Inevitable A/N and disclaimers: First foray into this fandom, and truthfully, first actual fanfic in years. I blame Bioware and Steve Valentine's voice, in that order.
Many thanks and hugs to ChampiontheWonderSnail and CCBug (although you both can have a slice of the blame for this too), and as always to The Fink for being my bestiebeta, even when she has no idea what I'm talking about. And though I doubt she will ever hear about this, I also owe a huge thank you to Immortality and her Ser Gilmore mod, without which none of this would make any sense at all.
I hate that in-game Alistair never quite gets the happy ending (or the cheesecake) he deserves - there's always a compromise. If I wanted to have to settle I'd stick with real life. I am trying to adhere closely to all the canon I can, but some stuff may have been fudged and/or added. It's Bioware's sandbox; I'm just playing in it.
Alistair stood nervously in the anteroom of the Grand Cleric's offices, trying not to fidget. Fidgeting was frowned upon as unbecoming to a Templar, and even though he wasn't a full Templar yet, he didn't relish another lecture or more pots to scrub. Maker, if he got another reprimand this week they'd probably skip right past the pots and have him scrub out the hog troughs or something. With his tongue.
He eyed the heavy wooden door that led to the Cleric's chambers. He could hear voices raised; once he heard his name, though he couldn't make out what was being said about him. What was happening in there?
He'd met the Grey Warden before; Duncan had visited the Chantry several times since Alistair's arrival a decade or so ago, and even once or twice at Redcliffe before that. Usually there were other Wardens with him, but not this time. This time Duncan had swept in alone and demanded an audience with the Grand Cleric, and then he, Alistair, had been sent for, only to cool his heels in this antechamber for Maker knew how long.
He frowned. It was a new sensation, this unease. He was never like this. There wasn't any point. It was hard to get nervous when one lived one's life by rote, at the behest of someone else. They were told, in the Chantry, that there was freedom in routine, in the confines of the familiar, but Alistair had never found any comfort in resignation.
True freedom was never to be his – he would never be subject to the consequences of his own choices, so there was never anything to worry about. He followed orders, he studied hard and trained harder, he slept and prayed and tamped down, caged, ignored any desire to do anything else. Over the years he'd found that his greatest security lay in self-discipline, in pushing his boundaries of control just a bit farther every time, in becoming the very best at what he was destined to do. If he had no choice over what his life would hold, he could at least control how well he held it, and find some satisfaction in that.
Today the hated but familiar routine of his life had been unexpectedly upended, and it made him edgy. His armor and robes felt too small, constricting; there was a tingle of sensation, an insistent buzzing at the base of his skull that he refused to name. He thought about biting his nails, but he was in full dress armor so that was out. Fingernails were one thing, but gnawing through a layer of iron would probably only increase his anxiety when they came to put him in the dungeon with the irretrievably insane.
Alistair tried rolling his shoulders to ease the tension that had settled there. Chewing his lip helped a bit until he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror at the end of the room, looking like an overripe fish on market day. That would not go over well.
He could pace, maybe. Pacing wasn't bad, was it? One could pace with proper dignity, couldn't one? Sort of like marching, only more stately. He gave it a try, caught the toe of his boot on something, and promptly sent a small table clattering loudly to the floor. Alistair winced and picked up the table, setting it to rights with a furtive glance at the door. Right, pacing was out.
If his heart beat any harder it would thump right out of his chest. Was it possible… Alistair hardly dared put words to the thought. Was he being… recruited? He sat on the thought immediately, squashing it down with a fury born of a lifetime of disappointment. Probably all the Grand Cleric wanted him for was to run to the cellar for some sacramental wine or to rake him over the coals for hesitating at the unsuccessful Harrowing the other day.
The idea of him as a Warden would be comedic if it wasn't so damnably tantalizing. But no, between his spectacular failure to shine at the tournament today and the debacle with the failed Harrowing, Duncan wouldn't want him. Very few people actually did, really.
He shook himself. Don't be maudlin, Alistair. His final vows and his first lyrium were to be taken at the next worship; he would irrevocably become a Templar, forever chaste, forever bound to the will of the Maker in the person of the Grand Cleric, body and soul dedicated to one end and one end alone: absolute dominance over the dangers of magic and all who would wield it. He would have a place in the world, albeit one he never sought. Still, purpose was purpose, and it was something he was good at. Mostly. He just needed to learn to do as the others did: stop thinking of mages as people, even the young, pretty, terrified ones. Especially those.
He was abruptly brought back to the present by the sound of shouting coming from inside the Cleric's chambers. Alistair frowned. Surely there was something wrong. Should he go in? The Grand Cleric wasn't a young woman – perhaps she'd had some sort of collapse –
Before he could finish that thought the heavy door flew open, swinging in a wide arc and crashing against the wall hard enough to rebound. Duncan stalked out, red in the face and clearly in some kind of towering rage.
The Grand Cleric shouted after him. "You cannot do this! The Arl had express wishes – my instructions are explicit! You cannot just ride roughshod over your betters –"
Duncan's lip curled in a snarl and he smacked his palm against the doorframe hard enough to make Alistair jump. "Woman, it is done!" he thundered. "I have invoked the Right of Conscription, and even the King cannot gainsay me. As to my betters, ask your blessed Andraste to judge what sort of man, given a young life to mold, twists it to his own ends as the Arl has done." Duncan pointed a long finger at her; the Grand Cleric shrank back. "He plays a deep game, madam – take care you do not get caught in the crush of his ambition."
Alistair stared, wide-eyed. "Duncan, what –?"
Angry brown eyes softened as the Warden looked at the young man before him. "Come, Alistair. We had best say our goodbyes before the Holy Mother calls her guard and has us arrested."
"Goodbyes? What's going on?" Alistair took a moment to realize what else had been said. "Wait, arrested? What have you – what have we done?"
"Walk with me." Duncan headed for the main Chantry door. "Is there anything you might want from your room?"
Alistair scratched his head, trying to keep up both physically and mentally. "Not that I can think of, no. A change of smalls, maybe my helmet. Do I need my sword and shield? Where are we going?"
"We are leaving this place, and all its trappings." They crossed the courtyard to the stables, where a pair of palfreys stood restively, pawing the ground. The Warden loosed the ties on a large saddlebag and rummaged, coming out with a sizeable bundle of what looked like splint mail. "You need none of those things."
He handed the bundle to Alistair, whose eyes were growing rounder as the situation became clear. "I'm going with you?" The younger man doffed his Templar robes on the spot and began donning the mail.
"You are." Duncan nodded, tightening the buckles on the saddles.
"I'm to be a Warden?" Alistair couldn't contain the excitement in his voice as he climbed into his saddle.
Duncan smiled for the first time. "Indeed. If you wish to, that is."
"B-but you invoked the Right of Conscription back there, I heard you."
The older Warden nodded. "I did, although that has more to do with the circumstances surrounding the recruit than with the recruit himself. There would be little point in forcing someone to Join if they are unwilling to serve; but we find that there are sometimes… obstacles to the situation that require a heavier hand to overcome. Hence the Right." He smiled again. "You are an excellent Warden candidate, Alistair, and I would be honored if you would join us. But ultimately the choice is yours." Duncan mounted his horse and looked Alistair in the eye. "I will not lie to you, there is a price. The life of a Warden is not easy. Even now a darkness lies on the horizon that will require great courage and sacrifice from all of us."
Unexpected exhilaration bloomed through Alistair's chest. "A Blight?"
"I cannot yet say. I hope not." Seconds ticked by, Duncan's gaze steady. "Will you Join us, brother?"
Alistair realized later that it was that last word that truly sealed his fate. To be part of something greater than himself, and by his own choice… to finally, finally, belong… there was nothing else he could say. "I will."
The smile that broke across his face as the Chantry gates clanged shut behind them threatened to crack his face in half.
Lothering really was the most picturesque little village, Alistair thought. He'd been there once as a child, with Bann Teagan, while Arl Eamon was on his honeymoon trip. Nothing much had seemed to have changed in the intervening years: cows still grazed placidly among the foothills by the river, crops waved golden in the breeze that powered the mill, children still played in the streets. The landscape was less spectacular than the red cliffs of Lake Calenhad, but no less lovely for that, and a sense of nostalgia washed over Alistair as he looked eagerly about while Duncan returned the palfreys to the farmer from whom he'd borrowed them.
Duncan clapped him on the shoulder. "Come, we're camped just outside the village gates. Warren tells me there are five new recruits, besides yourself. Bryndis has been busy," he laughed.
There was that nervousness, that sick feeling in the pit of his stomach again. Alistair swallowed, mouth suddenly a bit dry. He hadn't really thought about other recruits, though that was naïve at best, on reflection. Of course there would be others – Duncan hadn't traveled all the way from Weisshaupt just to rescue Alistair from the Chantry.
He wasn't sure he was ready to meet them, though. Earning acceptance was never an easy thing, he'd found. As a child he'd been on the outside looking in, wanting so much to be a part of something that seemed as though it would forever be just outside his reach: family, friends, love. His father had ignored him. Arl Eamon had kept him at arm's length; Lady Isolde had hated him for no reason other than that he existed. Even the other inhabitants of the castle had left him alone – he was either too far below them or too far above, depending on what they knew or did not know – but it didn't matter much which. The end result was always the same.
It was said that the Chantry accepted everyone, and Alistair guessed that was technically true – he'd never seen anyone turned away, apart from that one maleficar who'd been looking for redemption and gotten a bucket of Templar justice instead – but there were degrees of acceptance, and nobody knew that better than he did. In the Chantry he was always 'the bastard', just as Jeremy had been 'the thief' and Rennie had been 'the Orlesian'. Wit, humor, and hard work had kept him afloat there, even earned him respect and friends in the long run, but the effort had been exhausting.
Duncan was looking at him. Alistair kicked a pebble and watched it bounce. "What?"
"Do you know my last name, Alistair?"
He blinked. "What?"
"My last name. Do you know it?" Alistair shook his head. "Do you know where I am from?"
"No." He was completely bewildered.
Duncan nodded. "Once you take the Joining, your past no longer matters. Who you were, where you came from… not even your family. You can drop your surname and everything it implies; no one will know anything about you that you do not choose to tell them."
Alistair sighed. He'd always wondered if Duncan knew about his father and whether it would make a difference if he did. To finally lose the name that had burdened him for so long… would be a relief beyond measure. "Thank you," he said, finally, and together they entered camp as dusk crept across the sky.