Title: The Prodigal: Chapter 2 (2/4)
Fandom: Dragon Age: Origins
Characters: Zevran, Alistair, Elissa Cousland
Spoilers/Notes: See Chapter 1
Link to Chapter 1: On DW / On LJ
Alistair did sleep, as promised, though it was not an easy night of rest; dimly, he knew that he was tossing and turning, hot and cold by turns, throwing off the blanket and fighting when someone came to cover him back up -- usually it was Zevran's face looming over him when he cracked his eyes open, but sometimes he fancied he saw Elissa, her brow lined with worry, and once it was Arl Eamon, of all people, tucking the blanket over his shoulders. For the most part, though, he wandered in dreams: restless visions of darkspawn and demons and dead Wardens and Loghain-- Loghain most of all, glaring at him with those cold dead eyes, riding on the shoulders of all Ferelden as he was borne away on a sea of cheers, children laughing, maidens throwing roses at his feet. And Alistair could do nothing, bound in chains to watch from distant shadows, seething at the injustice of it all. But then, toward the end, the darker scenes faded away, replaced by moments of peace. The stables of Redcliffe Castle, the lake, a tent filled with shadowy firelight, and when he finally opened his eyes to wake, the gnawing in his gut was lessened.
Sitting up, he looked across the remains of the fire to see Zevran, sitting cross-legged as he poked at embers under a coffeepot. The sun was already halfway up into the sky --Alistair had slept much of the morning away. At the sound of motion, Zevran lifted his eyes and his chin. "Ah, you're awake. How do you feel?"
"Better." He rolled his head around his shoulders, testing; his neck was stiff, but not more than a night spent sleeping on the ground would suggest, and the headache was-- not gone, exactly, but more distant than before. "True to your word."
"You look better." Zevran cocked his head to the side. "But the real question is this: do you still need that drink?"
Honesty compelled Alistair to responded with a nod. "But not nearly as badly as I did yesterday." He closed his eyes for a moment, probing his body for clues to his physical state; he had grown so out of touch with any need beyond thirst that it took some thought. Once he had completed his inventory, he opened his eyes and looked back at Zevran. "And I do believe that I'm hungry."
Zevran grinned. "Then you're on the mend. If you'll pack up camp and prepare the horses, I'll finish making breakfast, and then we can be on our way."
"All right." Alistair stood and stretched, rolling out the kinks in his back. Tonight, he would have to remember to pull out his bedroll before drinking Zevran's vile concoction. "Where are we bound?"
"Kirkwall Port," Zevran replied as he pulled out a small pan and a rasher of bacon. "From there, we catch a ship for Amaranthine."
Halfway through rolling up the blanket, Alistair paused. "And then we make straight for the Wardens, I suppose." He turned, and Zevran was looking at him, brow raised. He sighed. "Well, best to get it over with." He lowered his eyes. "I... still don't know why I've come. Not truly. I may not be able to go through with it, in the end. This time, I'd rather not make a promise I'm not sure I can keep."
The bacon hit the pan with a sizzle, bringing with it an aroma that made Alistair's mouth water. How long had it been since he'd eaten fresh-cooked bacon? Far, far too long. "I'll not ask for any promises," Zevran said. "You've been honest with me; how can I ask for more than that? If you change your mind, we part ways, no hard feelings. But I would prefer to know that, if nothing else, you won't allow yourself to fall back into the state in which I found you, ever again."
Alistair picked up the rolled blankets and secured them on the back of his saddle, then lifted the saddle onto his horse. Only when that task was accomplished did he turn back to Zevran. "We'll see," was all he could bring himself to say.
"Fair enough." Zevran shrugged, then flipped the bacon over. "The coffee should be ready; help yourself."
Five days later, Alistair was still moving forward, now under the power of a boat crossing the Waking Sea. He stood at the bow, hands resting lightly on the railing; normally he did not care too much for sailing, but he had found himself unable to go below decks as he scanned the horizon, looking for any hint of the cliffs of Amaranthine.
Amaranthine. Ferelden. Home.
The ride across the Free Marches had been uneventful enough -- they had met no one, neither friend nor foe, and they had spoken little during the journey. Each night they had stopped to camp, and each night Zevran had given him a dose of that horrid antidote, sending him into fevered dreams, almost as bad as the ones he had suffered during the Blight. He shuddered at the memory of the cursed concoction, a cure that was in some respects worse than the disease. But he could not deny that it was working; every day, he craved the drink a little less, and finally, upon their arrival in Kirkwall, he had thrown away the emergency flask he had hidden in his saddlebags, untouched.
They had lingered a day in the port city. Zevran had a ship waiting, but still he had insisted that they visit barber, bathhouse, and armory before setting sail. And, as with the antidote, Zevran was right. After a haircut, a shave, and a whetstone for his blade, Alistair felt more fit to face the next leg of their journey, even if a small stone had taken up residence in the pit of his stomach.
"There it is!" The voice was soft in his ear, satisfied, and Alistair turned to see Zevran, pointing to the dark smudge that had appeared in the distance. "Do you see it?"
"I do," Alistair responded, heart leaping into his throat as he recognized the green bluffs that he had last seen ten years ago. That day, he had been looking behind him with tears in his eyes and a burning emptiness where his heart belonged. Hopeless, friendless, with no thought of anything but getting as far away as possible. He had vowed never to return, but that was an oath he did not mind breaking. "It's beautiful."
"Spoken like a true native." Zevran clapped a hand on his back. "Welcome home, my friend."
"Home." Alistair rolled the word around in his mouth, testing it, uncertain of how well it fit anymore. He looked over at Zevran, who had started toward the stairs that led below deck. "So is it? Home, I mean. Have you lost your affection for Antiva, after so many years away?"
Zevran paused with his hand on the stair railing and turned around. "There is a saying I heard once. 'Home is the place that, when you go there, they have to take you in.' I will always think fondly of Antiva, but who there would take me in? I found that kind of home here, in Ferelden, as friend and ally to the Wardens. And I promise you, Alistair." His eyes softened. "Whatever you are imagining they think of you now, the Grey Wardens will take you in." And with that, he was gone, leaving Alistair alone with the salt air, the distant cliffs, and his unquiet mind.
The ship docked and the passengers departed, and Alistair grew visibly tense as they left the city and walked toward the keep. Zevran stole glances at Alistair along the way and took stock of his charge. In appearance, he was a thousand times improved over the drunkard Zevran had found in Starkhaven. Neatly-trimmed hair and beard, cheeks a healthier shade than before, eyes no longer bleary with drink -- although now he wore a guarded expression and a furrowed brow instead. Still, Zevran was proud of what he had accomplished in only a few days. He could only hope that the inner changes had kept pace with the outer.
"That's our destination." Zevran paused, and pointed through the trees and up the hill. "Vigil's Keep, headquarters for all the Wardens in Ferelden."
Alistair shaded his eyes from the noonday sun as he looked up. "These were Howe's lands."
"Mm, indeed. Granted to the Grey Wardens by the Queen, in one of her first acts after the defeat of the archdemon. Ferelden's Warden-Commander serves as Arl of Amaranthine."
"And so Howe's defeat at Cousland hands is complete." Alistair raised an eyebrow. "Fitting. She holds his seat at the Landsmeet?"
Zevran spread his hands in an open shrug. "Technically. But Weisshaupt prefers her to stay out of national politics. Preserving the neutrality of the Wardens and all. They'd rather not have a repeat of what happened with Dryden."
"Understandable." Then Alistair turned his gaze back to the Keep, unmoving as he stared up at it. After a long moment, he sighed. "All right. Let's get this over with. Lead the way."
Vigil's Keep was surrounded by a small collection of houses and outbuildings; a few people milled about, but none of them paid Alistair any notice, though some waved to Zevran as they passed. The gate to the central keep was open, and the single guard acknowledged them with only a small nod. Alistair felt his shoulders relax, just a little. Maybe he wouldn't be put on display after all.
"Hoy!" Zevran called out, stepping into an open foyer, putting a quick end to Alistair's hope for a discreet entrance. The space was bustling with people, a dozen Wardens and squires and servants, and a hush fell over them. Every single eye turned to look, including the woman who stood in the archway that led further into the keep. Her armor gleamed silver in the early afternoon sun, a griffon rampant across the breast. She wore no helm, so he could see her face as she spotted him and froze in place, her eyes opening wide, the blood rushing from her cheeks.
Zevran turned to him as well, and he twitched his hand so that only Alistair could see. "Go on," he muttered.
Alistair's pulse raced ever faster, his heart knocking against his breastplate with such force that he was sure everyone could hear. If he had a draught to calm him-- no. He would have to do this on his own. Taking a quick breath, he stepped forward and presented himself to Elissa Cousland, Warden-Commander of Ferelden. A few paces away, he stopped, brought up a closed hand to his breast, and let it rest there in salute as he bowed his head.
"Greetings, Commander," he said, tone careful, formal. "Alistair, once of the Grey Wardens, returning for duty. If you will have me."
"Warden." Her reply was calm, betraying none of the shock he had seen on her face. "You are welcome here." He lifted his chin, and she was looking straight at him. "However, I'm afraid I wasn't informed of your impending arrival, so I have no place prepared for you." She glanced up and over Alistair's shoulder, and her eyes narrowed, just a touch. Alistair glanced backward and saw the most likely target of her ire: Zevran, who rocked back on his heels, expression smug. Then she looked back up at Alistair. "It may take a little time to arrange one."
He straightened. "I understand. If you have no need of me--"
"Oh, no, never that." Elissa shook her head. "As you can see, we have grown since you were last in Ferelden, but we are still rebuilding the order. Every hand is needed, especially hands as well-seasoned as yours. Samiel?" A young elf who had been standing at her heels stepped forward. "Please see Alistair to the trainee quarters, where he can bunk with you for the time being."
"Yes, Commander." The elf nodded, then gestured to Alistair. "This way. Up the stairs, and to your right."
"We'll talk more later," she said, softer now. "But I have duties to attend to first. You understand."
"Of course," he replied with a nod. He turned to follow the elf; as he did so, he saw Elissa make eye contact with Zevran and summon him with a toss of her head. That look, he remembered all too well: Zevran was in trouble. He almost smiled at the thought, despite his jangling nerves.
He stopped, turned to face her, and saw that she was smiling -- a small smile, but a smile nonetheless.
"Welcome home," she said.
He lowered his eyes. "Thank you."
She turned to go, and he did the same.
"So, how do you like your surprise?" Zevran settled down sideways in the chair across from Elissa's desk, tossing his leg over the arm, looking up at her as she stood over him, bracing herself against the front of the desk with her hands.
Her glare could have melted iron. "Why did you not send word?"
"Because then I would never have seen the marvelous look that passed across your face when he walked into the keep." He grinned, and then ducked as she swatted at him. Sitting back up, his expression sobered. "Two reasons, Commander. First, there wasn't time. It's not as if I was out looking for him. I could have sent a bird from the docks, I suppose, but that would not have provided much warning. But more importantly, I could not be certain he would actually make it here." He turned to sit in the chair straight onward, leaning forward to the desk. "I found him in Starkhaven. In a tavern. Dead drunk, and quite likely dying of drink. It was not a pretty sight." He shook his head. "I helped him as best I could, and physically, he is much improved. But he is not yet right. Skittish as a Chantry maid, uncertain of who he is and what he wants, and still very, very angry."
"Loghain." Elissa sighed. "You know, despite everything, I sometimes wonder whether he didn't have the right of that."
Zevran shook his head. "You were using the best tools available to you at the time. Alistair's reaction was understandable on an emotional level, but in terms of how best to fight the Blight? Converting Loghain to your cause was the logical, tactical decision. Now, whether you can bring Alistair to see that, I cannot say. But he is here, at least, and seems willing to listen."
She stood up and walked around the desk to sit in her large wooden chair. "Perhaps. So. The prodigal Warden has returned, and now I need to figure out what to do with him. I will take your word that he is better, but he seems haggard to my eyes. Too thin. Is he in fighting trim, do you know?"
"Unsure. We had no occasion for battle in the Free Marches, and in truth, given his condition, I would have avoided trouble rather than wading in. But he's been working as a mercenary without getting himself killed. So he must be at least capable, still. As to whether he'll actually stay..." Zevran shrugged. "Only time will tell. But you should speak with him. Sooner rather than later."
"All right." She took a deep breath. "I should get it over with, I suppose, as soon as I have some free time. I have to say, I probably don't know what I want out of a conversation any more than he does."
Zevran chuckled. "All the more reason to get on with it, then. You'll over think it otherwise."
She smiled in return. "Thank you, Zevran. I am glad to see him alive and-- well enough. When we had no word, I all but convinced myself that he'd made straight for the Deep Roads after leaving Denerim. Sometimes, it's good to be wrong."
"Indeed," Zevran replied with a nod. He leaned back in his chair. "Now, shall I report on the mission I originally left Ferelden to complete?"
Alistair lay back on the bunk that the trainee Warden had found for him before leaving without a word, skittering away as though from some fearsome mythological beast. He wondered how they thought of him now: the forsworn Warden, the deposed prince, the fool who had walked away from a throne. Or If anyone thought of him at all.
A knock on the doorframe; he sat up, and there she was, changed out her armor and into more casual garb. Alistair was glad that he had done the same, and even more glad that Zevran had purchased a new shirt for him in Kirkwall. To call his old one grubby would have been a understatement. "Thank you for waiting," she said. "Perhaps you'll join me for dinner?"
He nodded. "As you wish, Commander."
It was a refuge, this formality, and they both knew it; from her expression, it seemed she found it safer, as well. She turned, and he followed, just as he had always done. Ten years had changed very little, he thought as he watched her walk. She carried herself with the same confident air, head high, eyes alert. And, of course, she was still the most beautiful woman he had ever known. A bit softened around some edges, harder around others, but the passage of time had not dimmed her light in the slightest.
They went down the halls of the keep, past the dining room and into her office, where a serving maid stood at attention. Elissa spoke to her quietly, and she nodded, then slipped off.
"Have a seat," Elissa said, gesturing toward a square table with four chairs, and Alistair obeyed. She followed suit, sitting across from him, and her shoulders rose with a deep breath, then fell. "There is so much to say that I hardly know where to begin. But I feel I must start with this: I'm sorry." She lowered her eyes. "I never meant to hurt you."
"Well, you did." Alistair managed not to snap at her, but he could not avoid putting weight behind the words. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing. To disregard Loghain's betrayal of the Wardens and give him a chance to redeem himself... how could you?"
She raised her gaze back to him. "I didn't understand, then. Duncan was good to me. He saved my life at Highever, and I grew to consider him a friend. I was shocked and saddened at his death. But he didn't mean to me what he meant to you. And the other Wardens of Ferelden were little more to me than faces. I lost a possible future at Ostegar; you lost your brothers. I should have seen that, and been more sensitive to it." She looked away. "I still think I made the right decision. But I went about it in the wrong way. Alas, some truths come clear only with hindsight."
A rap on the door interrupted her, and she sat up. "Come!" The door opened, and the maid came in, a large serving tray balanced on her hands, piled with meat and potatoes and mead.
Once her hands were free, Alistair handed one mug back to her. "None for me, thanks," he said. She raised her eyebrows in surprise and looked to Elissa for confirmation; on the commander's nod, she took it away with a bow. When the door closed again, Elissa looked at him, questioning. "After I left, I sailed for the Free Marches," he explained. "Once there, I crawled into a bottle and spent the next ten years at the bottom, until Zevran finally pulled me out. It seemed a safe place, but it wasn't particularly good for me, and I'm not eager to go back."
"I am pleased to hear it." Her tone was sober. "But why the Marches?"
"I had thought of Orlais, to join their Wardens at Montsimmard," he said. "But... I couldn't do it. Here I was, a Grey Warden, born to fight a Blight, and what did I do when faced with one? I ran the other way." He shook his head, looked down at his plate, appetite suddenly fled. "How could I face them? So I faced nothing. Not even myself. And I still-- I don't know if I can."
Her reply was soft. "You're facing me."
"Am I?" He lay his hands on the table, examining the dirt that was still lodged beneath his fingernails. "I suppose. I'm here, at any rate. Although, as I told Zevran, I'm not entirely sure why."
"Whatever the reason, I'm glad." And then she reached forward, her hand covering his, gentle and warm and so so right; he turned his hand over to cup their palms together, curve his fingers around her wrist, oh Maker he missed her so much-- and he pulled away, decisively, and stood up.
"No." He turned away. "I-- no."
Her chair scraped over the floor, and he heard her stand and walk across the room to him. "I don't wish to push you. But I do ask that you at least hear me out. There are things you need to know. Once you have heard them, you can stay or go as you will."
"Fine." He straightened and crossed his arms, then turned to look at her. "Speak, then."
She was silent for a moment, organizing her thoughts. When she finally did speak, it was with the air of someone who has rehearsed a speech many times over, and only then did Alistair realize that she was nearly as nervous about this encounter as he. "Before we continue, I need to know: Did Duncan ever tell you the whole truth about why Grey Wardens are needed to fight a Blight? About our true purpose?"
"You mean, beyond our connection with the darkspawn, and having the sure knowledge that an archdemon has risen?" Alistair thought for a moment, then shook his head. "If there is more, I was not told of it."
Elissa sighed. "I thought as much. The more I consider it, the more it seems to me that Duncan kept this from you for the same reason he kept you out of the fighting at Ostegar. I don't think he had any intention of letting you get within ten leagues of that archdemon."
"Figures." Alistair grunted. "Damned royal blood. It's brought me nothing but grief."
"Perhaps." She shrugged. "Well, regardless, for you to understand why I do not regret my choices, you must understand this: in order for an archdemon to be truly slain, it must be killed by a Grey Warden. If anyone else does it, the beast will die, but the soul of the Old God will survive and infect some other darkspawn, making it almost impossible to find and eliminate. But if a Warden casts the killing blow, then the soul will seek out the Warden, and they will destroy each other, dying together. Do you see?"
"I... I think so." Alistair furrowed his brow. "So when the people speak of Loghain's sacrifice..."
She nodded. "They are speaking quite literally, though in the main they do not know it. He resolved to take the killing blow from the moment Riordan told us the truth, and that was the purpose that drove him until he cut the creature's head off. And this is why I stand by my decision to allow Loghain to join us. If we had executed him at the Landsmeet, then you would be dead as well. Or I would. One of us would have had to sacrifice ourselves to end the Blight. Although..." She caught herself for a moment, then shook her head firmly. "No. It would have been you or me. And if it makes me selfish to value your life over the prospect of bringing Loghain to justice, then so be it. I cannot feel otherwise."
He opened his mouth, then closed it, letting his arms fall to his sides. When he finally could speak again, his voice felt very small. "This is a lot to take in."
"I know." She swallowed, taking a step back. "I do believe Loghain won the day for us, in more ways than one. This is probably hard for you to hear, but it is true. I don't know if I could have won that battle without him."
"Humph." He frowned at her. "You don't give yourself enough credit. Those were your armies, your blood and sweat that gathered them, and you were the one they followed. Not Loghain."
"True, but I hadn't the slightest idea what to do with them." Elissa turned away and paced the length of the room. "I was in command, but Loghain's were the plans I executed. Whatever else you thought of the man, you cannot deny that he was an experienced general. Could we have cut through the horde to get to the archdemon without him? Perhaps, but it would have been a damned sight harder."
Alistair crossed his arms again. "So, clearly, you made the right choice." The bitterness crept back into his voice. "You needed Loghain, and you didn't need me."
She stopped, her back to him, her head drawn up straight, her spine stiffening. Then she turned, deliberately, and lifted her chin high. Something flashed in her eyes, and Alistair's mouth went dry. "You're wrong," she said. "I needed you. More than you can ever know."
The quiet intensity of her words cut straight to his heart. He wanted to cross the room, take her in his arms, kiss her, hold her forever. But something kept his legs frozen, and instead he slowly shook his head. "I... I need to think about all this. But still, I thank you for telling me the truth. May I beg my leave for the evening?"
Did he imagine the brief look of disappointment that crossed her face? Either way, the moment was gone; she responded with a brisk nod. "Dismissed, Warden. We will meet on the morrow, at which time you will receive your first assignment."
With a quick salute, Alistair departed the room, in more turmoil than ever before. He wanted that pint of mead and a bottle to chase it, could almost taste it on the back of his throat, feel the comforting burn as it went down, oh so easily. He stood in the hallway, back to the wall, resting his head against the cool plaster, until the urge passed; when he felt safe to walk again, he made for his bunk instead.
This entry is also posted at http://owlmoose.dreamwidth.org/532678.html. There are currently comments on DW.