For What Binds Us
Chapter One: What Once Was
The fires that consumed the ruined Denerim below cast the sky an angry red, rippling with the heat of summer and billows of smoke. A cacophany of battle hammered the very air, leaving little room for thought. Indeed, now was the time of blind rage, and among the many bloodlusting monsters plaguing the rooftop of Fort Drakon, Alistair was loathe to break his concentration. The cries of the wounded and the fallen were thickened by the stench of darkspawn blood, but what revulsed Alistair the most was the pervasive, consuming throb of the Archdemon's presence, reverberating through him and nearly driving him to his knees in madness. Every roar called to the blood in Alistair's veins, even as it twisted him inside out.
"Cast the... nnnh..." Yards behind him, he heard the faltering order from his fellow warden. She strained to keep her voice strong, obviously sharing Alistair's struggle against that Call. "Cast the net! NOW!"
The mages, flanking the flailing, shrieking beast, immediately set about casting their spell. As the threads of energy flew over and around the Archdemon, interlacing and tightening until the corrupted dragon was pinned, the Warden's eyes narrowed. Her tactic had worked; the Archdemon was momentarily unable to move. But she wouldn't have much time.
A gnarled blade descended over Alistair's vision, and he brought his shield up just in time to block the attack. With a quick parry, he wrenched the sword from the Hurlock's grip, stabbing the suddenly disarmed darkspawn straight through the heart. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and turned to see the Warden charging towards her goal; the Archdemon.
"Evelyn! No!" A chill of terror overwhelmed him, and he broke his stance to bolt after her; if she killed it, if she was the one who killed the Archdemon, she would...!
Tunnel-visioned by his fear, he didn't see the arm reach in front of him, grabbing him by the elbow and yanking him from his pursuit. In his frenzied scramble to free himself, Alistair didn't recognize the dark-haired soldier that tightened his grip on him. Finally, he rounded on the former general, seeing who he was at last.
"What are you doing!" Alistair demanded, outraged in the face of the calm, cold gaze that normally would have buckled his resolve. "Loghain, let go! She's going to-"
"Let her have this." His eyes had gone to the young woman as she swept a long-abandoned sword into her clutches, not for a moment breaking her stride. "She deserves this."
Hatred burned through every fiber of Alistair's being, scorching the back of his eyes and clouding his vision. The bitter bile he'd swallowed for the sake of ceasefire between them rose so violently it became a physical lurch. Unfortunately, his vicious squirming only earned him having his arms strategically twisted behind his back, using the way his joints worked to lock him in place. Thousands of furious epithets tore from him in an incomprehensible shriek of rage; once again, he was losing the single most important person in his life because of Loghain!
"Eyaaaauuugh!" Almost in echo to Alistair's scream, Evelyn let out a battle cry of her own as she dropped to slide underneath the Archdemon's lunge. Her blade bit into the scaly neck, and the momentum from her charge carried her through a long slice, splitting the tainted creature open. She rolled to her feet, her chest heaving, and regarded her fallen prey- dying, but not yet dead.
Seeing her raise the sword in preparation for one final strike, Alistair futilely screamed after her, "EVELYN! NO!"
Either she didn't hear him, or she didn't wish to. She plunged the sword into the Archdemon's skull, immediately awash in the light from the rupture. Transfixed by the sight, Loghain's stoic features slackened in awe. Alistair paused mid-writhe, unable to turn his gaze away even as horror turned his gut to ice. The mages' net dissipated, their concentration understandably broken at the Warden's heroism, and the long battle finally came to a standstill. The darkspawn turned towards their beloved god, called to save it even as the life drained from it.
Finally, after wrestling to pull the sword out, Evelyn freed it- and loosed an eruption that flattened everything atop of Fort Drakon. Both Loghain and Alistair sprawled from the impact, overwhelmed as much by the sudden release from the Archdemon's Calling as they were the actual explosion.
"Evelyn-!" Without waiting for his muscles to recover, standing on the barest semblance of control over his own body, Alistair rushed to the prone figure beside the now silent beast. He collapsed at her side, lifting her and despairing at her limpness.
"No! No, you can't leave me! Not now! Why!" Frantically, Alistair shook her, anguish driving him to panic. "Why did you do that? Why did you take the final blow! Why would you-" His tears fell, splashing on her face, and his voice choked. "-sacrifice yourself...! Of all of us, it shouldn't have been you that..."
He stopped. Her face had scrunched up mildly where his tears had fallen, and a faint groan parted her lips.
"E...Evelyn?" He asked dumbly, trembling from head to toe.
"Mummy, d'wanna...the well...so cold..."She murmured, her head turning to the side in her protest.
"Evelyn, you're..." He shivered, scared that he might have finally lost his mind. He breathed the last word in a whisper, "...alive?"
Approaching from behind, Loghain loomed over the pair. He murmured softly, "So the witch spoke the truth..."
Rankled by the sound of Loghain's voice, Alistair glared sharply at a man he had sworn long ago never to forgive. "What are you talking about? Truth about what?"
Tipping his head forward, Loghain remained silent, impassive. Alistair growled, and meant to do worse, when he felt Evelyn stirring in his arms. Her head lifted, and as he looked down, her bleary eyes met his in confusion.
"Alistair...?" Her face contorted, bewildered. "What are you doing here...?" She frowned. "Wait, what am I doing here? If my soul was destroyed..."
"You're alive!" Alistair repeated enthusiastically, crushing her in his embrace as a string of joyous laughter burst from him. "You're not dead!"
Keeping an eye on the scattering darkspawn- directionless and broken without their god to command them- Loghain added, "And numerous other inane statements about your state of health are sure to come."
A young man in full templar regalia , amber eyes wide with barely contained panic, hurried over. "Evey! Is she- is she alright?"
Far too blown away by his relief, Alistair couldn't even register jealousy at his concern. "She's alive! Thank the Maker, she's alive!"
Evelyn leaned on Alistair, the last vestiges of her strength fading with the adrenaline leaving her system. But she smiled up at the curly-haired templar warmly. "I'm fine, Cullen. Somehow... somehow, I'm fine."
"By Andraste's Sweet Mercy...!" He sagged on his feet, and knelt beside the pair. He started to rest his hand on her shoulder, his heart in his eyes, but stopped after a glance to the man holding Evelyn. "I had feared the worst."
Evelyn nestled against Alistair even more comfortably- at least, as comfortable as one could get, pressed against armor. "But how...? Could Riordan have lied...?"
Loghain regarded her quietly a moment, his own satisfaction at her survival briefly flickering across his expression. Finally, he said, "He did not lie to you. Perhaps, however, I am guilty of lying by omission."
"What do you mean?" Alistair snarled, startling Evelyn at the sudden shift in his mood.
Unimpressed by the whelp's barking, Loghain continued, "I have much to tell you, Commander. When you are ready to hear it."
"...You are getting that look again."
"Huh?" Jerked from his thoughts rather abruptly by the baritone of a voice that never failed to get under his skin, Alistair slid back to reality. The rhythmic pattern of hoofbeats filtered back over his consciousness, and the golden afternoon sunlight reflected from the wheat fields warmed the deep chill that had settled in while he'd drifted through his memories. He smirked at Loghain. "Oh, the one where I want to bash your face in?"
"Is that what that vacant-eyed look means?" Loghain paused in reflection, then continued, "You must want to hit me a lot."
Unable to contain her amusement, Evelyn sputtered out a chuckle at Loghain's response. She was glad that she remained a few paces ahead of the two men, and that Alistair hadn't seen her grinning at their banter until that moment.
"You find that funny, do you?" Alistair called forward, though he couldn't mask his own smile. "He just called your future husband stupid, and you're laughing? Oh! I am wounded, my lady!"
"He only implied you were stupid, love, but forgive me for laughing." She giggled and grinned over her shoulder back at him. "This has been a long ride, and you have been quiet for the last couple of hours."
"A rare peace that perhaps I ought not have disturbed," Loghain mused in a mock grumble.
"Hours?" Alistair's eyes darted low as he frowned. The discussion had turned to the darkspawn threat still lingering in Ferelden, even though they'd defeated the Archdemon nearly sixth months ago, and Alistair had fallen back into his thoughts. That day, that agonizing moment when he'd thought he'd lost Evelyn, had been burned into his memory; and there it festered, refusing to heal properly. That he'd been dwelling in those dark thoughts for hours unsettled him.
Catching the shadow passing over Alistair's face, Evelyn slowed her horse until it plodded beside Alistair's steed. She leaned slightly towards him, speaking softly. "Is everything alright, love?"
His responding grin was forced. "I'm fine!" At her raised eyebrow, he continued, "Honest!"
She sighed softly, and turned her gaze on the road ahead. "Where we are headed, there's already an army waiting for us. Recruits we have hand-picked, and sent to Vigil's Keep to be trained, and to help us drive out the darkspawn that refuse to retreat underground. They know us only in passing, and some of them by title alone." She reached over, gently resting her hand on his shoulder. "You are my Second-in-Command. If there is something that is bothering you, it would be best to share it before we arrive. We will be very busy once we do."
He watched her a moment, drinking in the sight of her. So much had changed since the first time he met the young woman back at Ostagar; for her, it truly was a lifetime of difference. The long, tight plait she'd kept her hair in now erupted in a short burst of black curls around her face, the crisp edges tickling her neck and jaw. She'd always had a stiff posture, but now she sat proudly, her shoulders squared. Though she was still very slender, the year of traveling and battle had toned her lithe physique, filling her out beneath her armor. The long, graceful fingers had gotten calloused from handling weapons, even if they still caressed him as gently as she always had, and while her eyes had hardened, the sharp azure of her gaze always melted when it fell on him. Maker help him, even in the foulest of his moods, when she shared that smile with him- her eyes liquid and cool and serene- he felt whatever plagued him lift.
The knot of anxiety in his stomach lifted, and he sighed it out. "As always, you see right through me. Unfortunately, what's getting under my skin isn't something that can be talked out of me." He took on a wry grin. "I mean, I won't object to some special treatment from my Lady Love to try and dissolve the heart of it, but..."
She laughed airily, brushing the back of her fingers against his temple in quiet adoration. "Dearest, I will be happy to alleviate any stress once we are in our private quarters."
Unbeknownst to the loving couple, absorbed in their moment as they were, Loghain's eyes turned skyward in exasperation before he shook his head dismissively. Fortunately for his sensibility, the young wardens did not indulge in such open displays of affection- nor brazen discussion of their activities in their personal quarters- often.
Alistair still wasn't used to the boldness with which Evelyn addressed their intimate affairs, and it still sent a thrill through him- one that never got old. Eyebrows raised, he grinned at her affection and lightly gripped her hand against his lips. "I promise you, I'll get my head together before we even meet up with this recruit you mentioned."
"Her name is Mhairi, dearest," Evelyn reminded him playfully, taking her hand back to clutch at the reigns- she was loathe to admit her lack of experience riding horses, and played it off as her resuming her purposeful posture. "She's yet to undergo her Joining, but every report I've gotten about her has been glowing. She's even going very far out of her way to escort us to Vigil's Keep. I think the least we can do to reward such dedication is remember her name."
"Don't be ridiculous. You cannot expect him to remember something as trivial as her name; it might push something more vital out of his limited memory banks- like breathing." Despite the acerbic acuity of his words, Loghain fought to keep the twitching of the corner of his mouth from curling upwards.
"I suppose, Old Man, you would know far more about forgetting useful information than I would," Alistair returned quickly, smirking.
"I've forgotten more useful information in a day than you seem to have accumulated in the last twenty years."
"Ouch! Notching below my belt with that rapier wit of yours, aren't you?" Alistair rebuffed. "Oh, sorry; belts are what those of us who are not fat old men wear to keep our pants up."
"A fat, old man, am I?" Keeping his attention on the road, Loghain smirked at Alistair's childish reply. "I'll keep that in mind next time you drag me into a row and I flatten you in seconds."
Breaking the 'witty repartee', Evelyn cackled at the banter between her companions, a kindly flush coming to her face as she did. For at least the moment, the stern Warden-Commander was gone. The young woman who had only so recently blossomed out of her sheltered life had finally taken her place, relaxing Evelyn's features.
"Oh, what am I going to do with you two? And here I'd thought things had finally settled for a while. I suppose the calm was the benefit of separation, then?" She passed a finger under one eye; it was dry, but it was more a gesture of regaining her composure than clearing her eyes anyway.
"You know, any trips that don't involve Loghain seem to work out much better for us. We're a lot more productive, and there's much less bickering." Before Loghain's raised eyebrow could be accompanied with a reply, Alistair continued, "Which I'm just as guilty of initiating, I know, I'm just saying."
"Yes, the month that the two of you were in Highever was perhaps the most productive the Grey Wardens have been since the instatement of our new Commander," Loghain agreed. "Shame that the swell in ranks involved neither of you."
"That is most unkind, Loghain!" Evelyn scolded, pouting. "I most certainly helped with recruitment."
"You merely saddled me with the burden of initial testing and training before gallivanting off with your lover on your 'personal mission'. But yes, I will concede you had a hand in selecting the recruits." Loghain nodded. "Things would not have gone so smoothly in your absence if not for your sharp eye for talent."
"Nor yours." Evelyn beamed. "And soon, we'll be facing the fruits of your labor."
Alistair kept his own pout masked with a sidelong glance off the road, but couldn't fasten away his sour mood at the familiarity between Evelyn and Loghain. The two had bonded from mutual respect, and at least on Evelyn's end, hero worship. Oh, she denied it, insisted that her idolization of the man had ended at Ostagar, but he couldn't quite help but believe that she still retained stars in her eyes over the man his own father had befriended. What charm did that sullen stone of a man have, that so many people in Alistair's life seemed drawn to him? And why, clinging to the last hot coal of resentment he bore the man, did Alistair fear what would happen if he ever truly forgave him?
He couldn't shut out the doubt of the figure that had haunted many of his nightmares over the course of a year. His betrayal at Ostagar had killed the only man who had ever stepped in as a father for Alistair, and left a scar in his heart that festered for far too long. And though it was irrational, he still flared in anger to recall that moment atop Fort Drakon, just the minute or so he believed that Loghain had set Evelyn up to be killed by the Archdemon.
Their trip to Highever had been a different sort of business. Alistair made good on his vow to Evelyn that he would go there to honor Duncan when the Blight had ended, and Evelyn followed through on her promise to go with him. With Loghain back at Soldier's Peak running things at top efficiency, even the Warden-Commander was able to find the time and resources to dedicate a monument to the former Commander of the Grey right in his hometown.
Alistair smiled. Highever had been filled with fond memories.
"Wherever his mind has wandered off to, at least he seems to be in a pleasant mood this time," Loghain's deep rumble prodded him out of his thoughts. "Were you able to actually hit me in your fantasy, then?"
The smile crumbled into a scowl. "The fantasy doesn't end with hitting."
"Alistair!" Evelyn reprimanded, the picture of indignation. "If you must fantasize about the inappropriate things you want to do to Loghain, at least have the decency to keep it from my ears!"
Immediately, Alistair blanched, clenching the reigns. "What-No! I'm not-I wouldn't-that's not-But-"
Able to maintain her straight face for only a moment longer, Evelyn cracked a grin at Alistair's fluster. Seeing her grin, he turned red in embarrassment- and in surprise that Evelyn was capable of letting her mind go to the gutter so easily. A quick sideways glance at Loghain needled Alistair further; the older man wasn't even masking his smirk this time.
"Commander, I must express my concern for the future of your relationship if he's already fantasizing about other partners, much less other men," Loghain suggested consolingly to Evelyn.
"You two are evil," Alistair muttered grumpily. "I'm never going to talk to either of you again."
"Your father promised much the same, once," Loghain sighed in resignation. "He was lying, too."
Silence fell over the trio, as the ghost of Maric seemed to linger far longer than Loghain's mention. For Alistair, being once again compared to the Great and Wonderful King Maric only brought a disquieting tightening to his chest. For Loghain, the sting bit deeper than he would have admitted out loud; this boy carried far too much of Maric in him for comfort. He could play it off as a joke all he wanted, but the uncanny resemblance between his closest friend and the young lad stirred painful memories. While they were few and far between as of late, the hot and baleful glances Alistair shot him when he thought Loghain couldn't see reconciled poorly with the affection the general bore that likeness.
Having watched the growing awkwardness over her companions, Evelyn refrained from breaking the silence; her only connection with the ghost that haunted both men was tenuous at best. Instead, she returned her attention to the path, where a glimmer against the dirt caught her eye. "Ah, I believe we have company, gentlemen."
"Indeed we do," Loghain agreed, spotting the telltale sign of armor in the fading sunlight at a distance. "I imagine that would be our guide, then?"
"Since we're right about where they said they were sending her to meet us, I would believe so, yes." Evelyn chuckled, gently encouraging her steed forward again to take the lead.
Alistair watched his beloved resume her role as Warden-Commander, her back straightening, her smile softening politically, and the unconscious, anxious grip of her reigns to reassert her control over herself. He sighed; she was adjusting the best she could, wasn't she? And he wasn't helping much by moping about the past, either.
Okay then, he determined, setting his jaw sternly. He would just have to keep his hand at her back, now wouldn't he?