A/N – Strap in, kids. This is gonna be a long one. It starts about nine years before game, and will go to post-Awakening and beyond

This is my attempt at an answer to all the Alistair/Cousland fics that are out there which are more fluff than substance. My goal is to show that the Alistair/Cousland romance can work well in fic, if you take off your rose colored glasses and make things interesting. In addition, you can achieve this effect without turning Cousie into a Super Human Super Hero Who Does No Wrong.

In short, love and sometimes fluff tempered by pain and sacrifice and tough, questionable decisions. If you've been paying attention and not just painting rainbows in the sky, this should sound familiar!

Okay, off my soapbox for now. Hope you enjoy!

- Odie

~ Insert standard "All characters owned by Bioware" disclaimer here. ~

.oOo.


~ Elisara ~


"And so," Aldous continued, droning on and on as only the old tutor could. "With the death of Brandel the Defeated, it was his daughter, Moria, who revived the efforts of the rebellion. She gathered those loyal to her, and it was they who proclaimed her Ferelden's true Queen."

Elisara ignored him. She had heard this lesson before, or maybe it was that she'd read it in a book somewhere. Yes, it was a book, a big thick one that detailed the histories of Calenhad's descendants. Books were always so much more interesting than Aldous's lectures. After all, in books she could skip the boring parts.

"Elisara!"

She snapped her attention back into focus. "Yes, Aldous?"

"Do you remember which of the nobles sworn to Moria's cause betrayed her, bringing about her death?"

"Um…" Blast it all, she must have skipped that part. She grabbed onto the first name that came to her. "Arl Rendorn of Redcliffe?"

Aldous shook his head. "No, child, the arl of Redcliffe was one of King Maric's staunchest allies. The correct answer is Bann Ceorlic."

"Ah yes, that's right, I remember now," Elisara lied.

"Of course, child."

"I do remember some of the story, you know. I know that Teryn Loghain rescued King Maric after he managed to escape the Bann's trap."

"Very good child, but considering that is one of the most well known parts of the story, it doesn't exactly tell me that you were paying attention."

Elisara chewed her lip, thinking fast.. "Ask me another question then, Aldous."

"Very well," the old man agreed. "How did Bann Ceorlic meet his demise?"

Elisara tried not to grin, but it was so hard not to. She had not skipped this part of the story. "King Maric killed him, in his own hall."

"That should not please you, my lady. It was justice. Necessary perhaps, but not something that should please you."

"I bet it pleased King Maric."

"You would be wise as to never to ask him about that," Aldous scolded her. He rubbed his eyes in frustration. "I don't think we're going to have any more luck with your lessons today. You're dismissed, child."

Elisara snapped shut the book she'd been pretending to read and leapt up out of her chair.

"It figures that this is when you most closely listen to me..." Aldous muttered ruefully as Elisara flew out the library door.

.oOo.


She inhaled deeply as soon as she was away from the musty air of the library. The late August heat was oppressive, especially within the walls of Castle Cousland, but Elisara didn't intend to stay there long. If her stomach had any say in the matter, which it usually did, she'd be making a quick stop in the kitchens before executing her escape.

It didn't take Elisara long to find her way to her room and out of the dress her mother insisted that she wear for her lessons. She left the dress on her bed as she walked over to her closet, mostly because she was sick of being yelled at for leaving it in a crumpled heap on the floor. Pushing aside all the other things she only wore when Mother decreed it, she found her real clothes on the closet floor. A loose tunic and a pair of Fergus's old pants sat on top of her various pairs of rarely-worn shoes. Elisara slipped into the clothing quickly, and despite the heat felt much more comfortable. But she was not quite yet ready to head out.

She kept her favorite things in the entire world hanging on the inside of her closet door. She grabbed the leather satchel, dyed a dark indigo purple and given to her by her father after he returned from one of his many visits to Orlais, complete with the Cousland family crest embroidered on its flap in ivory beads. Next to the satchel hung her two most treasured items; a pair wooden daggers that dangled off of the braided belt she had stolen from Fergus's old things. Quickly she laced the belt around her hips and tied the sack at her left side, closing the closet door when she was done. She glanced at herself in her vanity mirror while running a brush through her hair, preparing just in case she ran into Mother. The fewer easy excuses Mother could come up with to get in the way of Elisara's plans, the better. She had learned the hard way that keeping her brown mop of hair neat was one of the easiest ways to avoid a talking-to.

Yanking open her door, Elisara was shocked to see her brother standing just outside her bedroom, hand poised as if he was about to knock. "Ah, there you are, little sister!" He stepped back as he took in the scowl on Elisara's face.

"What do you want, Fergus?"

"Mother sent me to collect you. She's having lunch made up for the three of us."

Andraste's Mercy. If Mother sent Fergus to find her, she must be serious.

"Fine, fine, lead the way," she agreed, putting on her best sulky-face.

"Cheer up, Sister, this shouldn't take too much time away from your afternoon of nefarious deeds," Fergus said with a grin and a wink.

"Oh stuff a sock in it, Fungus."

"So long as it's not one of your filthy ones. Talk about fungus..."

Elisara rolled her eyes. This lunch couldn't be over soon enough.

.oOo.


"Maker's Breath, Fergus, why didn't you make her change clothes?"

"You sent me as your page, Mother, not as Elisara's nursemaid," Fergus replied, indignant.

Teyrna Eleanor sighed heavily. "Very well. At least we have no guests to entertain today."

Elisara sat down on the ornate chair surrounding the small dining table set up in the center of Mother's solar. The table had been laid out with several dishes; a fresh, warm salad made with bacon and spinach that made Elisara wrinkle her nose, pieces of meat and thinly sliced cucumber stuffed between dainty slices of bread, fresh slices of tomato with white cheese melted over them... and at the far end of the table from Elisara, a plate of Orlesian-style lemon cookies. The sight of the cookies made Elisara hate the thought of the spinach salad all the more, since it meant she would have to eat an inordinate amount of the vile green stuff before she'd be allowed one.

"So, what's the occasion, Mother?" Fergus asked. Fergus was sixteen, handsome if the servant's chatter was to be believed, and Father's heir. There was a certain amount of freedom granted him that had so far been denied to Elisara, even though she had turned nine this spring.

"Do I need a reason to simply share a meal alone with my beloved children?" Eleanor replied.

"Of course not. But with Father gone to Orlais, I have my responsibilities to attend to," Fergus said with an air of self-importance. Elisara could barely restrain the snort that almost escaped her. From what she had seen, Fergus's "responsibilities" tended to consist of training with the guards, smiling and nodding at whatever Seneschal Reginold decided to share with him, or drinking at the pub down in Highever with the Captain of the City Watch.

"Of course, dear," Eleanor said unconvincingly. "But surely you can spare an hour for your dear mother?"

"I'm here, aren't I?" Fergus grumbled.

"Thank the Maker for small mercies then," Eleanor said with a smile. She gestured to the elven serving maid standing nearby. "Winoah, could you serve the children, please? Make sure Elisara gets a good portion of the spinach salad."

Elisara groaned. It was then that Eleanor turned her attention onto her daughter. "And what of you, Elisara? How were your lessons this morning?"

"Boring and useless," Elisara said, frowning as Winoah slid a plate containing a mountain of slimy green leaves in front of her. "Mother, why can't Aldous teach me about the things I read about in my books? Dragons and spies and assassins and sea voyages and the lives of Orlesian lords and ladies and stuff?"

"Because many of those things are either exaggerated for the sake of the tale, or they are flat-out not true," Eleanor explained as a matter of fact. "Any history Aldous is to teach you is to be a recounting of actual events, not something scribbled down in some tavern based off of a bard's embellishment of the truth."

"But real things are so boring!" Elisara complained.

"Whining is unbecoming in a noble lady, dear," Eleanor chided. "He also has to teach you things beyond tales, true or otherwise. Last I spoke with him, he said you were falling behind with your figures and sums."

Elisara bit her lip. "Numbers make my head go all fuzzy. They're so confusing Mother!"

"And how in Andraste's name do you expect to grow up and successfully manage the accounts of your estate, if you never learn your maths?"

She hated dealing with Mother. Father was so easy to bend to her will, with a bit of a pouty lip and a sad tale. Mother was a different animal entirely.

"Maybe I won't be a proper lady," Elisara muttered sullenly. "Maybe I'll be a warrior instead."

"Stuff and nonsense. A woman of lower standing, especially one of secondary or tertiary birth, could be allowed a martial life if she showed the inclination... but we've had this conversation before, child. You are a Cousland, and your father and I expect you to remember that."

"Is that what Grandpa and Gramma told you as a child? You weren't a Cousland then, you were a Robinson!" she exclaimed petulantly.

Eleanor sighed. "It is unwise to speak ill of the dead, Ellie."

"It's not ill if it's the truth!"

"That's enough! Maker's Mercy, that tongue of yours is out of control, child. Do not think that being your father's daughter will spare you the switch were such outbursts to continue."

Elisara hung her head. Mother had won. Mother always won. "Yes, Mother. I'm sorry, Mother."

Eleanor nodded. "Now, children, I did have a reason for summoning you today. Elisara, eat your salad."

Elisara pretended to ignore her mother as she finished her third tiny sandwich.

"King Maric is going to Antiva this winter, for an official visit of state," Eleanor began. "He has requested that Fergus and I accompany him."

"What?" Fergus sputtered. "The king wants me to go to Antiva? Why?" He seemed to be both excited and terrified by this request.

"And why does Fergus get to go and not me?" Elisara added, petulant. Fergus got everything. It was so unfair she could just scream, but that would only upset Mother even more.

"The king wishes us there so that we can more properly negotiate a possible marriage alliance."

Fergus looked like he'd just swallowed a frog. Inwardly, Elisara gloated. Suddenly she no longer regretted not being invited on this trip.

"From what Maric tells me," Eleanor continued, "There are at least half a dozen eligible daughters among the families of Antiva's merchant princes. You should be thankful, Fergus. You may even have some modicum of choice in the matter."

"Forgive me if I don't leap up and kiss you out of sheer joy, Mother," Fergus said, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms.

"If your marriage can help continue good relations between Antiva and Ferelden, all will benefit. Antiva is one of the most economically sound nations in the world, but one of the largest things they lack access to is a steady supply of timber, which Ferelden has in abundance. They are willing to go to great lengths to secure such a resource, but not without some reciprocity. And I need not remind you how Ferelden is lacking in most resources that are not trees, stone, or metal ores." Eleanor paused to take a bite of her food. "But I'm sure that trade relations are the last of your concerns about the issue."

"Now there's the understatement of the age," Fergus grumbled.

"It would behoove you, Son, to put a positive face on this. It's going to happen, even if I have to have to drag you to Antiva in chains. And that would certainly put a damper on your prospects."

"Yes, Mother. I will... try." Fergus replied. His tone didn't give Elisara the feeling that he would do anything close to that.

Several long moments passed in silence. Elisara stared at the giant green pile on her plate, watching as it seemed to grow as her other food items disappeared. The more she thought about it, the happier she was not to be going to Antiva with Fergus. Life in Highever was so much more interesting when Mother wasn't around, and such times didn't happen very often.

"When are you and Fergus leaving, Mother?" Elisara asked, a picture of guileless curiosity.

"Near the end of Harvetsmere. The winds will be more favorable then, or so I'm lead to believe. We will be accompanied by several cargo ships and a small flotilla of warships. The King will require such protection, and since this is a trade mission it makes sense for us to bring along trade goods. I would be surprised if there were no less than two dozen ships required to undertake this venture."

That seemed to get Fergus's attention. "Truly? Will we be traveling with the King?"

"That depends on what Rear Admiral Cunningham thinks is best. It may make more sense for us to travel in different ships, just in case something unfortunate happens. Or, he may want to keep us all on one ship, in order that his warships can better protect us were we attacked by pirates."

"Pirates!" Elisara interjected. "Momma, do you really think there'll be pirates? Why can't I come with you!"

"Pirates are not something to get excited about, Ellie," her mother scolded. "They are dangerous criminals, not at all like the ones you read about in those trashy novels you keep finding. You still haven't eaten your spinach, young lady."

Elisara sulked. She morosely poked at her food with her fork, pushing it around the plate and picking out the bits of bacon.

"Don't be too upset, dear. You're going on your own trip this winter."

"I am?"

"Indeed." Eleanor smiled when she saw Elisara's change of heart. "While King Maric is in Antiva, he has requested that your father come to Denerim to serve on his council and assist Teyrn Mac Tir with the regency."

"And I get to go with him?" Pirates aside, this was getting better and better. There was always something going on in Denerim. And the people there were generally so very respectful of her, not like here in Highever. In Highever most of the guards and servants knew her tricks, and knew what to watch for. In Denerim, she was treated practically as a princess.

"Well, we will all travel to Denerim together, since that will be where the fleet is leaving from. But yes, you will be staying with him in Denerim."

No Mother to ruin her fun and the whole winter in Denerim? Elisara couldn't believe her luck. She leapt out of her chair, clapping as she did a little dance. "I'm going to go pack right now!"

Eleanor gave her daughter a long suffering look. "Child, you have two months to prepare. And I will see to your things personally, for you will need to dress properly in the capital. Were I to allow you to pack your own clothes, you would just grab that old chest of Fergus's clothes that I keep meaning to give to the Chantry and call it a day. Now, sit down and finish your spinach."

She wished that spinach would burn on Andraste's pyre. Elisara sighed an over-dramatic sigh. "Yes, Mother."

.oOo.


~ Alistair ~


The courtyard of Redcliffe Castle felt like a giant oven. The walls, the flagstones, and especially the main stairs seemed to radiate heat not unlike a larger than life brazier. It was this heat that hit Alistair in the face as he opened the keep's front doors. He let out a huge breath of air and wiped his sweaty forehead. Thankfully, it appeared that his assigned tasks were done for the day. He had helped Attwick load and drive his oxcart full of milk containers down the hill to Redcliffe's dairy, which had earned him a handful of freshly made cheddar curds for a mid-morning snack. Then he had returned to the stables and helped to muck the cow's stalls while they were put to pasture. It was during this task that the arlessa's page had arrived in the stables, requesting that Lady Isolde's saddlebags be brought up to her rooms. Which was an odd request, Alistair thought, since the arlessa had mysteriously stopped riding her horse this past spring. High summer was usually one of her favorite times to be out and about. Perhaps this explained the more peevish temper that seemed to possess her lately. The page, of course, could not be bothered to actually carry something heavier than a tea tray, so it fell to Alistair to carry the cumbersome bags up to the castle.

He had left the bags with the serving girl who answered Lady Isolde's chamber door. She graciously did not announce who had fulfilled the arlessa's request. Such fortune was not always enough, for the arlessa seemed to take pleasure in deriding Alistair at every given opportunity. The elf assigned as her chambermaid knew this, and Alistair took her kindness as a blessing from the Maker. He hastened to leave the keep as quickly as possible, attempting to avoid any confrontation.

The heat let up slightly as he walked under the portcullis and through the keep's thick outer wall. Alistair tried his best to appear like he was walking somewhere with a purpose, lest someone stop him and give him a task to busy his idle hands. As soon as he crossed the keep's outer bridge, he veered away from the direction of the stables. No need to take unnecessary chances, after all. Carefully, keeping off of the main paths as often as possible, he wound his way down to the road to Redcliffe Village. The gates at the bottom of the hill were open, and he ran through them before anyone could ask him where he was going. He tried to run like the man he'd heard about in one of Lille the kitchen girl's stories, the one that ran miles and miles from one of the cities in Rivain to the seashore, to inform the sea forces that the war was over. Though he was pretty sure that the man in the story keeled over dead after delivering his message. Alistair slowed his pace as he considered this. After all, it was so very, very hot. The air felt like a wet blanket, thick and uncomfortable. The mist that hit his face as he crossed over the bridge in Redcliffe Village was a welcome relief, but he knew his destination would offer even more relief so he did not linger.

He could hear the playful shouts and shrieks as far away as the main square. It did not take him long to make his way to the sandy outcropping on Lake Calenhad where the local children congregated on days like this. Alistair quickly stripped down to his smallclothes, but not before carefully tucking his mother's amulet into the pocket of his pants. He folded his clothes messily before placing them in a pile next to one of the shoreline house's support pillars. Walking out onto the sandy lake shore, it was odd how after feeling so uncomfortably hot all day, for the sand still felt warm and good on his feet. Running with youthful enthusiasm, he bounded into the lake, splashing as he went. Soon Alistair was in deep enough to let his feet go out from under him. He floated for a bit, letting the water pull the heat of the day from his tired arms and legs. Suddenly, a wave washed over Alistair's face.

"Hey Alistair! Come play Catch the Mole with us!" Jordie, one of the children from the village, invited him.

"Alright!" Alistair said, finding his feet again. "Who's the Mole?"

"Braya is! Come on!"

The Mole, Braya the cooper's daughter, was stumbling around in the water with her eyes tightly shut. Other children ran or swam around her, calling "Mole! Mole!" while some dared to tap her on the shoulder or poke her in the back. She had to catch the next Mole in the act, grabbing and dunking them under the water, before her turn as Mole was ended. The game went on for some time, with the Mole changing more than a few times, though not without several fights about whether or not a person was well and truly dunked.

Eventually, a boy named Triston became the Mole. Alistair made a motion with his hand, calling the other kids over to him without saying anything.

"Okay, here's what we're gonna do," he began when everyone was close enough. "Everyone make a big circle around Tris. Then we'll circle around him like windmill blades. He'll be so confused he won't know which way is up!" Several of the other children cheered their agreement. "So come on then! Follow me!"

He splashed out to where Triston was, the other kids falling in line behind him. They called "Mole! Mole!" while splashing water toward their intended target. When the circle was halfway formed, a new voice cut through the playful din.

"Well would you look at that! He's got them all trained up like Orlesian lapdogs."

Alistair tried to ignore what was said, but the words had still made his stomach lurch like he was going to be sick. Caen. Caen was the squire of one of Redcliffe's knights, and short of Lady Isolde he was probably the person in Redcliffe who got the most enjoyment out of mocking him simply for existing.

"Hey Bastard!" Caen called. That was his way, he always said "Bastard" like it was a proper name. "Do they do any other tricks?"

"Sod off, Caen," Alistair called back. He tried to focus on the game, but no one seemed to really be paying attention to it any longer. Even Triston had opened his eyes and turned his attention to the older boy on the shore. As was usual, he traveled with three of his squire friends. Alistair could never keep their names straight.

"Yeah, Caen," Jordie chimed in. "It's just a game. We were just trying to confuse Tris."

"I bet that's what he told you. Them nobles are all the same. Expecting us who are not so special as them to leap when they say jump."

"It wasn't like that at all!" Jordie argued.

"Just ignore him, Jordie," Alistair said. "He lives for stuff like this."

"See what I mean? Issuing orders to the common folk, like it were his right."

"Sod off, Caen!" Alistair turned away from the boy and headed toward the opposite side of the beach. He had come here to cool off, not to start fights.

"Aww, look at Daddy's Little Bastard, running away when his authority is threatened. Or are you just going to higher ground so that you can more effectively order your minions from on high?"

"Leave him alone," Triston said. "He never did anything to you."

"Oh no?" Caen replied. "My father says the only reason Arl Eamon keeps him around at all is because he feels guilty for snogging a serving girl while in his cups."

"Your father don't know his ass from a hole in the ground," Jordie snapped.

"He does so!" With that, Caen tore off his shirt and stomped menacingly toward Jordie. Alistair turned around as he heard Caen splash into the water. "He's Seneschal Povich's right hand. He knows more than you do, that's for sure! He says the Bastard's the arl's get, and he's in a position to know what's what!" He stopped, standing threateningly over Jordie, his face bright red in his anger.

"Don't you dare touch him, you pig," Alistair threatened. "Or you'll be sorry."

Caen looked in Alistair's direction. "Whatcha gonna do, Bastard? Call your guards down to beat this piece of street trash back into his place?"

"No," Alistair said as he walked purposefully toward the pair of angry boys. "I'm going to do this." And with that, he punched the older boy smartly in the face.

From there it turned into a full-on juvenile brawl. The water added an extra element of danger, for handfuls of sand could be flung and heads held beneath water. Caen especially preferred this technique. He eventually got Alistair in a head lock, and held him under the shallow water. Triston thumped his fist on Caen's back, to little effect, as Alistair struggled to fight off the larger, stronger boy.

"What in the name of Andraste's Flaming Sword is going on here?" a booming voice bellowed. It was one of the guards from Redcliffe's retinue.

"Come to protect the Bastard, are you?" Caen spat.

"I've come to see the sea serpent I swore had beached itself over here. And lo and behold, I find a bunch of squalling brats instead," the guard replied.

"He started it!" Caen shouted, pointing at Alistair.

"I don't give a dragon's ass who started it! It ends now." The guard crossed his arms and surveyed the crowd of children, scowling. "Party's over, boys. Anyone still here by the time I count to ten will spend a night in the stocks."

No one needed to be told twice. With some chaotic scuffling to grab various bits of clothing, the shoreline quickly found itself empty and lifeless, save for the guardsman.

.oOo.


Heading straight back to Redcliffe's grounds immediately would have been crazy. Alistair knew that Caen and his thugs would be waiting for him. Spotting some conveniently stacked barrels off in a hidden corner, he climbed over them and squeezed into a small space between them and the wall. Still dressed in only his smallclothes, Alistair hugged his tunic and pants close to him as he squatted down to catch his breath. When he was sure he hadn't been followed, he carefully climbed back out into the alleyway and put his clothes and boots back on. Digging into his pocket, Alistair sighed in relief when he realized his mother's amulet hadn't been lost in the shuffle. Carefully, he put the long chain back around his neck and tucked the pendant back under his shirt. Peering out into the main street, it appeared that things had returned to normal in the village, but Alistair still feared just how long Caen and his bloodthirsty buddies would lie in wait for him on the path back to the keep.

He kept his eyes sharp as he walked through the haphazard wooden walkways that connected some of the stilted buildings near the lake shore. Soon enough, he found himself near the rickety bridge that lead to the docks, where the fishermen tied their boats. It was as good a place as any to sit and wait for Caen to get bored with keeping his blood boiling. Alistair sat down at the end of one of the docks, swinging his feet in the air. The late-summer waters were too low for him to dangle his feet in the lake as he sat, but that didn't matter. Swinging them was relaxing in a way. It helped to calm his mind, the rhythmic swish-swishing as his feet went back and forth.

A bit of the setting sun was still visible behind the cliff where Redcliffe Castle sat. It almost appeared to grow right out of the cliff itself, with its shear walls above and steep cliffs below. Redcliffe was the only home that Alistair had ever known, and yet while he didn't hate the place, to think of it is "home" felt wrong somehow. It certainly didn't make him feel the way that the concept of home sounded in the songs and tales. Not that he heard a lot of those in the stables, but feast days and cold winter nights often lead to the castle staff gathering and entertaining one another. He supposed the halls and the stones could count as his home, but only in the physical sense. Home should be more than just walls and a ceiling, he thought. Home should mean people, people who cared about him. Home should mean family. And what family did Alistair have? Sure, some in the castle were kind to him, and Arl Eamon had always tried to watch out for him. But everyone always had others who they counted as real family, people they cared about more than the pitiable orphan boy that they sometimes shared a kind word with. He was missing something, something important. He could feel it, see it, almost touch it, smell it in the breeze. Yet it stayed out of reach.

He pulled his amulet out of his shirt, rubbing his thumb over its face. He'd had a mother, once. Depending on who you talked to, she either died when he was born, or when he was very young, or she was sent away for reasons no one would discuss. Not that Alistair ever asked questions about his mother, but he heard the whispers when people thought he wasn't listening. He knew from working in the stables that he had to have had a father as well. He knew that what the Chantry taught about how babies were made wasn't true. Babies didn't appear out of the Fade. Serving girls who fell pregnant, married or otherwise, were always the subject of rampant gossip both good and bad. But who was his father? Was it Arl Eamon? People thought that, sure, but the arl had never confirmed this, and Alistair had always found him to be an honest man. He would have said something, Alistair was sure.

The sun winked out of sight behind the towering cliff, sending long shadows over Lake Calenhad. It was still plenty light out, for the height of the cliff distorted just how much longer it truly was until sunset. Still, it did mean that the day was wearing on. Alistair knew he should get back to the stables. The cows would need to be milked again and put down for the night. Hopefully Ser Barrett would have noticed his squire's absence by now and given him some task to do that didn't involve pummeling stable boys. Turning away from the docks, Alistair headed back over the rickety bridge and up the winding path to the castle grounds.

.oOo.


"There you are! Alistair!"

The relief that Alistair had felt for not being assaulted on his way back up the path disappeared at the sound of Mitchell the stable master's voice. He hurried over to where the man stood, next to the stable doors.

"Seneschal Povich was down here earlier," Mitchell explained. "He said the arl was looking for you, and to send you along to the keep as soon I saw you."

Oh wonderful. He hoped that message hadn't been spread around, especially after this afternoon. "Yes, ser," Alistair replied. "I'll head there right away."

"Good. And hurry back, we need the help putting the cows up for the night. Go on now." Mitchell waved his hand in the general direction of the castle, dismissing Alistair.

Andraste's burning pyre, why did Arl Eamon have to come calling today? Whenever a fight broke out, especially one that needed to be broken up by someone on watch, word of it spread through the younger castle folk like wildfire. He didn't even want to think about how a summon from on high would be woven into those tales. It would probably only reinforce the belief that Eamon was his father, for they would say that he was being scolded for throwing his weight around. But there was little Alistair could do about the rumor mill running amok, and the arl was waiting for him.

He trudged along the long walk down the bridge into the keep, through the courtyard, and to the double doors leading inside. These were all familiar things. But whenever Alistair was summoned into the castle proper with no explanation, the whole place took on a eerie feeling. Doors felt larger and more like they were set in place to bar him from entering. The statuary seemed to watch him, scowling as if he was intruding on their private conversations. It was all in his head of course, but that didn't make it any less real.

"Ah, Alistair, you finally make your grand entrance," said a friendly voice as Alistair entered the main hall. Seneschal Maurice Povich stood in the middle of the hall, dressed prim and proper as always, talking with the Captain of the Guard.

"Hello, Lord Povich, ser," Alistair replied. Maurice had always been kind to him, which was doubly shocking since the Orlesian man had come to Redcliffe along with Lady Isolde. His words did not sting the way they would have coming from someone else. "Mitchell said that Arl Eamon sent for me?"

"He is in his study," Maurice replied. "Best hurry along."

Alistair nodded and did just that. Passing through the doorway, he entered a large hallway flanked by suits of armor. At the far end of the room was the arl's study, the door left open as it often was. Arl Eamon sat at his desk, shuffling mounds of parchment and scowling in concentration. Cautiously, Alistair approached the doorway and rapped his knuckles on it. Arl Eamon looked up and smiled when he saw Alistair standing there. "Come in, Alistair. I've been expecting you."

Alistair did as he was told. He stood opposite the arl on the far side of his desk, shuffling nervously and staring at the floor.

"Come over here, boy. I have something for you." Eamon opened one of his desk drawers and pulled out a small parcel wrapped in brown paper and twine. Craning his neck as he rounded the desk's corner, Alistair's fear was replaced by curiosity. "Happy birthday, lad," Eamon said, handing the package to Alistair.

It was all Alistair could do to keep his jaw from dropping open. Days blended into months in the stables, and then months blended into seasons. Alistair knew his birthday was near the end of summer, but keeping track of individual days was something the Chantry did. Arls too, apparently. It was always a pleasant surprise when this day rolled around.

Alistair tore into the package, pulling the string out of the way while being careful not to drop whatever was inside. When the paper fell away, he held in his hand a figure carved from white and purple stone. It had a fearsome face curled into a snarl, and horns bigger than its head that were twisted and pointed. Its arms looked as if they'd be as big around as barrels, were they full size and not carved from stone, and it had a huge muscled chest to match.

"An ogre, or so the sculptor in Denerim told me," Eamon explained. "It's carved from amethyst quartz. There are tales that one was spotted south of here in the Kocari Wilds a couple years ago, and the sculptor said that he's been selling them left and right since then."

Alistair wasn't sure what to say. This was almost as brilliant as his old beloved golem doll. Not quite, of course, because his arms didn't move like the golem's did. And it's not a doll, he thought, it was a golem figurine.

"Thank you, Arl Eamon," Alistair finally managed to say. He hugged it close to his chest and smiled, hopping in place as he gave up on containing his excitement. "It's awesome."

"I'm glad you like it, son," Eamon said with a grin.

The word "son" snapped Alistair back to reality. The grin fell from his face and he looked the arl in the eye.

"What is it, Alistair?" Eamon asked. "You seem... troubled."

"Am I really your son?" And there it was. Eamon's eyes betrayed his surprise at the sudden question. When he did not reply, Alistair's tongue decided it needed to fill the silence. "People talk, all the time, and they treat me different. Some say I'm your son, your... bastard... some say I'm just a stray orphan that you took in, Maker knows why. A few say... other things. Crazy things. About... the king. King Maric, I mean. But never to my face." He didn't like thinking about what those "other things" might or might not mean to him. Being the arl's bastard was one thing; he'd still have a good chance at being Just Alistair be that the case. If the hushed rumors were true, however...

"I... wasn't expecting to have to tell you so soon, honestly," Eamon admitted. "Your father did not wish for you to know, but I did get him to agree that you should know once you were grown."

"I'm ten now, if today's my birthday. That makes me almost a man grown, doesn't it?"

Eamon chuckled. "Not quite, Alistair. You have many years ahead of you before most would grant you that title."

Alistair sighed. "So you're not going to tell me." He didn't say it as a question.

"Perhaps it is time for the truth to be told after all," Eamon relented. "Come here, boy." Eamon picked Alistair up and set him in his lap across one knee. "You must understand, lad, that knowing the truth changes nothing. You are still a commoner, the son of a serving girl, and nothing more than that. If I hear one word about you using this information to bully people, or if you try to get others to treat you differently because of it, I will be very cross that my trust was betrayed."

"I…" Alistair swallowed. "I understand, ser." Was the news truly so dire? He'd lived with servant's chatter all his life, and most of it was harmless talk with very little truth behind it.

"Alistair..." Eamon said, his voice low and serious. "King Maric is indeed your father."

It was true. The crazy, impossible rumors. He wasn't the arl's son after all. He was...

"Doesn't that make me a prince?" The thought both thrilled and utterly terrified him.

"Not in the slightest," Eamon replied, firmly. Alistair's heart still sank, even through the surge of relief he felt. "Remember what I said, Alistair. You are a bastard, common born, and you have no place at court or in courtly affairs. And that most definitely includes declaring yourself a prince."

"I... yes, ser, I understand."

"Do you want to talk about it?" Eamon offered, not unkindly. "It can't be an easy thing for you to come to terms with."

"No, no, I'll... I'll be alright. You said it doesn't change anything, right? Then it doesn't change anything," Alistair said with a overemphasized nod. He hoped that if he acted as if he believed it, he would come to feel it as true in time.

"Good lad," Eamon said with a kind smile. "Now, take your ogre and run along. If you need to talk, don't hesitate to come find me. I should not need to remind you that it would not be prudent to speak of this to anyone."

"No, you don't," Alistair agreed. He turned and headed toward the door. stopping when he reached the threshold. "Arl Eamon, ser... thank you. For the figurine, and for telling me."

"You are most welcome for the doll, lad. As for the answer... you may not thank me for it later. But you're welcome none the less."

"Figurine."

"W-What?" Eamon looked at the boy, perplexed.

"It's a figurine. Not a doll."

"As you wish, lad," Eamon said with a grin. "As you wish."

Alistair turned and left the study, running past a startled Lord Povich, out the main doors, and all the way back to the stables. The sun had just about set, and the purple of twilight had colored Redcliffe's walls. He carefully turned the corner into the stable, hoping to avoid Mitchell for just long enough to sneak into his corner of the loft. Clutching his ogre figurine under his arm, he carefully climbed the hayloft ladder and made his way to his normal sleeping place. He kept a small crate buried in the hay which contained his most prized possessions. His golem figurine, several round stones he had found on the lake shore, a rusty knife pilfered from the kitchens, and the other carved figurines that the arl had given him over the years. He carefully placed his new ogre into the crate, smiling. The arl may not be his father, but he had still treated him like his son. He pushed any thoughts of the King from his mind. Those were thoughts to be thought another day. Maybe he did know something of family and feeling home after all.

He heard movement below. "Alistair!" Mitchell bellowed. "I saw you sneak up there. Get down here now, there are still cows that need attending."

"Yes, ser," Alistair replied. He hurried back down the ladder and tried to return to the life he thought he knew.

.oOo.