The boy stopped talking as the robed man grasped his shoulders, his voice raspy.
"You a pageboy to the Couslands?"
"I . . . I guess so." He wasn't sure what a pageboy was, but he was one of their squires now.
"You will take this package to the queen, put it in her hands, and no servant or those of any other. My employer bade me to take it, but they will not let me on the house grounds." The man set a small pouch of coins in the lad's palm, looking around him as if paranoid. "See it done or she who hired me will know, and hers is not a wrath you'd be wanting."
Harold didn't even have the chance to say anything, and the rasping man disappeared into the crowd as abruptly as he'd appeared. In his hand was the pouch of coins, and another smaller parcel, wrapped in thick cloth. He called out to the man, but he was gone from sight.
Today had not turned out as Harold had imagined.
Fergus' thumb stroked over the laurel pins he'd put on his son's cloak, feeling the bumps in the engraved metal. As soon as Gwyneth had given it to him, just the fabric in his hands sent a cold shiver of grief up his spine, mingled with the pride he'd had in his first born son. His bright eyed, sharp minded boy.
The teyrn closed his eyes, feeling an ache behind them that no amount of biting down on king's foil leaves would get rid of. "I'd kill them all, again and again and again, if I could, my boy. I'd butcher them while the others begged, for taking you away from me." He whispered, mind tortured with a grieving that had never let him go, ever since that fateful day in The Wilds where he'd been told his was family was murdered.
All but his Gwyn, and her union had muffled their closeness. Once, even when they were at each other's throats, Fergus would have always remained his little sister's gallant hero. Now they all had different concerns and the days for heroics were dwindling fast.
"Your Grace!" A loud voice from outside his chamber, and Fergus glowered, setting the cloak aside on the dresser.
"Yes, what is it?"
"Begging your pardon My Grace, but His Majesty is waiting for you in the solarium, as you asked."
"Of course, inform him that I shall be there shortly." Fergus had almost forgotten he was supposed to meet with his brother-by-marriage, and though he couldn't say he particularly enjoyed the prospect of the conversation they would have to have, it couldn't be avoided.
Lord Deniol Brynmor and his lady wife, Eirlys, were part of a depleted number of local nobility left after Rendon Howe's 'cleansing' of Cousland loyalists. They were a true hearted pair, but knew enough of the political game to use that understanding to stay alive, long enough to enjoy their true liege lord's return. For them, Fergus was most grateful, not only for the use of their home so that he and his sister had a decent place to stay while Castle Cousland was rebuilt, but for their discretion as well. Remembering that however, did not mean that he trusted them implicitly. His father had trusted Rendon with his life, and that, as it turned out, was a deadly folly, and one that Fergus had no intention of repeating.
So as much as he didn't feel so masculine in a room filled with flora and gurgling fountains, it was those same fountains that would help to murmur their conversation, while providing a room that wouldn't seem suspicious to their hosts.
His mother, Teyrna Eleanor, had favored such indoor gardens, especially when the weather grew more chill and she could sit in a heated room, with those strange red leafed things she'd called poinsettias, and watch the snowfall in comfort. The teyrna had made solariums popular in Highever noble homes and the trend was spreading, though the Blight had put a halt to most trends for a time.
He walked in on the king nursing a sore finger, standing next to a flowering cactus, an unfriendly plant from the deserts of Seheron, if it weren't for Eleanor Cousland's solariums, it likely wouldn't have flourished. Fergus grinned. "Cacti needles can be as sharp as they sound. Not all things that are pleasing to the eye are docile to the touch."
Alistair grimaced, taking his index finger from his mouth. "Apparently not." He gave the small potted cactus an offending glare before dropping down onto a cushioned stone bench. "Your sister is all up in arms about a Feast of Celebration or something like that, when before we got here she seemed to be in hurry to make this a short stay so we could travel on to Amaranthine."
Diplomacy aside, Fergus scoffed. "You can't honestly think I'd take your side over hers and talk her out of it?"
"Some people may think I am simple minded, but I'm not." Blue eyes glared in the teyrn's direction. "Of course I don't think that, but my queen is tight lipped about her party planning, if that's what it is, and I was hoping you'd give me some insight, man to man . . . that and the fact that I've made you the highest ranking member of my privy council." Alistair spoke over Fergus' shock. "Before you say it, I'm not completely against sponsoring you on the council, we don't have to get along for that decision to make sense, but it wasn't my idea. Gwyneth insisted."
The teyrn snorted in humor. "Of course she did." He gestured to the paned windows, and what lay past them. "The people, those who we rule and who by our very station we are meant to serve? They need a celebration of sorts, now that their teyrn has returned and the last of Howe's men have been brought to justice."
Whenever Alistair began to think the snobbery of the Couslands might not be as consuming as he'd first imagined, one of the siblings would say something to change his mind. "You mean they need a reminder as to why they should adore you and celebrating is meant for them, but really it's for you to congratulate yourself."
Silver eyes glowered with a sharpness that had not been dulled by a sleepless night. "You are an impertinient ass, has anyone ever told you that?"
"Impertinent? Not often, but an ass? Quite frequently." Alistair grinned, proud that he was finding his footing with the two nobles he now reluctantly called family.
Fergus rolled his eyes sitting down beside the king with his elbows resting on his knees, hands folded together. He took a deep breath, before staring the man down. "Look, this position, my duty to the people and to the Crown is important to me. We Couslands have always taken such matters seriously. You may note that we are known for many things, but loyalty to the country's rightful sovereign is among them. Even the very first king, your Silver Knight, eventually won the Couslands' loyalty."
"I have read a few books about it, you know." Alistair snipped, earning himself only another glare.
Fergus took a deep breath, his next words coming through clenched teeth. "I'm not happy with this match between you and Gwyneth. That much is plain, but she's got one over me in that I can't think of one with a better rank. So here we find ourselves, related by law and our responsibilities. I am the only teyrn Ferelden has left and you, for good or ill, are Ferelden's king. I'll not shirk the responsibilties I have to the King of Ferelden, the way old Mac Tir did."
"So this is . . . what? Some kind of peace offering?" Alistair smiled broadly as if he'd won something, his lips turning down at the other man's scoff.
"I'm Fergus Cousland, I don't make milquetoast peace offerings." The teyrn grumbled, squaring his shoulders. "Its an agreement I am making with you for the sake of the country and my sister. I accept the position on your privy council, and as such can tell you that this Feast of Celebration is rather small scale compared to most Cousland sponsored events. You ought to have been here for Gwyneth's sixteenth birthday when our father hired that travelling carnival from Nevarra." A brief grin born from memory, brought light to Fergus' face, a glimpse into the joviliaty he'd possesed before Howe's vicious attack. "It is, however, something that should promise to lift spirits and as such, the King of Ferelden has no reason to turn it down, and should certainly speak to his people today."
Alistair wasn't of the mood for fesitivities, but there didn't seem to be any choice. "Fantastic, another speech, my favorite!" Sarcastic grumbling wasn't going to save him, however. "There's really no way to get out of this, is there?"
"No, and I don't see why you would want to. Myself? Well I'll not turn down a feast and some fine entertainment." Fergus' face seemed to cloud over then, as he receeded back into less happy thoughts. "But I feel we need to speak about those things in Greenfell and take some official action here. I want that area cordoned off and have a guarded permiter set up, but I can do nothing without your consent. Though I'm certain you'd be wanting the same, but if so, we need to start moving men post haste before the citizens catch a whiff of unease. There's been far too much for them to deal with already, and if this country is going to recover in a time frame that will be of any aid at all to this generation, then time itself, is of the essence and we cannot tarry."
Alistair nodded gravely. "I consent, of course, and I agree, but we don't have the numbers. You still have some of my knights in your company that you borrowed to retake Highever. I don't want to seem unfeeling here, but it looks like you have that much, at least, well in hand."
"You are wanting your men back then, to replenish your ranks before travelling on to Amaranthine?" Fergus shrugged, unable to really argue. "That's fair, I suppose, but I'd like to keep a few to maintain the king's peace if there are any riots."
"Riots? What on Thedas would cause that? Like you said, they don't know anything having to do with banshees or any of that business we encountered. Not yet at least, and not for awhile, I hope."
Fergus shrugged again, though his words didn't posses the same nonchalance. "No, but they do know about your plan to take down the alienage wall to put an end to elf and human segregation. A segration, I might add, that both races within the city have become accustomed to. People aren't always amicable to change, and as I'm sure you've realised by now, taking my forward thinking sister as your queen will bring change as readily as a turn in the weather. I think she's got the right mind set, as do you if you agree, my father knew that survivability was right next to adaptability. However, it won't be a pleasant task to change the way Fereldans behave. Be that as it may, as the Teyrn of the Coastlands and a Bannerman to the Crown and the king's privy council, Highever must follow Denerim in this decision, and when those walls go down, you think there won't be any trouble? You'd be wrong."
The new king groused in irritated confusion. "I don't understand them! Can't they see I am trying to help? Maker's breath! Its a wonder anyone survived the Blight, being this stubborn! If no one changed, ever, then they'd just die off."
Fergus felt slightly sympathetic towards the younger man and briefly patted his shoulder as he stood. "And there would be the difficulty in ruling effectively. You can please some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but never all of the people all of the time. That, and there are moments where the citizens just don't know all the hard work that is done out of their sight, to maintain the lives they assume are theirs alone, and see our rulings as intereference into their way of life. With the elves, I think they are often waiting for the other shoe to drop, as it were. To them, there's always a catch, an angle, some human waiting in alley to stab them. The humans that live on the other side of alienage walls, well, they think the city elves are a bunch of dirty thieves, who will break into their homes and infest their children with lice. Both have reasons to feel that way, but both are wrong as well, to a degree, that things can never be any different, and you need to make them see that."
Alistair rubbed his forehead as he stood next to his brother-in-law. "Yeah, no pressure or anything. I need a drink."
Fergus grinned. "That's the way, and there will be plenty of that at Gwyneth's feast."
"I thought you said it was a feast of celebration for the people of Highever?" Alistair raised a cautious brow.
"True, but you and I both know that Gwyneth will make it her own." Fergus loved his sister, but whenever the word 'party' was involved, she was next to impossible to live with until the planning was all done. This time, he thought he'd just sit at the sidelines and drink.
Stands had been set up around the practice field, a pale sun winking in and out from wispy cloud cover. It wasn't nearly as much sun, but clearly enough for Gwyneth to bring out her parasol to shelter herself from it, one long-fingered hand wrapped delicately around the handle, while the other held a fluted glass of some kind of mint brew. Alistair didn't think she needed the damn thing, she was pale enough without sheltering herself from a light tan, but Gwyneth insisted that the appearance of freckles was a possibility and would flaw her unblemished skin . . . which apparently was highly unfashionable for nobility.
"Can't you relax and at least pretend you are having a good time? This is supposed to be a celebration. It will hardly do to have the king looking sour faced and ill at ease." Gwyneth clucked her tongue at him, in that irritating way she had.
Alistair rolled his eyes, settling back into the cushioned chair he and his wife had been afforded on a hastily constructed balcony, over looking the rest of the stands. "Oh, the teyrn told me more than enough what today was supposed to be, I just can't help but think that its not an appropriate time." Right then, Fergus Cousland was dismounting from his wild-eyed stallion, having won his third joust of the day, and raking in the adoring glances of unattached noblewomen who hoped to be the next Teyrna of Highever.
Gwyneth smiled, that curve of her lips that intoned secrecy, except then, Alistair was in on it. "As I recall, someone I know rather closely, once said that if we waited for the 'right time' nothing would get done. Not the exact words, perhaps, but close enough." She sipped her drink, eyeing him over the rim, sooty lashes blinking as if they too had emotion. Gwyneth used every facet of her appearance to make a point, and that hadn't lessened over the months of their marriage.
"That had nothing to do with a party, it was an entirely different situation." Alistair huffed, grabbing the goblet of black ale one of the servants had brought him, the bitter taste a balm for his irritability. He'd conceded to do his part to make it seem like the Couslands' celebration had his blessing, but he didn't have to enjoy it.
Gwyneth grabbed his jaw, shaking it lightly and fussing at him with a mock pout. "You're such a grouch." Her smile was nearly as hollow as her own enjoyment, but she made a better show of pretense than her husband, thinking that maybe if she forced it enough, it might actually be true. Her eyes lit up as trumpets sounded, Alistair looking worried as she let go of his face. "Oooh, now this at least you should like."
"Your favorite dance, The Remigold, performed to the Battle Hymn of Highever. What better way to celebrate victory and a coming golden age, than the dance to honor the beauty of Andraste and the way she held her followers in thrall of her Maker's blessing?" She smirked and collapsed her parasol, setting it beside her seat along with her glass.
Alistair scoffed, hiding his excitement. The Remigold was his favorite, the title was purposely misleading, lending itself to thoughts of something elegant and refined, when in actuality it more resembled an Avaar trible dance of battle victory. "Yeah? Who's playing the part of Andraste?"
"Why, I am, of course. Who else?" Gwyneth gave a huff, moving away from him before his last words held her back a moment.
"I guess our ears are lucky there are no singing sections to this dance, then." A cheeky grin brightened those rich brown eyes, twinkling merrily as Gwyneth shot him a rude gesture and headed off down from their balcony.
He'd never heard the Battle Hymn of Highever, though, and when the deep drums started, Alistair had a feeling that he was in for a treat, but he didn't have to let either Cousland know he was enjoying himself. As if testing his resolve, Fergus took his sister's vacated seated, fresh faced from a quick basin wash down by the lists. Pulling at his gloves, he set them down beside him, picking up Gwyneth's glass to empty the remnants. Apparently there was no worry of germs shared between the siblings, just with everyone else.
"Ahh, is there anything quite like a joust to get the blood pumping?" Fergus grinned, broadly and clearly pleased with himself. Gwyneth's green ribbon of favor was yet tied to his cuff.
Alistair sighed. "Yeah, congratulations and all that." He wondered if Gwyneth had always saved her favor for her brother alone.
The teyrn winced in mock sympathy. "Oh, yes, my apologies, I'd forgotten the physicians hadn't cleared His Majesty for jousting just yet. Take care, I'm sure it's only a matter of time. You do know how it's done, I trust?"
The king didn't know how that smarmy bastard had gotten his own clearance to joust, when Fergus had been injured a lot sooner than he had. Yet, the spark of challenge in the teyrn's gaze was unmistakable, and the proud male in Alistair wouldn't turn it away. "Haven't had as much practice as you have, I'm sure. Arl Eamon didn't have me participate in the jousts at Redcliffe, with good reason probably. Don't think the nobility would've approved much, of course a crown just makes everything better, doesn't it?" The bitter twist to Alistair's words didn't go unnoticed, neither did the personal pride. "But I think I could manage to unhorse a . . . worthy opponent. So I'll tell you what, brother, as soon as I am able, we'll have our own joust. See who's lance is bigger."
Fergus smiled, the challenge accepted. "Very good. I look forward to it, as a friendly competition, of course."
Alistair only smiled back. "Of course."
Their eyes were drawn in front, as the music got louder, a spokesman coming forward in Cousland colors, his voice loud enough to drown out the crowd that had gathered. "And as it was that the Maker first saw His holy bride, Saint Andraste and her voice uplifted Him into action, so we perform the Remigold today in His Honor and that of Her Most Holy, that we might receive their blessings through this year and the years to come!"
A roar from the crowds as he went on. "With the blessing of the slayer of dragons, warrior of the Blight most feared, conquerer of the foul beast of Denerim's bane, savior from the foul misdeeds of the corrupt, and defender of maidens' virture from one side of Ferelden to the other, your one, your only . . . Great Majesty, Alistair Theirin, the Drrragon King!" He rolled the title dramaticaly, loud as the people who chanted it, caught up in the excitement.
Alistair's face almost went colorless in shock. "She didn't! She did! She told him to use that title!"
Fergus smirked, calling for a refill of mint julep. "Of course she did. Gwyneth always knew how to rile people."
The king could remember all too well how she'd 'riled' him up, more so of late, and could only nod in agreement, standing, despite his immense embarassment, to the cheering of the crowd. He waved, clearing his throat when Fergus nudged his back, standing beside him.
"Ahem! Good people of Highever, citizens of Ferelden, this day is for you, as is every day that we take back our country and make Ferelden a place our children can be proud of." He raised his glass to the crowd, grateful that he'd prepared a speech, just in case. "To Ferelden and the future!"
Fergus whispered a 'not bad' before clearing his throat. "As I sat astride, at the gates to Highever, ready to reclaim it from the befouled hands of the men serving the corrupt Rendon Howe, it was the faith I had in you, my people, that inspired me and brought us all here today. Standing proud in victory, for our great legacy and the future that we will shape with the quality Highever has always demanded. My father, the late and very great, Bryce Cousland, loved this city, and knew we would be the heralds of a new age. It is in honor of that new age that I wish to share a celebration of all we have accomplished, and invite you to eat, drink, be merry and enjoy a hell of a show today!" He lips turned up in a large grin at the happy cheer that followed. "We are pleased to host the Crown, in all its new glory, and know that the standards to which the citizens of the Coastlands have held to, shall be maintained. Long live the king, the queen and the people of this great country!"
The spokesman stepped forward onto his small mobile dais, raising his arms to shout through the funnel he'd made of his hands. "Performing as the sacred Bride of the Maker, is your very own Diamond of Highever, your beloved queen and mine, Her Majesty, Gwyneth Theirin!"
Already the dancers had gathered, with the queen at their front, poised and ready. The white of her Andraste-inspired garb and the head dress she'd donned, caught the light and made her face hard to see, but it was still clearly her. Alistair squinted into the light as he took a seat with his brother-in-law. It was the first time he could remember that Gwyneth had publicly been referred to as a Theirin and not a Cousland . . . it was strangely sobering.
"It is without further ado, that House Cousland proudly presents to you, The Remigold!" At those words, the spokesman and his dais were quickly removed from the field as the dancers assembled. The line of drummers were behind them, sat in rows off to the side, with the fiddlers slightly elevated and a few men carrying instruments that Fergus would later indentify as bagpipes.
A hush fell over the crowds as everyone listened to the heightened sounds of the battle hymn in all its live glory. Alistair sat, watching the Remigold with new eyes. He could say a lot of things about his wife, good and bad, but there was no question that she knew how to arrange a dance and that she herself could dance went without saying.
She bent at the waist, moving her body around in contortions that put him to mind of fighting the high dragon up in the Frostback Mountains.
The only way Gwyneth ever bested anyone in melee combat, relied heavily on trickery and evasion (and with Zevran's tutoring, the occasional poison), her actual swordcraft still left a lot to be desired, but her ability to run and twist her body had saved them on a few notable occasions. The dragon that had been worshipped as a 'reborn Andraste' was one such instance. Alistair's long sword lost amidst the cobbles as the huge drake had knocked them all into the rubble of the temple ruins. Gwyneth's twin short swords were still at her back, but the idea of her taking them up against a dragon half the size of a temple dome, was absurd.
Alistair, as much as he didn't exactly want to, was far better suited to the task, but not with his long sword twelve feet away, and the dragon's massive tail knocking loose stones all around them. There had been Gwyneth, in a rare show of battlefield bravery, in those days before vengeance fuelled bloodlust has taken such a grip on her.
They'd looked between them, the dragon roaring as everyone tried to assemble a plan from where they were taking refuge, seperate from eachother, but in shouting distance. Gwyneth's eyes had been wide and fearful, but as she caught sight of Alistair, she had looked to him with something else brewing in those eerie silver irises of hers.
"Can you get under her belly? Maybe Morrigan or Wynne can . . ." The stone steeple of a tower came crashing down barely four feet away, small bits of rubble flying over head as Gwyneth cringed down, Noble at her side and taking his own shelter under one of her arms. "Maybe they can provide a distraction!"
"Maybe, but we have a slight problem there!" He had to shout his words as much as she did, and could only hope that Dragons didn't understand Fereldish. "I don't have my blade!"
The pause had likely been brief, though noisy and dangerous, the longer they stayed in shelter without action, but it felt very long. Gwyneth looked to where Alistair gestured, the scant sunlight hitting the snow drifts and catching on the metal of his sword. She nodded to herself, patting Noble and getting up enough to crouch on her knees, not unlike a pouncing cat readying itself to catch a mouse. "I can get it!"
"You can 'what'? Gwyn, no! You'll be killed!" It was right out there in the open, and distraction or no, there'd be no time before the dragon roasted Gwyneth alive.
"No one here can run as fast as I can, you know that's true, and we need to get those ashes or Arl Eamon will die!" She growled, Noble whining at her side as if he knew what his mistress was up to.
"You don't think I know that? He raised me, I want him to come out of this a hell of a lot more than you do, but this is crazy!" He shouted, ducking as another chunk of stone came flying towards the remnants of a dome wall that Alistair had taken cover behind. The dragon knew where they were, and they had to do something soon or they were all going to die.
"We can't get into the main temple with that winged bitch in the way, and we sure as hell can't wait her out while she tries to crush us to death!" She shouted over to Morrigan, the witch straining to hear her. "Fireball, I need a fireball, a really fucking big one! Have Wynne cast too, I don't care about the mana! There are still a few potions left for you to use. I have to have it distracted!"
"Distracted from what?" Morrigan shrieked as she had to rear back from the remainder of a summoning gong that went flying towards her, as a dragon wing bashed it aside. "Gwyneth, no!" She screamed at the noblewoman in unison with Alistair, casting anyway as Gwyneth bolted from cover.
She rolled on her knees, jumping to somersault over a chunk of temple roof. No sooner had she landed there, palms pressed to the ground, than she was springing up again, twisting her hips to dodge around a stone head that had been severed from a statue. The stone eyes were oblivious as she ran from there, grabbing the rim of a cobbled arch to swing over the large pile of rubble where Alistair's sword was laying.
"Maker, she's going to get pummeled!" Wynne bemoaned, readying another fireball as Morrigan's was fading away.
Alistair almost didn't want to watch, but he had to, smiling in spite of himself as she held up his sword, grinning from ear to ear. The victory fell short as the dragon turned, shaking off the lick of flames from Wynne's casting as Gwyneth had nearly made it back. It opened its fanged maw, taking in a deep breath of air to ready the fire from its belly. "Gwyn! Look out!"
A lick of flame crossed in front of Alistair's eyes and he nearly jumped back, memory blending into present with a jolt of warmth and bright orange. Bowls of oil had soaked the tips of spears, lit from braziers as performers marched in front of the dancers, representing the mage fire of the marching Tevinter Imperials that proven Andraste's end.
Gwyneth and the women dancing with her twirled back away from the spear men, their movements more artistic than a true representation of evasion, but the point came across. Her hands raised to the sky as if imploring The Maker to save them, knowing that He had not saved Andraste from her death, even if she had been His bride, her matrydom had served the realm far better in the end. Drawing down on herself, Gwyneth marked the end of the Remigold, to the sound of racuous applause. Once she'd deemed the pause long enough, she and the rest of the white garbed dancers rose to unmask themselves.
Losing himself in the applause, the king's memory swallowed his thoughts again. Alistair could remember that Morrigan had nearly killed him in rage when Gwyneth was burned. Gwyn had gotten his sword and tossed it to him, but she hadn't been fast enough to avoid all of the dragon's fire, caught on the periphery. It had taken nearly a week for her to heal, and it had been the first time he'd caught her using that damnable culcae cream to return her face to the flawless appearance that Gwyneth seemed to favor, over her own health. 'Stubborn, vain, brash woman!'
"You fool! Coward! Letting her run off like that! If she dies, 'tis your fault and I shall cook the skin off your bones better than any dragon!" Morrigan shrieked, Leliana standing in front of Alistair, equally angry, but with her ire aimed in a different direction.
"No one lets Gwyneth do anything, she does as she will. You should know that better than the rest of us. Gazing at her all the while as you do, should give you some perspective, no? Leave Alistair alone, he is not to blame!" The Orlesian had a gentle side, that everyone was aware of, her soft spoken voice lending itself in support of that, but her ire was far from gentle, and for Alistair she would've been as harsh as she needed to be to stand by him.
"I do not 'gaze at her all the while', unlike you and your cow eyes lingering on your idiot templar! What oblivious half wits the both of you are!" Morrigan balked, quick to take up the offensive in a move that Alistair had begun to suspect was a cover for how she really felt.
That she cared about Gwyneth was obvious to everyone but her, as a friend most certainly, but for a moment Alistair wondered if it might not be more than that. Leliana's words made him wonder, but he dismissed it just as quickly.
"I care about Gwyneth only because she is the second most intelligent person in this group, the rest of you combined have a lack of brains defecient enough to be the ruination of this joke you call a fellowship!" Her squawking was cut short as the objective of their argument emerged from the tent, half her face hidden beneath a bandage. Morrigan's eyes softened a half second before she caught herself and hardened them again. "You are well?"
"My face was nearly burned off, and it stings to even speak . . . so no, I am not well, but I will be." Gwyneth's eyes were as hard as Morrigan's. "I will be."
Gwyneth pulled off the emotionless white clay mask that all of the dancing ladies had been wearing, to reveal her bright face beneath, a broad smile sent Alistair's way as she bowed to the crowd, and he returned that smile with warmth. She was a lovely sight, even if she was a pain in the ass.
Her belly full and content with all the treats to be had at their private feasting table, Gwyneth hummed in her bath, purposely thinking of nothing else but that day. Everyone dealt with grief in their own way, and she knew that she would always choose to distract herself from it. Most of the time it worked, and the fine scent of her imported bath salts were a fine balm when mixed with the pleasantness of a tub full of hot water.
The king and the teyrn were still in the common room of their host's manor, likely drunker than dwarves by now. Gwyneth smirked at that, amused at how drink could make friends of enemies, though she had no complaints if her brother decided to take Alistair in . He could use the education on nobility from a man, there was only so much Gwyneth could make him understand. She caught herself wishing, hardly for the first time, that her father were still alive. He would have shaped Alistair into a proper leader in less than a month, but Fergus was just as talented, if he so chose to be.
Yet Alistair seemed to be making his own way, the complaining had lessened and he was taking his responsibilities more seriously, sometimes Gwyneth even dared to think he might enjoy being king. Though she'd not tell him so. His handling of the situation in the Bannorn had been inspired, harsh and almost a bit frightening, but there was an allure to that kind of strength as well. The queen found herself wondering if her husband had always had that in him, and if she'd just not taken the care to see it, but if it were so, she doubted Alistair knew he had that in himself either. Lately, however, it was there for many to see, and she could take pride being on the arm of a successful sovereign. Now, she need only keep him on that path and insure her own place there as well. No easy task, but Gwyneth didn't balk at a challenge.
She called to one of the serving women that had been waiting just outside the door, the petite girl quick to hand her a dry towel, before helping the queen into her thin ivory night robes, hair wet and heavy as it was pulled up into a pinned mass of curls atop her head. The servants there were almost meek, and certainly quiet, and it made her miss her Lady in Waiting, and she couldn't wait to get back to Denerim and give Siofra a long list of things to catch up on. A smile drew her mouth up as she dismissed the silent servant, who bowed in prostration before exiting the room.
Normally the queen would have continued her revels, still in the common room with the others, but she was wearied by her grief and her planning, and even the enjoyment she'd taken from the day might have proven too much if she remained. So a quiet evening spent in her guest chamber was preferred. Nearly relaxing into bed with the newest copy of Lord Ponce's Rules for Engaging Conversation, a dark bit of satire about the Orlesian noble's tendency to create lists of rules for parties, she recalled the small note and package that young Master Tennan had brought her before the jousting.
Drawing her sash tight around her belly, she sat at the desk, a small pile of other letters remaining there, but those could wait for morning. Harold's encounter with the harried man, gave her some cause for concern about how 'dire' the package and letter could be. The note was rolled and tied with the same twine that kept the small pouch closed.
It was a tatty sort of papyrus paper, smelling strongly of salt and burnt wood, tiny and the writing a hasty script, but the letters curling and the manner of the prose familiar in a way Gwyneth could not figure out at first. The ink wasn't typical either, and put her to mind of the ash and oil mixture Wynne had used when they were out of ink on the road, but it wasn't from her.
I would have much preferred to keep my promise, that you need not see me or think of me, but things have gone astray, and that is putting it most mildly.
There is no time to write more, the days grow worse and I do not have the strength anymore. In the pouch you shall find a ring I fashioned for you from one of my own baubles, tis enchanted, quite heavily, for your protection. I have set a glyph upon it, if you would place it on your finger before a mirror, that will activate the glyph.
Do so promptly and privately, tis not something you would wish others to hear. If I am too sickened to recall my own words, you must insure that you wear this ring each night before you are lost to the Fade of Dreams. The great beast can find you there and twist your mind, I feel that he may have attempted this already.
Take care and do as I ask in a manner most timely.
Your Friend, M.
It wasn't written in code, but vague enough that few others would understand it, though her name featured prominently at the head of the brief letter. Then again, the writer had never been one for secret correspondences and courtly intrigue.
The queen's heart seized, as she read the letter three times over to be certain she wasn't imagining things. It had been so long since she had heard from the apostate, who had been her closest companion during the Blight. Too long, but Gwyneth had done her utmost to make good on her own end of the bargain that had saved her life and that of Alistair.
Morrigan would carry a child with the archdemon's soul, she'd not bother anyone so long as they did not bother her, the matter would not be spoken of, and Gwyneth had to do her best to forget about the witch. Concerns for Ferelden's future and her own extra planning had kept her focus firmly away from her once dear friend, a woman, the only female, that Gwyneth had felt such a strong kinship with. She'd known it was more than that, though could never say the words, and in the end, they hadn't seemed to matter. They may have been souls entwined, but their lives were not.
Cailan had dominated her free thoughts, and her new reign took care of the rest, and now Gwyneth felt almost ashamed at her minimal success in putting Morrigan behind her. Even for the nightmares and the fear they garnered, she had tried ever harder.
Gwyneth's brows came together, knitting tightly above the bridge of her nose, opening the pouch carefully to drop a small pewter ring into her hand. It was an ugly thing, two carved demons devouring eachother, which would explain why Morrigan would have liked it. She smiled, recalling with fondness how Morrigan always chose the strangest costume jewlery and trinkets whenever they had some extra coin at a market.
She touched it, trying to see the details, if there was any mark, sliding it onto her index finger cauitously, when the mirror of her dressing table seemed to set itself a flame, as bright as the light was that it gave off. Gwyneth shielded her eyes, wincing into it, as a voice came at her through some kind of portal. A distant echo, warbling and uneven before it finally established itself. The speech was as familar to Gwyneth as her own.
"My . . . friend. I would hesitate to say that I have missed your face, but my end is near, I am afraid, and there is very little hesitation anymore . . . and I . . . it is good to see you." Morrigan tried to smile, before her eyes clamped shut in pain, small rivulets of red ran down her cheeks from the small fissures that had opened in her skin. "You may not appreciate the . . . the surprise, but I could not make it to you, not before . . ." She clenched her jaw, shaking her head as if she were bothered by a swarm of flies. "No! I shall not, beast! I will never!"
Gwyneth held the letter curled against her abdomen, the fist it was in, pressed there against the shock that tightened her innards, mingled equally with the pit of rapidly growing unease. "M-Morrigan?" Once she'd gathered her wits, she moved closer to the mirror, mouth turning up into a short lived smile of elation at seeing her, before the realization that it wasn't likely to be a pleasant reunion set in. "What kind of magic is this? I don't understand how you can be talking to me through a pane of glass."
The mage gasped, gripping the sides of the mirror that she must have been standing in front of for her contact spell to work. "No time, no time at all." Her words were labored, every breath was a torture.
Gwyneth glanced behind her, glad she had locked the door, and lowered her voice. "No time for what? Tell me what's going on, damn it!" Her waspish whisper was filled with more fright than anger.
Again the mage shook her head, pressing her palms to her temples. "Leave me be! Is it not enough what you have done?" Clearly speaking to someone other than Gwyneth. Her eyes were as gold as ever, but seemed far dimmer than Gwyneth could recall. "He does not wish me to speak to you, to tell you. Our minds are together now, at first just a few images that he could not control when he was trying to contact you, I imagine, but now . . . " She smiled, cat like and victorious. "Now he can hide nothing from me, anymore than I can hide from him."
The queen tried to speak but didn't know what to say through her confusion. "Morrigan, I don't . . . who?"
"Urthemiel." Morrigan hissed.
Recoiling from the name, it was then Gwyneth who was shaking her head, in denial. "No. No! I killed it, the final blow against the arch-demon to end the Blight, and all that other Grey Warden bullshit! He's dead! You told me that it was just the old god's essence, that the child would be free of any other taint!" Her tone was panicked and accusing, but there was nothing for it.
Morrigan's smile remained, turning sad and almost accepting. "I was mistaken, a rarity to be sure." She was struggling for control of herself, that much was clear, an invisible battle of wills. "As terrible as we thought the archdemon was, it remained Urthemiel's prison, and his power and mind were muted inside that shell. I did not anticipate his will for freedom, his horrible strength . . . how could I have known?" A hand wiped across her brow, inspecting the sweat and blood there with a macabre curiosity. "So fast, it grows so fast." Her eerie golden eyes were on Gwyneth, intense as she could manage. "He has come to you, though not of late, as his time for rebirth draws near. I can tell, and he will do so again with more fervor once he is freed. The beast covets your womb, he believes you may be able to carry his spawn unlike the many failed experiments that came before. He whispers to himself in my mind, chipping away, always chipping." She rubbed her temples, eyes shuttered again.
"Morrigan, I thought . . . I told myself they were only dreams, I tried to deny it, I did . . . this can't be happening!" Gwyneth sobbed, using the vanity to keep herself upright, her legs feeling like they had all the stability of water.
"I know, I did the same, denied it to the very last, and that 'very last' is today." A shriek of pain and Morrigan was doubled over, backing away from the mirror on her side, enough that Gwyneth could see the unnaturally large bulge her stomach had become, the skin starting to split where it was visible. "The darkspawn taint . . . Urthemiel whispers how he is worried, now that you no longer carry it. His essence passing through you, be believes you and Alistair are cleansed, but it was only replaced with his own tainted blood, he is not so certain that you can carry his heir, but he will try, as he has done so many times before. I do not know how, I doubt even he does, though he tries to pretend all knowledge is his to possess." Morrigan laughed, and it was a terrible, manic sound. "He honestly thinks Flemeth . . . he thinks my mother is his sister, that she is Lusacan, using a mortal body as a shell, the way Urthemiel has used the child's body as a shell. He thinks she is not dead." She paused taking a breath, starting to lose her concentration. "I felt the babe, you know, for just a moment, until he consumed its life for his own use."
Gwyneth was crying, her eyes stinging, shaking her head in horrified disbelief.
"The beast's control is slipping." Her grin was feral, nearly mad, but still all Morrigan. "You have to keep the ring, you must wear it, so he will be unable to haunt The Fade of your own mind. His power, it is limited, but if he gets his heir, he will try and use their blood, to return himself to the deity state he once had. This cannot be!" Morrigan's voice rose, almost as panicked as Gwyneth. "No!" She screamed hands at her head, clawing at it. "There is no more time, I cannot . . . listen to me! I hear him planning, whispering to the darkspawn and other things, he is concerned about the bones of Old Gods, like himself, he is worried they can ki . . ."
She stopped before her speech was done, face slack and body swaying lightly, as if in a trance.
"Morrigan? Morrigan!" Gwyneth shrieked, pawing at the glass, but there was no physical presence behind it, only the visage that the mage had somehow managed to establish contact through.
A laugh worked its way across that strange connection, at first the harsh rasp of Morrigan's voice, and the apostate threw back her head, as it got deeper, nearly inhuman. Gwyneth watched in confusion and the same shock that had remained throughout that harrowing conversation.
Golden eyes seemed to melt away, swallowed up by a hideous hot white and Morrigan's lips turned up viciously, bleeding from the cracks across their swollen surface. "Hello my pretty, witty, Gwyn. You look lovely in white." A voice like a tremor, powerful and building slowly, ethereal for its tone, with the strangest accent Gwyneth had ever heard.
The mockery of Cailan's pet name brought a sob out of Gwyneth, knowing who and what she was speaking to. She ignored it, hoping her friend could still hear her. "Morrigan . . . Morrigan, I'm so sorry!"
"Your witch is dead, or she soon will be. A small price to pay for my freedom." Morgreth Urthemiel smiled with his stolen mouth, though it wouldn't be long before he'd have his own body, and the assurance of that success was evident on Morrigan's face, twisted with an intent that wasn't hers. He laughed again, a booming noise that sounded as if it could crack the ground apart. "The two of you, planning my demise is it? Mortals, always trying to get the upper hand, but I will not allow it, not this time. I will have my ascension and the world will burn, with my son at my side."
"I'll give you nothing! I'd sooner die!" Gwyneth hissed, knuckles white where they gripped the edge of the desk.
"I'm sure you will, but your protests have no relevance." His voice was harmonious and alluring, despite the awful words he spoke. A glamor often used to seduce the mortals, and he hadn't forgotten how it was done during his imprisonment.
"You are going to die! I will kill you, slowly, so you suffer!" Gwyneth's tears felt hot against her face as she opened her eyes, glaring at him in a rage that temporarily overtook her terror.
"I look forward to seeing you try, little pet. All in good time, my sweet, for now we must remain apart, but my brides shall see to my rebirth, and it will not be long after that." He hummed, drawing closer to the mirror's surface as Gwyneth recoiled. "Your skin looks so smooth. I think the first thing I shall do, is taste it!"
He lunged, using Morrigan's tongue as he nearly licked the mirror, before Gwyneth screamed, afraid he had enough power to actually touch her through the glass. She grabbed a jar from her vanity and threw it with all the might she could muster, the mirror shattering loudly as Gwyneth fell to the floor, wrapping her arms around herself to sob. "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry. I don't know what to do, Morrigan, I don't know what to do!"
Those same words were repeated over and over, in the silence, before someone came to check on her. Someone always did, but it wouldn't make any difference. Morrigan was gone, and Gwyneth would not be far behind her.
It seemed like hours, trapped inside her own mind, before she heard knocking on the door, then banging, Alistair's voice muffled through the wood. "Gwyn, open this door! Someone, bash it down if you have to!" He must have been speaking to the servants.
Finally it gave way, the wood of the jamb around the lock splintering enough for the door to open. Alistair was red faced, huffing. He got down to his knees, shaking Gwyneth gently when she wouldn't even acknowledge him, eyes staring off into the corners of the room, blank and swimming with tears.
"Gwyn, the servants came to get me, they said you'd locked yourself in here and they heard glass breaking and you screaming at someone. Who was in here, what happened?" He shook her again, worry making him terse. "Answer me!"
"Morrigan is dead." She whispered, voice as tight as her throat.
Alistair grimaced, looking back to the servants, a few of them gawking in the doorway. "Get out of here, all of you." They remained, barely moving at all and he was forced to yell. "Now!" He knew they'd probably go get Teyrn Cousland, but right then, little else mattered.
When they'd finally left, he closed the door again, as much as he could with the broken jamb, and sat down next to Gwyn, trying to hold her, but she wasn't cooperating, her body as limp as a rag doll. "They're gone, you can tell me, who was in here Gwyn, who was talking to you, how do you know Morrigan is dead?"
"She sent me a ring and when I . . . when I put it on . . . " Gwyneth looked to the broken mirror, sobbing anew.
"Alright, alright you don't have to tell me now." Her murmured into her hair, pressing it against his shoulder. He didn't know what to do when women got that upset around him, he'd never known, and especially not with Gwyneth, but he was trying.
"He's coming, Urthemiel is coming back, and he's going to kill all of us, starting with Morrigan." She murmured the words into Alistair's shoulder and felt him rear back, grabbing her jaw to stare her down, those brown eyes boring into hers.
"Urthemiel? As in, archdemon, grand general of the Blight, and big old dragon that we killed on Fort Drakon?" He was aware his voice was gaining some impressive pitch and tried to calm down, for her sake. "Gwyn, that's not possible, we killed . . ."
She shook her head, eyes gone wide as if staring into herself. "No, we just cracked open his prison and set him free. I've known, I've known for awhile. He . . . he would come to me in The Fade." Gwyneth cried, shoulders shaking. "I told myself it wasn't real, and that always worked, but not . . . not anymore." Her eyes wandered again to the broken glass. "Morrigan sent me a ring, had some kind of spell on it, when I wore it . . ." She rubbed the devouring carved demons on her finger. "She spoke through the mirror, told me . . . told me what he wanted and that he was going to be here soon and we were out of time."
There was an old nightmare that Alistair had, only once, but it stayed with him, haunting him as the worst ones do.
Morrigan is lain across the stone dais for the thrones, her once brilliantly golden gaze now the milky eyes of a dead woman. Her unique attire has been ripped to shreds, opening to reveal her nearly colorless skin. Red ribbons of flesh decorate the sides of her abdomen, the witch's belly split open like an over-ripe grape, deep gouges on her as if something tore its way out of her guts.
"Tis almost a shame, she was such a lovely thing, really, for a human. Though she should have known that no mere mortal could have contained one such as I, mage or no. Her ego demanded it be so, but she could not change fate, no more than you can, boy king." The dark man shakes his head, perhaps even sadly, but hardly as if he has many regrets. "You know, do you not, my love?"
Behind the dark man stands the queen, familiar but alien in the carelessness of her image. Hair haphazardly done up, her gown filthy and torn. Blood runs freely down her thighs, staining the fabric of her sleeping attire and Alistair cannot shake the thought that it's virginal blood. Gwyneth smiles indulgently as the strange man takes her hand to lay a kiss on it. When she looks at Alistair, her eyes are a hot glowing white. The eyes of the arch-demon, and when the dark man turns, his are now the same.
"He is Morgreth the Undying, the Destroyer. The Tevinter mages called Him 'Urthemiel', for He is beauty and death absolute." Gwyneth still smiles, looking for all the world like one besotted, her voice calm and collected. "He is the end, and we deserve it for what we've done, the sins we have committed . . . we are murderers."
"I think I saw him once, too. I don't know how that can be . . . I . . how is this happening?" Horror reflects in the dark brown of his irises, nearly turning them black. "Oh, Gwyn . . ."
She sobbed, finally moving to clutch at him like a lifeline. "I don't know what to do!"
Fergus had come, almost pushing the king aside to get at his sister. "Gwyny-Gwyn, what happened? Were you fighting with my sister?" Accusing eyes turned Alistair's way.
"What? No! Look, this is a private matter and I don't think . . . " Alistair began, defensive.
"He's my brother, he should know, as should you. I ought to have said something before, but I was too scared and I wanted to deny it, but now . . ." Gwyneth sighed into her sleeve, as Fergus curled his arms around her to hold her tight as she sobbed. "There is so much to tell you . . ."
A racket of shouting and gasps came from the courtyard, the window cracked open to let air into the humid room. It had grown loud enough to the disturb the three nobles, as they reluctantly got up to see what was going on.
Red light had bathed the courtyard, not from a lantern or mage's work, but from the night sky. All eyes glanced up at it, voices shouting it disbelief from the ground below. "The moon, the moon is bleeding!" It was an accurate enough description, clouds of red coloring that pale globe as if it was a white stone dropped into a bowl of red wine.
Fergus was the first to speak, his sister and her husband looking up at it in stunned silence. "What devilry is this?"
There was no answer as Highever hung beneath that ominous blood red moon.
All the screaming had stopped some time ago, the clearing of the woods nearly quiet but for the squelching noises of flesh and blood. Morrigan's body was pale and lifeless, golden eyes dimmed with the haze of death as she stared at nothing, the only color on her skin from the blood of her torn belly.
Pulling itself free from the ribbons of her skin, was the body of what appeared to be a young child, still small, but larger than any normal newborn. Hair like ink was pulled away from its face by hands tipped not with nails, but ebony talons, short but sharp. He looked down at the dead woman with white eyes, glowing in the darkness of the woods.
"Not so clever now, are we, dead woman?" The voice was that of a child, but the intent was far from young and innocent. That any child of such a young age would be able to speak much at all, was proof enough that the thing that had been born in those woods, was not human.
"My Lord . . ." From the trees came the strained whisper of a creature, looking like a woman but for the black rot that was her lower face, maw hanging open much too far as the bones of her body clicked when she moved beneath her worn white gown. The thing fell to its knees like it was praying, when behind it, several more of the creatures followed suite.
"Ahh, my brides. Have you brought something to eat, my lovelies?" He stepped forward, naked and covered in the remnants of his emergence from the dead witch's belly.
"Yes, My Lord, we took a village for you, all the children and the innocents. Their life force is yours, oh Great One." The voice warbled, like a bag of rocks being rolled in a hasty palm.
He looked up at the moon, watching it bleed in an omen for his ascension. 'Even the Heavens recognize my return, for the Maker can no longer deny me' The Old God smiled with the illusion of a toddler's face. "Good. I am most ravenous."