Author's Note: I apologize sincerely for the delay in subsequent chapters. I entered a very busy time in my life and fanfiction took a back seat to... well, everything else. All my hobbies did. It was a shame too since I had three quarters of it written and ready to go. However, now that life has given me back some time, here is the next chapter. I also think I will be renaming this particular story "Before the Blight: Alistair". I still plan on Morrigan being the next, but I'll make that a completely different story. It doesn't make sense to lump them all together because people might not want to read about Alistair or Morrigan, but Oghren and Shale instead.

Second part of the note... this really would be easier to write if they had said "Alistair is 20 years old. Cailan is 25 years old. Eamon and Isolde were married..." and so on. So, if some of the dates and whatnot don't match up quite perfectly, please tell me. I may not be able to fix the story entirely (aka, "fixing" it might mess it up for the timeline I've established here), but I can keep that in mind for future chapters. Also, Alistair was packed off to the Chantry when he was "young", but it was never said why all of a sudden. He wasn't raised there completely-we know that-and he calls arl Eamon a good man, and regrets the things he said to him. We know that Connor is pretty young...but it's never said how young. In the game he looks around ten to twelve. Alistair is around twenty to twenty-four, at the most. Thus, in my head, the timeline fits perfectly. Isolde put up with Alistair until she became pregnant, and then feared that Eamon would care for "his bastard" (because until the truth came out, I don't think she put in any thought as to why Eamon would protect someone else's bastard, and thus it must be his even though I'm sure he denied it) more than his own trueborn son... and so would have been intolerable to live with, insisting upon Alistair leaving. The bit at the end may or may not how it happened, but packing Alistair off to the Chantry would have also benefited Loghain politically, if he were going to marry Anora to Cailan, which he did.

Again, this is just my take on things, written for your amusement. All that being said, please enjoy.

Although Redcliffe was in the center of Ferelden, it seemed to be in the backwoods, and that suited Marya just fine. The trip had been long and arduous, but baby Alistair flourished under her careful attention and love. The wetnurse rode in the wagon, carrying the boy in her care close to her, cradling him as he slept. Ruffling his light fuzz of hair with a gentle hand, she smiled down at him. She missed her own lad, but at least she wasn't alone.

As the caravan approached, Marya turned her attention to the castle. The keep had been built for defense rather than decoration, and it jutted proud over the lake nearby. The village surrounding it concentrated on fishing for their industry, and smelled vaguely of fish guts. It would serve. She doubted she would have much time to go to the village, but she would not have to often, given her lofty position as a nobleman's nanny. Marya anticipated living in luxury, being only concerned with the raising of Alistair. The baby would be her entire life. She wished him to be her son, but at least... at least she wasn't alone.

The arl dismounted once they entered the castle courtyard, and moved to help her down from the wain. "Thank you, m'lord," she murmured, dropping a curtsey as soon as she felt steady on her feet.

"I need to talk to my wife," the arl said, "but first, I would see you to the kitchen, to refresh yourself."

"As you like, m'lord," Marya replied in subserviant tones. When the arl turned to go, she followed, examining her new home carefully. It wasn't as backwoods as she had thought upon first inspection; the inside was decorated richly with colorful tapestries, both Orelesian and Ferelden. The floors had carpets upon them in many places. The furniture seemed sturdy and well made, looking expensive to her eye. There weren't too many decorations, and the overall impression it gave was being warm, lived in, and rich. Well, rich to her, comparing the castle to the hovel she had lived before. It had been the best stroke of luck to catch the attention of Teryn Logain, who had then brought her Alistair. She didn't know for sure whose child he was, but she suspected it was the Teryn's himself. For some reason, he could not acknowledge or raise the bastard. It was not uncommon. Marya just thanked the Maker for bringing her this child to raise.

The kitchen stood as the cornerstone to the castle. Upon their entrance, the arl waved a hand to her to sit. Cooks and other servants bustled about, giving her a glancenow and again, but they were concerned with their own affairs. She sat upon a stool as the arl left, and bounced the baby. His snuffles indicated his hunger-such a big appetite!-and she unlaced her shirt one-handed to free a breast. As she slipped a nipple into his mouth, she stroked his hair lovingly. Such a fine child, so strong and handsome, she thought to herself. One of the kitchen assistants came and asked if she would like some refreshment. Marya accepted a bit of bread and butter, with a small cup of milk, feeling like an arlessa herself while the kitchen bustled around her.

The happy feeling pricked like a soap bubble when she heard a woman's voice raised in anger echoing down the stairwell. Marya looked up to see a woman dressed in finery enter, her fair face flushed with anger. This must be the arlessa, Marya thought to herself. Who else could it be? The strawberry blonde hair had been pinned up, only tendrils hung free to frame the petite features, so fine compared to Marya's coarseness. Her lips and cheeks were colored, and her hands-from what the wetnurse could see-were smooth, the nails manicured.

Marya wasted no time in standing and giving the lady a curtsy, keeping her eyes downcast. Doing so drew the arlessa's attention, and the lady made a beeline for her. "Is this it?" she demanded of Arl Eamon, as he trailed behind his wife. "Is this the... the child?" she sneered.

Marya couldn't have been more shocked at the lady's behavior. The arl attempted to intercede, "Yes, Isolde, he is the child. He won't be a burden; the good woman Marya here will take care of him-"

"I don't care!" Isolde rebutted viciously, her Orelesian accent heightened with the ferocity of her words. "I will not have this bastard in my house!"

The arl tried to pull his wife away before she could do anything more than shout. He placed a hand on her shoulder, "Isolde, please, come upstairs. This is unseemly in front of the servants. Let us talk this out in private."

"What is there to talk out?" Isolde replied, turning to him. Marya wouldn't look up from the floor, though she held Alistair closer and backed away as subtley as she could. "I can't give you children, and so you bring them in from Denerim? You, you of all people, mock me in this way?"

"Isolde, please, hear me out!" Eamon pleaded. "Let us go upstairs and talk privately!"

"No, no I won't!" Isolde said, turning back to Marya. "You-give me that child right now!"

Marya shook her head from side to side helplessly, looking to Eamon behind the arlessa. Who was she to refuse nobility? Yet she would not give this child up for anything-how could she? She was the only mother he would know, and he her only son. Caught between a rock and a hard place, she breathed a prayer to the Maker. The prayer did not go unanswered. The arl caught his wife in a firm grip, and hissed in a rough voice, "Isolde! Get ahold of yourself right now!" The wife blinked, and tried to pull free, but he held her tight. "Come with me, this instant."

The arlessa wavered, trying to pull away again, but this time the arl jerked her back towards him, causing her to stumble and fall against his chest. The indignation on Isolde's face was obvious for all to see: evidently, the arl did not order his wife about very often, or manhandle her with such force. Far more likely, he doted on her. Even though he was angry, Marya could see the love in his eyes when he looked at Isolde. That love did not stop him from herding the arlessa back upstairs forcefully, forestalling any protests with a 'Be quiet!' and 'We will talk upstairs!' When they were both gone, Marya drew a shaky sigh of relief, and the kitchen slowly resumed life, abuzz with gossip of the arl and his lady. She sat back upon the stool again, and tried to ignore the looks the kitchen staff shot her direction. No, she thought, they're looking at Alistair, not me.

With a sinking feeling, Marya realized her life here would not be easy at all.

At three years old, Alistair didn't understand why the arlessa hated him. He hardly ever never saw her, but when he did, the looks she gave him made him go running for his nana. The arl treated him friendly-like and spoke to him with encouragement. He'd even given Alistair a present once, for his name day. When he opened up the ribbon and saw the little golem doll inside the parcel, he shouted for joy as the arl laughed. He played with it always, and slept with it at times. He named the golem Eeky, and his Eeky protected him from the bad dreams which sometimes left him screaming for his nana.

Of course, at three, there was much Alistair didn't understand, and not just why the arlessa hated him. The tensions between adults were incomprehensible to the gregarious child, not to mention why he and his nana slept in a tiny chamber near the kitchen... and why his nana seemed bitter about it. He thought it was wonderful; he snuggled up to her while they slept, and felt safe and warm. At least until the nightmares. Awful things...but he had Eeky for them.

During the winter, he played outside with the other children of the keep. The eldest of them had five years to her name. Any older than that, it seemed that most children had to work, or apprentice out to learn a trade. Alistair wasn't worried about that; when he came of age, he'd work in the kitchens with his nana, who tended the fire as an ash maid. She hated it, but Alistair liked getting up early, before everyone else. The kitchen became his own secret world then, with dangerous and mysterious shadows, cozy and warm and dark. It was quiet and still-not even the roosters were up yet. Just him and nana. She would sometimes bring him a treat for breaking his fast, a sweetcake or a cookie to go with his porridge and milk. He would help his nana scrub out the ashes of the fire, carefully gathering the hot coals with heavy mittens so they could lay the fire for the day to come. He liked the mornings.

Ah, wintertime. The keep slowed down, but didn't stop running completely. Most people had spare time for whatever hobbies they liked, and for the children that meant snowballs fights and snow-knights. He raced after the taller children, and helped them roll balls for the snow-knight's bodies. It was fantastic fun. He often laughed himself breathless, trying to tag other children with snowballs and chattering with his peers. He couldn't wait for today's fun!

With that thought, he hopped on one foot as Nana was laying the firewood for the day. "I'm hungy," he told her while tugging on her skirt.

"Ai, my bonny lad, wait until your nana is done? Just a few more minutes, then I'll fetch you your breakfast." She turned and smiled at him, beautiful in the dim light of his secret world, "Go and be a dear, and fetch the tinder for me?"

Alistair trudged off and did as she asked. As he handed her the bits of wood, she favored him with another smile. "There's my good lad." A smear of soot crossed her nose and trailed down her cheek. He reached up and touched it, giggling. She bent down and gave him a kiss on the forehead, and rubbed his cheek. "Such a good lad."

"Yes!" he exclaimed, then clapped a hand over his mouth, giggling madly. Nana laughed and turned back to the small fire, tending it carefully. She began to rise, then stopped, her happy expression fading into one of shock. "Nana?" he asked, tugging on her arm.

"Yes, lad..." she began, then put a hand on her chest, alarm taking over shock for the predominant expression. "Ahhh...Maker..."

Alistair's eyes widened. "Nana?" he asked again, tugging harder.

Marya collasped on the floor, her mouth wide open, gasping for breath. Her eyes found his and she breathed out, "Ali... go..." A moan escaped her lips, a low one laced with pain. Alistair didn't know what to do, or where he was supposed to go. He knelt beside her, holding onto her sleeve. "Go..." she said again, and tried to shrug him off. "Cook... get..." Her breath came harder, and tears leaked out from the corners of her eyes.

"Nana, 'm not leavin'," he said, beginning to cry. "What's matter?" He tugged on her sleeve, as hard as he could. "Nana!" When she closed her eyes, he pulled again, shrieking, "Nana! Wake up!"

They found him there, twenty minutes later, next to her body. He cried and pleaded for her to wake up, but she never did.

Alistair stood at Arl Eamon's side, watching the procession load his nana into the boat. The funerary customs of Redcliffe consisted of sending the deceased out to the waters of Lake Calenhad and setting fire to them using fired arrows. He watched her go away, crying. He rubbed at his eyes with his fist, trying to stop the tears. The other men weren't crying, though a few of the womenfolk were. 'It's so sad,' they said around him. 'Her being so young.' He didn't understand why Nana had to go away dead. It wasn't fair. She had been the only one who was all his, and she had to go away.

He tried to be brave, but it was impossible. The little bed they shared stood terribly empty now, and Alistair woke crying in the night, forced to sleep alone. No one really thought to look over him. He was told to stay put, and do this and do that, but no one really cared that his nana was gone.

Unsuccessful at stifling his tears, Alistair did his best to wipe them away without anyone seeing. The arl next to him noticed, and clapped a hand on Alistair's shoulder, kneeling down to address the boy. "She's going home to the Maker," the arl said, trying to comfort the child.

"Her home is here," Alistair said, sniffling. He wiped away the snot and tears running down his face with a sleeve, and stared at the tall man. "Here," he said again, in case the arl didn't understand him the first time.

"Here, lad," Eamon said, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping the boy's tears away. "I'm sorry your nanny is gone." He paused for a moment, then just watched the boy, not knowing what to say.

Alistair turned his blue eyes to Eamon, blue like his father's the arl noted. They were wide open and guileless, trusting, "Will I see her 'gain?"

"Someday, Alistair," he replied. "But not for many years." As the archer lit his arrows, Eamon stood up and pointed to the small boat. "This is your time to say goodbye, lad, and see her off to the Maker's arms."

Alistair turned his attention to the boat, trying to be brave, but he burst into tears again, and burrowed his face in Eamon's leggings, weeping. Eamon patted the child on the head, trying to give comfort without acting as the lad's father. The skin on the back of his neck pricked up; he could almost feel Isolde's eyes on him, shooting knives into his back though she had declined to join the funereal procession. People talk, and the comforting would get back to his wife, just as the rumors which named Alistair his son had. He walked a razor's edge between keeping his wife happy and keeping the promise he made to his king. The arl watched the boat being fired, and continued watching until the lad cried himself out. The sun was on the horizon by the time he did, and Eamon took the boy's hand in his own. "Let us walk back to the castle together."

The boy nodded, obvious in his misery. He walked beside Eamon, head hung down as he kept sniffling. When they were alone, Eamon considered what else to say to the boy, the amulet heavy in his pocket. "Alistair..." he began.

The child looked up at him, those blue eyes wide and innocent. Eamon stopped so he could address him properly. "Alistair, I have something for you," he said, the words coming slowly to him. The child was too young to really understand anything else other than the only one who loved him had left him. He knelt down and drew the amulet Maric had given him out of his pocket. "Alistair, this belonged to your mother, and she wanted you to have it." He offered it out to the boy. Cold comfort is better than no comfort at all, he thought. The thought didn't lift his heart any.

Alistair took it, looking at the shiny bauble. "Nana's?" he asked.

Eamon's heart clenched. "Yours, now," he replied, not correcting the boy. Though he had not lied and thus preserved his honor, the misleading left a bad taste in his mouth. The child was simply too young, though. Too young by half. The child didn't notice the adult's hesitation and awkward silences though. His young grieving heart filled with thoughts of his nana, and he clutched the amulet to his breast, keeping it close as if to keep her close. Seeing there was no more to be said, Eamon took the boy's free hand in his own again, and walked him back to the castle.

At four, Alistair had turned into a wild child. Arl Eamon could bid him to sit and be quiet, and expect to be obeyed. No one else in the castle could. They knew the arl had a soft spot for the child, and it was common gossip Alistair was his bastard, so who dared to discipline him? Isolde told her husband time and again that this was to be expected, and to send the child away. Eamon refused, yet something had to be done. Alistair had no one to mind him, and he needed a guiding hand. Though he was a bit young, Eamon decided it was time to get him a tutor, to learn his letters and numbers and histories of Ferelden.

And so it was that one morning, Alistair woke from his tiny bed in the tiny room near the kitchen, and found a lovely young lady waiting for him. "You must be Alistair," she said, her green eyes sparkling.

Alistair ignored her at first. He neglected to wash unless someone made him, and the dirt and filth had accumulated until he looked more a refugee than a child who lived in a castle. He moved directly towards where cook would give him his breakfast, but the lady touched him on the shoulder. "It is not polite to ignore people, child," she said, her voice gentle, but with an undertone of authority.

"Don't wanna talk," he said and pushed past her.

The lady took him up smartly by the arm so he had to stop. With her free hand, she swatted him on the behind. Shocked that someone would even give him a gentle hit, he blinked a few times and looked at her with wide eyes. "Now that I have your attention," she said, "we will start again. You must be Alistair."

He nodded, dumbfounded. No one had done that to him before. Indeed, most seemed either ignorant of his existence, or a little frightened. It was only Lady Isolde who scared him, and he did his best to avoid her. It was easy in the castle-it was huge and they ran in different circles, to say the least. Only the arl raised his voice to him, to say him nay at times. More often than not, however, the arl gave in and indulged the boy in whatever he desired.

"I am Catelyn," the red-haired lady said. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance."

They were not alone in the kitchens. People surrepititiously turned to watch the child being disciplined. After a moment, someone guffawed, followed by a few other chuckles. Catelyn turned her fierce eyes upon them, glaring daggers. The growing crowd quickly broke up, and she nodded, sniffing derisively. He didn't know what to do in response, so he just stood there.

Catelyn turned back to the child, turning her steely gaze upon him once more. "When someone says that, young man, you reply with the same," she said after seeing his ignorance. Her green eyes were fixed upon him, luminscent in the morning's light, waiting.

"Pleased make acq... ackwhence," he finally muttered.

Catelyn sighed, putting a hand to her temple. "Good enough for now. We will change that shortly though." She paused, lowering her hand and regarding him with a serious look, "I am to be your tutor. Arl Eamon hired me to nanny, but I am not one for molly-coddling, and you will respect me. First, we must get you out of these clothes and into something more appropriate. Have you had no one to care for you, child?"

He shook his head from side to side, solemnly. He'd had no one to pay attention to him since his nana died what seemed forever ago. No one even really talked to him. The other children didn't want to play with him, and the adults seemed scared in some way. At her stern words, relief rather than indignation flowed through him-he just wanted someone to tell him what to do and where to be. There was one time he'd lost his pants and no one would tell him where he'd left them! He'd had to walk all the way back to his little room to get another pair, trying to cover himself with his hands. It hadn't been a pretty sight, and the laughter he'd heard mocked him still. There was another time with a cage... his thoughts were cut short by Catelyn before he could dwell overlong on that debacle.

"Then you will listen to me. First, a bath. Second, it is past time you had some new clothing-you've outgrown most of what you have and the rest is in tatters. Last, we will get you away from this place, this... kitchen." She looked around and her lip curled slightly. "It is not appropriate or safe for you to be running about here. Come with me." His new tutor offered him her hand. Alistair took it gingerly, blushing as he looked down at himself. He brushed off his tunic the best he could, but all he did was smear the dirt around.

She stood up with a swish of her skirts, and Alistair was dragged along in her wake. He didn't mind. He could pretend she was his nana, though Catelyn smelled a lot nicer. The tutor marched him upstairs, on the same level as the arl's quarters, but across the castle. Alistair fidgeted, and tried to pull away. The arlessa is up here, he wanted to say. She hates me. He couldn't find the words, and the whine that managed to come out sounded pitiful even to his own ears. "Stop that," Catelyn said. "Don't squirm." A door loomed in front of him as Catelyn jerked him to a halt. "We're here."

She had prepared for meeting him, for the bath tub was ready in the chamber before him. With brutal efficiency, she had him stripped and in the tub before he quite knew what hit him. The warm water felt nice, and the dirt dissolved, turning the water a murky brown. He smiled at his new nana. She frowned at him in response, and picked up a brush. Rubbing it briskly against the soap, she turned to him. The warm sensation of being safe vanished as the brush was applied to his skin roughly. "Ow... ow... ow!" he protested and squirmed under her attention.

"Hold still! This needs to be done," Catelyn said, her voice sharp. Alistair did his best to stay still, letting the woman scrub him. Once she was done scrubbing, she set the brush down and started combing his hair with her fingers. Afterwards, she dumped a bunch of smelly stuff on his head and rubbed it in, too hard. He winced under the pressure, but kept quiet this time. A bucketful of warm water splashed over him this time, washing the soap off. She lifted him up and dried him off with a big coarse towel. Last of all, she forced him into new clothing which fit him properly. The whole experience left him bewildered and a bit dizzy. "There, now you look proper enough," Catelyn said with a smile in her voice. Alistair looked up at her, waiting for what was next. "Every week, you'll bathe."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied in a sullen tone.

"Shall we get to it then?" she asked him.

He had no idea what she was talking about, but he was amendable. Anything would be better than that bath, and it seemed better than wandering around aimlessly as he had been doing these past few months. He nodded his agreement.

"Splendid," she said. "We will begin the first of your classes today. You're to learn letters and numbers, as well as beginning history lessons."

With that, he was once again swept along in her wake under her direction. Catelyn, a very industrious person, had Alistair help her move around the furniture in the room, dragging out the tub instead of having servants do it, and making a makeshift desk where he could sit in the sun. Once that was done, she sat on the bench next to him, and together they started his more-or-less formal education. It took him all of an afternoon to form an opinion of "education": he hated it. He didn't care about being able to write, and the quill felt awkward in his hand. He managed to spill the ink well not once, but twice. The second time the ink splashed on Catelyn's skirt. She pressed her lips together tightly in consternation, but didn't reprimand him for it. His tutor merely told him to be more careful next time, and bade him to sit silently until she returned.

The thought that this was to be his life now depressed him.

"Ever licked a lamp post in winter?" the boy, Jon, asked him.

"No," Alistair replied. "What's it like?"

Jon grinned, "Oh, it's part of the initiation. You want to be initiated, don't ya?"

Alistair scratched his head. His hair was getting long-no doubt his tutor would shear it again soon, though he was thankful for the extra warmth in the winter-and it itched at times. "Yar," he said in reply. "I do." Now that he was older-seven namedays he counted-he was desperate to be accepted by the keep's children. It seemed vitally important to him, though why he could not say. Jon led the pack of children by virtue of being the eldest at ten years of age. Jon had had to do all sorts of things in the name of "initiation" three years ago, and he never failed to inform the other children of it. Compared to baiting the most vicious dog in the kennels, this seemed easy. "What comes after?"

"After, then yer done," Jon said with a friendly grin. The other children were smothering giggles and smiles with their hands.

"Really?" Alistair asked, disbelieving. He sensed something was wrong; there had to be more to it. "Just lick the post and I'm done?"

"That's it," Jon affirmed. He pointed the way to the nearest lamp post, its dull flame flickering in the glass box atop it. The leader of the kids turned back to Alistair, eagerness in his eyes. "Are you gonna, or are ya chicken?" With such a challenge to his manliness, Alistair had no choice but to follow. He and Jon led the way to the post, accompanied by the rest of the pack.

Made of iron, the lamp post stood eight feet tall. Redcliffe had them leading the way to the castle, lit at night for weary travelers so they would not lose their way. It was a more or less modern marvel, since there was a clever system inside which somehow delivered the lamp oil. Alistair approached it, nerves making him jumpy. He sensed a catch, but had no idea what it could possibly be. Perhaps licking iron would disease him? He knew if a person stepped on a nail, they got the red line poison. When the red line reached your heart, you would die. Perhaps licking the post would deliver the same poison? After all, nails were made of iron, same as the lamp post.

He looked back at the group of kids. Jon waved towards the lamp post, "Well, g'wan, do it then!" The other children stifled their giggles and Alistair knew in no uncertain terms he'd regret this. However, what else was he to do? This could be the last hurdle, and then he'd be one of them: accepted. Normal. No matter what the catch might be, it would be worth it to have that feeling of belonging.

Alistair stuck out his tongue and started to lick the post. Almost as soon as his warm, moist tongue touched the freezing cold iron, he knew something was wrong. A bit of his tongue tore, but then... the rest of it became glued to the post. Shocked, Alistair began to pull back, but his tongue held fast. When it started to tear and pain lanced through his tongue, he stopped. "Nnnngh!" he said, unable to articulate his terror, arms waving.

The children burst into laughter, and taunted him in his helplessness. "The stupid bastard!" Jon chortled, holding his sides from laughing so hard. Catcalls of 'bastard'-it was always bastard, that one first of all-and 'stupid' pelted him. One little girl thought up the insult of 'post licker'. They mocked him mercilessly, until he made himself ignore the insults and schooled himself to outward calm. What was it Catelyn always said? There's an answer, I've just got to find it. He pushed and pulled this way and that, trying to ignore the other children. That worked, to a degree: when he stopped reacting to them and didn't cry-thank the Maker he didn't cry!-they began to peel off, uninterested. Soon enough, he was alone outside the gates, far away from the castle. The guardsmen wouldn't see or hear him, and likely wouldn't miss him in the gaggle of returning children. Night was falling.

Night was falling.

That thought brought his panic back full force, and he pulled anew at his tongue, trying to free it without hurting himself. It had been freezing outside this last month, and if he were stuck here when night fell, he would die. The flailing and twisting about did no good at all. I have to rip it off, he thought, dismally. I'd best do it all at once. He regarded the post, and girded himself as much as he could... then jerked himself back before second thoughts came to him. His tongue ripped free and pain shot through his mouth. Alistair held a hand to his lips, tasting the coppery redness of blood. He looked at the post, and sure enough, part of his tongue was stuck there. It made him sick to look at it, and so he turned away and trudged back up to the castle, blood dripping from his mouth. The guards didn't pay him any attention as he marched himself up to his room. Catelyn's room stood next to his, and served as the school room. His had been an old servant's room, barely enough room for a bed. It was cold in the winter too, not being next to the fireplace as his old room had been. At least, it wasn't drafty.

Catelyn was next door, but she didn't stir when he entered. He tried to be nonchalant as he closed his door-just like it was any other day. He poured water from the pitcher into the basin and lowered his face to it, sticking out his mangled tongue into the cold water. Alistair almost yelped as he did so, but managed to control himself by thinking of the mockery his tutor would give him if she knew what foolishness he'd been up to. She had a sharp tongue, and he didn't fancy getting cut by it again, especially not over something so... stupid.

As he tended his wound, he felt sheepishness settle over him. He knew there would be a catch, and there had been. It was all for a joke, he thought bitterly. I'm a joke. Alistair shook his head willing himself not to cry. He nearly jumped when his door banged open. Catelyn stood there, taking in his dishevled appearance at a glance. "What have you been up to? You are late for dinner." Upon seeing the blood, she tsked and shook her head. "Alistair, have you been fighting?"

"No!" he exclaimed. Since there was no better way to explain it, he stuck his tongue out at her, so she could see the damage. She blinked, and he went on to talk in a thick voice, "I lickedth a lampposth." No, he wasn't crying. He wasn't. It was merely the pain, not the humiliation.

She laughed, and his ego shrank further. Her skirts bustled as she came to sit down beside him, "Don't you know what happens... well, no, you didn't," Catelyn said, and while she still chuckled, it wasn't unkindly meant. At least, he thought it wasn't unkindly meant. "Here, let me see..."

She gripped his chin firmly and turned his head to face her. He obligingly showed her his tongue again. "It's not too bad... but you will want to avoid eating too much. Bread, perhaps, if you chewed carefully. At least until the morning, when it will not be so tender... what did you do? Lick it as you would a candy?" When he nodded, she chuckled again, "Oh, dear. And you had no idea what it would do?" He shook his head, closing his mouth again. The tears began to spill down his cheeks, unbidden.

"I see," she said with a kind note to her voice. She studied him for a moment, using a handkerchief to wipe his cheeks clean, "What ever would possess you to do such a thing?"

Sullenly, he looked at the floor. "Kidsth."

"You were dared to?"

He nodded an affirmation. "Inithiathion."

She stared at him for so long and so quietly, he began to feel uncomfortable with the attention. The stare reminded him of the arlessa, who would pin him down with her awful, accusing eyes. After what must have been an eternity, she asked with a quiet voice, "You just want to belong, don't you?" He didn't' answer, but he didn't need to. She knew. Catelyn always knew what he was thinking or feeling. "It can be hard, Alistair, but you can't let it get you down. The world is a terrible cruel place at times. The best thing you can do is face it with a smile on your face, and a jest on your lips."

Smile? Joking? She had to be joking. He'd never felt less like smiling than he did right that second... except perhaps when the arlessa and he crossed paths, which thanks be to Andraste was rare indeed. He took pains to keep it that way. "But it'sth not funny," he complained.

"There's humor in every situation," Catelyn said, using her handkerchief to wipe his chin clean.

"They make fun of me," he said, pronouncing his words carefully so she would understand. "They call me a bastard!"

"Well, you are, my lad," she said in her pragmatic tone, "but you can't let that define you."

"What elsth am I?" he shot back. "How can I thmile and joke and pretend nothing'sth wrong?"

She drew back and gave him that stern look he knew so well, the one that said she would brook no kinds of nonsense like this. "Why not joke and laugh? The world's terrible enough; it behooves all of us to make it bearable, better, even, if we can." She paused, and considered her words, trying to make him understand. "It's not the world that makes us, Alistair, it's how we respond to the world. It... and they... can only bother you if you let it." His tutor shrugged and stood, tucking her dirty handkerchief away in a skirt pocket, "It's up to you to be the kind of person you want to be. You can be this bitter, sullen boy... or you can be something else. It's your decision."

She left with the same swishing of the skirts with which she arrived, and he threw himself on his narrow bed, grumpily. It wasn't his fault he was born a bastard; he shouldn't be punished for it. He couldn't help the hand he was dealt! He huffed and turned over, staring up at the dark ceiling. It wasn't fair.

Life's not fair, Alistair, he could practically hear her say it. At least, that was always her response when he said that before.

I don't want to joke about things, he frowned. It's not fair, and nothing I can do can make it fair. I can't help what... well, what I am. I can't help that the arlessa hates me, no matter if I do good with my numbers or have my hair combed or anything! I can't help that I'm all alone...

Alistair frowned, feeling a flush of guilt. Well, he had been trying to be accepted. It really wasn't his fault they wouldn't accept him, but then again... well, he didn't like being around angry people either, and he always felt angry. Ever since his nana died, and Catelyn had come, he had been not just angry, but furious at the world. He didn't want all this stuff forced on him, but he had to accept it. What else could he do? Maybe...

Well, maybe Catelyn was right. Korinn, one of the kitchen lasses, was always joking and laughing with the people around her. Everyone liked being with her because she was so merry.

The more he mulled it over, the more it made sense to him. It's something to try, I guess, he mused as sleep took him.

"Hey, it's the bastard!" Jon called out when Alistair was moving through the courtyard the next day.

"Takes one to know one," Alistair mumbled, not loud enough for the other to hear, and Jon went right over him anyway.

"How's your tongue, bastard?" He laughed. They all laughed. Alistair shrunk in on himself, feeling the taunts like a blow upon his back. His sore tongue reminded him of how futile it all was, but... what Catelyn said came back to him. It wasn't the world which shaped him, but how he faced it. Laugh and they'll laugh with you, he reminded himself.

He looked up, and squared his shoulders. Jon was older, but not any bigger. They were the same height, and Alistair knew he was stronger. Playing tug the few times they had showed him that. Why should he be afraid of such a pipsqueak? It seemed utterly ridiculous all of a sudden, and Alistair laughed. At the sound, Jon frowned. "Hey, what've you got to laugh about, bastard?"

"Eh, it takes one to know one," he said again, loud and confident this time. Perhaps it was a lame insult, but it was the same one they kept throwing in his face, so why not?

"What'd you say?" the older boy demanded, stopping what he had been doing to approach Alistair, fists clenched.

"You heard me, or did you forget to clean the wax out of your ears this year?" Alistair grinned, relief washing over him. This felt infinitely better than just sitting back and taking it. It felt good to fight back for once, even if it was just wordplay.

Jon stood before him, his face pinched red with anger. In that moment, Alistair realized Jon had never been insulted like that before. No one had dared, and the boy didn't know how to respond. "Take that back!"

"What? That you're a bastard or that you're dirty?" He smiled sweetly, understanding he'd unlocked some lesson somewhere.

"That I'm a bastard!" The older boy loomed large in his vision now. Fighting back, even with words, might still be painful.

Instead of stepping back and bowing out as he might have done before, he did the hardest thing he'd ever done: he forced out a cheerful smile and stood his ground. "So, you're dirty then? A dirty, dirty boy." Perhaps it wasn't as clever as some might have thought, but it was something at least.

Even though he knew it was coming, Alistair moved late ducking the blow. It hit him square on the jaw, and before he knew what he was doing, he tackled Jon to the ground and the fight was on in earnest. The boys rolled around in the dirt, tearing at each's other garb and hair, fists trying to pummel one another. "Sissy puller!" Alistair shouted out.

"Stupid bastard!" Jon shrieked in reply, trying to make him eat dirt.

Alistair coughed out a laugh, his face smeared with dirt. "Is that the only thing you can think of, you weasel faced fart smeller?" He managed to get ahold of Jon's tunic, and heaved his weight sideways, the both of them teetering for a moment then toppling over.

Just when Alistair thought he was getting the upper hand, a hand grabbed his arm and yanked him off the other boy. "Just what is going on here?" a stern voice demanded. Alistair turned his head and saw Arl Eamon standing there, holding him back from Jon. His eyes widened in surprise, and he dropped his fists.

Jon clambered to his feet, a bloody nose and torn tunic evidence of the fight. Although resentful and still longing to lash out at his enemy, Jon had seen the arl, and stood there shuffling his feet, waiting.

"I asked a question of you two-what is going on here?" the arl demanded again.

"He started it!" Jon spit out, pointing at Alistair. "That bastard-he jumped me! ... my lord," he added lamely.

Alistair shook his head in denial as the arl looked back and forth between them. "Alistair, is this true?"

He eyed Jon, who promised him silent retribution, and looked at the arl. What do I do now? he wondered, chewing the inside of his lip as he cast about for a response. "We were just... playing, my lord," he finally said. "And it got, uhm...bigger."

Arl Eamon studied him, "I see."

Alistair gave him a smile. Too bad it was a bit bloodied and ruined the effect he was going for, but it was a smile nevertheless. "Honest, my lord. We were just playing." He looked to Jon and gave him a significant look, "Isn't that right?"

"Yes, ser," Jon affirmed, looking down at his feet. Oh, that's real, Alistair thought to himself. He just knew the arl would see through the lie, and they'd both get in trouble anyway.

The arl released his arm. "You were just playing?" He asked, and Alistair knew they were caught. He could hear the disbelief in the arl's voice. However, Alistair stuck with the lie and nodded his head in an affirmative. "And that was all?" Both boys nodded this time, glancing at each other as they did so. The arl straightened up, "I suppose if that is all...then I will leave you to it."

Jon and Alistair both watched the arl leave, and when he rounded the corner and was out of sight, their frames relaxed in relief. Alistair turned to Jon and raised his brows. "Are you gonna make me a liar now?" He offered his hand out.

The other boy looked at it, and looked at Alistair, studying him with hooded eyes. Blood trickled down from his nose where Alistair had hit him. Alistair kept his hand out, his expression friendly, sensing that if he could win Jon over, his problems with the other children would be finished as well. The time stretched taunt and... Jon spat in his hand, turned, and walked away.

"Right then," Alistair said. "I'll just... save that for you." He wiped his hand off on his breeches and walked the other direction.

A dismal day found Arl Eamon looking outside the window, derelict in his duties. The door opened behind him, and he knew it Isolde entered, coming to speak to him. He didn't want to speak to her at the moment, but she was his wife. He'd seen the looks she'd been giving Alistair-what else could there be for discussion? What could he do? He made a promise to his king to watch over the child, and he'd been doing that to the best of his ability. Isolde had made that promise difficult to keep, to say the least. She wanted nothing more than Alistair gone, believing he was Eamon's bastard, no matter what he told her. It came down to the fact when asked whose bastard it was, Eamon kept his lips firmly sealed. He had to. He had to protect his king's honor, and preserve his secret. By not naming Alistair as Maric's, he had doomed Isolde to believing Alistair was his.

Hiring a tutor for Alistair seemed the right thing to do. He needed an education, and short of shipping him off to the Chantry, the only way to do it was to hire the tutor. She'd come from Denerim at his behest, highly recommended. Catelyn did not get along well with Isolde, though. She sheltered Alistair from the arlessa, fighting the child's battles for him with an acid tongue. The effect of that was to move the battle to Eamon instead, as Isolde insisted upon getting rid of the tutor. One battle after another... would it never end?

"Come in," he said, knowing she would anyway. He turned and beheld his lovely wife, and smiled in spite of his brooding mood. Isolde still looked a lass, no more than eighteen years if that. His heart swelled with love at the sight of her, and on the heels of the love, dread. What was she going to insist this time?

"I want to speak to you about... the child," she said, casting her eyes down demurely. He was never just Alistair to her, always 'the child'.

"What about Alistair?"

"Is it not time for him to become an apprentice for a craft?" Isolde asked, keeping her voice calm and level.

Eamon narrowed his eyes in suspicion, regarding her. A new tactic, he thought. "He is eight, yes..." He hadn't thought of it, to be honest, but it was true. Most children were apprenticed out at a younger age, to learn the craft which would support them for the rest of their lives. He had thought of keeping Alistair alive and well, and raising him to do Maric proud. He hadn't thought of Alistair having to earn a living, which he surely would once he was grown. Perhaps he could start training him...

Isolde must have read the thoughts upon his face. "I was thinking that perhaps becoming someone who may wield a sword against you one day would be a terrible idea, my lord," she said, formally. "But he has shown much aptitude with animals, my lord. And the stablemaster could use help..." She let the idea trail off, and bowed her head.

The King's son, working in the stables? Eamon thought to himself. Unthinkable. Yet Alistair wasn't a recognized son either, and Isolde had the right of it. The stablemaster, Kairon, was a fair man and would be sure to treat the boy well. He could learn to ride, and recognize good horse flesh... it could work. Dirty work, to be sure, but honest and secure. He regarded Isolde with lover's eyes thinking, Perhaps she has finally accepted him. "I think that is a splendid idea, Isolde," Eamon replied. "You are right; it is past time I thought of his future, and Kairon has been looking for help. Have you spoken to him about it?"

"Yes," she answered quickly. "He is willing to take Alistair on."

"Then it's settled," Eamon stated, moving to her, intent on embracing his wife. "Thank you-"

"With his duties in the stables, he will not have time for lessons," Isolde interjected, cutting Eamon off and stopping him in his tracks. Isolde kept her eyes steady, and Eamon nodded with reluctance. "I will see to it then, my lord," she finished.

Eamon nodded his stiff agreement again and moved past Isolde, exiting the room.

When Alistair walked into the schoolroom, expecting his lessons for the day, he never expected to find Catelyn sitting on the bench crying. He blinked in surprised, approaching her with caution. At the sound of his footfalls, she looked up and wiped her tears away with a handkerchief. "Alistair, I didn't mean for you to see that," she said, voice calm as it ever was.

"Are you alright?" Though she was a tough teacher, and hard on him, he wouldn't have it any other way. He'd learned a lot from her... his letters and numbers, as well as history and etiquette... and he looked up to her, especially because she was so strong. She didn't take nonsense from anyone, not even the arlessa.

Catelyn straightened, putting her handkerchief away. "Yes, I just..." She faltered for a moment, then hardened once more, "I've some bad news for you, Alistair, but it may turn out to be alright after all." Alistair nodded his head as if he knew what she was speaking about, and waited for her to continue. "The arlessa informed me in no uncertain terms that you were take on an apprenticeship."

At that information, he blinkedin surprise. To learn a craft and a set of skills, well, that was not to be cried over. "I don't understand," he said.

"You're to report to the stablemaster and learn under him now," Catelyn said, bitterness creeping into her voice. "You are to live there, and be under his protection. My services are no longer needed."

Kairon didn't care for him one way or another so that didn't concern Alistair much. But Catelyn... "You're going away?" he asked.

"I've been dismissed," she affirmed, gesturing for Alistair to come closer. When he did so, she put a hand upon his shoulder. "You're a good lad, bright and intelligent. I tried to argue in your favor, to send you someplace for higher learning." Her mouth gave a wry twist, "The arlessa was hearing none of it. I shan't tell you what she said, but suffice it to say, she blistered my ears good for daring to question nobility."

"I'm sorry," he said, frowning. He didn't know what to say and stood there miserably, knowing his life would be changing again. From the tone of her voice, and the words she said so far, it would not be for the better.

"Thank you, Alistair," his tutor said, patting his shoulder and then withdrawing her hand. She gave him a serious look, catching his eyes with her own. "The road ahead will be tough, but I know you can do this. Things will change... you won't be a stable boy forever. Listen to what Kairon has to teach you, and always step quickly around him. Do not give him a reason to dismiss your apprenticeship, and don't bring attention to yourself. Avoid the arlessa if you can..." She smiled, "Well, I suppose you know that lesson already."

He gave her a dutiful smile, but there was no joy in it. He thought over what she said-and didn't say-being as deliberate as an eight year old could. "It's going to be really hard, isn't it?"

"Nothing that will break you, Alistair," she said. "The Maker never sends us a burden so big we can't bear it."

Kairon stood over six and a half feet tall, a veritible giant. His face, arms, and chest were all bushy, as if he were not a man, but a bear who decided to live with men. Alistair stood before him, barely an hour after the talk with Catelyn, with all his possessions wrapped in a bundle in his arms. The stablemaster looked down at the small boy, a scowl plastered upon his ursine features. "This is what they send me? A pip?"

He didn't know what a pip was, but Alistair knew when a response was required. "Yes, ser."

"Ach, follow me pip," Kairon said, turning and walking into the stables. Alistair followed him, scurrying to keep up with the man's long strides. The stables themselves were rather small, but the kennel was attached to it as well expanding Kairon's domain. The dogs in the pens yipped excitedly at Kairon's appearance, but the big man waved at them irritibly and moved on into the stables. When he stopped abruptly, Alistair bumped into him.

"Sorry..." he said, backing up in a hurry while Kairon stared holes into him.

"Up there, in the loft," Kairon said. "Put yer things there, then come back and we'll see what you know."

Alistair did as he was bid, climbing up the ladder with his pack. The loft was small, and unbearably hot at this time of day during the summer. He dropped his pack and climbed down again, figuring that Kairon just wanted it up there to get it out of the way. He stood at attention as Kairon examined him once again and frowned when the man shook his head. "They want me to train you to unnerstand the beasts, but ya ain't got it in ya." Alistair looked around. He didn't know what to say to the man. As he shifted uncomfortably under the stern gaze, Kairon made a snort of disgust. "We'll see what ya do know, and what ya can do. Fer now."

For the rest of the day, Kairon worked him at various tasks, to see where his talents lie. The stablemaster had been right-animals weren't his forte, though he tried. The horses were placid enough, but the dogs refused to obey even the simplest of commands from him to 'come' or 'stay'. "Yer just a pup to them, pip," Kairon said, spitting on the ground. He couldn't manage a pitchfork very well, though Kairon said he'd grow into it, and he felt sick at the raw meat he fed the dogs. "Ach, ya can handle a broom well enough, and a shovel, so we'll start ya at that, and teach ya the rest as we go along. Just listen to me and stay out of trouble, and we'll get along fine."

That suited Alistair well enough, but the work proved hard for him, and Kairon never let up. Any mistake was swiftly punished, causing Alistair to go to bed many a night in tears. His 'room' turned out to the loft where he stowed his belongings. Night time wasn't so bad-the hay kept him warm if itchy-but as it approached midsummer, it became almost unbearable by midsummer, and completely intolerable during the day. To make matters worse, the castle children always seemed to have time to taunt him, calling him Dogboy and other such insults. Things could have been worse... but he couldn't imagine how save being kicked out of the castle completely and left to fend for himself.

He spent many nights staring up at the stars through the hole in the loft rubbing his mother's amulet over and over again in his hands. He wondered what she had been like, who she was. She'd died in childbirth, the arl had told him. The woman he remembered raising him had been his nanny. She'd died when he was little. No one talked about his father, though Alistair had heard the rumors he was the arl's son. How could he not since nearly everyone thought it to be true? He asked the arl once, when he was younger and before he knew better. The arl had just shaken his head sadly and told him he was not. He seemed on the verge of saying more, but merely bade Alistair to talk to him about it again when he was older. He was older now... perhaps he should ask again?

"Ha! Missed me!" Alistair crowed as he practiced with Teagan. Eamon watched the two with a wry smile, thinking that perhaps he should put an end to the impromptu sword practices, but dreading the look on Alistair's and Teagan's face both if he did. The boy seemed to have aptitude for swordcraft as well. He moved lightly on his feet, and had a keen eye for defense. Sword and shield tactics would serve him well. At ten, he was growing taller, and the work in the stables left him fit and strong. Perhaps I should have him trained as a warrior, Eamon pondered. He's loyal, and he seems to love it. He would make an excellent captain of the guard someday, and-

His thoughts were interrupted by a hand on his arm. Eamon turned, and smiled upon seeing his wife. She is so beautiful, he mused, cupping her face with a gloved hand. And more so today. She shines with happiness. When she smiled at him, his heart stopped from pure love and joy. "My lady," he said. "You look radiant."

Isolde perhaps would have blushed at the compliment, but her fair features were already flushed. "Eamon, I need to talk to you. Privately," she added, with mysterious emphasis. Eamon nodded, and allowed her to lead him to his office on the lower level of the castle. He wasn't worried-if it were dangerous she would not be so happy-but he was curious as to the reason of her joyfulness.

When the door closed securely behind them, Isolde wasted no time, the news bursting out of her, "I'm with child!"

Shock filled him, followed immediately by joy. "Are you sure?" he asked, hope rising. When she nodded, beaming ear to ear, he lifted her and covered her face with kisses. "Oh, my love," he murmured, over and over again. "My love, my love..."

When he set her on her feet again, she stayed close in his embrace. "I hope it's a son for you," she began.

"Son or daughter, it doesn't matter," he replied, bending to steal another kiss. Eamon meant it, though he would prefer a son to carry on his legacy. Just the fact that she was fertile after so long of trying... it was a miracle, sent from Andraste herself.

"I hope it's a son," Isolde insisted, her hands stroking his tunic idly. She turned those beautiful eyes to him, "I hope he looks like you."

Eamon laughed at that. "I'd rather a daughter, a girl I can spoil, just like her mother."

Isolde joined him with a throaty chuckle, then her joyful mien faded. "Alistair..."

Eamon's smile wiped itself from his face. "Isolde, I can't send him away." An old argument, and one he'd hoped was buried with Alistair's apprenticeship. Things had been quiet since Kairon took him on as a student. Although Alistair's potential would be wasted in the stables, he'd be safe. He had a home... or at least so Eamon had thought. Two years of peace, gone in an instant.

She gripped his arms. "Eamon," she pleaded, voice intense with worry, "you have to, now. For the sake of your son. For the safety of your son."

Eamon gently extricated himself from her embrace, and put distance between them, mirroring the emotional distance Alistair's name brought. He poured himself a glass of wine, thinking of Maric and his glass, the day he had been given Alistair. "He is ten, Isolde. What is he going to do? hire assassins? Go after an infant himself?"

"Not now," Isolde scolded, her voice cold. "But in five years? Ten? When your other son is grown-"

"Alistair is NOT MY SON!" Eamon nearly shouted. Isolde winced away from him as he turned to face his wife. "How many times do I need to tell you this? Fifty more? A hundred?" He advanced on her, glass of wine forgotten as he stormed to his wife. "Alistair is not my son, but I am beholden to care for him as if he were my own." She tried to look down, but he caught her jaw and made her look him in the eye. "Are you so insecure in my affections, in my love, that you need cast doubt and shame upon me because of a bastard child? Or is he just the excuse?"

Her eyes filled with tears, and instantly Eamon was contrite. He released her and took a step back, frustration and regret welling up as she gave a delicate sniff, trying to hold back the tears. "Isolde..."

"I love you," she choked out. "But I want a family. I want you to be the father to our son, and not... not some vagabond who's fatherless."

If I could only tell you, Eamon thought, looping his thumbs in his belt lest he start fidgeting. If I could tell you Alistair was the son of the king. You'd find honor in raising a king's bastard, but I can't. He closed his eyes for a moment, hearing his wife's soft sniffles. "Isolde, I cannot send him away. I beg you, ask me anything else, and it's yours... but not this."

"You don't love me," she cried, her voice so soft it wrenched his heart to hear.

"I love you, but-"

She turned, opening the door with a savagery he had not expected and fled the study. Eamon's shoulders slumped, and he pressed a hand against the door. The arl turned away,moving back to the desk. He sat down heavily in his chair, and fingered the glass of wine. "If I could tell you," he whispered, taking a drink. "Damn you, Maric."

"He's tall," Maric said, his voice neutral. Loghain quirked a brow, listening at the King's right hand, as always. Eamon stood to his left, and Loghain watched the arl's reactions upon the King's comment on his bastard son.

Arl Eamon seemed to ignore it, watching Alistair as the boy watched the crown prince admire the swords stocked at the blacksmith's. "He's strong," Eamon said. "And has good balance. He knows his letters and numbers-"

"I wonder how tall he'll be," Maric said in a strange sounding voice. Loghain cleared his throat, annoyed that he was here at all. There were things to be done. Ferelden was not safe and yet Maric insisted on taking his son on a series of fool trips... inwardly he chastised himself. Maric knew his duty better than most. A survey of his realm was not out of order. You are annoyed he's even paying attention to the bastard, Loghain thought to himself as he glanced around what served as a courtyard at Redcliffe, making certain no one was close enough to hear the conversation. Maric watched the bastard put his hands in his pockets and walk away, back towards the stables, stealing furtive glances at both the prince and king. He shook his head slightly.

"Your Grace," Eamon said, seeming to choose his words carefully. "My wife, she's with child-"

That snapped Maric out of his reverie, and he turned with a broad smile to the arl. "Congratulations, brother!" he said, slapping the arl on the back lightly. "I knew you had it in you. When is she due?"

"Not for a few more months, Your Grace, but..." Eamon hesitated, licking his lips nervously. "I beg leave of you, Your Grace, to tell her about Alistair."

Maric's countenance hardened, and Loghain stepped in quickly as the king's demeanor grew dark and strange again. "It would not be prudent to keep a secret, just to spill it to one of the enemy."

Eamon's face flushed, and his hand twitched, curling into a fist. "My lady is of Fereldan now, not Orlais."

"All the same," Loghain said, unable to keep his voice even, "a secret shared is a secret lost."

"If you think she-"

"Enough, the both of you," Maric said, cutting their argument before it had a chance to begin. "The teryn has a point. It must be kept quiet, Eamon." Maric moderated his tone slightly, softening it, "You know that."

Eamon shook his head, though his hand did not unclench. "Isolde...forgive me Your Grace, but Isolde won't have him around after our child is born. She fears for its safety."

"From that little runt?" Loghain barked a laugh.

"No," the arl replied, voice dripping with scorn, "from my enemies." He turned towards Maric, "The same conundrum you spelled out for me years earlier is playing out again-there would be people who might use him, to challenge my son or daughter's right to rule Redcliffe. What you feared there is being played out here, just in smaller writ."

Maric blinked. "I had not considered that." He frowned, deep in thought.

Loghain bit his tongue, glancing at the king. He's not.. surely he would not even consider revealing... The teryn resisted the urge to shake his head. It would be the height of folly, especially after all these years keeping the bastard secret. He cleared his throat. "If I may?" When Maric nodded absently, he continued, "You said earlier the boy was strong and quick?"

Eamon nodded, eyes narrowing. "Yes. He's a good arm too, even though he lacks formal training with a sword."

Perfect. "Then let him join the Chantry," Loghain urged, his voice reasonable and even. "His education will continue, he will be cared for, and yet, he will be out of your wife's sight." Better yet, the teryn thought. Once he takes vows, he will be disinherited in the eyes of the Maker and man both.

Eamon was no fool-he knew why Loghain brought the suggestion to the table-but it solved all of his problems neatly as well. "He's never been away from his home," the arl said, the words dragged out of him with reluctance. "He'd be lost."

"Everyone needs to grow up and leave the nest sooner or later, Eamon," he pointed out, his voice mild as milk. "And if my suspicion is correct, it might be a relief for him to leave. Your lady wife is... not happy he is here, as you said, and I can imagine what a life the lad has been leading. No status. No family. No one who can defend him. Outcast and mocked, most like."

Eamon ground his teeth, giving Loghain a murderous look. Maric looked between his two closest advisors, scruntinizing them almost uncomfortably. "I agree with Loghain. He can find friends and family among the church... and learn how to use his sword arm in a just cause." Eamon bowed his head in agreement at the pronouncement, and Loghain managed to smother a smile before it had a chance to bloom. That was one future worry well taken care of.

Alistair shuffled his feet, and ran a hand through his long hair. He rather liked it this way, remembering all too well the butcherings Catelyn would give him in the name of removing lice. Hmph, he thought to himself, all it takes is a few washings a month to keep it clean instead of shaving my bloody head! He couldn't wait until he could legitimately tie it into a warrior's knot. Of course, he'd have to practice more, but with Teagan on his side... he was sure the arl would let him train to be a swordsman. Alistair knew the arl watched him when Teagan was practicing with him. Sometimes it was just for a few minutes, but other times, he'd sit and watch the whole event. Andraste be double blessed for sending Teagan to show him the way of the warrior. He had been born for this, of that he had no doubt. When he got brave enough, Alistair planned to approach the arl about training him to be a swordsman, and a part of the guard at Redcliffe.

Maybe now's the time, he thought to himself, standing in the arl's study. A summons had found him in the stables, and here he was, as clean and polished as he could be in such short notice. The arl would summon him from time to time to ask how he was doing, but more often than not, it would be a walk through the courtyard, talking to the boy as if he were an equal. And worthy, Alistair pondered, looking around at the books on the shelves. He's the only one who treats me like I'm a real person. At least anymore... he's got to say yes, he's got to!

Alistair turned as he heard the door open, and he bowed his head. He began to bow properly as Eamon entered, but the arl waved his hand. "None of that, Alistair, we're alone." The arl patted him on the shoulder as he passed by to take a seat. No other chair being present, Alistair stood before the desk.

"You wanted to see me, sir?" the boy asked, chipper and eager.

Eamon nodded, his features stern. "I want to talk to you about your future," the arl began. Alistair stood up straighter, if that was even possible. He wants to talk to me about becoming a soldier! the boy thought with excitement. He must have been the one to tell Teagan to teach me.

"I've seen you out in the yard with Teagan," the arl continued, "and while I haven't the eye for it some others may have, it seems to me you have a talent for swordplay."

"Yes, sir," Alistair replied, trying in vain to suppress a smile. He waited in breathless anticipation.

"I've decided, therefore, to send you to the Chantry for training."

Alistair's smile disappeared. "To the Chantry?" he asked, confused.

Eamon nodded, his voice clipped and his manner brusque, "To join the templars. You'll be leaving on the morrow. I have arranged to have-"

"Wait," Alistair said slowly, trying to understand what was happening. "I'm joining the Church?" Eamon wouldn't look him in the eye. "Why?"

"It's not for you to ask why, Alistair," the arl said, "but to accept your duty."

"My duty?" he asked, incredulous. "To do what? Become a priest?"

"You'll take vows, yes," Eamon began.

"I don't want to take vows! I want to be one of your guardsmen!" Alistair burst, and then tried to modify his tone. "I want to train with Teagan and be the captain of your guard..."

"Alistair," Eamon said, his face folding into a sorrowful mien. Finally, he faced the boy. "That can never be."

"Why not?" the youth insisted. "I can do it-"

"No, you can't," Eamon said again, as gently as he could. "It's... something you have to do. I'm... sorry."

"Sorry?" the boy shrieked in anger and panic both. "Sorry? You want to get rid of me? You do, don't you! It's Lady Isolde, she hates me!"

The arl stood up, trying to explain, "No, it's not Isolde. Alistair, this is just something that has to happen."

"Why? Can you tell me that?" When Eamon shook his head mutely, Alistair cried out. "You do hate me!"

Eamon moved around his desk and moved to the child. He attempted to pat the boy on the shoulder, but Alistair was having none of it and wrenched his body away from the arl. "Alistair, I don't hate you," he said. "It's... this is just... it's best."

"No, it's not! I don't want to leave, don't make me!" He half pleaded and half yelled at Eamon. "Please don't make me leave-"

"You have to," the arl said, his voice growing firm. "Accept it, and you'll be happier for it."

"I hate you," Alistair snarled, pleading turning to anger.

That, more than anything else, seemed to cut the arl down to the quick, and for a moment Alistair felt savagely happy. How do you like it? he thought as the arl tried again to explain, "Alistair... I am trying to provide for you, as your parents would have wanted."

"My parents? My parents?" Alistair laughed as tears welled up in his eyes. "Who are they? I don't know them-just some bastard and his whore-"

"Alistair!" Eamon said, shocked.

"It's true," Alistair continued viciously, tearing off his mother's amulet. "I hate them!" He threw it as hard as he could against the wall where the metal shattered, falling into heavy chunks on the bare stone. "That's why you never talk about them. I'm just some secret! Some shameful, nasty secret you're keeping!"

Eamon winced and tried again to collar the boy, grabbing him by the arm and turning him around. "Alistair, you don't understand-"

Alistair screamed, "Let me go! Just let me go, old man!" He ripped his arm away, and jerked open the door. "You leave me alone!" With that, he raced out, tears falling. His dreams crushed, he stumbled blindly outside, seeking refuge in the stables. At least there, no one would hear him weep.

Eamon covered his eyes with his hand, grief heavy upon his heart. If he could just tell Alistair, if he could tell Isolde... he shook his head. It was useless. He couldn't, and poor Alistair would never understand the sacrifices made upon his behalf. He knelt upon the stone, and picked up the biggest piece of the amulet the boy had thrown across the room. Alistair's anger had been warranted, and Eamon wished he could take it back, to give the boy his dream, but Loghain had been convincing. Alistair would be safe at the Chantry-the clergy would protect him, and taking vows would protect him further from any political maneuvering. It would not be the life he would have chosen for himself, but... Maric's son would be safe.

Eamon rubbed his thumb across the symbol of Andraste, thinking of the baby the king had given him to raise years ago. What a mess he had made of it. He would made it up to Alistair someday. I will, he vowed silently. Some day we will sit down and I will explain why...I will explain all of it. And I will tell him that I couldn't love my own son more than I loved him. He looked down at the metal in his hand. I'll keep this for him. He'll want it... someday. After he knows, he thought.

Quietly, Eamon gathered up the pieces. When he had time later, he would fix the amulet, as best he could in preparation for the future.

Author's Note: Blast it! I couldn't remember what Eamon had gotten him for his birthday once, until I was perusing through the wiki and found the quote. Updated the fic to match.