Chapter 70 – Final
She touched the petals of the bouquet to her lips before she set them on the stone. Satisfied with their placement, Alyce then stepped back, pulling the lapels of her coat closer about her shoulders. She'd untied the toggles for easier movement; to clear out the dead grasses and sweep the accumulated dirt so she could give the marble a good scrub in preparation for her bi-annual placing of flowers on her Aunt's monument. As was her custom, she ran her fingers along the engraving; over the words written in standard Fereldan, Elvish and Dwarven:. "We remember…"
The stone marking Aunt Mildred's last resting place was an impressive one; a single, perfectly formed slab of blue marble that Dagna had excavated and carved herself. The blue had been chosen specifically because of the white lyrium content. It could be enchanted to resist the elements…just not the dirt. Alyce wished her visits could be more frequent, but her duties at the Tower made it difficult to return to Highever more than twice a year, if she was lucky…First Enchanter Torrin's revenge for not being able to leave the Tower himself (more than likely).
Flexing her cold-stiffened fingers, Alyce wiggled them back into her gloves just as a hand crept over her left shoulder.
"Nice work," the deep voice tickled her earlobe. A cheeky chin rested comfortably there briefly; his breath warming the side of her face.
With a chuckle, she reached over her shoulder. It was easy enough to find the end of his nose, tweaking it hard. The resulting 'owwww!' was so worth it.
"Have you seen your father?" she asked him, rolling her eyes at the minor healing spell he felt he needed to cast over the end of his nose. She forced her attention from the stone monument. After all this time it was still difficult leaving this place, even if the passing of years made it slightly easier each visit.
The tall, broad-shouldered mage standing cross-eyed before her nodded. "I hope this doesn't scar…" he muttered darkly. "Honestly," he added, "You still treat me like a three year old." His eyes uncrossed to find her tapping her foot, waiting for the answer to her question. Inclining his scruffy head, he told her obediently, "He's doing the same at Grandad's grave."
He added a shrug that was not concerned in the least, "He might be done. I dunno."
Resisting the impulse to sweep a hand over his head; to try and smooth the errant curls and stubbornly wayward tendrils that hung low over his eyes and around his ears, Alyce glared at him; or more specifically, at his tone of voice. Messing up the arrangement she knew he'd spent the better part of this morning teasing and fluffing until the correct messiness had been achieved might not be worth it, she told herself, though how he could tell if a single hair was out of place would always remain a mystery. Messy was messy, but apparently the girls went for that dark, introspective look.
Mothers shouldn't know this, right?
A long sigh escaped her. There was movement behind his curly bangs, indicating his eyebrows drawing downwards in an enquiring frown. "What?" he asked.
Alyce cocked her head at him. "When did you get so tall?" She asked the first question that popped into her head.
Tipping his head backwards, he attempted to look down his nose at her, cursing the powers that be that gave him not one but two parents that equalled him in height. "That's a rhetorical question right?" he asked, slightly worried. "I don't need to answer that?"
"Why? Don't you have an answer already prepared?" she teased, giving his arm a poke and eliciting another 'oww!' "I may not be your lecturer anymore, but that doesn't mean you don't stop learning."
"And thank the Maker for small mercies," he retorted. "I'm pretty sure my entire life has been ruined by my parent being one of my teachers." Belying his words, he threw an arm about her shoulders and drew her close enough to ruffle her hair. Clearly, he didn't much care about imposing follicle disorder on anyone else.
In this way, the two of them began down the path to the main part of the cemetery, picking their way carefully over the rain-slick stones.
"Anyway…" Greagoir added before she could speak, "Father had…company."
Alyce pressed her lips together hastily, biting off laughter that threatened to escape. She had an inkling what kind of 'company' he meant. She thought she had caught a glimpse of shiny armour and a purple tunic earlier. Greagoir had also – at first – expressed a wish to stand with his father while Ser Ryan attended to his own father's grave stone, but had changed his mind rather quickly.
The end of Greagoir's nose wrinkled and he glared at her. "What?" he demanded again.
Alyce shook her head. "Ooh!" she exclaimed, the stiffening of his arm around her shoulders all the confirmation she needed. "There they are!" she added, in a bright cheerful voice. "And doesn't Myf look splendid?"
Greagoir's glare intensified. "Yeah. Whatever," he muttered, stuffing his hands deeply into the pockets of his robe and refusing to look at the couple placed nearby. As this was the resting place of the dead, Alyce did make an effort not to laugh, but it was a difficult thing.
"I refuse to call her Ser Myfanwy," Greagoir growled, scowling at the ground resentfully. "Stupidest thing ever…"
The Templar standing respectfully to the side of the grave stone smiled. Alyce thought she saw the barest glance towards her companion and a slight pursing of the young woman's lips, but she had to give Myfanwy her due. The young Templar-in-Training kept her composure remarkably well, even suffering an affectionate hug from her uncle's wife.
Standing back to survey Myfanwy's appearance, Alyce gave in to her previous impulse to fuss, straightening the collar of Myf's tunic and brushing stray raindrops from the tall pauldrons that threatened to swallow the young woman whole. Myf had not grown as tall as her older sister, remaining at least half a head shorter than her aunt, but she had been no less determined to wear the shield of Andraste as her grandfather and uncles had. Her mother and grandmother had not been happy with her decision, but Myfanwy had argued that not only did the blood of devotion run in her veins, but someone had to keep an eye on the Mages in her family, especially following Uncle Ryan's retirement from the Order.
"Aw, Aunt 'Lice…" Myf sighed.
"Don't make me take out my handkerchief and spit on it, young woman," Alyce warned her with a smile. "Because I will." Alyce stook back a little. "Something's missing."
"No sash," Greagoir said behind her, rolling his eyes. "She hasn't taken her vows yet, remember?"
Myf poked her tongue out at the young man. "It's about time you came down that mountain," she grumbled at him. "What; were you dancing around toadstools in the nuddy or something? Plotting your escape from the Circle?"
"Ur hur," Greagoir returned the gesture, as if both of them weren't too old for that sort of thing anymore. "And if I was in the nuddy, you would be the last to get a look in!"
"Shh! The both of you…" Alyce pressed a finger to her lips, indicating with a tilt of her head, the still-kneeling figure nearby.
Taking the initiative, Myfanwy advanced on the young mage, wrapping both arms firmly around one of his and dragging him towards the gate. Alyce caught Greagoir's helpless look before he was yanked forward inexorably. She wiggled her fingers at him; knowing full well that Greagoir was the stronger of the pair – Templar training aside – he had been taught to use sword and shield from a young age and could have easily overpowered the smaller, weight-bearing Templar…but didn't.
The young couple removed, Alyce turned her attention to the figure at the grave stone, enjoying the way the silver-brown strands of hair ruffled in the autumn breeze.
Alyce leant her back against a plinth, drinking in the sight of his profile until her heart was full to bursting. There might be more salt than pepper in his hair these days and it was far shorter than when he had been in service, but she found little else had changed over the years in how much she enjoyed simply looking at him. Even when the tip of his nose was as red with the cold as it was right now.
After a moment's more, his eyes opened and he stood. He bowed; arms crossing over his chest in the salute of The Order. Then as she had done, he backed away slowly, reverentially.
Releasing his arms he turned to her, eyebrows rising at her expression.
"I hope the thoughts you are currently entertaining are appropriate to this environment," he advised her sternly.
Alyce's grin widened. "Not in the least," she told him, moving forward and tucking comfortably into his side. "In fact," she continued. "They're about as inappropriate as I can possibly manage."
"Hm," he said thoughtfully. "Should I be walking so close? In case divine lightning strikes from the sky?"
Alyce chuckled. "This close to my aunt's grave? Not likely." Her eyes twinkled at him. "And," she reminded him with an impish wiggle of her eyebrows, "I don't recall you caring about divine retribution around the Warden's Shrine…"
"That was…different," he said with a self-righteous clearing of his throat, adding with a chuckle, "and a long time ago."
"Are you saying we're overdue?" she asked. She jerked her head back the way she had come. "Warden's Shrine is that way…It's not far…"
"It's…" He looked down into her face, the rest of his smile coaxed to fullness by the mischievous twinkle in her eye. "Greagoir is waiting is he not? And Myfanwy? They will wonder where we are…"
Alyce rolled her eyes at him. "Do I look like I care?"
"Allow me to remind you then: First Enchanter's office…"
This time, she blew a raspberry. "Oh look," she said with a pout. "We did clean up afterwards and we only broke one trophy. Who was to know Torrin was due to entertain a delegation from Cumberland that day? There were plenty of other offices he could have used…"
"His office, Alyce?" he raised his eyebrows at her.
"You're no fun."
"Andraste's smoking potatoes, the two of you aren't discussing gross old people things again are you?" Greagoir's voice called out. "Only could you hurry it up? The two of us are freezing our 'nads off out here!"
"Speak for yourself!" Myf elbowed him violently in the side, while blushing furiously.
Alyce laughed. She turned to Ser Ryan but there was only empty space in an orange wavescape that stretched infinitely on all sides. All sound vanished except the soft, dark whisper of mages drawing magic from this place and the hungry buzz of other creatures lurking just out of sight, at the fringes and seams of awareness. She felt something brush her cheek, catching a glimpse of coppery brown. The air shifted and shimmered around the vague shape of a bird; some kind of hawk or eagle, perhaps even an owl. Alyce was not sure. One moment it was there, standing almost as tall as she, the next it was a slender, white-haired woman with pale unblemished skin and eyes of polished amber.
The woman smiled a smile that did not contain humour, but mockery that Alyce knew so well from this particular image.
"You've been following me," the woman spoke; the words entering Alyce's brain directly without the mouth moving. Only the smile; unchanging and perpetual.
"Curiosity?" the woman asked. "Or is your intent something else?"
Alyce tried to speak, but found she could not, the woman striding forward to circle her endlessly.
"Is it concern I see? Surely not. You do not fear me. That is not your way."
Alyce was beginning to feel dizzy, trying to track the woman's movements. Closing her eyes, she could sense the ripples of air the old witch made around her. She still felt giddy. "All is not what it seems," the woman continued. "Can one trust one's eye when it lies?" A peal of youthful laughter followed. "When the mind supplies not what we must see, but only what we want to? Your friend had the right of it," the woman had…stopped? No, there was a cool swish of moving air again. "Powerful mages…but I know as well as any that the power of youth does not endure. There is only power. At the end of all things. Who watches the Watchers who watch the Watchers? How will you choose, daughter of Mortals?"
Alyce sighed. "Probably by going eeny, meeny, miny mo…" she muttered and this time when the woman laughed, it was more of the cackle that had been heard in so many of her dreams.
"You think me nonsensical…" the witch cackled some more, "and you would be right. When you have lived as long as I have, you find amusement where and when you can."
And then the witch did stop moving. Standing directly behind, she curled her arms around Alyce's shoulders. Thin arms; feather-light with muscle as taught as bed straps, they closed in on her. Alyce felt the air in her lungs leave, breath by breath.
"I gave her the one I prized above all," she hissed into Alyce's ear, the sound scraping the inside of her skull, leaving the shape of the words etched into bone. "But to the world, I leave this one gift…Do not fail me. Mortal."
"How long are you going to sit here, slumbering the day away?"
"I'll have you Archdemon! Feel my mighty Warden sword!"
"Grargh…argh! Nooo…! Ohnoohnoohnoohno…"
Alyce woke with a start and a shudder. Ser Ryan was wiping at her face and she blinked, trying to focus. Had she been drooling again? She was sitting under the very ancient chestnut in the front of the garden, the sound of the fountain in the background mixing with the laughter and feet running over soft grass. She stared at the writhing figure in front of her.
"Um…" she heard her voice start. "Is there…something wrong with Greagoir?"
Throwing an arm around her shoulders, Ryan sat beside her, giving her a reassuring squeeze. "Nothing to be concerned about. He's just dying."
"He's the…" He made an embarrassed sound in his throat. Looking over at him Alyce could see him try not to laugh. "…Archdemon."
"Archdemon," Alyce repeated dumbly.
"The children spent the morning learning about the Blight," he explained, "so they decided to play Darkspawn and Grey Wardens. Greagoir decided he'd like to be the…uh, dragon."
Stiffening suddenly, Alyce sat bolt upright, slapping at her cheeks. They stung where her palms met skin confirming her hopes that where she was now, was actually where she was. Just to be on the safe side however, she pinched herself, thankful that that hurt too. Then she looked over at Ryan to find him observing her with a bemused lift of a single eyebrow. It was coming back to her…slowly, even if the dream was still fresh in her mind…She settled back into his side trying to make herself small.
"Bad dream?" he asked.
"Huhh…" she murmured, knowing – hoping – it would be the last of those dreams of Flemeth…
"You were sleeping for a long time," he said, the hint of concern in his deep voice. "I thought for a moment you'd gone Fade-walking again."
Alyce shook her head. A yawn seized her, making the hinges of her jaw pop before she could speak again. "You try staying up until the wee sma' hours of the morning delivering babies and see how well you stay awake during the day," she told him, dropping her head onto his shoulder. She was still tired, but fear that the dream might continue after all kept her awake. Mostly.
"You seem to be gaining quite a reputation for bringing new life into the world," he said, crossing his ankles and looking down on her wrinkling nose. There had been pride in his voice, but Alyce was keen to assure him otherwise.
"Of the four-legged kind," she sniffed. "Four girls and four boys this time," she announced. It had been a…warning? Obviously, not the mabari puppies. They hadn't been a portent of anything except some inexpert, though gleeful dancing by the Cousland's Kennel Master. She had meant the dream, of course. As for the so-called glimpse into her future…she looked up suddenly at Ryan, the top of her head colliding with the side of his jaw. He winced, giving her a look.
More pepper than salt…and…She'd completely lost her train of thought again, enjoying far, far too much being able to look at him for real and not at some kind of potential Fade version. Really, long curly eyelashes are completely wasted on men…And…
"You know," he told her with the smallest of frowns. "Cannibalism is generally frowned upon in polite Ferelden circles."
"Oh?" she asked, wide-eyed. She hadn't noticed acting on the impulse to lick the side of his face like a mabari, but she did notice attempting to nibble on his jaw. He sighed.
"And there are…the children," he added pointedly.
"I'm so glad you're you…" she told him, the top of her head burrowing once more into his neck. Don't ever grow old, don't ever die on me. For that matter she didn't want Greagoir to grow up either and…Myf? A Templar? She switched her attention to the two – no three of them because Bonnie was there too, with Dagna and Morwenna keeping two pairs of eyes loosely trained on them – circling each other, pretending to be Griffons now. It was something of a relief that they'd moved on from Archdemon and Grey Warden to something a little less…closer to home. If one could call it that.
"Are you?" he asked, still frowning and wondering what she kind of weird dream had caused this odd conversation. When she looked up at him again, he found his breath catching unexpectedly. Her heart shining in the storm grey of her eyes made his insides flutter. It was all the answer he needed, making her affirmative nod somewhat redundant. His life, he thought, could not be better than it was at this moment.
"I…have some news for you by the way," he said, barely able to keep the tremble out of his voice, now that he'd brought it up.
"By the rather nice look on your face," she observed, "it's good news?"
"Almost as good as you turning up for our wedding," he told her delaying the news slightly to give him time to steady his nerves.
"Nothing could be as good as that," she told him. "But go on." Curling her hands into fists, she held them up at breast level. "Try me."
"My brother is alive."
She stared at him. First her eyes slid to the left. Then they slid to the right. Both her eyebrows lifted and then slanted sideways, her mouth screwing up slightly. "Um…Ry-ahn…Honey, muffin, dear, sweetie, lovey, buncha muncha crunchy carrots…Your brother is…how do I say this without hurting your feeling? He's…"
"Very much alive," he told her again, laughing. "It's not Geraint I'm talking about but Bryant."
"Um…Ry…" she began again.
"I know, I said previously that I'd been given information that he'd been overrun by the Blight," he said quickly, sure that he was grinning like a fool now. "I could scarcely believe it myself. When I received the letter from the Chantry in Gwaren, I thought it was some kind of cruel jest. But he's…" He had to take a breath, stifling happy laughter. "He managed to escape with some folk from Lothering. Somehow made it past the horde to the Brecilian Forest. He was injured badly and it's taken him this long to get back to civilisation. Maker's breath!" he exclaimed, running a hand through his hair. "Years he's been missing…"
Alyce sat up, her back ramrod straight. "Does your mother know?" she asked.
"Yes! When I first told her, like me she could not speak for fully five minutes…and then she started to hit me…and then she started to cry…and she hit me some more…and then Morwenna came to find out what all the fuss was about and then she started hitting me too and then…"
"Alright, alright…I think I'm getting the general picture here," Alyce told him, placing both hands on each of his shoulders and applying a calming pressure. "Everyone was clearly so happy, you got beaten up. That's…" she waggled her head from side to side. "Not so good, actually," she told him. "So…what now?" she asked. "What are you going to do?"
He sat back. Drawing one knee up and clasping hands around it, he stared happily across the garden. He looked stupidly young, for someone with so much grey in his hair. "To be honest, I don't know," he told her with a self-deprecating grimace. "Mother wants to go to Gwaren to meet him and bring him back. He's…not quite recovered yet. Apparently his memory's not the best, but he remembers his family at least. Father can't go obviously and with the Teyrn and his Lordship due to return in the next two weeks, I'm not sure now is a good time to be away…but…" He spread his hands wide. "I really don't care…!" he laughed again. "Knowing he's alive and somewhere is good enough for me now… "
"I'm sure we'll work something out," she told him confidently, because she was sure that he would. He'd taken care of them all this time, except…this time – hopefully – he wouldn't need to do anything as drastic as throw away his career and suffer physical punishment to do so. In fact, she knew as she snuggled back into his side, that he was probably coming up with a plan at that very moment.
Greagoir dashed across their collective field of view. Beside her, a sudden bubble of glee escaped her husband; a strange but rather appealing sound. That little boy again, coming out to play.
"Grargh! I eat you and all your Giffons!"
Alyce sighed. Greagoir was the Archdemon again. Oh dear…Barely a moment later, Ser Ryan had leapt to his feet with an almighty roar of his own.
"No, I am the Archdemon!" he announced, to delighted squeals of terror. On the stone bench nearby, two jaws dropped, their gazes following the usually quiet-spoken, serious soldier in united disbelief. Alyce chuckled, slapping the grass at their expressions. The only time she stopped was to sweep her legs out of the way as the chase between Archdemon and Grey Wardens came too close to tripping over them.
Greagoir tore towards her. "Argh! Mama, save me!"
From the protective circle of her arms he produced an invisible sword, stabbing towards Ryan as he approached. Alyce snickered as he fell back, casting rock armour on him a second before Myfanwy and Bonnie jumped on him. Breaking free, Greagoir joined in the victory demolition.
"Take no pissners!" he yelled, launching himself at his father.
Is this the plan you had for him, Flemeth? A gift for the world, huh? The dream hadn't mentioned anything about Ryan's lost brother. Only death and the passing of time.
We shall see…Even immortals could get it wrong…not that she was an expert in that sort of thing. As for being a gift. This life was a gift. This place, this garden, those children and that house with her crotchety old Aunt in it cheating at strip backgammon with her in-laws and that man over there getting soundly thrashed by three small ticklish people. Never mind what she had been born with. Or what she could draw from the Fade. This…this was true magic.
And that, she could live with. And take with her, wherever she went. And however the years passed and tried to dim these moments. She would cherish this life…and remember. Always.
-o END o-
A/N: And that folks (or this) is the end of a story I've enjoyed writing so much. Thank you to the so many people that have followed me from when this was a mere time-passer to its very end. Your comments and encouragement have made this journey through a Mage's life so much more fun. So in no particular order…Nightsfury, Scarletstar20, therubirose, Gaspode, Eucharion, Donroth, Kwintessa, Deliciously-Demonic, biscuitbrained, Gamine (I know you're still out there!), Artemis7337, Arcplayer, Commander Kurt, Gaspode5, Graffitti My Soul, Allie, bergamot29, ElusiveCloth, Psyche Sinclair, Just Another Fan, Lyrium Flower, lithigia, Mille Libri, Bats Eat Cats, Sherida, Silver, Leslie, Dhallhenn, dedanaan, Cor'lii Eroverd, Eryn S, Crystal Night, Anarade Relle, Calli Starkiller, Sathra, strangenames, Shanda27, Jormund Elver, xseikax, Suilven, MsBarrows, deagh, Shakespira, Cybrind, Naomis8329, Tyanilth, Enaid Aderyn, Judy(!), Reyavie, (ahem) almost the entire population of Ferelden…Roxfox1962, who encouraged me to post that very first chapter, which was more a vague idea than an actual story at the time.
To everyone else who has simply popped in for a bit of a peek, lurked or otherwise, thank you too very much!
I hope I haven't missed anyone and if I have, apologies and cheers!
Some small notes of my own. Because I love playing around with the meaning of names and Welsh names in particular, I've tried to sneak them as much as I could in this story, especially the folk of Highever:
Alyce was chosen to mean 'noble' or 'of noble', hinting at her background and connection to the nobility of Kirkwall.
Ryan, meaning 'little king', was chosen not just for it's lovely heroic sound, but also so the heroine would have her very own prince or king (even though Neria, the Warden in this story, did not end up with King Alistair)
Mildred, means 'gentle strength' because she pretty much needed it, being a non-magical relative of a Mage…
Serenna, Mildred's elven servant companion, has a rather sweet meaning of 'composed/peaceful or cheerful' which seemed both perfect for the character's personality as well as it's resemblance to the elven word ma serennas for 'thank you'.
Greagoir, I blame Bioware for choosing this name meaning 'watchful' for the Knight Commander. As baby Greagoir had been such a champion starer, I couldn't resist! And not to mention…the odds of the Knight Commander popping a vein on discovering the god baby had the same.
Ser Gavin, the Tremayne patriarch has a meaning of 'white warrior' for his crop of white hair and his former association with the Order of Templars.
Asla took a bit of research. I can't recall how long I agonised over naming Ser Ryan's mother's name. She went through a few until I'd found this one which sounded exotic enough to suit that Nevarran background. Some say it's of middle-eastern origin, given to women of great beauty, others a male Nordic name and others, an ancient form of 'Alice,' which also seemed a nice symmetry for Ryan to have with his own Alyce.
And Geraint, one of my favourite names is of course, one of King Arthur's knights of legend. He's the dude that after getting hitched, had his devotion to the knighthood thrown into question and went on a bit of a quest to prove himself. So did young Geraint the blacksmith, though I understand Sir Geraint was a tad more successful in his.
Lastly in this list, the word Ser Ryan uses to address Alyce as a term of endearment; 'cariad' is Welsh for 'beloved' (or 'darling'), a name my own half-Welsh husband tried. Once…and got twisty-face as a result. And so never used it again.
Luckily for him.
And my usual fangirly homages to some favourites I've squeezed in here and there from the wonderful and Great Ser Terry Pratchett, through Harry Potter ('ate a funny whelk') right the way through to the Octonauts ('buncha muncha crunchy carrots' – I love Tweak. Who wouldn't love a bright green bunny?)
Finally, thanks to Bioware for creating such an immersive world and allowing us all to kick some sand around in it.
Champion The Wonder Snail.