This fic is DARKFIC. It explores the characters as they might behave when they are taken to a VERY DARK PLACE. Namely, it explores who Alistair might become married to Anora with Loghain redeemed, and how that would affect the Warden who helped shape his circumstances.
It depicts acts of alcoholism, substance abuse, RAPE, coerced sex, prostitution, and MAJOR CHARACTER DEATH. Content may be triggering and/or offensive to your sensibilities. If any or all of these themes disturbs you, please hit the back button on your browser now.Solona wanted not to care.
She'd been able to deceive herself into believing she forgave Alistair for raping her, all those years ago, and for blackmailing her into giving up her life. It had been surprisingly easy to do so, because she knew the man who had done it was not Alistair. She knew it, with every fiber of her being. The man who had done it was spiteful and cruel, and Alistair was neither of those things. It had been easy to separate them in her mind.
One time during her years in Denerim, in a drunken fit of remorse and self-pity, Alistair had cried something about having become an abomination. She had known he was right. And so, as she had done with Connor, rather than despise and slay him, instead she sought a way to free him from his demon's grasp.
So many hurts. So many betrayals. And it had all been for nothing. She'd been deceiving herself, secure in her conceit that the demons she had slain and outwitted in the past qualified her to free Alistair. But she couldn't free him. She could not free him. The demon had taken over, and there was nothing of Alistair left.
Alistair was dead; she knew that. He'd been dead for years.
Why, then, did she want to look for him? Why couldn't she let him go and accept that?
After Alistair tried to sell her, she had fled Antiva. She made her way to southern Rivain, far away from the northern territories where there were so many followers of the Qun, whose treatment of mages made the Chantry's templars looking like doting mothers in comparison. Once a safe distance from Rialto, she stopped and purchased a few simple kirtles, using a small portion of the coin she had procured from the moneylender in Rialto, so that she could keep herself clean and well-groomed. It would not do, after all, to attract undue notice with a wild appearance. Then she arranged to travel with a merchant caravan to Rivain.
To anyone who inquired, she claimed to be the widow of a craftsman. In the wake of her husband's untimely passing, she said, she took the money they had saved together in the hopes of one day buying a modest farm, and was using it instead to travel someplace where a more temperate climate might alleviate her aches and illnesses. The Rivaini merchant leading the caravan was a peaceful, gentle man traveling with his wife and children. When she told him she was still in mourning and didn't wish to be disturbed, he saw to it that she was left alone.
In Rivain, she settled in a tiny farmhouse with a large kitchen garden, on the outskirts of a small village, not far south of Dairsmuid. Despite her general disinterest in people, Solona forced herself not to become reclusive. She feared a tendency toward isolation would draw more attention to her than would a modest presence within the community.
She used her knowledge of herbalism to raise sufficient vegetables to feed herself. Though the Rivaini were not followers of the Andrastian Chantry, she nonetheless carefully avoided letting on that she was a mage. However, she did grow herbs for potions, and bartered them for livestock and slaughtering services, for she had no skill with animal husbandry nor with the preparation and preservation of meat.
It was a quiet time, a time she spent in deep contemplation. She remembered Leliana's discussion of her stay in the Chantry cloister, and imagined it was rather like that. As she tended her garden, she considered all that had happened in the aftermath of the Blight. She came to a difficult, hard-won peace with the decisions she had made which contributed to Alistair's decline. With her distance from Alistair, it was as though a shroud was lifted from her, taking the guilt she had borne with it. She was not at fault, though in her darkest hours, self-doubt still plagued her. Day by slow, thoughtful day, she separated her own understanding of what had occurred from the blame Alistair had been wont to heap upon her.
It was not her fault. He had chosen his own course. It was not her fault, for sparing Loghain and marrying him to Anora; she had chosen as best she could with the knowledge she'd had at the time. It was not Anora's fault, for denying Alistair the kindness and approval he so desperately yearned for. All those things had been factors in what had made him desperate, yes, and yet ultimately it had been Alistair who had chosen his course.
He could have stopped raging for an hour and listened to Solona, when she tried to explain why she had chosen as she had that day in the Landsmeet. When Anora had denied him any warmth, he could have sought it elsewhere, even from Solona herself, for she would have given it gladly. When Anora had denied him a say in ruling the country, he could have put himself forward and made her heed him, rather than retreating. He could have even made himself into a competent ruler, sought allies within the Landsmeet, had the marriage annulled, and taken a new queen, had he chosen to do so. Instead, he had chosen to hate and blame Solona, and to sulk at Anora's rejection. He had chosen to wallow in what had happened, rather than rise above it and make the best of it. Solona had not chosen that for him.
It was not her fault.
It took years, and many, many thousands of tears, to reconcile herself with those facts. It took a daily effort not to sink back into the pattern of accepting blame for all that had gone wrong in Alistair's life. It took even more effort not to hate him. Oh, she wanted to, and some days she failed to overcome the urge. But she couldn't. If she let herself hate him, she became no better than he had become. If she let that demon inside, she might become an abomination herself.
Instead, she strove to come to peace with what he had done without excusing him. She strove to make herself understand that nothing he had done negated the good, kind man she had once loved. She strove to find a balance between despising his actions but still loving the man he had once been.
She strove to let him go, and accept that the Alistair she had loved was never coming back.
And yet she was haunted. She awoke in the middle of the night weeping, haunted by thoughts of his suffering and death, alone on the streets of Rialto. She imagined his degradation as he made a whore of himself for a few coppers with which to buy spirits or madcap buttons. She imagined him dying in a pool of his own blood, slain by criminals when he could not pay to feed his vices, or by the city guard when he turned to crime to earn the coin he needed. She imagined him sick and dying, ranting and convulsing when he could not buy spirits and the purging process began again, this time without the aid of a healer.
As her third year in Rivain drew to a close, she began to feel a restless urge to go back. She struggled with it for another two years before she finally gave in. She couldn't save Alistair; she knew that. In all probability, he was already dead. But she could not prevent herself from wondering...
Let him go, and move on with your life, Captain Joachim had told her.
If only it were so easy. She could stop blaming herself. She could stop accepting his warped, vindictive version of events as truth.
But she could not stop caring.
He was a part of her, and had been since the moment she realized that she, Solona Amell, the gangly, awkward, homely, bookworm mage, had found someone who loved her. Despite her anger at him, despite her loathing for what he had done, that would always be true.
She needed to know what had become of him, one way or the other. At the very least, perhaps she could send report of his death to Weisshaupt, so that it could be recorded in the Grey Wardens' records that one of the three Wardens who had defeated the Fifth Blight had died.
Loghain might get credit for slaying the archdemon, but she could make certain Alistair's participation and fate did not go unremarked. That was just. She could see to it the annals of history remembered the valiant junior Warden who had refused to give up when no one else—including herself—had really understood or cared about the Blight.
She had to know.
And so she began making preparations for one of the villagers to let her tiny farm, so that she might return to Antiva. She didn't think the templars were still hunting her, after five years. And even if they were, they would not have her phylactery for they did not know who she was or where she hailed from.
Unless, of course, they had found Alistair and gotten the information from him. When that thought occurred to her, she almost dismissed the entire plan. When she thought about the way he had betrayed her, the way he had almost sold her, she couldn't care less if another Blight suddenly erupted from the ground right at his feet and claimed him. But then she remembered how poisonous Alistair's hatred and vengeance had become to him. It had become a plague, like Zathrian's curse upon the werewolves. She would not let it do the same to her, and so made herself let go of such thoughts.
In the end, however, she did not need to go seeking word of Alistair. Word came to her.
It came in the form of a courier journeying south from Dairsmuid bearing a missive which had been carried on an Antivan ship across the Rialto Bay.
My Dear Warden, I find myself in possession of something which may have value to you. A Crow ship will be awaiting you in Dairsmuid, where you may learn more. I most urgently encourage you to make haste. Your loyal friend, Zev
I find myself in possession of something which may have value to you. A Crow ship will be awaiting you in Dairsmuid, where you may learn more. I most urgently encourage you to make haste.
Your loyal friend,
It had to be. Zevran had some word of Alistair's fate. Perhaps one of his personal effects, found after his death, something he knew would be important to her. His Warden amulet? That silver, engraved ring Alistair wore and stroked with this thumb when he was fretting, until the etchings were all but buffed away. Something.
How Zevran had known where to find Solona, or that she might be seeking information about Alistair, she couldn't begin to guess. Nor could she imagine why haste would be necessary, or why Zevran hadn't sent the item with the courier.
It belatedly occurred to her—after she had thrown some clothing willy-nilly into a canvas sack and rushed out the door with the courier as her escort—that perhaps this was a trap. Perhaps the templars had learned her identity and tracked her down after all, but could not hunt her in Rivain, where there was no Chantry to support them. They might be luring her to the ship where templars waited to abduct her back to Antiva.
But the cryptic tone of the missive was exactly the sort of thing she imagined Zevran might send. Besides, the courier treated her with a level of deference that reminded her of Cesar, Master Ignacio's assistant. Not the sort of conduct she envisioned from an operative of the Chantry.
The courier had been equipped well for his task; he brought with him a horse for her to ride, making it only a two day journey to Dairsmuid. There he escorted her to a ship flying the Antivan flag and beneath it flapped a banner with the Crow emblem. The captain greeted her with a brand of courtesy normally reserved for exalted personages and escorted her belowdecks forthwith. The differences between this ship and the merchant vessel she and Alistair had taken passage aboard were abundantly obvious at a glance. The cabin doors were made from expensive wood and elegantly paneled. It was a ship built for luxury, meant for transporting important people, rather than cargo.
The captain rapped upon a door and it opened to reveal a familiar face.
"Zevran!" Solona gasped. She hadn't imagined he would come himself.
"Come in, Warden. We have much to discuss," he replied seriously, giving a courteous bow and allowing her inside. "Thank you, Captain Roderigo. You may go."
"De nada, Patrón," the captain replied deferentially, and departed.
The cabin she entered was easily twice the size Captain Joachim's cabin had been, and that was just the sitting room. Two more doors led off it, indicating a full suite of rooms. The furnishings and appointments were comfortable and lavish.
"My dear Warden, how do you like my ship?"
He shrugged. "Well, one of them. Every Crow cell that contracts for jobs in distant lands has at least one or two, you understand."
"So you... have your own cell now?"
Zevran gave a single slow incline of his head, an abbreviated nod. "I've become an important man in many ways, in the years since we have seen one another. I have you to thank for that, of course. You did not allow me a chance to tell you, last time we spoke."
"I'm pleased to see you've done so well, then," Solona replied with distracted courtesy. "How did you find me?"
Again he shrugged in a way that said everything and nothing. "I made it my business to know where you were years ago, in case you should have need of me. You left a rather amusing amount of destruction behind when you fled Rialto. Were you aware that a number of other ships burned the night you set fire to the one that had carried you from Ferelden? No? There was also considerable damage to the houses lining the alley where you were seen 'murdering' several men."
"I see," Solona said, blowing out a calming breath. Her heart began to race the instant she allowed herself to think of that night, and what had happened. She felt no remorse for killing the sailors, but burning Captain Joachim's ship had been a spiteful, petty thing to do. He had been decent and honest with her, yet she had destroyed his livelihood, possibly even killed him. And all because she wanted to punish him for telling her truths she didn't want to hear.
How had she not realized, at the time, how close she had been to becoming a monster herself?
"Zevran? Why am I here?"
"As I've said, my dear," he said, seating himself on a velvet-upholstered settee and gesturing her to a chair with a goblet of wine waiting beside it. "I make it my business to know things. For instance, I made it my business to know why you felt compelled to send me away so urgently when I attempted to call upon you, all those years ago in Denerim. For you see, among the many things you did not allow me to tell you at that time, was the fact that a contract was being offered upon your life, as well as the king's. I made it my business to know who, and why."
Again, that single incline of his head. "Just so. I offered her a better deal, in exchange for your lives. But once my end of the contract was fulfilled and I had returned to Antiva, word reached me that she was again shopping for assassins." Zevran tutted playfully, but something in his eyes went cold and hard. "Those who betray Master Zevran Arainai do not live to profit from it. And so you'll find these days in Ferelden, the former Teyrn of Highever is now serving as regent for the young king, who was—quite unfortunately—orphaned as an infant."
Solona drew a deep breath. "While that's... extremely enlightening, Zevran, it doesn't answer my question."
"No, you're right. It does not." He offered her an impish smile, as though he hadn't just implicitly admitted to arranging the assassination of the Queen of Ferelden. "I simply like to boast, sometimes."
Despite herself, Solona laughed. Zevran had always been able to do that. His casual disregard for most of humanity meshed quite well with her own misanthropic tendencies.
Then Zevran sobered. "You left behind some baggage when you fled Rialto. I have it, if you wish to claim it. But, knowing what I have made it my business to know, I am not entirely certain you will want it."
It took Solona a moment to understand exactly what he was saying, and when she did, her goblet of wine fell from numbed fingertips to spread a burgundy stain across the thick, hand-woven rug on the wooden deck. Never in her life had she fainted, but she was nearly certain she would do so now.
"Alistair... is alive?"
She couldn't breathe, couldn't think! Her heart was pounding so hard she felt sure it would fail and kill her. She shot to her feet and began pacing frantically about the elegant sitting room.
"He's not dead?"
Zevran looked taken aback. "I... I am sorry, my dear Warden. This has distressed you, and that was not my intention. Perhaps you would prefer my courier escort you back to your home? My ship will leave, and you will never hear any more on the matter."
Solona gave a desperate, hysterical laugh. "It's far too late for that!" she cried, digging her hands into the hair at her temples.
"Then I will kill him for you, and you may put the matter behind you. I only brought him because he begged the favor and I would rather have given you the opportunity to decide for yourself whether to see him or not. There is no reason you must. He admits he has wronged you greatly."
"He is... no longer a drunkard? Nor using madcap buttons?"
"No, he is not." Zevran answered solemnly. "I gather he ran out of funds before he could finish the job of drinking himself to death. I did not know about the madcap, but it explains a great deal. His memory is poor and filled with holes. He believes much of what he does remember to be a nightmare. In many ways, he is not the man we knew during the Blight. His wits are slow, for they were no doubt damaged by the madcap toxins."
"What does he recall?"
"He recalls hurting you, badly, time and again. He says he betrayed you, but his wits are too scattered; he cannot explain what he means, only that he fears it was not a nightmare after all. He says he wishes to apologize, and make what amends he can. But you are under no obligation to indulge him. You may go back to your life, if you do not wish to see him. I wanted to offer you the choice, nothing more."
"Do I wish to see him?" Her voice still held that half-mad note of hysteria. "Maker, how can I possibly answer that? I had resigned myself to his death. I was preparing to go in search of information about his fate, perhaps hoping to find some of his effects. I never... I..." Her voice broke, catching on a breathless sob. She ripped her hands away from her hair, pulling at it madly. "I... I... never... Oh, Maker!"
She sank to her knees with a cry that was half-shriek, sobbing brokenly upon the rug. Even if she could have found the breath, she could not speak the truth, that she had felt safe imagining Alistair dead.
It had been a relief to do so.
That, she understood at last, was why she had resolved to seek out word of his fate. She wanted to cement the sense of peace and security she had found, believing him to be dead. She wanted to know that never again would she be sucked down into the morass of his destructive spite, into his endless, unquenchable need for pity and consolation and nurturing. Knowing him to be dead, she could remember the man he had been and let go of the man he had become.
With the knowledge of his death, she would at last know she was free of it all. And, Maker help her, she had felt relieved at the prospect of it.
Horrific as it sounded, she was disappointed to learn he was alive.
She didn't remember Zevran crossing the cabin to pull her up and guide her gently to the settee, where she curled up and rested her head on his lap, crying out her anguish.
"Maker help me," she whimpered as Zevran stroked her hair, her tears wetting the fine black leather of his breeches. "Maker help me, please!"
When her tears had spent themselves, she lay there hiccoughing and shivering as though with a great chill.
"My dear Warden," Zevran murmured soothingly, with a tenderness she had never imagined him capable of. "You are the only friend I claim in this world, and it pains me more than I can say to know I have brought this grief to your doorstep. Go. Be free of this. I am sorry. Forget we ever came."
"I can't now," Solona replied with a great shudder, pushing herself up and wiping at her face. "Now that I know, I will never be free until I have seen him, for imagining what he might be doing out there, alive, is far worse than the reality of seeing him again."
"I will be here to protect you," Zevran swore. "I will not let him harm you again."
"You cannot shield me from the pain he can inflict," she said with a sad smile. How could she explain to him that, while Alistair's compulsion was self-pity and oblivion, her own compulsion was taking care of him and picking up the pieces when he tried to destroy himself?
"I only can only pray that over the years, I've found the strength not to succumb to his never-ending need again," she finished at last.
Zevran went very still and Solona felt a pulse of alarm. He turned a sober gaze to her and said, "His need will indeed end, soon enough. He is dying."
The adjoining bedchamber to which Zevran led her was dark, for night had fallen outside the single porthole by the time she went inside. Zevran would not hear of her going until she had rested from her journey and a decent meal to fortify her courage.
It was quiet within, lit only by a single candle. Alistair lay upon a bed that was narrow, but nonetheless far more spacious and comfortable than the hammocks they had slept in aboard Captain Joachim's ship. As she watched, frozen with indecision, Alistair began to cough; a deep, hacking, shredding sound rising from his chest.
A wasting sickness, deep in the lungs, Zevran had called it. Solona had seen such things, in the Tower and in Amaranthine. She knew immediately that he was right.
"Where did you find him?" she asked, still afraid to approach the bed as the coughing fit subsided and Alistair moaned, barely conscious. He looked very wasted, indeed. His once-beautiful body was rail-thin, his muscles atrophied, his skin pallid and sickly.
"That I will not tell you," Zevran answered firmly. "For all your insatiable appetite for learning, that is knowledge you do not want in your head."
Steeling herself, she approached the bed and summoned healing energy to her hand. She laid it upon his chest and sent a pulse of her power deep within him. There, she could feel it, the disease eating away at his lungs. His stomach and liver were badly damaged as well, and... Oh, Maker, a pox, spreading throughout his blood and ravaging what was left. Where had he come by it, she wondered. For it to be so advanced, he had no doubt contracted it shortly after they had parted ways, if not before.
"I can't heal this," she murmured, feeling Zevran's expectant gaze upon her. "Wounds I can heal, for it is simply a matter of repairing damaged tissue. But I cannot cleanse a body of disease, at least not to this extent. The most I can do is repair some of its worst ravages to the vital organs and extend his life. Maker, how has he survived this long?"
"Heh. Grey Warden, remember?" Alistair's voice, raspy and clogged, startled her and Solona jerked away as though burned. Another fit of coughing seized him, and he began to choke. Zevran came forward with a basin, and Alistair coughed blood into it. When it was over, he rolled onto his back, gasping for breath. "Heightened... stamina... and endurance."
Solona gave a breathless, humorless chuckle, and Alistair grinned feebly at his own joke. His teeth were disturbingly yellow against his pale skin, and his gums swollen and diseased.
"Solona... is this... is this the Calling?" he asked, looking at her with an expression of confused trust. "I have... such horrible nightmares. But they're not of darkspawn. I don't..."
She felt tears burn her eyelids. It was Alistair, after all, whom she was speaking with. He was here. Not the Alistair she had loved long ago, no, but neither was he the monster he had become. She felt her loathing and dread begin to dissipate.
"Did I... did I hurt you?" he asked plaintively. "I remember... I think I did. I'm sorry, my love. So... very sorry."
The tears spilled down her cheeks. She wanted to tell him it was all right and offer him comfort and solace. She wanted to tell him he was forgiven. But she couldn't. Despite the peace she had reached during her years in Rivain, she now understood that forgiveness still eluded her. She could not speak that lie.
He closed his eyes for several moments, his labored breathing growing a bit easier. Then they fluttered open again, and he blinked at her in bewilderment.
"Is this the Calling?" he asked again. "Are we going to the Deep Roads, Solona? Can... can we be Grey Wardens again?"
Swallowing against a sob, she nodded wordlessly, and turned to look at Zevran over her shoulder.
"Zevran, can your ship take us to Amaranthine?"
She used her healing to undo some of the damage to Alistair's vital organs in order to strengthen him for the journey. Indeed, it was possible with such healing that he might have months, or even a few years left. His wits improved slightly once she had done so. He was still often vacant and confused, but better than he had been.
It was a new Alistair she found herself confronted with. Not the kind and soft-hearted templar, nor the cruel and embittered king, nor the needy, self-pitying sot, nor the broken wreck who had tried to sell her to some sailors for a handful of madcap buttons. A new Alistair, yes, but of all of them, the closest to the original.
He was not an Alistair she could despise or treat vindictively. He asked for very little, and so her fears of being caught up in catering to his needs came to naught. Mostly, he wished to be left alone to contemplate what he had done and sort out what was reality and what was delusion in his jumbled, damaged memories.
After a week at sea, sailing south through the Rialto Bay to the Amaranthine Ocean, he was strong enough to make his way onto the deck. Solona was up there, enjoying the wind, when Alistair approached Zevran.
"Do you have a sword I could use?" he asked politely. "I... don't know what happened to mine. I need to train."
Impassively, Zevran nodded and escorted Alistair belowdecks to peruse the weapons kept on-board the ship. Solona became concerned when they were gone so long, and went in search of them.
She found them in the small cabin that served as an armory, Alistair trying to heft various swords and finding his muscles too weak to support them for long.
"We will train," Zevran said encouragingly. "And you will get some strength back, before you go into the Deep Roads."
"I wish I could remember how I got to this state," Alistair muttered, a bit peevishly. "I'm weak as a kitten."
"It is a long, complicated story, my friend," Zevran replied, "and probably best left untold."
Alistair tried to lift a sword again and a moment later his arm trembled with the effort of wielding it. "I wonder what sort of reception we'll get in Ferelden. I imagine Anora is rather angry at me."
"Ah, not exactly," Zevran chuckled. "I am sorry to inform you that your queen died several years ago, after giving birth to your heir, the new king."
The sword was lowered with an abrupt clatter. "I have a son?"
Zevran cleared his throat. "Not exactly, no. It's... possible... your queen may have employed the services of a, ahem, surrogate, when you proved unwilling to service her. Specifically, an elf with something roughly approaching your hair and eye coloration, whose price was that she not contract your assassination or... that of anyone you were particularly close to."
Alistair stared at Zevran, for once not looking the slightest bit confused. "Oh, really?"
"Hm," Zevran nodded with a small smile. "And I must say, I have waited many years to tell you, my friend, that you were wrong when you said your wife's slit was ice-cold."
Alistair hesitated a moment, apparently trying to decide whether he should be offended or not, then gave an unconcerned shrug. "Is that a fact?"
"Indeed," Zevran replied emphatically. "Ice, it turns out, is much warmer."
Alistair gawked at him for a moment, then gave a barking laugh that quickly dissolved into a fit of coughing. When he had recovered, wiping his eyes, Zevran was grinning gloatingly. "Ah, I knew someday before the end, I would get the templar to loosen up and laugh at one of my dirty jokes!"
Solona walked away with their joint chuckles in her ears.
She went to Zevran that night, after she had sent Alistair to bed with a potion to ease his breathing and help him sleep. And though they had only ever been friends, Zevran welcomed her. He allowed her the comfort of another human being to touch, allowed her to thank him without words for his kindness. He treated her with gentle affection and lavished her with praise despite her protests that he need not flatter her.
"Ah, you do not see what age has done for you, my sweet Warden," he murmured, embracing her bare body from behind, catching her breasts in his hands as his lips brushed the back of her neck. "Unkind years crush pretty but fragile flowers and leave them looking haggard and worn. But your grace and gentle strength have blossomed as the years have passed, like the dull blade that begins to glitter and shine when sharpened, yes?"
And then he pleasured her until she was swept up in rapture, until the beauty of his lovemaking made her feel glowing and radiant, as though she were indeed as beautiful as his extravagant praise made her out to be.
In the morning, Solona found Zevran training with Alistair. He made no mention of their night together, nor did he reproach her for not seeking him out again. Without words, they went back to the way they were, and Solona felt her burdens ease to know he would make no demands upon her.
That voyage was the happiest time of her life, unrivaled by anything that had passed in the sixteen years since the Blight had ended.
She became aware that she was avoiding Alistair, limiting herself to what contact was needed to act as his healer and nothing more. She feared herself, that her need to comfort and coddle him would take over again. They fed off each other, she realized, watching the waves from the side-rail of the ship. His need fed into her tendency to nurture, which in turn made him more needy. Perhaps she had made a mistake, all those years ago, by not fleeing from him in Denerim. Perhaps if she had left him to his own devices sooner, he might have found a way to drag himself out of the bog of self-pity. Perhaps her endless accommodation of his needs had kept him mired down as much as his needs had kept her mired down.
She whirled, her heart suddenly racing as though she were fearful of being attacked. She gripped the rail hard, putting her back to it, her entire body tense and poised to defend.
He was wearing light leather armor, and a short sword was sheathed at his hip. Though he had come far in recovering his strength, it was impossible that he could wear heavier armor or bear a larger blade, much less a shield to go with it.
"You can't possibly go into the Deep Roads armed like that," she blurted without thinking. She heard that mother-hen tone in her voice and cursed herself for it. She was right to avoid him. It was so easy to fall back into that familiar routine.
But Alistair only grinned and shrugged. "Why not? It's not like I'm going there with the hope of coming back out alive. I could go into the Deep Roads in my smallclothes armed with nothing more than a table dagger for all the difference it would make."
Solona stared at him in astonishment for a long moment, for that grin, that jaunty, self-deprecating humor, were so very much like the Alistair he had once been, it was like going back in time to the days of the Blight. Then she began to laugh, and he joined her, leaning against the side-rail to look out over the ocean.
After a moment he grew serious again. "Zevran says we'll be in Ferelden in another week or so."
She nodded, grateful for the neutral topic. "Yes. He told me the same."
"Why are we not making port in Highever? Isn't that closer to Orzammar?"
"Well, yes, but we needn't travel to Orzammar to get to the Deep Roads. There's an entrance to them right underneath Vigil's Keep, or there's Kal'Hirol not far from Amaranthine. Unless... Oh, Maker. Of course!" She scolded herself for her stupidity. "If we don't go to Orzammar, your going into the Deep Roads won't be recorded by the Shaper of Memories. You were so ill when I decided to go to Amaranthine, I didn't think you could make the journey overland to Orzammar and so I only thought of the most direct route to the Deep Roads. But, we could try, I suppose..."
"No." Alistair shook his head.
"But it's Grey Warden tradition!"
"Solona. No. I don't want to be recorded in the Memories." He turned to face her with a tense, bitter smile. "I haven't been a Grey Warden for many years now. And... this isn't the Calling."
Unable to deny the truth of his words, Solona bowed her head and said nothing.
"Thank you," Alistair said after a moment, "for having the kindness to let me believe it was, when I was so ill and confused. That was more than I deserved."
"Your memory is doing better, then?" she asked after a moment.
"Much as I sometimes wish otherwise." His tone was bitter. "Most of what happened after we left Denerim is a blur. All I can remember are fragments, and while I wish I could convince myself they were nightmares, I'm very afraid they weren't. I wish I knew for certain."
"No," Solona replied evenly, "you don't."
"I do. I need to know. I can't... The Chantry says we need to repent our sins, before the end, and I can't do that without knowing what I'm repenting for."
It was a hateful, vile thing which welled up within her, a cruel need to fling all that he had done back in his face, knowing he was finally, finally capable of feeling true remorse for it. If she were a kinder, more compassionate person, she would never have done it.
"You want to know?" she asked venomously. "Then, by the Maker, I'll tell you!"
And she did. She knew he already remembered raping her, and most of what had happened in Denerim. But she told him anyway. She told him of her shame and fear, and how despicable she found it that he had turned all the pleasures they had once celebrated together in love into a weapon against her, taking away her joy in being a woman bit by bit at a time.
And then she told him of what had happened upon Captain Joachim's ship. She told him how he had become a whore, letting the sailors use and degrade him. He listened without protesting, without interrupting. Tears poured down his face, as she described in detail what she had witnessed, how the sailor had mocked him when he urinated in Alistair's mouth and then used him.
Then she told him how he had betrayed her, tried to sell her, and Alistair's shoulders began to shake in silent sobs.
She stood there, glaring at his back, as he looked back out over the ocean and wept. The anger that was thrumming through her body was so intense she felt nearly ill with it, and yet it felt good, so very good to flay him with the truth of his transgressions. She hated herself for taking such pleasure in it.
At last, Alistair wiped his face with the back of his hand, though his voice was rough and clogged when he spoke over his shoulder.
"Thank you. For telling me. I didn't want to ask. I don't have the right to ask anything of you. That's not self-pity, by the way. It's just... truth."
There was nothing she could say to that, and so she said nothing.
"That's why I'm not going to ask you to forgive me. In fact, I beg you not to. I don't deserve it. I don't want it. You are entitled to every bit of hatred you feel for me. I wish... I wish I had never asked Zevran to bring me to you. I should have left you in peace. It was selfish of me, and I'm sorry."
"I don't know if I'll ever have peace, Alistair," Solona said softly, only now realizing her own face was wet. "I thought I had found it, but I think I was deceiving myself. If I can still feel so much anger about it all, then whatever peace I thought I found was just an illusion."
"There are no words I can use to apologize, nothing that can do it all justice." He didn't look at her as he spoke, but stared bleakly out at the endless waves. "It's good that I'm dying, I think. Though it would probably be more just if I had to live with myself, knowing what you've told me. If you don't want to escort me to the Deep Roads, I'll understand."
"No. I'll go," she answered after a moment of weighing the decision. "I'll see this through to the end. For my own sake."
Nothing more needed to be said, and so she left him there and returned to her cabin.
When they made port in Amaranthine, they delayed aboard the ship nearly three days while Solona sent a letter to Arl Nathaniel and allowed him time to comply with her request that he lock every drop of spirits at Vigil's Keep away in the wine cellar. Oghren, she instructed firmly, was to be sober as a judge by the time they arrived.
It was a good thing she did so. As the comfortable carriage Nathaniel sent for them wound its way through the streets of Amaranthine, she saw Alistair's hands clench in his lap, and his tongue dart out to lick his lips, as they passed the Crown and Lion. Even now, he felt the compulsion, though he made no effort to find an excuse to stop the carriage or gave any other indication of distress.
By her request, there was no ceremony to greet their arrival at the Vigil. No one would have recognized Alistair in his condition and it was best to keep it that way. Let Ferelden believe he had died, or whatever Anora had told them. Let him disappear quietly into the Deep Roads.
She surprised herself by laying awake that single, final night they spent at the Vigil weeping as though her heart were breaking. As much as she had once been relieved to imagine Alistair was dead, now the thought of watching him die hurt. It filled her with unutterable sadness.
Oghren decided to accompany them into the Deep Roads as well, and Zevran insisted upon it. Again, past and present collided to leave her bizarrely disoriented, for the four who went into the Deep Roads were among those who had fought the Blight together. It was... fitting... she decided, and made no mention of it. But from the look of gratitude in Alistair's eyes, he realized it as well.
It took some time to find darkspawn, for the Grey Wardens at Vigil's Keep kept the passages beneath Amaranthine well-cleared. They had to follow the Deep Roads for what she estimated to be several weeks, most of the way to Orzammar, in fact. The travel began to tell on Alistair's health, but he refused to allow Solona to heal him when he began coughing blood again.
Finally, they found darkspawn. It was a small band; nothing they couldn't have easily defeated had they all been in fighting form. Alistair gave a feral grin and charged them as Oghren roared a battle cry and Zevran slipped silently into the shadows.
By the time the fight was over, Alistair lay on the stone floor, a darkspawn sword through his gut. He had managed to kill one, before he fell. The second he engaged was the one which wounded him. He had simply been far too weak and insufficiently armed.
It was Oghren who caught her hands as Solona instinctively called healing energy to them.
"Ye're missin' the point, lass."
Something at once tight and hollow ached in her chest as she approached and knelt next to Zevran on the ground beside Alistair's head.
He writhed in pain, blinking rapidly. When he coughed, a torrent of blood came spewing out of his mouth.
"I lied," Alistair gasped, and it was nearly impossible to hear him. "Solona. I do want your forgiveness."
Tears streamed down her face, and she sobbed once. Then she bent low to kiss his brow. "You have it."
A smile came to his blood-flecked lips and lit his ravaged face as he died.
How long she knelt there, weeping, Solona didn't know. All she knew was in that moment when she said she forgave him, she meant it. And with that vow, she finally found peace and freedom.
At last, Zevran tugged gently upon her arm.
"Come, Warden. It is time to move on."
"Yes," she agreed, rising. "But... let's go to Orzammar, not back to Amaranthine. Let's make certain the passing of a Grey Warden is recorded in the Memories."
Zevran gave a single solemn nod as Oghren growled his approval. They left Alistair lying where he had fallen, and moved onward toward the future.