Prologue

They were fighting again.

Alistair sat in the dim hall outside Arl Eamon's study , swinging his legs and listening to the raising pitch of the young arlessa's voice over that of her husband. She was only nineteen; it seemed almost impressive she'd mastered such condescension so early in life. Alistair shifted against the hard, unwelcoming stone of the bench and retreated back into his mind a little.

Isolde was barely eight years older than he, Alistair grumbled inwardly; hardly enough to justify the way she pushed him around. Not that he wasn't used to the treatment. Being the king's bastard never failed to earn him disdain or uncomfortable awe; generally, disdain. He fixed his eyes on a dying torch mounted to the opposite wall, willing his ears to hear the exchange.

"What makes the boy any different than a cotter's son? The servants will rebel if you keep showing him preference."

Eamon's voice was strong and even. "I was charged with the boy's care; it is a matter of fulfilling my word, my dear."

Isolde's voice grew shrill; it was what always happened before the arl was forced to placate her. Alistair hated the high, harsh tone. "Word to who? To his mother...to your lover?"

It was an old question, one that arose every time he was the subject of heated debate. Alistair was a little sad at being able to mouth the arl's response perfectly.

"Come my dear; you know there is no truth in that. It does no harm to have him here with us."

Something was slammed, or fell, causing Alistair to start in the empty hall."We have a son, one to whom you should be devoting all your affections!"

Since the arlessa had given birth two weeks earlier, Alistair found himself the subject of their heated exchanges more than ever before. With Connor's arrival, Isolde was at last taking an inflexible stance.

An uncomfortable silence stretched out as he sat forgotten in the hall. It always went this way, with the arl trying to smooth things over; Eamon sounded wearied by it. "You are far too dramatic about all this; you worry yourself too much for a woman in your delicate state. It will come out right."

Alistair couldn't tell if she was even listening. "Something must change with the boy; I am not negotiable on it. He is ten years old; if you can find no other place, the Chantry will have him."

He made out a ragged sigh, a hesitant pause. "I will look into the matter."

Despite the regret in Eamon's voice, Alistair knew the arl would cave to his lady's demands; it was always so.

When Isolde walked out of the study a moment later, her blue eyes fixed him with their usual cold, appraising stare; he got the feeling she was always looking for something of the arl in him. Then, she moved past as though she hadn't noticed him at all. Thin arms wrapped absently around himself. After years of it, I shouldn't hurt, he mused forlornly . But he did; the sting in his young heart was a hard reminder of just how much.

Without waiting for anyone to come and collect him, Alistair returned to his small damp room under the stairs. Stuffing his few remaining presentable clothes into a potato sack, he stretched his thin frame out along the narrow bedroll against the wall. Wrapping trembling fingers around the amulet inside his shirt, Alistair pleaded fervently for Andraste to intervene on his behalf. He hated the tears that welled up in the corners of his eyes, but had long since learned to let them come, knowing the escape of sleep was never far behind.