All Warfare Is Based On, Y'know, Stuff
For three months the journal sat on Alistair's desk, staring at him. Sometimes he would flick it open just to see her handwriting, snarky little notes that meant nothing to him out of context, scrawled across the borders of articles and pictures.
Flemeth: Poss. crazy? Who researches Archdemons? How does anyone research Archdemons?
It wasn't much, but it helped. He could almost hear her voice along with the words. He was sure it hadn't been this hard the first time around. The pain was similar, the gaping emptiness that followed him around, the occasional forgetfulness that would see him glance around, looking for her before remembering and being brought crashing back to reality. It just never had this undercurrent of unreality before. It didn't feel temporary last time, like he was just dragging out his own torture.
Ferelden was safe again, the treaty signed. Empress Celene had been extremely cooperative, and not at all grateful that Alistair hadn't pressed his advantage. He'd been hailed as a hero on his return to Denerim, and didn't dare breathe a word of what had actually happened, not even to Teagan and Zevran who already knew.
He waited for the day he knew was coming, the day he'd receive an invitation to the wedding of the Queen of Nevarra. A royal affair he'd have to attend. Every time he heard news from Orlais it filled him with dread.
She had been right, though. Things stopped adding up. Knowing that Cailan had been having an affair suddenly brought Loghain's betrayal a new light. Everyone thought he'd gone mad with power, but that wasn't in his character, he'd never grasped for the throne before, even when he had a legitimate claim to it. Had he known that his son-in-law was having such a scandalous affair with his long-time enemy?
Alistair knew where he'd find the answers, so after three interminable months he picked up the journal and opened the front cover, preparing to read the full story.
It wasn't easy, the journal had obviously never been intended for others to read, connections made without any apparent logic, maybe there was none, maybe she simply hadn't written it down. It would have been a difficult read even if he didn't have to spread its reading over the course of several more months, between his duties as king and the dense, impenetrable nature of the text.
The first third of the book was filled entirely with Grey Warden law. Conscription, apparently, from the official texts on who could be conscripted and then to individual accounts and court documents. He figured that it was a reasonable subject for her to be interested in, she was the only conscript he'd known.
The picture it painted was a very political one. Despite the Grey Wardens' power to conscript whoever they liked, whenever they liked, the consequences could be enormous, the backlash causing more damage than the recruit was worth. It seemed in that climate it was a miracle anyone was conscripted at all. Even forcing a commoner or criminal into their ranks was difficult in the long run, much less a noblewoman.
Daveth had been there at her joining, taken from the gallows. There were no documents relating to the recruitment, there wouldn't be any for a pickpocket, but the margins were scribbled with notes.
Denerim vault. 2 bedazzlement charms, 1 speed enchantment, 1 dexterity enhancer. Coincidence?
Alistair nearly laughed. Coincidence? Whatever she had been thinking was not written down so he could only imagine what connected Daveth to an assortment of magical items in the Denerim vault. Maybe he had stolen them, they certainly seemed useful items for a cutpurse.
He slipped into his office late in the evenings, reading a little more each night, trying to make sense of her tenuous connections. A thousand facts that apart meant nothing, and together were slowly painting a pointless portrait. As a Grey Warden this was all very interesting, as someone who had lived through these events, he couldn't see what she was getting at.
And all throughout there were notes, totally unconnected to anything else, on Flemeth and the Archdemon.
Shapeshifted into dragon. Has to know a dragon's soul. Kind of wish I hadn't killed her.
Kind of glad she did. Flemeth was a monster, Alistair had enough proof of that to last him a lifetime. Her continued fascination with the witch was a mystery, she'd never shown any interest in Flemeth beyond her potential to help or hinder.
It was almost two months from first reading when Alistair came across the first page that made him think that she might have been serious when she said he didn't want to know the truth. Flipping through the book his own name caught his eye, and he stared down at the page, entirely devoted to him.
8 years old – Meets Grey Wardens
13 years old – Eamon marries Isolde (Isolde already under false impressions? Speak with Teagan)
Alistair sent to Chantry
19 years old – Sent to Circle for Templar training
24 years old – Recruited to Grey Wardens
The notes underneath were written in a different pen, years fresher than her original timeline.
Confirmed, no gossip in Orlais about Eamon. Where did Isolde get this information?
How young did he develop his character? Can a person be who they are at such a tender age? Need further confirmation.
Nice to know someone was thinking of him. A little less nice to know that someone was thinking of him, talking to someone else who was thinking of him, and not mentioning this fact.
Alistair sent for Bann Teagan, pacing in his office while he waited. For five years they had searched, sending out word to every post, anyone who could tell her location was offered a huge reward, and it had all been fruitless. The Hero of Ferelden had disappeared without a trace, leaving her country in shambles. And his uncle had just forgotten to mention that she sought him out.
When Teagan arrived, looking slightly harassed from a long day, the king didn't speak at first, unable to find the right words.
"Sire? Did you need something?"
"Yes." He nodded, frowning. "I need to know... Why didn't you tell me you'd seen her?"
Teagan looked genuinely perplexed. "Sire?"
"The Queen of Nevarra. Teyrna Cousland. She sought you out four years ago and you somehow forgot to tell me. It seems like a curious oversight."
The Bann's face lost a few shades of colour. He sat at Alistair's desk with a heavy sigh. "She swore me to secrecy, said that she wouldn't meet with me if I didn't make an oath not to tell anyone, especially you. I wanted to make sure that she was well, and she didn't ask anything of me to compromise my loyalty."
Ah, of course. Alistair had forgotten about his little crush. For a fierce warrior she certainly had her share of male admirers.
"And what did she ask of you?"
"I..." The Bann hesitated, as if he was considering refusing to say. "She wanted to know about Isolde. When she came to Redcliffe, how long Eamon courted her, when she started thinking that you..."
"She thought I was Eamon's son, you can say it."
"Yes. And she wanted to know what you were like as a young boy. I couldn't get her to say the purpose to her questions, she insisted that it was better that no one else knew her purpose, in case her theory proved true. The information seemed harmless enough."
Alistair thought about being angry with Teagan, but that would have been hypocrisy. A flutter of her eyelashes and a toss of her hair and she'd laid him out flat when an entire country was depending on him, he could hardly blame another man for answering a few questions about his sister-in-law.
"Just... don't do it again."
Teagan bowed an walked away, looking relieved.
Great, he was trying to run a country and warmongering, traumatised Orlesian queen had half his staff wrapped around her little finger. Including him. Things like this always ended so well.
"Sire..." Teagan paused in the doorway. "She did not swear me to secrecy before telling me... how it pleased her that she was well liked by your family. I thought you might want to know."
The emptiness inside him suddenly flared painfully. "Thank you, Teagan."
Well liked by his family, and she was at that. The kind of family, had they been allowed to marry, that would have been hers as well. He couldn't pretend that it didn't bring him both pleasure and pain that her brother was always kind to him, there was more than one night he'd found himself exchanging war stories with Fergus, trying to forget who he shared blood with and at the same time knowing they were but a few stupid words short of being brothers.
Brothers, what a strange word. He had a brother, but that had never meant anything to him. And his sister had been the greatest disappointment. The idea of having a family, a real family that loved him, a wife, a child, a brother, it was too painful to even contemplate.
He opened the book again, pushing the thoughts out of his head.
Isolde was the one who had him sent to the chantry. Was the queen really thinking that the Grey Wardens influenced her? It was outrageous, completely absurd. Why would she even think that? The Grey Wardens had taken him in and given him a home when he had none, Isolde... made sure of that. The idea of conscription was laughable, when he was offered a place in the Grey Wardens he practically performed a victory dance in the hall.
No, no, he wasn't thinking this. If they'd wanted him that badly, all they had to do was conscript him. For all anyone knew he was just the bastard son of a servant, there wouldn't have been any political backlash, there was no need for subterfuge or trickery. No need to whisper in Isolde's ear.
But a treacherous voice at the back of his mind told him that wasn't quite true. Eamon knew, so did Duncan.
How does the Taint leave an Archdemon's body? Does the blood mingle, or is it more spiritual? When the Taint goes elsewhere, how does it get there?
He buried himself in the journal for the next few days, neglecting his work. The idea had been planted in his head, and now he needed to confirm or reject it. Duncan was the closest thing to a father he'd known, he wouldn't have manipulated the system just for a new recruit. In fact Duncan had been kind to all his recruits, more often than not a saviour to them, allowing people in the most desperate situations the chance to be part of the Grey Wardens.
Daveth would have been hanged for theft if Duncan hadn't been there, it was the least anyone could do to give him the chance to fight the Darkspawn instead of swinging. It was Duncan's own purse that he had tried to cut, a foolish thing to do from the start. Why would anyone try to steal from a man as heavily armed as the Warden Commander?
A chill ran down Alistair's spine. He flicked back in the journal, looking for a previous entry.
A Warden Commander who had just relieved the vault of a number of bedazzlement charms and enhancements fit to catch a pickpocket. He shook his head. No. Impossible. Even if the political situation was that dire, they wouldn't... they couldn't...
The next entries dissolved into poor sense, a timeline working backward, all without conclusion. Alistair's name, and Daveth's, appeared more and more frequently. This wasn't their story, though. Dozens of pages, hastily scribbled, punctuated with reports from the events, were her story.
Loghain attempts to gain control of the Landsmeet.
Howe becomes Arl of Denerim.
Loghain deserts at Ostagar.
Howe takes Highever.
Loghain and Howe ally forces.
Loghain discovered Cailan's affair.
Loghain peaceable, submits to Cailan at Landsmeet. Shows no sign of ambition for the throne.
Cailan and Anora marry.
Missing information. She could say that again. The backwards ascent of Loghain from monstrous traitor to loyal servant of the crown, happily giving his daughter to the new king was baffling in a way he hadn't realised before. There had always been speculation on why Loghain betrayed them, and Cailan's affair did seem to fit into that, but it couldn't have been all that was at work.
But this was only half Loghain's story, the other half were details that he had never known about a woman he thought he knew better than himself.
Attacked by Howe.
Howe increases relations with Highever.
Howe begins to believe that Couslands are in league with Orlais.
Tournament. No further explanation. Not a single word to link the tournament to Howe's betrayal. Just one word. This had haunted her, Zevran had told him how she used to murmur about it when no other sound would escape her lips. He searched the journal, searching for an explanation. The word was repeated, over and over, with no connection to anything else.
He came upon a single page, blank except for a scribble in the upper corner and a blossoming blood stain.
The hell? Hurlock snuck up on me. Can they do that?
No mention of the tournament. Luckily he wasn't completely flying blind. He was the king after all. After so long shut up in his office he returned to his duties and sent for every record of a tournament in Highever in her lifespan.
The documents flooded in over days, stacked away in a corner where he could sort through them in the evenings. It seemed the Teyrnir of Highever liked their competitions, because there were plenty of them. He tried to narrow them down to her skill sets. Duels, strategic competitions and provings were all set aside, but it still took him nearly a week to find what he was looking for.
Less than a year before her conscription, the youngest daughter of Bryce Cousland brought honour to her family by winning the duelling tournament to celebrate some anniversary of Cailan's coronation. She respectfully declined the prize of a place among Cailan's bodyguards, citing duty to her family.
The final match was attended by Warden Commander Duncan of the Grey Wardens.
The world spun before Alistair's eyes as he read the final sentence.
Someone had told Howe that the Couslands were in league with Orlais, someone respectable. Someone who might not have known that Howe's close acquaintance, Loghain, already had reason to believe that the Fereldan throne was under threat from his oldest enemy. Someone who needed the Couslands out of the way, breaking the ties that kept a great warrior from leaving her home and pursuing higher goals.
No. No, no, no. This wasn't happening. This couldn't be true. Duncan wasn't a traitor, he wouldn't have done that. He had foresight, he couldn't have inadvertently set off the series of events that led to his own death, the events that had threatened the country with civil war.
The door creaked open.
"Zevran, have the horses prepared."
Alistair picked up the journal and papers and headed for the door. If she thought she could just turn his life upside down and never hear from him again, she had another thing coming. This journal held accusations toward people of the highest honour. Either she was completely right and had kept this from him, or she was smearing the name of the Grey Wardens.
"We're going to Nevarra."
"I don't think that's such a good idea, sire."
Alistair turned around. "Why not?"
The elf looked conflicted, frowning deeply. "Because she's not in Nevarra."
"Val Royeaux, then. The Anderfels. Wherever she is, we need to be there, just tell me where we're going."
"Alistair, you are my friend, my king, and most importantly, my employer. There is no soul I have greater loyalty to. But that does not mean I agree with every decision you have made."
"Are you refusing to tell me where she is?" He didn't have the time or the patience for this, not right now.
"To what end? Twice now you have left her devastated when you should have married her, I was witness to the first and I cannot imagine the second. She spared my life, gave me a chance to redeem myself, I cannot throw caution to the wind and hope she survives a third time."
"You know I would have married her if I could."
"Could is such a relative concept. You are both adults, both royals, and if I perceive correctly, both in love. There is nothing preventing such a union."
Alistair rounded on his spymaster, furious. He had tortured himself over this enough to last a lifetime, he didn't need everyone else throwing in their two cents as well. "Have you ever seen a broodmother, Zevran? Have you ever seen a woman who is transitioning into one? The look in their eyes, knowing that soon they will be nothing but a vessel to birth Darkspawn? And even if she avoided that fate, no one knows what two Grey Wardens would produce, with that much tainted blood. If she birthed a hurlock, would you be the one to kill it? To help her recover from that?"
Zevran held up his hands in defeat. "Then issue the order, but remember that it was an order."
"It is. Tell me where she is."
"Visiting her brother in Highever."
Alistair turned away from him, storming down the hall toward the stables. "Have the horses prepared."
Zevran was right, to some degree. This would hurt them both. But he wasn't about to let her land all this knowledge on him without an explanation. Duncan was the only one he truly trusted, if that trust hadn't been earned, then he wanted to hear it from her.
Two days ride to Highever.
He was getting his answers.
Highever was bustling. The Queen of Nevarra was in the building, and there was no mistaking that. Her banners flew from each turret alongside the Cousland crest. Women with thickly lined eyes and men in red cloaks, her retinue, bustled about from every direction, red flowers among the grey stone.
Alistair was met at the gates by Buttercup, bounding ahead of Fergus. The Mabari flung himself at the king's feet with unrestrained joy, rolling around until he received a grudging scratch of his belly.
"You can just ignore him, my lord," Fergus greeted with a laugh and held out his hand for the king to shake. "You'll forgive me for not raising your banner, you gave us so little notice of your arrival and it's getting a little crowded up there. Two royals in Highever at once, father would never have imagined."
Alistair took his hand and clapped him on the shoulder. "Of course. We won't impose on you long, I'm sure you know why I'm here."
"Yes, my little sister. Here we thought she'd join the army or marry some no name lord, and she ends up the Queen of all Nevarra. Never ceases to amaze me. I'm sure she meant no offence by not visiting Denerim, she's in no state to travel as it is."
Fergus led the way back through Highever, passing the exotic Nevarres as they walked. Dark butterfly eyes flicked their way, indifference and contempt radiating from the fluttering foreigners. Buttercup followed at his heels.
"You must be proud of her."
"Proud isn't enough to describe it. I know it's an Orlesian territory, but knowing her she'll have declared independence soon and conquer Val Royeaux while Empress Celene isn't looking."
Alistair had to agree with that assessment. She seemed loyal enough to Celene, but every time he thought he knew what to expect from her, she changed the rules. Still, he'd believe it when he saw it, until then she was an Orlesian.
"Pup, you have a visitor."
Fergus pushed open the doors to his office. Alistair let out a huff. Every single time. Grey butterflies rose up toward them, diamonds resting on her eyelashes like dewdrops. Rubies glinted in her ears and nose, a single gold stud under her painted red lips. Lacquered nails, painted in black wildflowers, clicked against the desk. She wasn't wearing her armour, instead a flowing gown of red and black, her dark hair pulled tight behind her head, letting her coronet rest easily.
"Forgive me for not standing. I take it this visit means you have read the documents I gave you."
"I'll just... uh... leave you two alone." Fergus disappeared out the door as the atmosphere headed for decidedly awkward.
"I told you never to ask me for anything again. That was our deal."
"You knew as soon as you gave me this that wasn't going to happen." He tossed the journal down in front of her. "How could you insinuate those things about Duncan?"
She shrugged. "I postulated nothing, simply wrote down facts and examined how they came together. Duncan damned himself by deed."
Alistair ran a hand through his hair, tugging at a few strands just to feel the pain, distract himself from what was going on. "When did you start to suspect?"
"Ostagar. You and Daveth both told me Duncan had rescued you. Since I had also been 'rescued', I couldn't help but feel there was more at work. I didn't know the scope of it."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
She gave him a withering glare. "Alistair, we have known each other for five years, been friends, comrades and lovers, and presented with this theory you are about ready to tear me limb from limb. How would you have felt if I had told you back at Ostagar?"
"I see your point, but... Duncan..."
"Did what he needed to. For what its worth I still think him a good man."
"A good man?" Alistair slammed his open hand down on the desk, making her jump. "He was a murderer! He murdered your family! He had me sent to the chantry, away from the only home I'd ever known... He... He was a monster."
Her face remained impassive, like he was talking about someone neither of them knew. "You've forgiven me worse sins. He had no idea that Loghain would become involved, and I'm sure that if he had known about Cailan's affair he would have tried to recruit me voluntarily."
The king squeezed his eyes shut. He didn't know what he wanted her to say. The journal was no joke, he'd known that. Maybe he was hoping she'd say she'd found out more, that she had it all wrong in the first place. Duncan had been the kindest man he'd ever known, he'd idolised him since the day they met. He was the father he never had. And he was... what?
He was a Warden. He hadn't known Duncan more than year personally, and only a few weeks of the Blight. The Blight had destroyed his lover, tried to take her from him. Maybe he was just being naïve, maybe he hadn't considered just how dark the war against Darkspawn could get.
A pair of soft hands closed over his shoulders and he pulled her to him, burying his face in her neck. He couldn't handle this alone. His whole life had been a lie, he was just a pawn in the machinations of a larger organisation.
"It's going to be alright," she murmured in his ear, resting her cheek against his.
He held her tightly, wishing the world away. She was so warm and soft in his arms. Soft. She'd put on some weight, just like he'd asked her to. But somehow it didn't feel right, their bodies weren't fitting to each other like they normally did.
He raised his head and pulled her back a little, trying to get a look at her.
"Alistair..." she started.
"You're..." He reached out and lay a hand on her rounded belly. She was pregnant. "Does Cedric..."
"Know? Yes. He hasn't claimed the child and I haven't asked him to. The mages tell me it's a boy."
"He's just... abandoned you?" He knew he should have dealt with Cedric while he had the chance. No one, no one did that to his Pup. Left her hanging, ineligible, because he couldn't take responsibility for his children. Just like Alistair's own mother had been left.
But she wasn't angry, in fact she laughed, a smile lighting her face. "After all you've been through this year you want me to trap him into marriage? No, that's not me. Eventually the boy will be old enough to be claimed without him needing to take me with it, and I'm happy with that."
Alistair looked into her eyes, overcome with sudden gravity. She was pregnant with a clean, healthy boy. Pregnant and unattached. Queen of Nevarra, no one could possibly object. His mouth was dry.
"I know I promised I'd never ask anything again, but I think I have to break that promise."
She rolled her eyes. "What is it, Alistair?"
"Let me claim the child." His heart thundered in his ears. "Marry me."
She froze. "What? I can't even... Be serious, Alistair."
He took her hand and brought it to his lips. Their eyes met and he tried to convey with his lips and eyes just how serious he was being. This could be it. He couldn't screw this up. This could be the day he got what he always wanted.
"This is crazy."
"I don't care."
"You'd really put someone else's son on your throne if it meant we could marry?" She asked incredulously. "Isn't this a little..."
"You're so... infuriating!" She pulled out of his arms and started pacing. "You... you told me we couldn't be together! That was you, all you. I never got a say in it. And now you want to marry me?"
"I was wrong. I always wanted you to be my wife."
"Is this really what you want, Alistair? What if I lose the child, or he dies before producing another heir?"
"Then Connor is growing up, he'll make a fine king."
She stopped pacing and looked at him. His heart swelled. He had her. Shaking hands brushed hair out of her face, she closed her eyes for a moment. "Did you read my other research, on the Darkspawn?"
The change of topic nearly gave him whiplash. Was she just avoiding the subject?
"I couldn't make any sense of it."
"No, I guess I didn't write too much down. I went to Val Royeaux looking for Flemeth's Grimoire. Things had... changed... about me."
"What are you talking about?"
She laughed, incredulous. "I was attacked and nearly killed by a hurlock. I didn't sense it. And I looked for more, I couldn't sense any Darkspawn anymore."
"I don't understand."
"When I killed the Archdemon... well I can't say much about what happened, I never got the answers I was looking for. But whatever happened on that tower... when the Archdemon's soul was purified, its Taint destroyed... well... so was mine."
"I'm sorry, are you telling me... that you're no longer a Grey Warden?"
She nodded. "I never slept with Cedric, Alistair. The child is yours. And yes, I'll marry you."
Time slowed, letting the words hang in the air between them. Then she was in his arms. He lifted her off the ground, spinning her in the air.
A husband, a father. With her. The only woman he'd ever wanted.
He had a family. Wife, child, brother, all. Denerim, Nevarra City and Highever all were his home.
"You do realise what this means, don't you?" she asked.
"That I finally get to tell you I love you again?"
"Only the Maker may compel me otherwise, and the Maker is in the Chantry, His emissaries," she recited from the Oath of Orlais. "The chantry tells me that holy matrimony is the highest bond. My husband is my first duty, before the Empire."
Alistair hadn't thought of that. Nevarra would become, for all intents and purposes, part of Ferelden. Even if it still answered to Orlais, the first authority would lie with them.
He grinned and kissed his fiancee, wrapping his hands through her hair and pulling her in to him. She wrapped her arms around him and they chuckled into each others' mouths. He pulled her legs out from under her, picking her up bridal style despite her squeal of protest. He had a brother-in-law to inform of their important news.
Nevarra and Ferelden together.
Alistair laughed into her hair.
"Celene is going to have kittens."