Title: The Prodigal: Chapter 3 (3/4)
Fandom: Dragon Age: Origins
Characters: Zevran, Alistair, Elissa Cousland
Spoilers/Notes: See Chapter 1
Chapter 1: On DW / On LJ
Chapter 2: On DW / On LJ
Zevran made himself wait for an hour before poking his head into the commander's study. He was not surprised to find her at her desk, brooding over a sheaf of papers by lamplight. He quietly closed the door behind him and took a place in front of her desk, standing there without speaking for some minutes.
She looked up, started as the papers slipped out of her hands, then let out an exasperated sigh. "Don't do that," she said.
"Sorry," he replied, spreading his hands with a grin. "Force of habit. So, how did it go?"
"About as well as I could have expected." Elissa gathered the sheets back into their stack and squared them along the short edge, then the long, then the short again. "He didn't run away screaming, at any rate."
"Not bad for a beginning," Zevran agreed. "And you?"
"Did I run away screaming?" She quirked a brow, and Zevran had to laugh. "Your analysis was quite correct. He's still holding on to his anger, not to mention a wellspring of self-pity. The anger, perhaps, I could live with, but I fear he won't be of much use to me until he lets the pity go." She shrugged. "But if he wishes to serve, then we'll find a place for him. The Wardens turn away no one who is qualified, and Alistair is certainly that. Someone is coming from Montsimmard tomorrow; perhaps a tour in Orlais will help ease him back in."
Zevran caught the wistful note in her voice, but he did not press. "I leave the decision in your always-able hands. Good night, Commander."
It was a long, sleepless night for Alistair, with neither his preferred poison nor its cure at hand. He tossed and turned, first curling up on his side with his eyes closed, then flipping over on his back, staring at the slats of the bunk overhead. Three trainee Wardens shared this space with him, and the sounds of their breathing -- and an occasional loud snore -- were both comforting and annoying. He had been alone for so long. Would the old, familiar rhythms of communal life ever be comfortable again? Only time would tell. If he decided to stay.
The churning of his mind kept him up just as surely as the discomforts of the body. The idea that Elissa had traded Loghain's justice for his own life bothered him, like a sore tooth he feared to prod. And that was the trade she had made, knowingly or otherwise; the truth was clear in his mind, one pure peal that cut through the cacophony of his muddled thoughts and emotions. If it had been the two of them, at the end, he would have taken the final blow. His life for hers, and for Ferelden, without question.
But his honor, and hers? Justice for Duncan and the Wardens, and everyone else Loghain destroyed? Was that a worthy trade? Of that, he was not so certain. But she saw it as such, and the thought gave him pause. To know that she still cared about him, even after his desertion on the eve of battle, touched him in a place he had thought long turned to stone. Although the memory of that day still angered him, could bring a white-hot flush to his cheeks when he thought of it, he could no longer hate her for it. And he knew now, beyond all doubt, that he still loved her. Madly, deeply; always and forever.
But was love enough? Could love cancel out a blood debt owed to the man who had saved his life? What kind of a man would he be, if he traded love for honor? Did she love him? Would she even take him back if she did?
The questions circled in his mind, unending, and the chilly light of dawn came as a relief. Not long after, while eating breakfast alone in the mess hall, Samiel came with a summons back to the Commander's study, and he made haste there. She was already inside, awaiting his presence, flanked by Zevran and an older Warden, his long dark hair shot through with white.
"Good morning," Elissa said, and rose to her feet. "Did you sleep well?"
"Well enough," he lied. "So. Have you decided what is to be done with me?"
"Greetings, Alistair." The stranger stepped forward with a nod. "My name is Philipe, and I serve as the second at Montsimmard. Elissa and I have discussed your situation and agree that no disciplinary action is necessary. If you desire a return to active duty with the Grey Wardens, you are welcome to do so immediately, either here or in Orlais."
Alistair bowed his head. "Thank you. I will make a decision soon."
"Very good." Philipe tapped his chest. "I return to Orlais in a month's time, and we can travel together then, if that is your choice."
"Meanwhile, you are assigned to Amaranthine, and my command." Elissa glanced at Zevran. "And as your first duty, you will travel with me to Denerim. Zevran brought tidings from the Free Marches that I need to share with the queen, and a small detachment of Wardens will travel with me, you among them."
Alistair did not flinch, but he wanted to. The Royal Palace at Denerim? It was the last place he wanted to go, ever again. But he took a deep breath and steeled his resolve. "As you command. When do we leave?"
"This afternoon. Can you be ready? What is the status of your armament?"
"My weapons are well maintained. But I could use new armor."
She nodded. "Very good. Samiel will show you to the armory. Be ready in the courtyard after lunch."
After Alistair left with the Orlesian, a step behind the elf trainee, Zevran turned to Elissa. "Are you certain this is wise? Did you see the look on his face when you mentioned Denerim, and most especially Her Majesty? It seems like leading a lamb into the teeth of a dragon."
"I'm certain." There was no hesitation in her response. "I want Anora to have your intelligence as soon as possible, and I would not leave him alone with strangers just yet. Besides, there is something in Denerim he needs to see."
He thought, and then he realized. "Ah. The monument."
She nodded. "I want him to understand that our brothers were not forgotten. I suppose I could simply tell him, but seeing it will be more powerful, I think."
"It is fair reasoning." Zevran looked at the half-open door. "But he has a stubborn heart, does our Alistair. Whether it will be enough for him to begin to forgive, I cannot say."
"Nor can I." Elissa tipped her head to the side and looked over at him. "But I'm not sure what else to try." She turned away from the door and strode back toward her desk. "Now leave me, please; I must prepare to meet with the queen. You will be at the meeting point?"
With a small sweep of his hands, Zevran made a bow. "Indeed, my lady. And most eager to see where this journey may lead us."
The sun had just passed the midday mark when the team assembled at the statue of Andraste just outside the entrance to the Keep. Alistair had come straight from the armory, where he had been outfitted with a standard set of Warden's splintmail -- lighter than he had worn in years, but more adjustable than the heavy plate he usually favored, and easier to wear on a long march. And he tired more quickly these days than he wanted to admit. "We haven't had a darkspawn outbreak in months, so this should be more than sufficient against anything you're like to meet on the road," the armorer had said, and Alistair had agreed.
Two other Wardens were already waiting in the courtyard when Alistair arrived: an elf mage, and a tall, thin human with bow and quiver slung casually over his back. The human man stepped forward first, hand out in greeting. "Pieter Bryland," he said, as Alistair took his hand in a cautious shake. "Distant cousin to the Brylands of South Reach. Nice to meet you. And this is Venyel."
The elf inclined his head politely. "Greetings."
"Hello," Alistair said, nodding in return. "I'm Alistair. Um, I suppose you knew that." He winced at his own stupidity, but Pieter only smiled.
"Vigil's Keep is a small place -- secrets rarely keep here for long." He waved vaguely toward the open portcullis that hung over the stairway. "The commander should be here soon. We're well-outfitted with common stock, but if you need anything special from the merchants, you'd best pick it up now."
Alistair shook his head. "Thanks, but I'll be fine." He hadn't much in the way of coin, anyhow. He glanced up the stairs that lead into the keep. "Do you know anything about the mission?"
Pieter shrugged. "Escorting Elissa to Denerim. I don't know her errand; she rarely confides such details to her escort teams. It's part of the rhythm of life at Vigil's Keep: Zevran goes out and finds some information, we take the commander to the Queen, and she reports. Pretty routine."
"What is Zevran's role here?" That had been a source of curiosity to Alistair for days now, but he hadn't quite been able to bring himself to ask.
Venyel and Pieter exchanged a look; it was Venyel who answered. "Officially, he's an advisor to the commander. In practice? He's her spymaster. He hasn't been Joined, but he might as well be a Warden in every other way. Has quarters here, answers to Elissa. But he's not really in the formal chain of command."
Alistair nodded, and refused to speculate about their expressions. He had enough other things to worry about without adding imaginary jealousy into the mix. "What is the command structure, anyway? When I-- left, there were all of two of us; she gave the orders, and I followed them." All but one. "I imagine things are more formal now."
"Not as much as you might think," Pieter replied. "Elissa has a second -- Nathanial; he's leading a mission to Orzammar right now, so you won't meet him until after we get back -- but other than that you'll find that we tend to work in loose teams rather than under a strict hierarchy."
An awkward silence fell among them, and Alistair was relieved to see Elissa and Zevran descending the stairs a moment later. "Ready to leave?" She looked around the small group, and took in their nods. "Very well, let's be off." Alistair picked up the largest of the community packs -- he might not be good for much else, but he retained enough strength to serve as a pack mule -- and set off, falling instinctively into the front of the formation to shield the commander and the mage, leaving Zevran and the bowman to guard the rear. He caught Elissa's eye, she nodded her approval, and they were off.
Trouble found them after only two hours on the road, and it came upon them without warning -- the party turned a corner and surprised half a dozen wolves, circling a sheep, teeth bared. Alistair pulled up short to listen, but there were no human voices about, nor the sounds of other sheep, only the one as it bleated its terror at being separated from its flock and in mortal peril. Without hesitation, he pulled his sword free, unhooked his shield and charged forward with a bellow, making straight for the wolf he judged to be the alpha. "Come and get me, you furry fiend!"
The beast broke from the pack and curled itself as if to spring, but before it could finish its leap Alistair slammed into it with his shield, knocking it back to the ground; he followed with a slash of his sword that caught the wolf across its muzzle, and it yelped in pain. He raised his sword, ready to finish the enemy with another thrust-- but before he could bring the point down into the wolf's neck, he was hit by a blur of fur and claws and teeth. Now he was the one on the ground, with just barely enough reaction time to swing his shield around and bring it between himself and the wolf's snapping jaws.
With a mighty heave, he pushed, using the shield to lift the wolf off and fling it away; it landed on its feet and lunged for him again. Someone was shouting, off in the distance; had the shepherd returned, come for his wayward charge? Alistair did not have time to check, not with two wolves advancing on him, not to mention the wounded alpha, struggling to its feet now to join its fellows, and he swung out at the closest with sword, then shield, right to the base of the neck, and it fell with a whimper. He turned to the next, and was startled to find that it, too, was down, arrows piercing its side. Where had those come from? And why could he sense magic, a cold blue flower blooming in the distance?
The shouting voice resolved into words: "Get back, spell incoming, get back!" and Alistair's legs obeyed, jumping away from the alpha and its remaining pack mates just in time to not be caught by a blast of icy mist. The wolves froze in place, their shaggy fur encrusted with frost, and Alistair took the opportunity to charge in from one side as Zevran appeared as if from nowhere, daggers whirling. Elissa had entered the fray as well, to his left, sweeping through the enemies with her own shield. A few more bashes, a few more arrows, and it was done. Alistair yanked his sword free of the alpha wolf with a gasp and stood still for a moment, breathing heavily with exertion as he surveyed the dead creatures that surrounded him -- including, unfortunately, the sheep, which lay on its side with its throat torn out -- and wondered what had just happened.
He looked up and saw Elissa advancing on him, her brows knitted together in anger, most likely asking herself the same question. "Sorry," he said, as he realized the precise nature of his error. "I forgot I wasn't alone."
"Damn right you did." Elissa sheathed her blade, glaring at him. "You put yourself at unnecessary risk, and exposed the rest of us, when our archers and our mage could have taken care of the wolves, or at the very least softened them up before we moved in. Next time, you wait for orders. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Commander." Alistair bowed his head. "I apologize. Won't happen again."
"Good." Her voice softened. "You're hurt. Venyel!"
Only then did Alistair feel the throb of pain -- in the frenzy of battle, he hadn't noticed the teeth that had torn into his arm and the top of his shoulder, just above the mail shirt. He lifted his hand to the spot, and it came back covered in blood. "Oh." Just a little higher and the wolf would have caught him full in the neck, and... "Oh," he said again, a little more softly.
Her answering smile was tight as Venyel approached. "I just got you back, all right? I'd like to keep you in one piece for at least a little while longer." With that stunning admission, she turned away and left him to Venyel's care.
"Hold still," the mage said; Alistair dragged his eyes away and complied, instincts created by a lifetime of following commands finally kicking back in. "It's not bad. Let me just..." He laid one hand on Alistair's injured arm, another on the neck wound, and murmured a few words; he felt Venyel calling on the magic, and then the warm tendrils of healing energy seeped through shirt and skin, gently whisking the pain away and mending the ragged edges. "There." Venyel dropped his hands and stepped away. "All better. But no sudden movements for the next couple of hours."
Alistair lifted the shoulder toward his ear, then allowed himself a cautious roll. "Good work."
"Thanks." Venyel responded with a half smile. "You too. Maybe it was a mistake to jump in there like that, but you sure know what you're doing. Almost taking out an alpha wolf in a single blow! Don't tell her I said so, but you might even be better with the shield than the commander."
"I wouldn't go that far." Alistair started to shrug, felt a catch, and thought better of it. "Anyway. She looks impatient; we'd better get a move on."
Thanks to two more wolf packs, it was already past sunset by the time they reached the first campsite: a clearing just off the side of the road. This was a well-used area, with the remains of a fire ring near the center of the space, and Alistair gratefully dropped his pack and helm beside it. He could not get out of his armor quickly enough; he tossed off his gloves to undo the snaps and buckles, and then the mail shirt was off, followed by the plate on his legs. If only he could remove the boots, too, but it would never do to walk around a strange camp barefoot. Instead, he took advantage of his freedom to stretch and scrub his fingers through his hair.
Then he stopped dead, turned around, saw Pieter and Venyel, fully dressed and watching him with raised brows, and he colored as he realized what a picture he must make, wearing only in an undershirt and leggings, hair sticking straight up, every inch drenched with sweat. Once again, he had forgotten his traveling companions, and all that remained was to get his tent up as quickly as possible so that he could go hide in it.
"I must say, there's something appealing about this new Alistair. Modesty and Chantry manners be damned, right?" Elissa murmured, and Zevran chuckled. She cast him an amused glance. "I thought Pieter was going to have a heart attack."
"There is a certain practicality to getting the stuff off as quickly as possible," Zevran pointed out. "Not to mention the enhancement to the camp's scenery." Her eyes narrowed, and he laughed. "What? Would you deny it? He's always been quite a decorative fellow."
She scowled at him. "We are not having this conversation." Turning on her heel, she stalked off into the trees to see to her own toilette. Zevran watched her go, his amusement mellowing into thoughtfulness as he remembered the scrap of conversation he had overheard after Alistair took that wolf bite: the concern in her voice, the look in her eyes as she had left him with the healer.
No, not yet, he decided. Neither of them were ready. But the reckoning would come, and he thought it might be soon.
The second day passed much as the first hand, then blended into the third, uneventful marches interrupted by a few minor fights each day, mostly wolves and one very large bear that they managed to drive off. They met a few human parties on the road, but none were hostile -- or if they were, at least they weren't stupid enough to attack Grey Wardens. Alistair found it refreshing to be treated with respect by travelers. As for the battles, he focused on relearning his role in a formation -- watch for danger, protect the mage, wait for an opening to present itself and then take down the enemy quickly -- and did not incur another wound more serious than bruises. Invigorated by the fresh air and the uncomplicated battles, he could feel his strength returning, his battle forms coming more naturally. Best of all, he had barely even thought of drinking since leaving Vigil's Keep. It seemed a need that had belonged to another life.
Nights fell into a pattern as well. On making camp, the Wardens would raise one tent together, change out of their armor inside, and then pitch the remaining tents before dinner. Although Alistair did not speak much with his fellow Wardens, Pieter and Venyel seemed happy to let him listen in on their conversation, inviting his opinions from time to time, and he developed a guarded liking for them both. Elissa held herself a bit apart, as was appropriate for the commander, although she would often fall into quiet talk with Zevran. But she rarely chatted with the other Wardens, and she seemed to be avoiding Alistair; except for the wolf incident, she did not speak to him beyond basic orders until after dinner on the fourth day, walking up to where he crouched by the fire.
"How are you holding up?" she asked.
Surprised, Alistair stood and turned to look at her, trying not to think about the last time he had been with her like this: discussing the day's march in the light of a campfire, companions quietly talking nearby. "Very well, thanks. I feel stronger every day."
"Your form looks better, too, although am I right in thinking you maintained that better than your stamina?"
He shrugged. "Hard to say. I stayed sharp enough to keep myself alive, but I didn't have much opportunity to improve, going up against third-rate bandits."
Elissa's expression was thoughtful. "We'll have to get you on a workout schedule. Although we don't have many skilled shield men right now, and certainly no one up to your level -- you'll probably end up teaching more than you learn."
Alistair thought about that for a moment. The image of himself as an instructor, passing on his skills to newer Wardens, held surprising appeal. Perhaps, if anyone was interested, he could even instruct them in aspects of Templar discipline -- detecting magic, slowing down mages in battle. Elissa had asked that of him once, long ago; what if he could teach her now instead? He shook himself free of the memory and looked back down at her. "Was there anything else, Commander?"
"Walk with me, Warden." She sent a hand signal to Pieter, who nodded acknowledgement and took up watch at the edge of camp. After another look, this time to Zevran, she set off towards the trees, into the semi-darkness. It was a clear night, the stars already coming out, a half-moon overhead, bright enough that Alistair could see her face when she finally stopped in a small clearing and turned around to look at him. She studied him for a long moment, expression unreadable, then spoke. "Have you had any opportunity to think about our conversation, back at Vigil's Keep?"
He had thought of little else since, the same questions spinning in his mind every night and sometimes during the dull parts of the daily march, but he could only lift his hands, non-committal. "What do you want me to say? Shall I thank you for saving my life? All things considered, it's been a pretty sorry life. I can't say it was necessarily worth the saving. Not at that cost."
"The cost of sparing a man's life?" Elissa's brows went up with a hint of exasperation. "The cost of showing leadership and restraint?"
"The cost." Alistair paced to the nearest tree and back, feet crunching against the dirt. "Let me tell you about the cost. Do you know what it cost me to walk out of that room, to forswear my oath, to leave you? I had to tear myself apart!" A part of him noticed that he was shouting at her, but he could not bring himself to care. Let her string him up for insubordination, if that would make her happy. "I ripped out a piece of my soul with my bare hands! Can you possibly know how that feels?"
He glared at her, and she stared back, eyes blazing, giving the lie to her calm facade. "To give up a part of yourself and realize that it might never return? To be in agony and know that your own choices are the cause? Oh yes, Alistair. I do. I know exactly how that feels."
The fire in her eyes drew him in from the darkness, a moth helpless to resist the pull of light. In a few long steps, he came to her, framed her face with his hands, and then he was kissing her, at last, at last; her soft lips parted and pressed back, one hand around his neck and another laced into his hair, stroking his scalp with her fingertips. He closed his eyes and tasted her sweet breath, and his whole body sang.
It went on forever, until it ended, and Elissa buried her face in his neck with a deep sigh. "Alistair," she murmured, warm against his skin. "Oh Alistair."
He did not speak; he did not trust himself to speak. He feared he might break down and weep, and, starting, might never stop. Instead, he pulled her close and kissed the crown of her head, twice and three times more, breathing in the scent of her hair: sweat, soap, the home he had denied himself for so long. They stood thus for a long, long time.
When she finally pulled away and let her arms fall, her eyes were bright again. "May I invite you into my tent?" she asked.
He had half-expected the invitation, longed for it, dreaded it. He wanted her -- Maker's breath, he wanted her, so badly that he was shaking. But would making love to her heal him? Or would it shatter him, splinter his broken soul into a thousand pieces?
Reluctantly, he shook his head, flooding himself with disappointment and relief in near-equal measures. But the relief was enough greater that he knew his choice was right. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I can't, I--" He sank to his knees, falling at her feet, and wrapped his arms about her legs. His cheek came to rest against her stomach as his eyes burned with the tears he dared not shed. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I just want to put it all back to the way it was. But... I abandoned you and my duty, I let you down, and nothing can erase that. Nothing... If only I could erase it all, forgive and forget, but I can't. I close my eyes and I see his face, all their faces, and I can't. I can't let them go."
Her hand fell on his head, like a Revered Mother blessing her charge. "I wish I could make you understand," she murmured. "All that mattered was stopping the Blight. I couldn't afford to throw away a potential ally. Not even as one as reprehensible as Loghain."
Alistair let her go and rose to his feet, a cold stone settling in his gut. "And if it had been Howe? If Rendon Howe had been the one standing before you, could you have made him a Warden? Would you have given him the chalice, fought by his side, called him brother?" He fairly spit the last word as the rage built up in him again.
"I did." Damn it all, how could she be so bloody calm about this? The cracks that had appeared in her armor were closing, the moment of vulnerability lost and gone. "In the person of his son, Nathanial, who tried to assassinate me, take revenge for killing his father and blackening the family name. Nathanial would have taken my life, but I took his instead and made use of it. Now he is my second, and a finer Warden you will rarely meet."
"It's not the same." Alistair shook his head furiously. "This Nathanial didn't destroy your home and murder your parents in cold blood! I don't--"
"Look at me, Alistair." The force of her command was strong, and he could not resist it; he lifted his chin and saw her, the conviction and determination in her eyes, giving her beauty a bright and terrible cast. "The sworn duty of a Grey Warden is to stand against the darkspawn and stop the Blight, no matter the cost. No matter the cost. I did what I had to do. Duncan would have done the same. And if you cannot understand that, then perhaps you were right to leave the Wardens."
"I could always leave again," he said through clenched teeth.
"You could," she replied with a cool nod. "And I will not hold you, but first we must complete our errand in Denerim. May I ask that of you, at least?"
He would have gone to the ends of the earth for her, once. But this... Too many words, old wounds, and emotions cancelled each other out, and in the end, he could only nod. He owed her his life, whether he wanted it or not; he could do this much for her in return. "You have my word."
She acknowledged him with a wave of her hand. "Please return to camp. I'll be along shortly." He nodded again, and left.
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