The Last Cousland: Until We Sleep

Epilogue, Dragon 9:38

"His Grace the Teyrn of Highever, Regent of Ferelden and Lord Chancellor of the realm!"

The Landsmeet welcomed him as he expected: with a great deal of friendliness coupled with eager speculation. Fergus was presiding today, in the absence of the King. Alistair had journeyed abroad now and then, leaving Fergus to rule in his stead as Regent, but he had never before missed the Landsmeet. He had been gone for over six months, and no one had any idea where he was.

Nor had Alistair taken Teagan with him, as he usually did. Fergus wondered if Alistair would ever come back this time. He knew he was not the only one.

A rumor had drifted from the north that King Maric was alive, held captive in Antiva, of all places. Obviously, Ferelden had no diplomatic leverage over Antiva at all, and certainly not over the Crows, who were probably involved. Fergus had advised Alistair to dismiss the rumor. While there was certainly a possibility that Maric had been captured, it seemed very unlikely that he was still alive after thirteen years.

The Orlesians were naturally the prime suspects, but then Fergus had to think again. Having Maric as a prisoner would have been a great coup. They could have beggared the nation demanding ransom. They could have thrown the country into chaos by revealing his existence after the death of Cailan. They had done nothing of the sort. Fergus puzzled over it, but had to set aside his theory that the Orlesians were behind it.

They might be behind the rumor itself, of course. The story could be complete rubbish, and Fergus was inclined to think it was. Much as Fergus hated Orlesians, they were in no position to do much outright against Ferelden at the moment. Orlais was in the throes of its own civil war, and Fergus smiled quietly whenever he thought about it.

Added to that was the growing strife between mages and the Chantry. The cup of oppression had been filled, and the mages were no longer willing to be made the scapegoats and whipping boys for all of Thedas' woes. Fergus had never had trouble with mages himself, other than the trouble the Chantry made because of them. There was a Court Mage in Denerim, and a Court Mage at the teyrnir in Highever. There were several mages among the Grey Wardens in Amaranthine. They were too valuable to reject outright, and Fergus had never forgiven the Chantry for their complaisance about his family's murder. So far, the Mage War had not spilled over into Ferelden.

He settled into the King's Speech—this year the Regent's speech—and was pleased to see people listening with approval. Bryland caught his eye and smiled. Alf Wulffe, stooped with age, stroked his beard, nodding. Bann Teagan, representing both his own bannorn of Rainesfere and the arling of Redcliffe, was his usual pleasant self. Fergus always got on perfectly well with Teagan. To his surprise, Alistair, who was usually such a gossip, had never said a word about Eamon's connivance in the Couslands' murder to anyone.

The Arl of Redcliffe still lived, and was said to be able take a few steps now and then, and make his basic needs understood. Since he still lived, the arling was still his in name, but Teagan was his regent. Isolde had been infuriated by Teagan's appointment to the post, but she had no legal standing, as Eamon himself had wanted it so, according to his will. She had miscarried the child she had been expecting when Eamon fell ill. Fergus had hoped that she would be angry enough to go home to her mother's family in Orlais, but she was still the arl's wife, and swore that she would never leave him.

That did not prevent her from traveling abroad, as she had a few years before, when she went to visit a friend in Nevarra. With a little intelligence-gathering, the "Nevarran" friend, Fergus learned, was actually the Orlesian Duke Prosper de Montfort, one of the Empress' spymasters. Isolde had not gone alone, of course, but had been accompanied by Teagan and by his friend Bann Perrin. After their return Fergus had subjected Teagan to a long and meticulous debriefing. He did not like to think that Teagan was in league with the Empress, but it was nearly certain that Isolde was. The visit had been marked by a considerable scandal, as the Duke was murdered, along with a number of his men. Teagan swore that he had no idea who had done it, or why. Even Alistair had been rather uncomfortable about the situation. At Fergus' urging, Teagan was told that Isolde was not to leave the country again, and that Teagan was responsible for seeing that there was nothing of a treasonable nature in her correspondence.

And now rumor had it that Isolde was pregnant again. At her age, childbirth was a perilous matter, and it did not help that Eamon's diminished capacity raised questions about the father of the child. Teagan was holding his head high, and refusing to speak of the matter, but that was only proper, whatever the facts of the case.

At any rate, the succession of Redcliffe was as secure as Highever's. Lady Bella was not here, of course. She had come to the Landsmeet only once, when it was necessary to persuade the Landsmeet to accept Teagan's marriage and his children as legitimate. Fergus had agreed with Alistair that she was a very comely woman indeed. He had rather liked her: she was not at all the vulgar harlot he had pictured, but a pleasant-spoken woman who was not in the least ashamed of her birth. In fine clothes, she was better-looking than most of the noblewomen in the Landsmeet, and she seemed sincerely fond of Teagan. She lived at the manor of Rainesfere, and apparently saw next to nothing of the rest of Teagan's family. They had three children now, and Teagan, even when living a bachelor life in Denerim, seemed to have put his wenching days behind him, and was far more domesticated and respectable than Fergus ever could have imagined.

No one had succeeded in domesticating the King. True, he was still a young man, but he had refused marriage so frequently and positively that Fergus now wondered if he would ever find anyone to suit him. His choices were limited, true: the Landsmeet would not tolerate a foreign marriage, and there was a distinct lack of eligible noblewomen of suitable age or sufficient attractions. Alistair positively cringed when being introduced when newly marriageable girls were presented to him.

Perhaps it was guilt or regret over his broken relationship with Paragon Aeducan. For his part, Fergus really did not care if Alistair married or not. If he must marry, Fergus would insist that it be a decent Ferelden girl with a strain of Calenhad's blood, so that he need not regard the entire succession as a fraud. Teagan might find happiness with a barmaid, but Fergus was prepared to be firm if Alistair tried to make such a one Queen of Ferelden. From time to time, Fergus spoke to Alistair about the importance of a secure succession, but did not press him to make a marriage that would make him miserable.

No, he was dishonest. He thought it for the best if Alistair never married, and the lie he was living perished with Alistair himself. It was not a completely disinterested opinion, since he and his children were Alistair's declared heirs. He had never found any evidence to change his opinion that Alistair was no son of Maric's.

The mystery of Alistair's mother remained a mystery. At Fergus' command, the City Guard had actually looked into the fate of the King's half-sister and her children. The woman had indeed been killed when the darkspawn rampaged through Denerim. Her second oldest boy, old enough to keep silent even as he heard his family slaughtered, had survived, hidden under a overturned laundry tub. He was taken off the street and placed in a Chantry school. He was deeply traumatized, and took orders as a lay brother when he turned sixteen. He now lived a quiet life of prayer and contemplation in a remote monastery. When gently questioned, it was clear that he knew nothing of his grandmother... or his grandfather... or even of his own father. Young Brother Derric was a dead end.

If Alistair could really be said to resemble Maric in anything, it was in the way in which he was King. His heart was not in it. Alistair meant well, and was very good at meeting people and talking to them. He was the friendly face of the Crown. He learned to make progresses and public appearances and smile throughout. He learned his speeches for the Landsmeet by heart, and could preside fairly effectively, when he could not escape the responsibility. Other than his tendency to drink too much, he could pass for a good king.

The real work was done by others, most specifically by his Chancellor, Fergus Cousland. Early on, Fergus had taken on some very sound clerks and secretaries, and thus was not so entirely overwhelmed by the Crown's business that he could not tend to Highever and his own growing family.

Caradoc had turned six, and was an active, healthy boy. He was curiously tenderhearted, and had no great love of the hunting field. Fergus sometimes wondered what would come of that, as he grew older and learned the knightly arts. It was his sister, Elissa, who had the fierce streak, even at age four. Habren had wanted a little girl to dress up like a doll, but so far had had little luck with Elissa, who was as stubborn as her namesake. Habren had greater hopes for little Aoife, who was the easiest of all the babies, and had a mop of adorably curly hair.

And now Habren was pregnant again. She was here today, of course, dressed like a queen, not wanting to miss Fergus' moment of glory; though a little put out that protocol did not permit her to stand on the royal dais with her husband. She wanted another boy, "to round the family out,' but said she was done after this one. Peevish and self-absorbed as she could be, she was not a bad mother, as noble mothers went. Well, so far, at any rate. Fergus trembled for the day when Elissa was fourteen or so. There would be conflict, and it would likely be spectacular.

His speech continued with a review of Ferelden's current economic status, which was not at all bad, perhaps because most of Thedas was in turmoil.

A little voice rose from the ranks of the nobility.

"Mamma, is he going to talk forever and ever?"

Fergus grinned. Teyrna Anora was not so weak-kneed as to blush, but she leaned over and whispered sternly to the little girl with very bright blue eyes who clung to the skirts of her gown. Lady Celia Mac Tir scuffed her velvet slippers on the floor and was still. Anora had married the younger son of one of her banns, on the condition that he take her family name. Lord Hywel was not a complete nonentity: he was a pleasant fellow with a respectable noble lineage and a sound knowledge of the lumber and salt industries, so vital to Gwaren. Above all, he had proved that his wife was not barren. She now had a son and a daughter to carry on the heritage of the Hero of River Dane. However, she was very much the Teyrna, and very much in charge. The loss of her throne, her first husband, and her father, the experience of imprisonment and threatened execution, eight years of stress and two children had taken their toll: she was no longer the "rose among brambles," as the Empress had once called her, but a middle-aged woman with a thickened waist and wary eyes. She had already approached Fergus about a match between her little Celia and his son Caradoc. Habren did not much like the idea, but Fergus was considering it carefully. The children had played together in a friendly enough fashion when they were introduced a few days before.

Young Ferelden—as Fergus called the generation born after the Blight—was prospering. Even Wulffe had an heir—a son of his old age— to carry on his line. Ferelden was recovering well from the Blight and Civil War; recovering while the old powers crumbled. Ferelden's monarchy, in particular, was stronger than ever before, for Denerim, as capital of Ferelden, was the King's personal arling: giving the Crown a reliable income and a vital powerbase. With the extinction of the Kendalls, Fergus had pushed hard to return the capital to the royal line. He had been very pleased with the result.

The oddity was of course Amaranthine.

Fergus had long ago promised himself that if the day came when he was King of Ferelden, he would rescind the Grey Wardens' possession of Amaranthine, or at least arrange for it to end with the death of the current Warden-Commander. It was all wrong. Fergus understood the importance of the Grey Wardens: he agreed that their mission was essential. However, he did not see that their mission was at all compatible with providing the kind of care and attention that an arling required.

Nathaniel Howe, Warden-Commander of Ferelden, agreed with him to some extent. He was just too busy to be the kind of arl he would have liked to be. His duties often took him to foreign lands. Wardens had secrets, and Nathaniel was unable to explain why he and his Wardens were needed in the Free Marches, and why Marcher Wardens could not handle the tasks instead. Fergus had confidence in him, but not in any future Grey Warden that Weisshaupt might see fit to appoint to the post. Besides, deep anger lingered over the destruction of the city of Amaranthine. Only a Howe could have held the situation there together. The Landsmeet—and the people of Amaranthine— would never tolerate any other Grey Warden in his position.

Ultimately, Fergus planned for the arling to go to Darron and Delilah Bliss. Darron had done very well with the rebuilding of the city, and was now fairly popular. The marriage between the bann and his lady had never warmed up, but it had been fruitful, and they both behaved very properly in public. Delilah often followed her brother on his travels, taking her eldest son along, and altogether seemed more interested in being Nathaniel's sister than a wife to her husband. Well... not all political marriages were perfectly happy ones. He knew that from personal experience.

Not that the Grey Wardens would be homeless if they lost Amaranthine. Nathaniel had told him that the old fortress of Soldier's Peak was being renovated. Apparently, a descendant of the Drydens had approached him, wanting an investigation of the old tales about Sophia Dryden and her rebellion against King Arland.

"We didn't find any evidence of her innocence," Nathaniel had told him, "but we found plenty to indicate that King Arland was a right bastard. However, it's all over and done with ages ago. Levi Dryden was disappointed, but I offered him a post as sutler at Soldier's Peak. The place is really not in bad shape at all."

Nor was the city of Amaranthine. Nathaniel's pleas and Alistair's furious letters—ghost-written by Fergus—had wrung a considerable sum out of Weisshaupt for the reconstruction of the ruined city. Ironically, the place now looked better than it had before it was burned. A large number of the refugees who had previously fled to Kirkwall had returned to Ferelden, and many of them were now settled in the resurrected Amaranthine.

The Landsmeet heartily applauded his speech. Habren was beaming, squeezing little Caradoc's shoulders in excitement. The boy winced and rolled his eyes at his father. Fergus grinned back. Was this what it was like to be king?

The days of the Landsmeet were a constant balancing act: the rights of the nobles versus the welfare of the people; diplomatic thrust and parry; pacifying the Chantry while protecting Fereldan's mages from the kind of slaughter raging elsewhere in Thedas. A balancing act? Yes. It was also like rowing upstream against a strong current. Ruling a kingdom was hard work, but a Cousland never shrank from his duty. A final session, a farewell feast, and he could breathe for another year.

The following morning, his father-in-law dropped by to play with his grandchildren and then enjoy a private chat with Fergus in his study.

"All in all," Bryland said, "I think it went quite well. Nobody fought a duel to the death, the Chantry didn't threaten an Exalted March, and the Bannorn was no more restive than usual."

Fergus smiled grimly. "And as long as a Qunari fleet doesn't appear off the north coast, I'll consider the kingdom safe for the moment."

They lifted their goblets, saluting their mutual relief. The Qunari had savaged Kirkwall a few years before, and the City of Chains had not yet recovered from it when the Mage War exploded there—literally. Between the casualties from the fighting, the acts of terror, and the refugees fleeing the violence, Kirkwall had lost over half its population.

Bryland looked out at the window at Denerim spread out below. "No crazy mages have blown up the Cathedral, either."

Fergus picked up his starball from the desk and studied it idly. It was an expensive one: a gift from the King of Nevarra. He shrugged.

"Not that I'm wasting a great deal of sympathy on Kirkwall—or on that lunatic Meredith Stannard. It still makes me grit my teeth when I think of how she behaved to the King during his visit there."

Bryland grimaced in sympathy. "You did your best to dissuade him from going. Of course no head of state should undertake that kind of mission himself—especially not to a place like Kirkwall. The very tone of the woman's letters made clear what kind of reception he could expect."

"A King of Ferelden was publicly held up to scorn by that usurping fanatic. I would have thought a humiliation like that would have taught Alistair a lesson about foreign adventures, but apparently I was mistaken."

"At least he didn't take Teagan with him this time. Teagan's only too happy to tell him his ideas are brilliant. I don't know if the man's an idiot or a very clever schemer."

That actually made Fergus laugh. "I'm absolutely positive he's not at all clever! He was used to agreeing to everything Eamon said, and now he agrees with everything Alistair says. The worst and most dangerous sort of adviser for a king."

"At least Alistair left him behind this time."

Fergus snorted. He was not actually very pleased with that decision. As foolish as he sometimes thought Teagan, at least he was loyal to Alistair and would have have stood by him, no matter what they faced. Fergus might have reservations about Alistair as king, but he liked Alistair personally, and the thought of him at the mercy of whatever soldiers-of-fortune he had taken up with was disturbing, to say the least.

Bryland sighed. "Perhaps he'll really find Maric. I hardly know whether to hope he does, or not. He might be in for a painful disillusionment. And what if Maric came home? He'd still be the rightful king. What in the Maker's name would we all do then?"

Fergus imagined King Maric returning to Ferelden, and he rumpled his own hair in amused horror. What a mess that would be! A good thing? A bad thing? What would Maric think, to meet Alistair? How would he feel to learn that Cailan was dead, that Loghain was dead? Would he disabuse Alistair of his notions of kingly heritage? Would he be kind, and let the younger man down easily? Or would Maric be a shell of himself, driven mad by years in a dungeon? After losing the past thirteen years, how would Maric—even a fully recovered, healthy Maric—cope with a Ferelden so changed? It could be bad... very, very, very bad... but it would be foolish to worry over it now.

"We'd stand by him, of course. As you say, he'd still be the rightful king."

Bryland sighed, and the two men were silent again, lost in thought.

Fergus had liked King Maric, though he had never been one of Maric's inner circle. He had been only the young heir of Highever, proud of his new baby son, when King Maric disappeared. He had not sat on the Privy Council, obviously, and was new to voting at the Landsmeet. He and Maric had no personal relationship of any kind. Few people had a personal relationship with Maric. He seemed to be close only to Loghain.

Father knew Maric well, of course, but told his family that the King had his secrets, like any man. "After what he, Loghain, and the Queen went through together in the war, it's not surprising how he values the man. There's no closer bond than that. It's like Rendon, Leonas, and me, you see."

At the time, Fergus thought he had, but in retrospect was not at all sure. Rendon Howe had renounced that particular bond pretty thoroughly. And there was no denying that King Maric simply did not like being king, and did his best to escape from it at every opportunity. Mother had once suggested that the King's disappearance was his final, successful escape, but Father refused to believe that the King would do anything so selfish. Fergus was not sure about that, either. There was the laundress' tale; known only at third-hand, but suggesting that Maric was capable of heartlessly selfish conduct. There had been a child... apparently a child of Maric's... and either that child was the abandoned, neglected Alistair, or, as Fergus believed, the infant had died with its cast-off mother, whose surviving child was driven out to fend for herself. Neither story reflected well on Maric.

Fergus thought that the next dawn presaged a day like any other, but he soon learned how untrue that was. A servant interrupted the family breakfast.

"The King has returned, Your Grace! He asks that you attend him at your earliest convenience!"

"Maker!" snapped Habren, deeply annoyed. She scowled at Fergus, and returned to helping Aoife with her porridge.

Fergus dismissed the servant. Little Caradoc, who was already no fool, had exasperatingly noticed his mother's expression.

"Aren't we happy the King came back, Father?"

"Yes," Fergus said firmly, giving Habren a look. "We're very happy that the King is home and safe. Your mother is just vexed that Aoife spilled her porridge. I'll go see His Majesty right away. Perhaps he'd like to come to dinner."

He got up right away, bursting with curiosity. Habren summoned a nursemaid to watch the children, and bustled after Fergus, wanting a private word in his dressing room.

Before she could open her mouth, Fergus put up a hand.

"Don't say it. It could be construed as treason."

"It's not treason!" Habren pouted. "Here we've been doing all the work and managing those horrid backwoods banns at the Landsmeet, and then he" (the way she always referred to Alistair) "trots on back to lay about, drink our wine, and make silly jokes."

"He's still the King."

"He's no more a King than I'm the Chief Archon of Tevinter!" she shot back. "Your throne was stolen by those disgusting Guerrins! You ought to—"

He clapped a hand over her mouth. "Do not say it. Do. Not. Our son will be king someday, and he will succeed lawfully, peacefully, and smoothly to a prosperous Ferelden. I will do nothing to cause a war."

"What if he—" she snarled "—has gone and married some foreign tart? What if he shows up with a bastard of his own in tow?"

Fergus mastered his face, not wanting to add fuel to Habren's fire by letting her see that he had envisioned the very same thing. And he hated the way she always criticized women from any country other than Ferelden. It seemed a backhanded slap at Oriana. It would do more harm than good to make an issue of it.

"I'm sure he's done nothing of the sort. I'll go see him right away. If he's in a mood to dine with us, I'll send word. Be sure to serve some of that drunken cheese he likes with the savories at the end of the meal."

"I hope he chokes on it!" She shrank back at his manifest anger. "Oh, all right. I'll be nice as you please to that fraud. I know you like him, and he's good to the children."

"Do be nice as I please," Fergus said sternly. "And do not let a word slip to anyone of your opinion of him. Not in front of the children, Not in front of the servants, Not in front of your ladies, Not in front of your father."

"Father agrees with me."

"Your father is too wise to let anyone else guess what he thinks. Imitate him."

He hurried to the Palace with all the speed commensurate with the Chancellor's dignity.

The chamberlain met him, looking wide-eyed and harassed.

Fergus asked, "When did His Majesty arrive?"

"Just before dawn, Your Grace. By ship. His...companions...are with him up in the War Room, having breakfast. He said to show you in right away."

The War Room? Breakfast in the War Room? That sounded rather more like Loghain than Alistair. In Maric and Cailan's day, the Privy Council had often met in the War Room over breakfast. It commanded a fine view of Denerim and the harbor. Eamon had preferred using the more elaborately-furnished Yellow Parlor, and Alistair had continued to use it, even after Eamon's departure. The door opened, revealing a very odd scene indeed.

"Fergus!" cried Alistair, saluting him with a wine goblet. "I guess I missed the Landsmeet! Join us! Varric… Isabela… this is my friend the Teyrn of Highever. He's my Chancellor, so don't spit on the floor."

The round table was spread with a feast: joints of beef and ham; platters of cheese, butter, and bread; pyramids of fruit; pickles and preserves; nutcakes and seedcakes and honeycakes. The king was wolfing it all down as if he had not eaten since leaving Ferelden, and washing it down with jugs of red wine and pitchers of golden cider. No one in all Thedas had an appetite like Alistair, King of Ferelden. Fergus had seen that before. He took a moment to assess the King's two companions.

Varric was a dwarf with a cocky smile and a most intriguing crossbow. Well-to-do, Fergus guessed, from his raffish but expensive garments, but a surfacer, not a deep-downer. Isabela, for her part, wore next to no garments at all, but a great deal of gold. For a terrible moment, she seemed the embodiment of Habren's predicted "foreign tart."

A Rivainni, he guessed, and a fighter. In addition to her heavy jewelry, she wore thigh-high boots and a pair of daggers, with a white corset and…quite visible smallclothes. Draped over the seat carved with the Redcliffe arms, she lifted a brow at him, and showed her splendid white teeth. If she was the new Queen of Ferelden, she was certainly not one to stand on ceremony.

"Mistress Isabela. Master Varric," Fergus greeted them with reserved civility. Who were these people?

"My fault," said Alistair. "It's really Captain Isabela. I came home on her ship. Actually, Isabela traveled with us the whole way. Fergus, I found my father!"

"King Maric!" Fergus gasped, not knowing whether to hope or fear. "He's alive?"

"Well… no. He's dead. But he was alive when I found him. But I really saw him. I even talked to him, even if it was only in the Fade. He told me to come back and be a good and proper king."

"Maybe you could start at the beginning?"

"Good idea! Varric, you should do most of this." Alistair turned to Fergus. "Varric's a great storyteller. He's written whole books. This'll be his best! Sit down… sit down, and have something. We've got heaps of food and drink."

"You tell stories?" Fergus asked the dwarf, as he slipped into the Highever seat. Was he a minstrel? A bard?

"All the time," the dwarf replied. "Some of them are even true."

It was ridiculously early for wine. Fergus preferred tea in the morning, but there was no sign of it at this table. Isabela winked at him and poured him a cup of cider. She was a very attractive woman indeed. A sea captain? She seemed confident and independent, and was not fawning over Alistair. A comrade-at-arms, then, and not a mistress? Fergus gave her a smile and quiet thanks, as Varric began his tale.

"It all began with the rumor that King Maric was in Antiva: imprisoned at Velabanchel, the prison of the Crows..."

A strange tale followed. Alsitair and his friends were able to infiltrate the prison, and learned that Maric had indeed been held there for four years. Afterwards, he had been spirited away by Yavana, the Witch of Wilds—or more specifically, of the Tellari Swamp. She claimed to be a daughter of the legendary Flemeth, and Alistair appeared to credit that.

"I met Flemeth during the Blight," he interjected into the story. "Her daughter, Morrigan, traveled with us." Unaccountably, he turned bright red. "One of her daughters. Yavana was another. She wanted Maric for her own purposes. I don't know how long he was with her, but probably for some time. It had to do with dragons, and dragonsblood. And the blood of Calenhad. My blood," he added. "Yours, too, so I guess you need to hear all of this."

As Varric spun the yarn, the witch Yavana was attempting to awaken a nest of hibernating dragons from their enchanted sleep. To do this, she needed the help of a descendent of Calenhad the Great.

"We learned more of the story later," the dwarf said. "The Arishok of the Qunaris told us an interesting story about your King Calenhad. He said that Calenhad fought a dragon and drank his blood, and that gave him his tremendous power."

"I know that part's true," Alistair said. "During the Blight, Signy and I went to the Frostbacks, looking for Andraste's Ashes. We found them, but the people guarding them were a weird dragon cult. They raised dragons and drank their blood, and it really did make them hard to kill. Apparently, it's inherited."

Fergus said nothing, absently rubbing the groove in his skull. He remembered that the Chasind shaman had told him that he should never have survived such a wound.

The dwarf snorted a laugh. "The witch wasn't the only one interested in the blood. Sometime later—we don't know when—a Tevinter magister got Maric away from the witch before she could finish her little project. So we traveled north to Minrathous to find out more about this Aurelian Titus. We met up with a relation of mine by marriage, Maevaris Tilani. She's a mage and a magister, for that matter, but she a decent sort. Together we sailed to Seheron, to the fortress of Aurelian Titus. He had Maric, all right: he was using his blood to power some sort of magical device called a Magrallen."

"You met Maric? You spoke to him?"

"Uhhhh….no." The dwarf shook his head. "He was unconscious, strapped to the wheel of that infernal machine. Hadn't been conscious in years, probably. I tried to get him loose. I… took a shot at the Magrallen with Bianca here." He slapped the stock of his crossbow. "Instead of releasing him, whatever I did sent all of us into the Fade."

"And that's where I met him!" Alistair burst out, waving his hands. "In the Fade, I was his acknowledged son. I was a Prince of Ferelden. We were out hunting together. Cailan was Crown Prince, but I was a Prince too." He smiled radiantly. "It was great."

"How nice for you," remarked Isabela. "My dream wasn't particularly pleasant. I thought I was a Qunari convert. I nearly killed Varric when he tried to straighten me out."

"Anyway…" Varric went out, gesturing to his friends to be quiet. "Anyway, the Magrallen had sucked Aurelian Titus into the Fade, too, and Maric cut off his head. Once that was over, we could escape, but Maric didn't want to come with us. He said everyone he loved was there in the Fade with him: Alistair's mother… Loghain… Alistair persuaded him to try to come back to Ferelden. Needless to say, it didn't happen. Once we were out of the Fade, we could get a better look at what years of being drained by the Magrallen had done to him. He was more a corpse than a man, and Maevaris didn't know of anything that could be done for him. Alistair's sword gave him peace, and then… he crumbled to dust. He probably hadn't really been alive for a long, long time."

Fergus hardly knew what to say. "I… see. It really was King Maric?"

"Absolutely," said Alistair.

Fergus stared at him. How would he know? An emaciated prisoner, near death? Alistair had only seen him years ago, once or twice from a distance. Had the dwarf or the Rivainni woman ever actually met Maric?

What a bizarre tale. All right, the magister apparently had a reason to want Maric in his power, and whatever he had done must have worked to have kept him there. Fergus decided to suppose, for the moment, that the prisoner of the Tevinter magister really had been King Maric, kidnapped and used for an arcane blood ritual.

It still did not prove that Alistair was Maric's son. Maric had never regained consciousness, by their own words, and had spoken to them only the Fade. The Rivainni's dream was apparently something that she knew to be untrue. Why should a dream of Maric as Alistair's father be taken at face value? It had apparently comforted Alistair, but the Maric in his dream sounded like a construct of the most desperate desire of his heart. For Maric to wish to remain with Loghain was plausible, but that was something that everyone knew. The two men were best friends, and even in a dream state, Alistair's mind would surely recognize that as a given.

But to long to remain with Alistair's mother? The serving-girl? That really did sound like a child's wish-fulfillment of a happy home with two loving parents, and bore no relation to the kind of situation that would have led to Alistair's birth, even if he were Maric's son. And for Maric not to mention Queen Rowan or his mother, Queen Moira… It was the dream of someone who had not known Maric at all, and not even very much about him. Fergus felt a pang of pity for Alistair. His own parents might be dead and gone, but they had been real, and they had loved him.

"I hope I did the right thing," Alistair whispered into his wine goblet.

"I'm sure you did," Fergus comforted him, shuddering at the horror of the prisoner's fate.

"And I'll be a good and proper king, just as he told me to be." Alistair set down his cup. "I'm ready to work. I've let you down often enough."

"It's not me you need to worry about, Alistair, but the kingdom."

"You're right. I'll do my best. I promise. And we'd both better take care of that blood of ours: the blood of Calenhad. It's worth good coin in Tevinter!"

"Nobody's taking my blood," Fergus declared. "Or my children's." It had to be faced, so Fergus said what needed to be said. "And what about you, Alistair? Habren wondered if you hadn't made yourself a foreign marriage during your travels."

"Don't look at me," said Isabela. "Been there, done that, hired the Crow."

"I'm never going to marry," Alistair said, suddenly serious. "Look, I'd better tell you. Come over here." He spoke over his shoulder to his friends. "Secret kingy stuff. Sorry."

Fergus let Alistair pull him over to a window near the corner. He knew Alistair well enough by now to know that expression. Alistair was struggling with himself.

"This is a huge Grey Warden secret, so you have to promise never to tell."

What were they, children? Should he 'cross his heart and hope to die'? Fergus only said, "I swear on my honor never to divulge this secret."

"All right. When we become Grey Wardens, we go through a ritual. It does things to us. Like make us hungry all the time. Like give us nightmares. It also..." he blushed. "It also makes it hard to have children, especially after the first year or so. I can't offer some girl children, and so it wouldn't be fair, you see..."

"There are other reasons to marry, Alistair," Fergus said, deeply shocked. Had Eamon known of this? "For companionship... for love..."

The young man smiled an old, old smile. "I think we both know that the chances of me finding love and companionship with any girl the Landsmeet would accept are next to nothing. And if she didn't have children, they'd treat her the way they did Anora, demanding that I divorce her for being barren! I can take care of myself, don't worry... but it won't be official. And there won't be any... more... children."

Fergus caught the qualifier, and was alarmed. "Are you saying that you have a child?" This was serious.

"Yes," Alistair nodded, looking uneasy. "I think I do. That daughter of Flemeth... Morrigan... the one who was with us during the Blight. I think I probably got her pregnant. She left and swore she was never coming back to Ferelden. She didn't want anything to do with me afterwards. She just wanted a child."

"A child of the King?"

"No." Now Alistair looked positively shifty. "A child of a Grey Warden. It was something... magical. Look here, Fergus. If that child ever turns up, you have to make sure that he doesn't try anything stupid."

"Like claiming to be the true heir to the throne?"

Guilelessly, Alistair nodded. "You can't let any blood of Flemeth's take over Ferelden. It would be bad: very, very, very bad."

"I swear to you that I'll never allow it. Besides, you've formally made me your heir, and Caradoc after me."

"That's right. But don't trust Morrigan. She's... sneaky. Let's go finish up that breakfast."

They joined the others, and Fergus sipped his cider, thinking through these disturbing revelations. Out there, somewhere in Thedas, was Alistair's child, who was also the child of an apostate mage who possibly was the daughter of the infamous Flemeth. Fergus filed that in the back of his mind as something to beware of. Most likely, though, any such child would be a mage, and thus not eligible for the throne.

Hmmm... just like Grey Wardens aren't eligible?

Very well. It was something to remember. Something to warn Leonas and Anora about, and Caradoc, too, when he was older. For now, though, Alistair was back, free of foreign entanglements, and King Maric was still dead.

"I was hoping," he said quietly, "that you would do us the honor of dining at Highever House tonight. Your companions would be most welcome." That came out sounding impressively sincere. Habren might be quite amused by the dwarf, but...

"I've got to get back to my ship," said Isabela, shaking her head, "but thanks all the same. You're all right."

"So you are," agreed Varric. "I would be absolutely enchanted to observe the noble Fereldan in his native habitat."

Alistair grinned. "You'll have to tell me all about the Landsmeet. Anybody dead?"

"Not this time. Oswyn bloodied Perrin's nose, but they saw sense before they took it any farther. Not much more than the usual hair-pulling and foot-stamping."

"And the flouncing off when someone doesn't get his way."

"That too. There are, of course, some real issues of substance that we need to discuss."

"I was afraid you'd say that," Alistair got to his feet with a deep breath. "Varric. Isabela. I've got to go to work."

"Good luck with that," Isabela scoffed, as Fergus and Alistair headed to the door. "Think it'll last, Varric?"

The dwarf 's smile was tinged with melancholy. "It might. It's a way for him to pass the time. Everyone needs to find meaning in life: you sail, I tell stories, and Alistair has his crown."

As Fergus followed Alistair out of the War Room, he heard the dwarf add in a low voice—as if speaking to himself—

"We go through our lives, not knowing. Wondering. Trying ...Until we sleep."

Notes: I used the Dark Horse Comics The Silent Grove, Those Who Speak, and Until We Sleep in creating this chapter. The last line is a quote from the last installment. If you have read them, I think you'll agree that there's quite a bit to ponder there. In the Fade, Maric says he wishes to remain with those dearest to them, and mentions Alistair's mother. As far as I know, Fiona is not dead by 9:38, but according to canon, was released from the Grey Wardens and is the Grand Enchanter of the Cumberland Circle, as they dissolve into open war with the Chantry. And don't get me started about that. Of course, whether she's actually dead or not isn't really an issue in the Fade.

As to other issues: I'm very uncomfortable with the whole Alistair/Goldanna narrative for many reasons. Alistair is actually Maric's son by the Grey Warden Fiona, but Alistair was never told that. I see nothing in canon that indicates he ever discovered the truth. We don't even know if Eamon knew who the mother was. The story Goldanna tells is that her mother bore King Maric a child. Goldanna was told that both her mother and the child died in childbirth, and she was then driven away from Redcliffe. The fact of king's involvement seems to have been common knowledge around Redcliffe at the time (though not to Isolde, which raises other questions). The poor woman certainly bore a child. Was it Maric's? If not, whose was it? Either way, Goldanna lost her mother, and for some reason was driven out of Redcliffe. Would Eamon have invented a story about Maric fathering a child? It had to be plausible, and Maric had to be present during the appropriate time frame for people to believe it. Did the girl herself identify Maric as the father? The evidence suggests that Maric did indeed father a child, and didn't bother to pick up the pieces when the mother died in childbirth. The timeline in presenting Alistair as the dead infant probably wouldn't fit perfectly, since the dead infant would have been younger than Alistair. That might explain why they got rid of Goldanna, who would have noticed it.

Goldanna was apparently old enough to know her mother was pregnant, and in the months before the birth, presumably the mother told Goldanna something. Goldanna certainly believed that Maric was the father of her mother's baby. It would seem likely that her mother would tell her that. Maybe Goldanna even saw them together. Bearing a king's natural child would be a huge deal. The mother would have every reason to believe the father would support her and the child (and Goldanna).

Besides, it's simply not believable that a handsome, charming, restless king like Maric had sex with only three women in his entire life. (Katriel, Rowan, and Fiona).

If the Redcliffe serving girl's child isn't Maric's, then why was such a fuss made of the birth? The only alternative is that it was actually Eamon's or Teagan's, and the pious Eamon was attempting a cover up. Perhaps some word of this leaked out and that was why Isolde believed Alistair to be Eamon's. It's all a terrible tangle of lies and deceit.

I'll take a brief break to work on some original fiction, but Dragonsteeth will be back with:

Visitors from Out of Town, Or, The Infamous Camping Trip, Extended Version. Harry Potter and the Grey Wardens, Dragon 9:30-31.

"He's coming! Hermione! he's coming!"

As he yelled the snake fell, hissing wildly. Everything was chaos: It smashed shelves from the wall, and splintered china flew everywhere as Harry jumped over the bed and seized the dark shape he knew to be Hermione—

Suggestions are welcome as to where they land, once they crash through Bathilda's window.