Chapter 1: Dogs and Flowers
Finella slunk into her tent, weary after a long day, and set down her candle beside her bedroll. The warm glow was small, not quite able to fill the dark corners of the tent, but for her purposes it was enough. Inside her pack she found the thick book, wrapped protectively in leather, in which she’d been keeping a log of their journey. A habit she’d picked up from her mother long ago.
It hurt a little less to think that than it had at the beginning of this journey. She supposed that was progress.
When she opened the cover, the pressed rose she kept there nearly fell out, but quick reflexes caught it before any damage could be done. She returned the flower to it to its proper place, fingers tracing the line of the flattened stem.
He hadn’t been able to meet her eyes when he gave it to her.
That was a useless thought. She didn’t have time for useless thoughts. She was a warrior, a commander, a… a Grey Warden. She had more important things to consume her time than thinking of Alistair’s shy smile, afraid of being rejected and covering it up with humor like he always did.
She tried to will the fluttering in her chest to stop, but it didn’t seem to care what she thought on the matter. Her own mind played the traitor and for a moment she could hear his nervous laughter. It had only stopped when he grew sober and told her that she was beautiful. The memory made her face grow hot and she angrily turned the pages to where she’d left off.
It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate the attention. In another life… even just a year ago…. That wasn’t a healthy line of thought. This was what her life was now. She had thought she’d come to terms with that. Her duty as a Grey Warden was to defeat the Blight, and then, if she survived, her duty as a Cousland would bring her back to Highever.
There was no doubt in her mind that the castle would be restored to her family just as soon as justice was brought to Loghain and the traitor Howe. Rage at the man’s betrayal still burned inside her like a hot coal, ready to ignite at any time, but she took a deep breath and moved her thoughts along.
The first thing she would do would be to send out search parties for her brother, but… even if Fergus was somehow still alive, the Couslands would be weak. The best way to strengthen her family’s position would be a political marriage. The second or third son of an Arl would be proper. Alistair would not be proper.
He was the son of a maid, a stable boy. His rank as a Grey Warden didn’t matter half as much as his blood. It didn’t matter how kind his eyes were or how much he tried to pretend that he didn’t care so deeply about so much. It didn’t matter that her chest felt too tight and her heart felt too big when he was around. Feelings didn’t matter. Duty mattered. She had a responsibility to her people. She couldn’t protect them if she could barely even hold onto a seat in the Landsmeet.
Footsteps outside her tent pulled her from her dark thoughts and she blinked away tears she hadn’t realized had been building. The skid-crunch of her mabari’s rampant play was met with uneven, exasperated footfalls. She set down her book and lifted the tent flap in time to see Muffin dancing around Alistair, waving his stub tail happily as the man pointedly tried to ignore him. A short gasp of laughter escaped her lungs when she noticed the boot in Muffin’s mouth, and the lack of one on Alistair’s left foot.
“Ah,” Alistair began, faltering almost immediately. “I don’t suppose- That is, if you don’t mind-“
Before he could make a further fool of himself, she snapped her fingers at the mabari, giving him a stern look and pointing at the ground. “Drop it,” she ordered, and the boot hit the dirt with a hollow thud.
“Thank you,” Alistair breathed then quickly retrieved his boot. “I don’t know what got into him. He just charged up and grabbed the damn thing as I was taking it off. He’s not messing with me, is he?” He eyed the dog suspiciously, but Muffin only panted happily.
“It’s a possibility,” she admitted, inspecting Muffin for any sign of guilt. The hulking war dog ran up and shoved his head under her hand, seeking attention or perhaps just trying to play innocent. Without much thought she scratched behind his ears and turned her attention back to Alistair. “He seems to have acquired a penchant for mischief lately.” She wouldn’t mention that it was only where Alistair was involved.
If she was being honest, her plans to distance herself from the man who consumed so much of her thoughts had more than once been ruined by the dog. She was half-certain he was doing it on purpose, but she refused to order him to quit playing match-maker. It was far too undignified for a woman of her standing, and that was the only reason she let him keep doing it.
“Ah…. Well!” Alistair fumbled, turning the boot over in his hands. “That would… explain that, yes.” He was having trouble meeting her eyes again and she couldn’t help the warm smile on her face. It was too difficult to keep reminding herself not to be so blissfully happy around him.
“Did you get enough to eat?” she asked when he proved incapable of finding another sentence. That was a perfectly normal thing for a commander to ask of her soldiers.
“Oh. Yes!” He seized on the new topic. “The brown soup was very good tonight. I might have even been able to detect a hint of mystery meat. My favorite!”
She laughed, not failing to notice the proud smile it inspired. It was a beautiful smile. It might be easier to just die fighting the archdemon than to give up that smile. She honestly wasn’t sure which would be worse at this point, which was not a good sign.
“I should go before I make a fool of myself.” She did not say a thing. “More of a fool, anyhow.” He backed away a few paces, still holding his boot awkwardly. He flashed an uncertain smile. “Goodnight, fearless leader. Sweet dreams.”
He turned around before she could be certain of whether he’d flushed red or if it was just the firelight, and ran back to his own bedroll. She watched him go, but forced herself to turn away when he was back amidst his own belongings.
Beside her, Muffin sat down with a heavy sigh and looked up at her pleadingly.
“You’re not helping, you know.” He responded with a soft wuffing sound that made her feel like she was being judged. “I have a daily log to write. Think you can manage not to be a nuisance for a few minutes?”
Muffin barked and followed her inside her tent.
Chapter 2: Cold Bones
Leaning against the stone balcony, Finella watched the sun set behind the mountains. The temperature was already dropping and it looked like the night would add another layer of snow over the old fortress. She wondered if it would bury the skeletons that littered the courtyard.
Alistair’s familiar footsteps clanged against the freezing stone, echoing around the empty walls as he came to stand at her side. She tore her eyes away from the horizon to give him her full attention and noted the tightness in his posture. He was still uncomfortable around the dead.
“We finished the final sweep,” he told her. “None of the corpses sprung to life, so I’m relatively sure there aren’t any demons remaining within the Peak. It should be safe for now.”
She nodded. “Good. We should get a fire going in the main hall before we lose the light. I don’t think we’ll make it through the night without something to keep us warm.”
“Leliana already took care of it. She’s tending the fire now, and I will add that your dog graciously decided to keep her company. Sten is helping Wynne block the entrances to keep as much of the warmth in as possible. Still, it’ll be a tough night.” He hesitated. “Are you sure you want to spend the night here?” Alistair gazed back at the courtyard and the bones littered there. “This place makes me uneasy. I can’t help feeling like if I go to sleep here I’ll never wake up.”
“The Veil is sealed and you said yourself that there are no demons remaining,” she reasoned. “Besides, there’s no time to make it back down the mountain before dark, and the fortress can offer us at least some shelter from the elements.”
“I know,” he said with a deep sigh. The resignation on his face left a dull ache in her chest.
“I don’t like it either,” she tried, hoping to make it better, “But we’ll take shifts like always. Look out for each other, right?”
That won her a small smile. “Right.”
The sun was almost completely hidden now and she huddled in on herself against the chill in the air. Still, she didn’t want to go inside, at least, not yet. She turned her gaze north and found she could just spot the edge of the Waking Sea. If she followed that west….
No. This was useless. She hung her head with a sigh and cursed her own foolishness. This wasn’t helping things.
“Everything okay?” Alistair asked beside her, voice heavy with concern.
“It’s nothing, I just-“ Dare she tell him? “I just… keep thinking that if I squint hard enough I might be able to see it.”
Alistair looked confused a moment before realization dawned across his expression and he turned to look as well. “Highever Castle.”
“We’re in Highever now, I think.” She scrunched up her face. “Either that or right on the border with Amaranthine. It’s been 300 years since anyone thought to put Soldier’s Peak on a map, so it’s hard to tell.” She paused. “The mountains are the same, though.” She’d been raised in these mountains. They’d long ago sunk deep into her bones and just being close to them again gave her an immense feeling of peace… and anxiety.
All through their journey she’d been homesick for a family that no longer existed. Even after her duty was done the only thing she had to return to was a castle. Still, it was better than nothing. Being so close only made the time until she could return seem intolerable. How long before she could go home? Months? Years?
She nearly jumped when Alistair spoke quietly beside her. “I… was happy to return to Redcliffe,” he said. “Even with all the terrible things that were happening, it was good to be back. I’ve never really had much of a home, but that was the closest I ever got. Losing someplace where you’ve spent your entire life… I can’t imagine how much worse that must be.”
It was sweet that he wanted to help, so she did her best not to scowl. “It’s not lost,” she swore. “I’m going to get it back. Once Loghain is brought to justice and the Blight defeated I’m going home.”
“Grey Wardens aren’t supposed to hold titles,” Alistair said carefully.
Finella froze, the cold around them finding its way into her bones. “I know,” she whispered. “But I can’t leave my people without a Teyrn, and if my brother is truly lost…” She shook her head. “I don’t know if you can understand that. It must seem very strange to someone who wasn’t raised that way.”
Alistair surprised her with a smile. It was the warmest thing she’d seen all day. “No, I don’t suppose I understand,” he admitted, “But it’s one of the things I like best about you: your sense of responsibility to others. I’m… glad to be one of them.” He flushed and reared back, throwing his hands up defensively. “I mean! In that we’re on the same team! It’s a relief! Knowing you’ll always have my back!”
Finella flushed as well and couldn’t meet his eyes. “Yes! You – uh – you too…. Good… good looking out.”
Their stalemate lasted nearly a full minute before she chanced a look over at him and saw the expression of panic on his face. What were they doing? The ridiculousness of their situation struck her and she couldn’t contain a bout of laughter. Alistair joined in after a moment, nervously scratching his head.
She bowed her head and smiled, thinking about Alistair’s words. If things were different, she’d love to continue serving the Wardens after all this was over. She could stay by Alistair’s side, travelling and defending the people. Without the burden of a marriage alliance, maybe they could even…. Well, she didn’t want to presume… but the way he looked at her…. She wasn’t crazy, right?
But things weren’t different. Wishing otherwise would just bring pain.
She shook her head free of the unwanted thoughts. “You know,” she said instead, “The funny thing is I always wanted to be a Grey Warden.”
“Did you?” Alistair’s smile was infectious.
She nodded. “Ever since I was a kid. I wanted to be a grand hero travelling the world and rescuing the innocent.” Her fragile smile faded. “Father wouldn’t allow it, of course. He knew how dangerous it was, and he needed me to be there in case anything….” She breathed in sharply and let the cold air sting her lungs. “In case anything happened to Fergus.”
Alistair frowned as well and it hurt to know that was her fault.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. What’s done is done. No use crying about it.” And yet she could already feel moisture welling up in her eyes, the mountain’s bitter winds threatening to turn tears to ice on her lashes.
Instead of getting better, the look on Alistair’s face soured further. His arms rose a few inches before lowering again in some aborted expression. His face looked as though he was at war with his own thoughts. She wondered what was transpiring behind those lovely eyes.
“Yes, well,” he said at last, “No place like a frigid, formerly-haunted fortress full of corpses to air out your grievances with the world, I always say.”
She snorted, then felt something wet on her cheek. Damn. She wasn’t actually crying, was she? When she lifted her hand to her cheek, however, she realized the truth. The promised snowflakes had begun to fall. Alistair had noticed it too and swore, hugging himself for warmth.
“Damn! Is it always this cold in these mountains?”
“Only this time of year,” she replied from memory. The snow was thickening around them by the second and little white tufts had already begun to gather in the wilds of Alistair’s hair. “Come on; let’s get you inside before you freeze.”
“How do you stand it?” he asked as she steered him back towards the keep.
“Practice,” she lied.
Through the windows, she could see specks of light peeking out where Wynne and Sten hadn’t quite been able to seal the main hall. Even with a slight draft, however, the inside would be warm. Especially with so many of them huddled around the fire. Even Morrigan would have to join them tonight or be forced to wear actual clothes. Alistair would cook them a terrible meal and Leliana might have some good ghost stories to tell. Night would give way to morning and the snow would cover the world in a blanket of white. She just had to keep pushing forward.
Chapter 3: Mothers
Over the next few weeks she would come to care less and less about what the future had in store for her. She justified it by telling herself that she didn’t even know if she’d survive the war, let alone the archdemon. She could figure out what to do about her love life when all of this was over. For now… she could just let herself be happy.
A part of her knew, the first time she kissed Alistair, that there was no going back. Once she allowed herself to have the thing that she wanted most in the world, she’d never be able to deny herself that pleasure again. Which, admittedly, might make things difficult in the future.
But that was later.
Right now, laying against the man she loved with his hands carding through her hair and her dog curled up beside her? It was the happiest she’d been in a long time. Certainly the happiest since… that night. Her body stiffened at the memory and she turned her face into Alistair’s shoulder
“Hey, what’s this now?” he asked with a laugh.
“Mmpf,” she replied eloquently without moving.
His laughter was warm and soft. It wrapped around her like a thick blanket and there was nothing she would have traded for it. When she calmed, he pulled his arm away so that he could see her face, his other hand coming around to cup her cheek.
“Honestly, what’s wrong?”
She closed her eyes and concentrated on the rough feeling of his calloused palms. “Nothing,” she said. “Just trying not to think about the past… or the present.” She frowned. “Anything, really.”
“Anything?” was his amused reply.
She brought her hand up to cover his. “Well, not anything.” When she opened her eyes he was smiling at her with so much love that she couldn’t help but lean forward and kiss him. It was tender and chaste, but when they parted his face was flushed.
“Ah. Well. That’s- Yes.”
She snorted and resumed her previous position. “You know Wynne tried to scold me about us the other day,” she said as a point of conversation.
“What?” Alistair asked, shocked. “What did she say?”
“Oh, just the usual bit about me having a grand and important duty and that my responsibilities come before my happiness.”
“That’s not fair.” She could almost hear the frown in his voice and restrained a giggle. “You take your responsibilities more seriously than anyone I’ve ever known.” He shifted again, wrapping his arm around her defensively. “Sometimes I think too seriously…”
There was a tone to his voice she’d never heard before, sad but determined. She wasn’t certain what to make of it and decided she’d rather not know what he was thinking in that moment. Instead, she shifted to make herself more comfortable in the new position and changed the subject.
“Well, she did have another reason.”
“What’s that?” Alistair asked, a ghost of that dangerous tone still in his voice.
“She didn’t want me to hurt you.”
“What?” She felt him move to look down at her in confusion.
“Oh, yes.” She snickered, then augmented her voice to imitate Wynne’s wizened cadence. “You’re strong dear, but what about him? He’s such a sweet boy, I’d hate to see him hurt in all of this.”
“I’m not-! Why would-! That’s not-!” Alistair growled his displeasure and breathed, taking his time to form a coherent thought. “That’s none of her business!” he declared. “Besides, I don’t need her defending me, least of all from you.”
Finella let out a delighted peel of laughter and felt his posture soften beside her. “Oh, please,” she said, still a little breathless. “She’s just being defensive because she cares about you so much.”
“She… does?” Alistair asked, obviously confused.
“Aww,” she cooed. “You haven’t realized that you’re mommy’s favorite?”
“That’s ridiculous,” he said without conviction. “I’m a grown man, and anyway Wynne isn’t my mother. She has no right to say that.”
Finella snorted again. “Don’t tell me you aren’t secretly pleased.” She twisted her neck so she could look up at him. “You’ve got two amazing women who both love you and want what’s best for you.”
Alistair was a terrible actor; he couldn’t keep himself from looking utterly delighted by the concept. “If you say so…”
“I do say so.” She relaxed her neck to its former position, lifting her chin and closing her eyes in an air of haughtiness. “And I know best.”
“That you do.” Alistair chuckled and dropped a kiss to the crown of her head. “Thank you,” he said after a pause. “For caring about me.”
Finella tried to speak but found her throat blocked by a sudden lump of feeling. She swallowed painfully. “Of course,” she said hoarsely. How could she not?
Wynne’s voice nagged at the back of her mind, however. The healer was right; at some point she might be forced to part ways with Alistair, by death or by duty. And wouldn’t that just destroy him? How could she claim to want what’s best for him if she was willing to hurt him like that? There were so many reasons why this was a bad idea. She’d known that going in, hadn’t she?
She clutched the arm he had thrown around her and burrowed deeper into his embrace. It didn’t matter. She didn’t want to hear it. Why couldn’t she just have this? Why was it so bad for her to want to be happy?
You know you’re going to have to make a decision eventually.
The voice sounded an awful lot like her mother’s this time and she angrily banished it from her mind. You’re gone, she thought. It doesn’t matter what you think.
She knew that the day was fast approaching when this prophecy would come true, but she didn’t have to decide just yet. For now she could ignore it. For now she could just be happy and in love.
Chapter 4: Two-Sided Coins
“Very well! I will play your silly game,” Morrigan declared angrily.
“We’re playing a game?” Finella replied, restraining a smile. “Oh, goodie. I do so love games.”
Even with her eyes closed, Finella knew Morrigan was rolling her eyes. “Do not play the fool with me, Warden. It does not suit you half as well as Alistair.”
“He does suit me, doesn’t he?” Finella replied, because at this point she was having fun, and anyways, Morrigan had set herself up.
“Yes, very funny.” Morrigan’s disapproving tone dripped with sarcasm. “While I still fail to understand what you see in him, let us please return to the topic at hand?”
“Which is?” To be fair, she really didn’t know what Morrigan was talking about.
Morrigan let out a frustrated huff. “You’ve been just sitting there for some time now while I go about my business. Is there something you need of me? Some question you wish to ask?”
Finella couldn’t help the peel of laughter. “Morrigan, I just wanted to spend some time with you! Though, if you really want, I’m sure I could think up a few more prying questions.”
“No, thank you. I believe I’ve had quite enough of those.” She hesitated, seemingly unsure of what to do with her hands.
“What am I meant to do? If we’re to spend time together, that is.” Seeing Morrigan so unsure of how to accept affection always filled Finella with an odd mix of heartbreak and tenderness.
She returned to her lounging position, pretending that it didn't bother her that Flemeth had been so cruel to her daughter. “You don’t have to do anything, unless you want to. We can talk or just sit. You can keep messing with your potions and I’ll just sit and listen to you make nasty comments about everyone while occasionally chastising you.”
“I fail to see the point of this.”
“The point,” Finella said, watching Morrigan with one eye open. “Is to just… be there. To exist around another person for no other reason than you want to be around them more.”
“If spending time together is all that is required to gain your affection I am beginning to understand your relationship with Alistair.”
Finella snorted. Morrigan always brought Alistair up eventually. Her frustration with the man was as predictable as the tides. In most respects, Alistair and Morrigan were polar opposites. It was likely that they would never be able to understand each other, and Finella had come to terms with that. Still, it was always funny to listen to them complain about each other.
“I am glad to see you’ve seen sense in this, at least,” Morrigan went on. “The man is like a leech! Constantly clinging to your side and demanding attention.”
“Is he? I rather think he resembles a mabari.”
“Ah, yes.” Morrigan smiled. “He is a dog, isn’t he? Filthy, obedient-”
Morrigan pouted. “Do you truly require two of those blasted hounds? I would have thought one would be sufficient.”
“What can I say? I’m a very selfish woman.”
“Indeed? Is that why you gave away a good portion of our supplies to those refugees we encountered yesterday?”
Finella winced, caught in a lie. “Fine, you got me. I’m a paragon of charity and I still can’t believe my luck as to be rewarded with two of the bravest, most wonderful men in existence.”
“One of whom is an actual animal,” Morrigan pointed out.
“Ah! So you admit that Alistair is human!” Finella giggled. “That’s progress.”
Morrigan scoffed. “The two of you and your jokes.”
“Jokes are fun.”
“Alistair never stops joking.”
“Aw, that’s just his way of defending himself from the world.”
When Morrigan said nothing, Finella sat up to attention. “You didn’t know?” That actually made sense. Morrigan hadn’t been raised with other people. She wouldn’t know the various ways that people kept themselves sane in a cruel world.
“It’s… like a wall,” she explained as Morrigan watched her incredulously. “If he makes jokes about something, then he can pretend he’s not scared or upset or whatever other feeling he’s trying to ignore.”
Morrigan scowled. “So instead of being merely annoying, it is both annoying and a sign of weakness. Yes, I completely understand what you see in him now.”
“You do the same thing with nasty comments,” she accused.
Morrigan gaped at her.
Finella wondered if she should just keep her mouth shut, but she felt like… maybe she was on the verge of a breakthrough with Morrigan. “It’s easier to just assume the whole world is wrong and evil, because then when something hurts you, you can hurt it back and not feel bad about it.” She swallowed. “And hurting others makes the pain you feel a little more bearable.”
For a moment, she thought Morrigan was going to get up and walk away, or demand to be left alone. She definitely looked angry.
“I am not Alistair,” she asserted after a long time. “I do not require your assistance, and I am certainly not a broken thing to be fixed.”
“Aren’t we all a little broken?” Finella asked softly. When Morrigan said nothing, she continued. “I’m an orphan leading a group of misfits and exiles. Even Wynne never really fit in at the Circle; too much wanderlust, I suppose.” She shrugged. “I guess I’m trying to say that it’s okay to be a little broken. You’re in good company.”
Morrigan didn’t smile, but Morrigan never smiled. She sneered frequently enough, but she never really smiled. The one exception to this rule had been when Finella gifted her with the golden mirror. Morrigan’s face had lit up with gratitude and even she hadn’t been able to hold back a brilliant smile that went from ear to ear. It was one of Finella’s proudest moments.
Unable to form a reply, Morrigan let silence surround them. After a long while, Finella leaned forwards and rested her head on her knees. “I don’t love him because I want to fix him, just so that you know.” Her friend raised an eyebrow. “I love him because he keeps trying. No matter how broken he is, how much he’s hurting, he keeps trying to reach out with kindness. I want to be the one who reaches back.”
There was a moment of hesitation when her words seemed to reach Morrigan, but she soon covered the vulnerability with a sneer. “Do you realize how sickening the expression on your face is right now?”
“Very?” she asked, laughing.
“Indeed. Had I a weaker constitution I believe I might lose my dinner.”
“That would have been a terrible waste of fine cuisine. I believe I actually tasted seasoning in this evening’s meal!”
“Precisely.” Morrigan said with a toss of her head. “I will therefore require you to refrain from such hideous displays in the future. Imagine what might happen if the two of you were both making similar faces! I fear I would be positively overcome with violent disgust and I cannot say what actions I might take then.”
“I’ll try and keep that in mind,” Finella said with a giggle. “No lovey-dovey faces around Morrigan.”
She thought she saw one side of Morrigan’s mouth quirk upward.
Finella was stunned. Certainly she’d misheard Bann Teagan. And yet… she couldn’t process his words in any other way that made sense. Admittedly, Alistair being Cailan’s heir didn’t exactly make sense either, but there it was.
“Forgive me, my lord,” she said cautiously, “But why would Alistair have a claim to the throne?”
“You don’t know?” Bann Teagan asked, surprised.
“I, uh, meant to tell you when we were approaching Redcliffe, but…”
Alistair didn’t seem inclined to finish his sentence, so Arl Eamon spoke. “Alistair is King Maric’s illegitimate son. He is Cailan’s half-brother and has a claim to Ferelden’s throne.”
Finella stared at the mantle above Arl Eamon’s hearth, not really seeing it. Alistair was… Alistair was a Theirin. He wasn’t just the son of some serving woman, he wasn’t just a Grey Warden, he was… he was her rightful king.
She felt laughter bubble up from inside her, or were those sobs? She really couldn’t tell. Her body shook, rocked by the force of whatever it was she was feeling. Anger, relief… the vague feeling that her entire life might be some practical joke The Maker was playing, it all came tumbling out of her as she fell to pieces in front of the Arl of Redcliffe, one of the most important men in the kingdom.
“Darling?” Alistair asked nervously, not daring to step any closer.
“Sorry,” she choked out, wiping the tears from her cheeks. “Apologies, my lord. That was most unbecoming. You must forgive my outburst it has… been a long journey.”
Arl Eamon nodded slowly. “You have been through much. More then you’ve told me, I think. I would not presume to lecture one such as yourself.”
“You are too kind, my lord.” With a final sniffle, Finella straightened her spine and shot a scouring look at the love of her life. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I never thought it would come to this!” Alistair cried defensively. “When Cailan got married everyone thought it was best to just… have me step aside. It was a relief, actually.” Alistair’s face twisted in the way it always did when he was upset. “I don’t want to be king! I never did. Even when Cailan died I- I guess I hoped that something else would present itself.”
“You have a responsibility, Alistair.” Arl Eamon’s commanding voice was softened by his obvious affection for the young man. “Without you, Loghain wins. I would have to support him for the sake of Ferelden. Is that what you want?”
“I- But I-!” Alistair sighed, setting aside complaints he knew to be childish. “No, my lord.”
“I see only one way to proceed,” Eamon said with a nod. “I will call for a Landsmeet, a gathering of all of Ferelden’s nobility in the city of Denerim. There, Ferelden can decide who shall rule, one way or another. Then the business of fighting our true foe can begin.” He looked directly at Finella. “What say you to that, my friend? I do not wish to proceed without your blessing.”
Finella nodded. Alistair wouldn’t like it, she knew, but it was the best plan they had. Their only chance of stopping Loghain before all of Ferelden was lost to the Darkspawn.
“Let’s go,” she told the Arl with a determined smile.
For the first time since all of this began, she felt hope fill her heart. She also saw a way she could do her duty to her family and remain with the man she loved. Perhaps that was selfish, but she truly believed in Alistair. He would be a good and kind king. The people would love him, almost as much as she did. All he needed was to believe it himself.
They didn’t get much chance to talk on the way to Denerim. Arl Eamon wanted to catch up with Alistair while Finella took Muffin and Sten to ride with Bann Teagan and the Arl’s guards at the front of the procession. Bann Teagan was a good man, and pleasant company. He knew better than to bring up her family and instead kept to stories of his own misadventures. It was a welcome distraction.
If she was being completely honest with herself, there had been time to seek out Alistair and talk to him, but she didn’t quite trust herself around him yet. She was so relieved but at the same time… it hurt that he’d kept this from her. All those months of torturing herself over having to choose between him and duty, of hating herself for wanting to choose him every time…. He could have saved her so much pain if he’d just spoken up earlier.
She wasn’t angry, per se, just… sad, and exhausted. She still couldn’t quite believe that the end was finally in sight. This should be a happy time, not a time to accidentally pick a fight with Alistair because she was cranky and wanted someone to blame. No, what she needed before she talked to him about this was a good night’s rest in an actual bed, and maybe a meal or two prepared over something other than a campfire.
Life didn’t always agree with her.
Loghain and Howe’s little visit had been a surprise. Best not to overthink that one. She’d talked it out with Oghren, of all people, and was fine now. Fine enough to listen to Anora’s handmaiden with an even head and see the sense in her plan. She wanted to leave immediately, rest and food be damned. She couldn’t leave without talking to Alistair first, though. She’d been putting it off long enough.
“I haven’t been here in a while. They’ve changed the dining room,” he said absently as she approached. Something changed in his face when he saw her expression and he grew serious. “Something on your mind?”
“I wanted to talk,” she said nervously.
“Of course.” It was the little smile afterwards that killed her. She almost stopped there, but… she had to get this off her chest.
“Why didn’t you tell me about your father? Why did you keep your birthright a secret?”
He winced on the word ‘birthright.’ “Youuuu never asked?” He was deflecting, always deflecting.
She took a deep, steadying breath to collect her thoughts. They needed to be in a nice little order if she was going to get through this conversation in one piece. Finally, she let it out all at once in a heavy sigh. “I’m hurt that you didn’t trust me.” There! Nice and grown-up sounding.
“No! Please don’t think that!” Alistair said in a rush, holding his arms out to her, but stopped just short, likely realizing the touch would be unwelcome in that moment. “It’s not that I didn’t trust you, it’s-“ He sighed and pulled his arms back towards his body. “Please, let me try to explain.”
Now Alistair was the one who needed to order his thoughts.
“The thing is… I’m used to not telling people who didn’t already know. It was always a secret. Even Duncan was the only Grey Warden who knew. And then, after the battle, when I should have told you… I don’t know. It seemed like it was too late by then. How do you just tell someone that?”
“I guess I can understand that.” She didn’t, not really, but she was trying.
“I… I should have told you anyway,” he admitted. “It was important for you to know. I guess part of me liked you not knowing.”
“Why? What happens when people find out?” She thought of Wynne, bowing and calling her ‘my lady;’ how strange and uncomfortable the familiar title had felt on her companion’s tongue.
“They treat me differently. I become the bastard prince to them instead of just… Alistair.” He looked so sad. Part of her wanted nothing more than to reach out for him. She resisted the urge. “I know that must sound stupid to you, but I hate that it’s shaped my entire life. I never wanted it, and I certainly don’t want to be king. The very idea of it terrifies me.”
Finella thought of her relief at learning that Alistair was the true heir to the throne and felt a wave of guilt spread its cold fingers over her skin. She swallowed, clearing away the ice in her throat. “It doesn’t sound stupid at all,” she whispered.
“For all the good it does me,” Alistair muttered. “My blood seems certain to haunt me no matter what I do. And now Arl Eamon plans to put me forward as the heir. It never ends, does it?”
She wanted to rush forward and hug him, to take away the pain and fight everyone in the world that wanted to hurt him, but… she was one of those people, wasn’t she? She wanted him to take a throne he had no interest in. All Alistair wanted was to use his skill as a warrior to help people, and maybe find some happiness with her, and she wanted to deny him that. She was a monster.
“For what it’s worth,” his voice interrupted her self-loathing, “I’m sorry for not telling you sooner. I… I guess I was just hoping that you would like me for who I am. It was a dumb thing to do.”
She was not going to cry. Of course I like you for who you are, you idiot. I love you. The words wouldn’t come out. When her throat finally opened again she hissed in a stabilizing breath. “Apology accepted,” she said lamely, wiping unshed tears from her eyes.
Alistair smiled for her, and it felt like removing her armor after a long day: weightless. “I guess it’s kind of a relief that you know now.” He nodded towards the door. “Let’s go.”
Did you know that if you "accidentally" forget to put Alistair in your party the first time you enter Redcliffe he never tells you about who his father is?
Chapter 6: The Mountain and The River
Most of this chapter is the in-game conversation you have with Anora after rescuing her, so the dialogue will sound familiar. Hopefully Finella's POV will spice it up a bit.
Finella paused outside of the guest room where Anora was staying, her gut a jumble of anxiety. It was obvious Anora would ask for her support in keeping the throne, but Finella just couldn’t go along with that. Oh, there were good reasons for Anora to be queen, she knew. Her parents hadn’t neglected to teach her the finer points of politics, but… she just couldn’t. Still, she owed it to Cailan’s widow to hear her out.
Anora smiled when she entered, and waited for her to close the door before speaking. “Hello again, Warden.” The title sounded wrong coming from someone who knew her when she was just Finella. “It is good that you came to see me.”
The queen paused, restraining herself from jumping into the topic she was so obviously eager to discuss. “First, let me say that I knew your family. Eleanor, in particular was dear to me, and what Howe did…” Anora’s face twisted in a watered down version of the pain that Finella still felt. Killing Howe hadn’t taken the edge off, not that she’d expected it to. “… was unforgivable. How fitting that he died at your hand.”
Finella gave Anora a weak smile. The woman was trying. She could too. “Mother used to mention you often.” That startled a smile out of Anora. “She’d sigh heavily every time I refused to come in from training and say ‘why can’t you be more ladylike like Anora?’ or something along the same lines.” She snorted. “As if she’d never donned a set of armor. When she was my age she’d already sunk more than a dozen Orlesian ships.”
“Yes, what was it they called her?” Anora asked with a smile. “The Seawolf?”
Finella nodded. “The terror of every Orlesian sailor.” Pride overcame grief for a moment in the silence that held between them. Finella had only met Anora once or twice before all this, but… they could share a moment of mourning for someone they both knew well. Her eyes burned when she realized this was the closest thing she’d yet gotten to a funeral for either of her parents.
“I will be blunt,” Anora said after a moment, pulling Finella away from the immobilizing jaws of grief. “I can see that your voice will be a strong one in days to come. It is to you that Eamon listens, and with good reason.” Ah, there it was. Anora the politician, another reason her mother had adored the young queen. She wasn’t surprised to learn it was Eamon that Anora was really focused on. The man wielded as much respect, and in many ways, more power, than Anora. Worse, he was set upon seeing a Theirin on the throne, of which Anora was not one.
“My father must be stopped,” continued Anora, “But once that is done, Ferelden will need a ruler. I would welcome your support for my throne.”
Finella wondered if Anora was forsaking her usual subtleties because she was desperate, or because she knew Finella wouldn’t appreciate trying to be led like a work animal. “You’re proposing an alliance?” she asked skeptically.
“That is exactly what I am proposing. When the time comes, you support my bid in the Landsmeet to remain on the throne. You will be seen as my father’s enemy, yet you will be in support of his daughter. You will be seen as supporting the interests of Ferelden as opposed to solely those of the Grey Wardens.” A year ago, Finella would have thought that preposterous, but after seeing Howe’s paranoia and contempt, she couldn’t argue that there were many who would certainly chose to see it that way. Of course, they were all self-centered morons, but still… morons with the power to make things difficult for her and Alistair both.
“In return, I add my voice to yours.” Anora was saying. “Do you see? Together we can do what alone we cannot.” Anora wasn’t smiling. She wasn’t trying to ingratiate herself to Finella, only hoping that she’d see the sense in what Anora had said, and it was quite sensible. If you ignored certain things that Anora had failed to mention.
“You think you are a better candidate than Alistair?” Finella challenged.
“Do you disagree? You are a fellow Grey Warden. What do you think of Alistair’s potential to rule, nevermind his willingness?”
Finella resisted the urge to laugh. It was an open secret amongst the nobles that Cailan did nothing for the throne, and that Anora was the true ruler. Anora would no doubt try and use this to her advantage but Finella saw it differently. She’d once asked her father why Cailan allowed Anora to rule as she did. Didn’t that make him a weak king? Her father had smiled and told her that the true measure of a king was his ability to know his weaknesses. Cailan knew he hadn’t the head for politics and governance. Instead of trying to be something he wasn’t, he’d turned the job over to Anora, who relished in such things. Alistair was more than aware of his weaknesses. In fact, the man was far too hard on himself.
“I think he’d do fine, actually,” she told Anora, restraining a smile.
“Alistair seems like a kind, well-meaning man, and biddable enough. These are admirable qualities, if not kingly ones.” Again, Finella restrained herself. “He also seems to be a fine Grey Warden – which is exactly why he should remain one, and serve the kingdom by defeating the darkspawn.” As if he couldn’t do both.
It occurred to Finella that, as much as the description was skewed in Anora’s favor, the basics of what she said were accurate. Anora had never met Alistair. How could she possibly know all this? The hairs on the back of Finella’s neck stood up. Suspicious behavior from someone as capable as Anora was dangerous.
“Just how do you know so much about him?” Finella managed to keep her tone even, but Anora would not mistake the question for idle curiosity.
“Cailan knew of Alistair,” she replied dismissively. Then, seeing an in, continued. “It was Arl Eamon that kept Alistair out of court as Maric had desired.” Finella noted that Anora managed to cast Eamon in a disparaging light, implying that Cailan would have wanted to know his half-brother, while never actually saying so. Trying to ingratiate herself while pushing the Arl out. Anora was finally starting to show her true abilities.
“Oh, there are some who would follow Alistair out of respect for his Theirin blood,” Anora pressed on. “The others would see this as Arl Eamon grabbing for power. Who else do you think Alistair would turn to for help?”
Who else but one of the most respected men in Ferelden, indeed? Finella thought bitterly, beginning to resent where Anora was going with this.
“Eventually the nobility would return to the old days of constant warring with each other. Alistair’s weakness would destroy everything Maric built.”
It was nothing if not dramatic. Still, it was wasted on Finella. “That’s a bit excessive, don’t you think?” she replied, allowing her voice to carry with it a biting tone. The warning was not wasted on Anora who, seeing that she was losing ground, backed down.
“I simply believe that I am what this country needs. I will fight for what I believe. Would Alistair do the same? Thus I say again: I would welcome your support for the throne… if you would give it.”
Fight? What did Anora know of fighting? She’d been engaged to Cailain as a child and only ever fought to herd the squabbling lords towards her vision of the future. Alistair had followed Finella into the Deep Roads, far into the nests of the darkspawn, not because he was some besotted fool or a glory hound, but because he’d believed it necessary. He’d suffered, and bled, and nearly died half a dozen times heart-stopping times, not for some crown, but because his deepest desire was to serve the people, to protect them. That was what the people needed.
She could have said all this to Anora, but insulting the woman wouldn’t help her cause. It was very likely that Anora already knew all this about Alistair and had decided to believe him unfit regardless. At least, when compared to her.
“Anora,” she began, not sure how to bring up the one thing she knew might actually sway the woman. “You and Cailan were married for years. I know you loved him, and yet… there was no heir.”
Anora was a good actress but she struggled to keep her face calm. So much for not insulting her. “I don’t know if it was you,” she said in a rush to appease Anora. “It could have been Cailan, but even if it was, would you be okay with marrying again? Ferelden doesn’t just need a ruler now, it needs a ruler twenty years from now… a hundred years from now. There must be an heir for stability to last, and if you can’t provide one, then you’re not fit for the throne.”
She definitely struck a raw nerve with that. Anora’s face had gone red and she struggled to get herself under control before replying. Before she could, Finella continued, dropping her voice to a pleading tone. “We’re trying to stop a war of succession, Anora, not postpone it.”
Anora looked down and away. “That can be dealt with later,” she said before looking up, “After the current crisis has passed. Ferelden is in turmoil, and what is needed now is not another good man but a good ruler.”
Then… she really couldn’t be convinced.
“I’m sorry.” Finella sighed. “I cannot support you.”
“Ah. That is too bad.”
Though disappointed, Anora stood proudly once more. The two women watched each other, neither wishing to be enemies, but both certain they had the right of it. It left Finella’s stomach unsettled. Anora was a good woman, and every bit as competent as she claimed. She would be a useful asset to Alistair’s rule.
“Please, Anora… step down,” Finella tried, knowing it would do little to convince the woman. “Alistair might still produce an heir. He can secure more than just our survival. I know you want what’s best for Ferelden. He relies on Arl Eamon, it’s true, but he’ll need your help as well. You can still play a role in shaping our future.”
Anora watched her for a long time, and Finella strained to remain still against the churning in her stomach. Why did Anora have to be so stubborn? Couldn’t she see she would only harm the kingdom in the long run?
Finally, Anora gave her a sad smile. “Maric’s boys are charming, aren’t they? And happiest when they have a woman to dote upon.” She raised one of her perfect eyebrows and her expression changed to a wry grin. “Is that why you support him? They way you speak of him, it… simply makes me curious.”
“I love him, if that’s what you’re asking,” Finella said defiantly, unashamed of the truth.
“And you think this is what he actually wants?” She paused, inspecting Finella. “No, I don’t think he’s changed that much. Putting the man you love on the throne however, well, that would eventually make you queen, wouldn’t it?” She nodded, the pieces lining up behind her eyes. “A stable boy would be scandalously inappropriate for a Cousland to wed, but a king… that would be an excellent match, indeed.” Anorra’s smile was as smug as she was beautiful. “I thought you lacked subtlety, but I see now I was wrong. Congratulations: your mother would be proud.”
Finella fought down the surge of rage that lit her shoulders and fists aflame. Perhaps this was payback for accusing her of being barren, but it went too far. Finella would never manipulate Ferelden’s politics to serve her own needs. Alistair was the rightful king! That this just so happened to align with her needs was… serendipity. She would still support Alistair even if she wasn’t a Cousland… wouldn’t she?
If she wasn’t who she was, if there was nothing stopping her from running away with Alistair, would she still want to force him into something he didn’t want? Alistair would be a good king, she knew he would, but… would he be happy? They’d be together, at least. Wouldn’t that be enough?
Anora, likely sensing there were no more victories to be had here, spoke up. “I tell you this: my father must be stopped. Once he is kept from the throne, if it should fall to Alistair, then I will be content.”
Finella nodded, thankful that at least she didn’t have to try and defend herself. “I should… investigate your tip on the Alienage.”
“Good luck, Warden.”
For what it was worth, she believed Anora about that.
Chapter 7: Trusting
Political posturing with Anora was one thing. Facing Alistair was another beast entirely, especially with Anora’s words still ringing in her ears. What right did she have to force him into this? Even if it was for the good of the kingdom?
Of course, that had to be the exact moment she noticed Alistair hiding behind a bookcase in Arl Eamon’s study. The distressed look he wore melted into one of relief when he noticed her. Their eyes met and the way he smiled broke her heart.
The power he held over her was terrifying sometimes.
“So, I’m guessing someone told Anora I’m planning to steal her throne. She has a nasty glare.” Finella supposed this was likely her fault but didn’t bother to interrupt with the information. “Did anyone mention this wasn’t my idea? I think she’s a great queen! As far as I’m concerned she’s welcome to it.”
“Anora knows it wasn’t your idea, Alistair,” Finella said, thinking back on their conversation. “She’s just upset.” She couldn’t exactly blame Anora, but it was her own fault for refusing to set aside her ego and do what was right. No, Anora was a lost cause. Finella needed to shift Alistair’s focus away from the petulant queen and onto the future. “Besides, I think you’d be a great king, Alistair.”
“Really?” he asked, already incredulous. “Whatever would give you that idea?”
“You have a kind heart and a strong sense of justice.” She bit her lip, wondering if now was a good time to tell him that the throne could make things easier for them. Was she okay with that being the only reason he accepted? Would he hate her for letting politics play a role in their relationship? Would he hate her anyways if she didn’t tell him and he found out later? The thought of Alistair hating her was like a knife in her chest. Time bled from the wound as she stood there, paralyzed by indecision.
“Well, it’s good that you think so,” Alistair replied, oblivious to her anxieties. He blew out a long breath and she caught a glimpse of the stress this was all causing him. She was causing him. “What do you think I should do? Go ahead and be king? Just… let it happen?”
“I think…” Do it. Just tell him. “I think that it would be best, yes.” The stricken look he gave her had her rushing to explain. “It could be good for us,” she confessed, reaching out for his hand.
He slipped his fingers willingly between hers; ready to hear her out, at least. The painful twist in her heart alleviated slightly and she felt like she could breathe again. Alright. She could do this. Just… be honest. Maker, where did she even start to explain?
“My parents married for love. Did you know that?”she asked nervously. He shook his head, confused about the tangent, but still offering her a smile. “They were lucky. Two young nobles of similar age who just happened to develop feelings for one another? It’s… rather rare.”
“Where are you going with all this?” he asked, pulling her into a light embrace. Even confused his voice was warm and open. Trusting, she thought. I have to trust him too.
“All my life I knew that I would likely wed for political reasons. I knew that, but… I wanted what my parents had.” It was why she had put off a courtship for so long, much to her mother’s dismay. “It didn’t help that Fergus married for love. Many possible allies were upset when he wed a foreigner instead of one of their eligible daughters.” She was getting off track.
“My point,” she said, returning to her true reasoning, “Is that I never imagined I could have… this.” She shrugged to indicate them, their embrace… their love. “And as happy as I am, as much as I love you, there’s still a part of me that keeps thinking about political marriages and… if I married the king… that would mean a lot for the people of Highever.”
He stiffened against her but didn’t pull away. It took every ounce of willpower she had not to cling to him like a sobbing milkmaid. If he truly was disgusted by her… well… she was not going to beg him to stay. She was a Cousland. She didn’t beg.
“Maker,” Alistair breathed at last, “is that why you’ve been so tense lately? I thought you were just stressed because of everything that’s been going on, I had no idea you were so worried about all this.”
Finella froze, not certain if he’d really said that or if it was just wishful thinking. “You’re not… angry?” she asked, chancing a look up at him.
“Well, I’m a little angry that you didn’t tell me sooner.” She could hear the truth in his words and recognized that at least a part of him was deeply hurt by her dishonesty.
“You’re taking this rather well,” she observed, more confused than ever.
Alistair grinned down at her, barely able to contain his happiness. “You want to marry me,” he teased in a delighted sing-song. “You want to spend the rest of your life with me, and you’re already thinking about our future together.”
Finella was suddenly certain that she’d made a terrible mistake and that she didn’t love this idiot after all. “Shut up,” she bit as heat rose in her cheeks.
Alistair laughed and kissed her temple, the only part of her he could reach after she stubbornly hid her face against his chest. “Why were you so afraid to tell me this?” he asked, voice still filled with mirth.
“I didn’t want to influence your decision,” she supplied. “And… I also thought you might hate me for thinking about politics instead of just… us.” She shrugged awkwardly in his arms.
“Oh, love.” Alistair chuckled and nuzzled into her hair. “I keep telling you: one of the things I love most about you is that you put other people first. You’re always trying to do what’s best for everyone, not just yourself. I suppose,” he added, “That I shouldn’t be surprised the same thing would be true in our relationship.”
“Shouldn’t I put you first though?”
He shrugged, and said, “You’re not built like that,” as if it was nothing. “And… I’m glad you finally told me. It doesn’t seem like I’ll have much of a choice as to whether or not I’ll be king, and… it’s good to know there’ll be at least one benefit to having all that responsibility shoved on me.” His nervous laugh gave away the reservations he still held about the idea.
“Alright, Alistair, enough whining!” he told himself in a joking voice, too late to disguise his anxiety. “Thank you, Alistair, that’s excellent advice. I’ll do my best!”
“Don’t you listen to him,” she said, pulling him down for a kiss. “You’re wonderful.”
He hummed blissfully. “Time to face the music, I suppose?”
“Together,” she promised.
Chapter 8: The Past is Prologue
Finella stared down at the table, attempting to will her nerves into submission. The Landsmeet had sided with them, with her, but now they were in talks with Alistair to work out the logistics of everything. She hated being left out of it; logistics were her specialty! Well, that and murdering darkspawn. She was a very talented woman. Yet despite that, she’d been told to wait for Alistair back at Arl Eamon’s estate like she was five again trying to listen through the door of her father’s study!
Hadn’t it been her that won a debate against the greatest strategist in living memory? Hadn’t she earned her place in the room? Then again, she’d also battled said strategist after the debate, then executed him, then declared herself the future queen of Fereldan. Big day. Maybe she could use a nap after all. Too bad she was too worried to sleep.
Zevran, the only one in the room sitting leaned his elbow on the table so he could look up at her. “You’re going to ruin your beautiful face with all that worrying, dear Warden,” he teased. “How will Fereldan go on without its gorgeous heroine to lead it into battle?”
“That’s not what she needs to hear right now, Zevran,” Wynne warned.
Zevran faked a wince. “I am hurt by your harsh words, Wynne. And yet… strangely aroused.”
“Oh, Maker. There’s no winning with you.”
“Will you all quit yer blathering!” Oghren complained. “Bad enough I have to sit around here doing nothing, now I have to listen to you chatter boxes? If there ain’t no heads to smash in, at least give me a pint of ale!”
Finella nearly smiled at Oghren’s griping, but she was far too restless. She was certain that the whorls of wood grain in the table somehow held the secrets of what was happening without her. If she could only decipher their cryptic messages her worry would certainly go away.
It was odd; she was more nervous now than she’d been going into the Landsmeet. She winced, remembering Ser Cauthrien outside the meeting chambers begging her to have mercy on Loghain. She hadn’t, and she knew that was partially out of her own bitterness, but she wouldn’t have ever felt safe if Loghain had lived to scheme another day.
She still remembered his furious face, demanding that they all bow before him.
“Lords and Ladies of the Landsmeet,” she’d called out, to the assembly. “I know that some of you have not held that title for long; many a proud family met their end in the war with Orlais, but I stand before you as the daughter of Teryn Bryce Cousland and I remember Fereldan’s history! When my ancestor, Teryna Elethea Cousland, kneeled before King Calenhad she swore to serve his line in perpetuity! Here before you stands a man with that very same blood running through his veins, and yet Loghain would have you end the Theirin line of kings. He would have you throw away our history, and for what? For fear that you can’t survive without one general?”
She’d turned back to him then, and saw the rage burning within his eyes. It should have scared her, but it didn’t. The blood in her veins, the blood of a Cousland, felt like it had hardened to steel. In that moment, she felt as if no blade could cut her.
She stared him down, Teryn to Teryn, and the words tumbled forth as if all her ancestors spoke with her. “I bow to no king but a Theirin.”
Many of the lords had erupted into cheers at that. Others simply clapped along warily, but she had seen it in his eyes: he knew she’d beaten him, and he was going to try and kill her for it.
Riordan was right: they needed all the Wardens they could get, but not Loghain. Oaths of fealty meant nothing to a man who left his king to die on the field of battle. No, if she’d let him join the Grey Wardens she knew she would have lived to regret it.
Despite her certainty the sound of Anora’s scream still echoed through her memory. She had a feeling it would stick with her for a long time to come.
“Are you alright, Warden?” Leliana’s quiet voice asked beside her. She answered with a curt nod, and ignored the concerned whine her mabari let out.
Before she could provide further false assurances of a mental state she certainly didn’t feel, the door behind her creaked open and the assemblage turned as one to see Alistair scratching his head in the doorway. He looked up, eyes finding hers and softening.
“So… strange story, tell me if you’ve heard this one: this fellow gets made king and then gets engaged all on the same night.”
“You aren’t angry?” she asked, demurring. She knew he would have preferred to let Anora take the throne, though she wasn’t certain if his feelings had changed at all with recent revelations.
“I’m not thrilled with the idea of being king. I never wanted it; I told you that, yet here I am. Not much to be done about it now.” She tried to ignore the guilt weighing down her heart. Alistair drew closer, stopping a breath away from her. She could have reached up and kissed him if not for their height difference. “I suppose I’m more curious about… you know: the engagement. I like the idea, but… are you sure?”
His eyes betrayed his disbelief, as if he hadn’t thought her serious when she’d brought it up before, as if he didn’t believe she’d truly want him. She cursed her small stature for preventing her from kissing away his uncertainties.
“Am I sure I want to marry you? Yes,” she assured him instead, reaching out for his hands.
“Oh.” The smile he gave her was equal parts joy and disbelief and he seemed to take her hands without realizing it. “I guess that saves me having to ask then. Whew.” Same old Alistair: always covering up his true feelings with humor.
She wasn’t able to bask in his warmth for long before his face turned grim. “They’ll expect an heir you know.” His grip tightened on her hands. “With the Taint in our blood, it’s hard enough for a Grey Warden to have a child on their own. For two of them…?”
He didn’t need to finish the sentence; Finella’s blood had already gone cold.
“Every Grey Warden I knew who had children had them before they took the Joining. Having an heir… might not be possible.”
It was like the breath had been stolen from her lungs, like she’d been plunged into ice-cold water. Her own words to Anora came back to her tauntingly. ‘Ferelden doesn’t just need a ruler now, it needs a ruler twenty years from now… a hundred years from now. There must be an heir for stability to last.’ Was this how Anora had felt when she’d brought it up? Like the future had been stolen from her? Would Anora laugh at the irony now, or pity her?
Alistair frowned further and tugged gently on one of her hands, pulling her up from the depths.
She sucked in a breath and licked her lips. What could she even say? “Well, it won’t be for lack of trying!” she resolved, and knew it had been the right thing when Alistair laughed.
“That’s an excellent point. Good thing we got started when we did!” The smile didn’t last, though. She suspected he could still sense her uneasiness; it wasn’t as though she was doing a particularly good job of hiding it.
He sighed. “I suppose this is something we’ll have to deal with later. My coronation isn’t going to happen for some time yet… and we’ve still the darkspawn to fight.” She could see the gears in his head switching over to military strategy. “Arl Eamon has left for Redcliffe, and he says the armies have almost finished gathering there. We should go to Redcliffe as soon as possible.” He smirked, a playful glint returning to his eye. “If we don’t deal with the Archdemon soon, it’ll get cranky, and nobody wants that.”
“Perish the thought,” she replied with a toss of her head. She still wanted to kiss him, but he was right, they should leave as soon as possible. It was a long march to Redcliffe, and there would be plenty of time to steal a kiss or two along the way.
Chapter 9: The Shadowed Valley
The worst part of it all was that she had actually been excited to see Morrigan when she got back to her room in Redcliffe. Riordan’s revelations had left her feeling unkeeled, adrift and ready to tip over at any moment. Seeing her friend – no, her sister – had been a relief.
Finella knew that few people understood her relationship with Morrigan, but she was rather fond of the apostate and had long ago placed her trust in Morrigan’s hands. It had made Finella proud to know just how much it had changed the other woman. Certainly she was still mean-spirited and cantankerous, but there was an undeniable softening there. She knew that Morrigan prized their friendship above all worldly possessions, above everything save her own life.
Or… Finella had thought she did.
Then again, despite Morrigan’s professed selfish reasons for the ritual that was currently underway, there’d been a moment there where she thought…. She’d started to refuse on instinct, but Morrigan’s eyes had grown wide and hurt. She’d begged Finella not to throw her life away. Morrigan undeniably had ulterior motives for the ritual, but Finella wanted to believe that at least part of her wanted to protect the life of her only friend in the world.
Or maybe that was just wishful thinking.
Maybe the worst part wasn’t the day’s downward spiral of bad news, but rather that she couldn’t decide if believing in Morrigan was naïve, or if doubting her was cynical. Not that it really mattered. When it all came down to it, Finella had her own selfish reasons for agreeing to this.
It was selfishness all around! Well… except for Alistair.
She knew that Alistair was only doing this because she’d begged him to. He would have gladly left his gallant heart bleeding out on the battlefield if it meant doing what was moral and just. She loved that about him, but it was also incredibly stupid.
Finella wanted to be good like him. She always tried to do what was right and help anyone it was within her power to help. She strove to be kind as well as strong, but her responsibility to others often meant compromising herself in order to protect them.
Maybe that was for the best. Alistair could keep his good heart and she could be the one to make all the nasty decisions for him. Perhaps that was the worst part: that she knew there’d be more decisions like this in the future. There’d certainly be many more once he took the throne.
If they both lived that long.
That was the real crux of the problem, wasn’t it? She wanted them both to live. A year ago she’d been wishing she’d died along with her parents, but now she had so much to live for. She wanted to marry Alistair and have any child the Taint would allow them. She wanted to keep her friends and her country safe. She wanted to live through this war and rebuild all that had been lost. She wanted so much, and this stupid archdemon was threatening to take it all away from her.
No. She wasn’t letting anyone steal her future. Not again.
She’d worked much too hard for what she had now. She’d fought her way through men and monsters, overthrew a tyrant, and somehow managed to find a way to be with the man she loved. She was not going to let the rotting corpse of some dead god take that from her.
And that’s why she was letting her best friend have sex with her fiancé in her bed while she sat outside getting drunk on Oghren’s strongest ale. Oh. When she put it like that, it sounded like this was probably the worst part. It definitely sounded pretty bad.
Maybe, though, nothing was the worst part. Maybe it was all just equally terrible. She was in a shitty situation with only shitty options and it was all just… shitty.
Oghren’s brew was really starting to kick in. Now if only it could scrub the memory of the evening from her mind, that would be just lovely.
The door to her room opened and she looked up from the bench she’d dragged over. Morrigan’s gaze swept over her briefly before quickly looking away. Finella tried to say something, but didn’t have the words. There were none for this situation. Instead, she did her best to search her best friend’s face for some kind of clue as to what was going on behind those golden eyes.
She still had no answers when Morrigan turned away and returned to her own room.
Finella watched her go until she disappeared around the corner, and then returned to staring at the door to her room. Morrigan had left it slightly ajar, and she could see flickering light beyond it. Nothing besides that seemed to be moving, however.
Alistair… What had Finella done to him? She’d been lucky he forgave her for putting politics ahead of him. This time he might hate her forever. Maybe it would have been better to just die alongside the archdemon.
The door yielded easily under the pressure of her hand. Inside, the room felt chilly. Did the fire need stoking or was it just the remnant of her crimes?
Her eyes found Alistair quickly. He was seated on the edge of the bed, completely motionless. He’d put his clothes back on and was just… staring at his hands. Finella wanted to hold him and make it all go away, but her touch would surely be unwanted. After all, this was her fault.
She stood bonelessly in the doorway, watching him and hating herself.
“I’m sorry,” she said after an eternity.
Alistair said nothing.
“You can hate me, if you want.” That wasn’t right. “You should hate me for what I’ve done.”
Finally, he moved, pressing his head into his hands. “Andraste’s sake, Finella, I don’t hate you.”
He still wouldn’t look at her.
“You have every right to.”
“I don’t.” The words were hollow, gutted.
Silence. She couldn’t see his eyes. What if he was crying? He didn’t look like he was crying, at least not yet, but what if he was? Could she hold him then, or would that just make things worse?
“I’m angry,” he finally admitted. “But I’m not going to push you away. I’m not looking to repeat that mistake again.”
Oh, right. Eamon. Alistair had refused to see him after being sent away.
“I love you. I just… need some time.”
“Do you? Love me, I mean. Because it’s okay not to.” Her voice broke into a pitch she couldn’t control. “We… we can still call off the engagement.” The words felt like daggers, shredding her throat raw.
“Maker, no!” Alistair ripped his hands away furiously, finally facing her. “Then what would have been the point of all of this!?”
Finella swayed on her feet, feeling like she might collapse as much from his anger as the drink she still held in one limp hand.
Alistair rubbed his face and rose quickly to his feet, pacing in agitation. “I’m sorry,” he said at last, pausing to look at her again. “I shouldn’t have yelled.”
“It’s okay,” she said numbly. “I was more scared when you were quiet.”
He cringed a little, but said nothing more. Instead, he scrubbed his hands through his hair.
Her strength was waning, and she felt her feet might betray her at any moment. Falling on the stone might make her feel better in the moment but was probably a bad idea in the long run. She tore her eyes away from Alistair and dragged her body over to one of the couches by the fireplace.
Huh. It did need to be stoked.
After a stretch of time, Alistair fell into the couch opposite her and returned his head to his hands. She watched him in silence a moment before holding out the half-empty flagon of ale. She hadn’t needed much before the effects made themselves known. Oghren brewed it strong.
Alistair inspected it a moment before gingerly taking the flagon from her fingers. Without wasting much time, he threw his head back and took several deep gulps. Afterwards he gasped for air and made a wretched face. “Eugh. Is this Oghren’s?”
“Nothing better for when you desperately need the world, and your limbs to go completely and totally numb.”
He considered that, then took a few more swallows.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, very quietly.
Alistair watched her for a while before replying. “I know.”
“I wanted to protect you, to protect us, everything we’ve worked for.” She could feel the tears welling up and didn’t bother to wipe them away before they spilled down her cheeks. “It was selfish and awful of me, and you should absolutely blame me for it.”
“Finella…” Alistair bowed his head, scratching at his neck while he thought. “I’m a grown man and I’m responsible for my own actions. I could have said no when you asked me, but I didn’t.”
“Why?” she asked, suddenly curious. “Why didn’t you?”
“I trust you?” He breathed. “And… I want to protect our future too.”
“Oh. I thought…. I thought you never would have agreed if I hadn’t made you.”
“You didn’t make me do anything. Why do you always do that?”
“Do what?” she asked, honestly confused now.
“Act like you’re the only one capable of making decisions!” He took an angry swig from the flagon. “The rest of us can think for ourselves, too, you know! I’m not stupid, no matter what your best friend the witch says. I know you act differently depending on who you’re talking to. With Wynne you’re all deferential and serious, but then you go talk to Oghren and you’re laughing at whatever gross thing he happens to be doing that moment!”
Was he implying that she was two-faced? “That’s called knowing how to act around different people, Alistair! It keeps morale high and people working together.”
“Yes!” he cried out in exasperation. “And it’s what makes you such an amazing leader, but I’m not one of your troops! I’m- I’m- I’m your bloody fiancé! You don’t have to manage me like I might revolt if you don’t pick your words carefully! It took you months to let me know that you were worried about the future of our relationship, and why? Because you were worried I might react badly to politics? If you had just told me, I might have been able to bring myself to tell you about my parentage sooner!”
Was he right? Had she brought those months of agony on herself?
“You don’t trust me!” he accused with a sob. “I want to spend every day of my life with you, and you don’t even trust my opinion!”
“What are you talking about?” She trusted him. Didn’t she?
“What’s wrong with Morrigan?” Okay, admittedly, quite a lot was wrong with Morrigan, but what did that have to do with trust?
“Where do I start!?” Alistair threw his hands in the air, falling against the back of the couch. “She’s mean, she’s cruel, she definitely hates me, and in spite of all of that, you willingly call her your friend!”
Finella was stunned. “I’ve told you before that Morrigan’s a good person underneath all of the nastiness her mother beat into her. I know it’s hard for you to see because she picks on you – and I’ve tried to get her to stop – but there’s a lot more to her than that.”
Why were they talking about her friendship with Morrigan? Why was that-? Oh. It was because Alistair didn’t want to talk about that other thing with Morrigan. Finella grew still, letting go of the agitation that had been building up inside of her. Alistair didn’t actually want to talk about who she did and didn’t trust. He was hurting, and upset, and dancing around a topic that could very well break him.
“You’re just seeing things!” Alistair raged, his eyes flashing with unshed tears. “She’s awful!”
I did that, she reminded herself, heart breaking when she finally saw the pain he was in.
“You know…” she said slowly, “That she probably saved one of our lives tonight, right?”
“That’s part of the problem!” Alistair declared, slouching forward once again. He looked at the flagon in his hand, seemingly having forgotten about it and held it high to drain a good portion of its remaining contents. “Did it ever even occur to you that after everything you’ve done for me, for us, that I might want to make a sacrifice for you just once?”
“I… I knew that if it came down to you or me, I’d take the final hit. I know that I’m supposed to go and be king and all, but….” The frustration bled from him through a deep sigh. “Morrigan’s a bitch, but at least now I get to be around to take another hit in the future.”
What the hell was she supposed to say to that? What could she say?
“I… would be miserable if you died.”
“And I you.” A morbid chuckle rocked his shoulders. “Maybe we should stop thinking about dying for each other so much. It’ll be a terrible strain on our marriage.”
It was the first time she’d heard him make a joke since he’d agreed to this plan. It was strange that such a simple thing could make her feel like everything would be okay.
“I guess… I should maybe stop trying to take on all the responsibility by myself… even if I know you’re not going to like what has to be done.”
“Well you don’t have to do it all the time.” She snorted, despite her grim mood, and for a moment he looked content. “Maybe five days of the week? You can be self-sacrificing on the weekends if you want, I won’t hold it against you.”
Constantly deflecting with humor; this was more like the man she’d fallen in love with. It felt like something had shifted, like the world had been tilting to the side and had finally righted itself. The changing of the tide, her mother would have said.
“Hey.” His voice was barely a whisper.
When she looked up, he was leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees.
Slowly, silently, he extended an open palm into the gulf between them. A peace offering, a truce, a reconciliation, she didn’t care. All that mattered was that he was reaching out to her. She clasped his hand with both of her own and had no intention of letting go.
“We’ll get through this,” he assured her.
“Together,” she agreed. “For real this time.”
They stayed up talking and drinking for quite a while. It was possible that they snuck down to the kitchens for more ale, but it had all gone a bit fuzzy by that point. The next thing Finella remembered for certain was Wynne’s disapproving voice cutting through her head like a blade.
“What in the Maker’s name did you two get up to last night?” it demanded.
Finella’s world was pain, and that seemed fitting, given the previous night’s events. The fire in the hearth had long ago died, but there were torches being lit all through the corridor outside. She couldn’t have been asleep for long; they were set to begin their forced march before dawn.
“Five more minutes, Mother,” Alistair said dreamily from her bosom.
They were laying together on one of the couches, limbs entangled in a way that would have been compromising had they not been fully clothed. She’d been leaning back against the small arm of the couch and Alistair was draped on top of her, arms hugging her waist loosely.
“Mother?” Wynne choked, masking her happiness with shock.
“Uh-oh,” Finella chimed, running her hands through Alistair’s hair. The sensation had him humming pleasantly into her stomach. “Mommy caught us doing something naughty.”
He picked his head up at that, finally opening his eyes and taking stock of the situation. “Oh,” he said at last, color rising in his cheeks. “Ah… Wynne… Hello.”
The mage placed her hands on her hips and tried to put on her best chastising look, but it was somewhat hampered by the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. Finella burst into laughter at the sight, rocking Alistair and making him smile. He turned back to her, mischief sparkling in his eyes, but Wynne cleared her throat and he sighed.
“Alright, alright,” he lamented. “We’re getting up!”
He lifted himself to his feet then held out his hand to help Finella up. She couldn’t help but to kiss him just once before they were forced to part and gather their things for the journey.
It wasn't so bad; in the year they’d been traveling together, they’d marched under much worse conditions than a hangover. Finella kept catching Morrigan watching her with a guilty expression, but every time their eyes met, Morrigan would quickly turn away. Finella managed to corner her later in the day and, while they avoided a certain subject, they were at least on speaking terms again.
No matter the repairs to her personal life, Finella still couldn’t overcome the somber mood in camp that night. It was two days yet before they’d reach Denerim, and the darkspawn horde would be there tomorrow.
The people were counting on her, but then again, they always were. She could do this. She could finish what Duncan started. She was ready.
Chapter 10: Endings and Beginnings
It surprised her, how quickly it was over. She felt like she’d been fighting for years and then it was just… over. The prolonged battle through the city had been exhausting on its own, but it had been worth it to save a few extra lives. Driving the sword into the archdemon’s skull, however, had sapped what little energy she had left. The last thing she remembered before passing out was watching the darkspawn retreat, and thinking how oddly quiet the world felt suddenly.
Alistair was at her bedside when she awoke, of course. She’d missed his coronation, which was a shame, but he insisted it had been terribly dull. Nothing seemed different about him save for his growing vexation with people constantly asking if he needed anything. It almost didn’t feel real.
Morrigan was gone, of course. Making good on the promise she’d made the night of the ritual. She knew she’d promised to let Morrigan go, but… she just couldn’t leave it alone. No matter what Alistair thought about the child Morrigan would bear, it was still his. Finella wanted to be a part of its life, and… she missed her friend dearly.
Chasing Morrigan down would have to wait, however. She had a wedding to prepare for, and now that she was awake, everyone was insisting on throwing a grand celebration in her honor as well. So many parties, so little time.
Alistair made a grand speech, almost as good as the one he’d made when leading his army into battle. Even with all her friends and every noble in the kingdom watching her she couldn’t stop beaming with pride. He was going to make a fantastic king, just like she’d believed.
After his announcement that the Arling of Amaranthine would be granted to the Grey Wardens, he turned back to her. “What are your plans? I assume with the wedding you’ll be remaining in Ferelden?”
She took his hand, noting the nervous undertone in his voice. “I think you’ll need my help,” she teased.
“Well I didn’t want to come right out and say it, but I’m relieved you’ll be nearby.”
Laughing, she squeezed his hand to reassure him. There were things she’d have to attend to in the coming months, Morrigan, meetings with the Orlesian Wardens, affairs of state, and though she knew it couldn’t be helped, she never wanted to leave his side again.
Alistair smiled at the pressure and warned her that a crowd had gathered outside to greet her. Before shooing her along, he leaned in close to her ear. “There’s someone waiting for you, too.”
She tried to ask what he meant by that, but he nodded at the assembled nobility and winked so charmingly that she lost her train of thought. Right. Shaking hands and kissing babies time (it wasn’t so bad; she was actually quite fond of babies).
Arl Eamon stood near the front of the assembly, and she made to go and thank him for his support when a familiar head stole the breath from her lungs. It wasn’t the first time she’d thought she’d recognized a ghost in a crowd – there’d been several times when she thought she’d seen her mother while wading though Denerim’s market – but this time when the figure turned around, the illusion refused to shatter.
“Fergus?” her voice felt so weak and small.
“Hello, Nella,” her brother said.
She choked on a sob and quickly decided that decorum could go and screw itself, because her big brother was alive and he was here and that meant everything was going to be okay. She threw her arms around him and hid her wet face against his chest. He squeezed her back, strong and warm, and waited for her shaking to subside.
When she pulled away, he smiled and attempted to dry one of her cheeks. She searched his eyes for some kind of meaning, trying to form her confusion into a series of questions, but it was all too much. He seemed to understand because he just grinned playfully like they were children again.
“When I heard that my little sister was not only a Grey Warden, but also leading Ferelden into battle, I was surprised, to put it mildly.” His grin fell. “Father… he would have been so proud of you. I know I am. You’ve done good.”
“I knew I should have looked harder for you.” Sure, Morrigan had been right about needing to act quickly to stop Loghain, but… but a whole year of thinking that she was the last Cousland in existence…. She would have given almost anything to have not felt that crushing loneliness.
“I’m not sure you wouldn’t have just been wasting your time, to be honest.” At her confused look, he continued. “I never made it to the battle at Ostagar. We were still scouting in the Wilds when we were attacked by a party of darkspawn. Most of my men were killed. I woke up two weeks later, wounded and feverish. By the time I was able to sneak out of the Wilds, you were already marching to Denerim.”
He shrugged then continued much more delicately “I tried to get word to Highever. You can imagine what happened, I suppose.”
Flashes of blood on stone. Images she’d never forget. “Oren and Oriana....” Mother shrieking over the boy’s tiny body. “Fergus, I’m so sorry, I-“ There were no words. Nothing she could say.
Fergus sighed, unable to meet her eyes for the first time. “Yes, I’m… trying not to think too much about them.” His eyes turned hard with a venom she recognized in herself. “Howe was a greedy, traitorous bastard. I just wish I’d been there to help you kill him.”
No you don’t, she thought wordlessly. The hatred in Howe’s eyes still haunted her dreams.
“At least Amaranthine now belongs to the Grey Wardens. There’s some justice in that, I think.” He nodded, as if that were to be the end of it, and she supposed that was for the best. “I need to go back to Highever,” he declared. “See if I can clean up the mess Howe made of it.”
“You’re leaving already?” She’d only just gotten him back. “There’s so much I want to tell you about everything that’s happened. Alistair! You have to meet Alistair!” She couldn’t get married before her brother met her future husband.
“You mean the king?” Fergus asked with a chuckle. “Yes, we became rather well acquainted while we were waiting for you to wake up.”
“You mean you’ve been here for days and you only just now decide to show yourself!?” And Alistair had known that Fergus was here, and decided to ‘surprise’ her. “I’m gonna kill him.” Or at least pout aggressively until he apologized.
Fergus laughed and held his hands up defensively. “The healers said you needed your rest! And I’ve been busy in meetings to assure the other nobles that I intend to uphold Father’s obligations.”
There was some wisdom in that, she knew, but Alistair…
“And don’t blame the king,” her brother warned. “I wanted to be there when you were told, and this was the first time I could get away, seeing as how everyone’s here for your celebration.”
The praise was almost enough to make her forget their treachery. Still, what Fergus had said reminded her how busy she herself was about to be in the coming months. So much to plan for…
“You’re coming to the wedding, right?” she asked, the realization hitting her like an ogre’s fist.
“You think I’d miss them putting a crown on my little sister’s head?” Fergus asked with a smirk. At her frown, his expression softened. “No, Nella. I wouldn’t miss your wedding for anything.”
“Okay,” she agreed.
“I’ll see you before that, I hope?” He almost looked scared.
“Of course you will,” she assured him. “I was actually hoping to bring Alistair and show him where I grew up.”
The tension in Fergus’ shoulders released. “Good. Highever won’t be the same without… everyone around.” He smiled, hesitantly. “And I would love to show your betrothed where exactly it was that you fell on your bum a hundred times trying to climb the castle ramparts.”
“Fergus!” she shrieked, much to his amusement.
“Kidding!” She punched his shoulder and he laughed blissfully. The sound was warm and gentle and felt like healing. Her brother placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “Take care of yourself, you hear? Or I’ll find you and nag you like Mother did until you’re ready to tear out your hair.”
She laughed and it almost didn’t hurt. They hugged, and she wanted nothing more than to stay in that moment forever, but there were other faces in the room she recognized, and she wanted to at least say hi to her friends before, as Alistair had put it, the crowd outside broke down the doors.
Even as she was being paraded about, however, she couldn’t stop thinking about her brother. Luckily, he wasn’t leaving until the following day, and they spent the evening catching up. There was a great deal of crying, but almost as much laughter. Alistair, angel that he was, understood her need to be alone with her brother and left them to their own devices. She didn’t see him again until she tumbled into bed that night and felt his warm presence curl around her.
“Did you have fun?” was all he said. She told him that she had, and relished in the luxury of falling asleep in his arms.
Surprisingly, she managed to hold it together the next morning. Waving goodbye to her brother wasn’t all that bad; she knew she’d see him again. It was harder to stand on the docks and watch Sten sail away. She’d hugged him tightly, the first and almost certainly last hug he would ever permit her, and told him that he was always welcome in Ferelden, so long as he didn’t come with an army at his back. The bitter truth of the matter soured the joke.
Shale and Wynne left a week after that, eager to start their journey and see the world. Finella had tried to get them to stay for the wedding, at least, but Wynne insisted that her old bones wouldn’t last forever and she couldn’t afford to dally. That had been hard on Alistair, too. For all Finella’s joking, he truly had come to think of Wynne as the mother he never knew, and it had been hard to get a smile out of him for days afterwards.
Leliana made good on her promise to return to Orlais, though instead of a teary goodbye she’d slipped away in the middle of the night. She left behind a note promising to deal with Marjolaine and return before the big day. Finella felt like she should have been angrier about the situation, but it was nothing if not true to the bard’s spirit.
On the day of her celebration, she’d managed to convince Zevran to stay in Ferelden, for the time being, at least. Something about him laughing while she crushed the skulls of any assassin who tried to exact revenge on the defector. As the weeks and months went by, however, Zevran grew increasingly restless. He promised to stay for her “ridiculous – honestly, one partner for the rest of your life? How dull – wedding” but would leave for Antiva soon afterwards where she could no longer protect him.
Once the worst of the damage had been repaired in Denerim, Arl Eamon finally relented and agreed that the king could have a few weeks off from his royal obligations to travel to the childhood home of his betrothed. With Oghren and Zevran tagging along, it wasn’t quite the romantic getaway they’d envisioned, but they were nothing if not family.
In Highever’s towers overlooking the valleys far below, Alistair rediscovered his fear of heights, Oghren drank her brother under the table twice, and Zevran delighted in every hiding spot and secret passage Finella showed him. He promised not to use any of them to assassinate her brother, which was some comfort.
The trip back was less exciting. Oghren, who’d become fast friends with Fergus, had decided to stay on as one of her brother’s soldiers. Fergus swore to bring Oghren with him to the wedding, but it was still difficult to leave him behind.
The last time she’d felt so alone was on the journey to Ostagar. There were plenty of people around, to be sure, but she’d built herself a little family, and… it was unsettling to be without them after so long. At least she’d always have Alistair. Even when they were parted, she knew she’d always have someone waiting for her. It was deeply comforting to have at least one guiding star in her life.
Well, him and Muffin. Her mabari had kept her alive on the worst night of her life and continued to stand at her side. He would be a father soon, too! The kennelmaster had promised the strongest pup from the first litter to the new king, and Finella had taken a liking to the idea of her hound’s lineage staying with her own. Even if Alistair kept insisting he was going to name the pup “Barkspawn,” no matter how many times she groaned.
Alistair would just smile and reminded her she’d named her mabari ‘Muffin’ and she could only roll her eyes and return to whatever document she’d been working on. Occasionally, it was some part of their wedding plans, but mostly it was part of rebuilding the swathe of the country decimated during the Blight. Though, the two were often one, seeing as how they couldn’t have a wedding with no guests, and the nobility couldn’t come if they were bogged down in reconstruction.
She’d become especially close with Leonas Bryland. One of the most adamant supporters of the Grey Wardens during the civil war, he’d introduced himself to Finella shortly after things had settled down. It had been a surprise to learn that the man was once a dear friend of her father’s, but had lost touch after a falling out with Howe.
She couldn’t help but wonder what her life would have been like if her father had sided with Bryland during that fight instead of Howe. Most likely, she wouldn’t be an orphan now, but she also would have never met Alistair. Best not to think about it too much, she decided. She had a country to rebuild.
It was a bitter and grueling campaign, but with Arl Eamon’s help and the backing of her new friends at court, Ferelden was shortly back in working order. Though it would still be years before it was what it had been before the Blight, the country could stand on its own two feet again.
Finally, six months to the day after Alistair’s coronation, the day of their wedding finally arrived.
The entire kingdom needed a decent break, and the crown spared no expense in giving it to them. Festivals were held throughout the Bannorn and in every township. In Denerim, there was feasting and celebration for a week prior to the ceremony, and another week scheduled for afterwards. Musicians and performers crowded the streets full of people who’d gathered to try and get a glimpse of the king and his bride. Many had traveled to the city just for the occasion.
Fergus and Oghren had arrived late in the evening just prior the start of the celebrations. It was much later than Fergus had assured her they would be there by, causing her no small amount of stress. There was literally only one other person besides her future husband who she absolutely needed to attend the ceremony, and he’d been delayed dealing with one of the roving bands of darkspawn that still harried the north.
Their prolonged presence was a worry, to be sure, but if they’d ruined her wedding she would have revived the archdemon just to kill it again out of spite.
It was good to have Oghren nearby again, even if he and Zevran had immediately taken to the streets to join the revelers. Fergus made an attempt to be properly contrite for his tardiness, but he was soon laughing at her losing war to stay mad at him. He joined her and Alistair for a much more subdued family dinner instead. Music and merriment drifted to them on the breeze, as they dined on spiced vegetables, honeyed bread, and roasted beef.
Alistair’s face had lit up when he heard Fergus call her ‘Nella,’ and he spent the rest of the week singing the childhood nickname at every opportunity. It would have been annoying if she wasn’t so helplessly in love with him. Even then it was a little annoying.
The night before the ceremony, Finella received an unexpected surprise. A traveler from Orlais had arrived in the city just in time for the wedding. Leliana had beamed at Finella’s astonished face and performed an outrageous curtsey. Finella had lurched forward and pulled her into a tight hug.
They’d spent all night catching up, staying awake long past a reasonable hour to share stories. Leliana refused to say much about what happened with Marjolaine, but Finella got the feeling that, whatever had transpired, it was over and done with. With the looming threat gone, she hoped that Leliana would chose to stay in Denerim for a good, long while. At the very least, she’d be there the following day while Finella and Alistair exchanged vows.
The next morning, when Leliana saw the dress Finella would wear, she’d gasped and crooned.
Finella had insisted on only one thing to the dressmaker: that she wanted to wear the colors of her family. Green laurels on a blue field had hung above the castle she was born in. If she couldn’t have her parents on her wedding day, then she could at least wear their colors. The dressmaker’s eyes had lit up at the challenge and Finella was more than pleased with the results.
The final product was a layered thing of beauty. It wasn’t silk like they wore in Orlais. That had disappointed Leliana ever so slightly, but this was still Ferelden, and Finella refused to freeze to death on her wedding day. The material was the finest cotton available, however, and the dye was unimaginably rich. Somehow, the dress had come out the perfect shade of blue. Looking at it, Finella felt like she was home again, gazing out over the Waking Sea. On its own, it would have been plain, with a sensible neckline and a hem that just grazed the floor, but then there was the overdress.
Again, the dye had come out a rich hue, this time in green. It was embroidered heavily with leaves in the same color as the fabric, creating a beautiful, yet understated look. The long, drooping sleeves where matched by a train which dragged over the ground, proving that it could never be worn outside. It was lined in white fur and fit over her blue dress with a golden clasp set with sapphire and pearl. More pearls would hang around her neck: an antique necklace that Fergus had miraculously managed to salvage from the wreckage Howe had left of their home. It had been her mother’s.
“Alistair will wear something to match, I hope?” Leliana had asked when she’d finally stopped swooning. “It would be a shame to ruin such beauty with a clashing husband.”
“Alistair will wear the Theirin colors,” Finella replied, trying not to laugh. “Gold and cream with maroon accents.”
“Not ideal,” Leliana judged, wrinkling her nose at the mental image. “But it will do.”
She was less pleased about Finella’s choice in footwear, but still agreed to ride with her to the chantry, newly rebuilt and finer than ever. Alistair rode separately due to some superstition or other, so Finella was glad for the company.
The chantry was filled to bursting with guests and branches of white heather. Despite (or perhaps because of) the difficult harvest after the Blight, the traditional plant had flourished and the blooms were as plentiful as they were breathtaking. Music echoed from the rafters as the bride and groom waited in opposing annexes for the ceremony to begin.
It would have been a lie to say she wasn’t anxious. No matter how many times they’d rehearsed the ceremony Finella was convinced she was going to forget her words or – more likely – trip on the beautiful dress a dozen women had spent months on. Perhaps she’d knock over both the altar and the Revered Mother, gaining the undying disdain of the Maker.
It was possible.
Fergus let himself in to check on her and lost his breath in a fit of clichéd brotherly love. “Wow,” he said intelligently, staring at her. He then turned to Leliana and asked “Are we sure that’s my sister in there? I don’t recognize her.”
Finella rolled her eyes as Leliana giggled.
“In all seriousness, Nella, you look beautiful.” His smile was warm and stupid and he was going to make her cry, which was just completely unnecessary.
“Shoosh.” It was the most she could get out with her jaw locking up. He hugged her and stroked her hair until she was sure she wasn’t going to cry. At some point during this, Leliana had excused herself to go check on the others, leaving them alone.
“Hey, are you gonna be okay?” she asked her brother quietly.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
The big smile he wore dropped and he turned to study the ground. “This is your wedding day, not mine,” he said after a while. “Different chantry, different people, different… everything. It hurts, yes, but no more than it does every day.” He finally met her eyes again and gave her a sad smile. “And at least today I get to watch my little sister marry the man she loves. That’s a good day no matter what.”
She was definitely not going to start crying now, after getting through everything else with dry eyes. She did, however, lock her arms around him like a vice, because he was right; she was getting married to someone she loved, and her big brother was there to see it. She hadn’t been this happy since her father had presented her with her first practice sword when she was seven.
A knock at the door pulled them apart, signaling that it was time to begin.
As she and Alistair emerged from their mutual quarantines, the audience rose to their feet, the music swelled, and a choir began to sing verses from The Chant dedicated to love and loyalty. Finella couldn’t help a tiny grin at the look on Alistair’s face when he saw her. He didn’t look half bad himself.
With some help from the blushing bride, Arl Eamon had managed to force the willful king into a doublet of gold and cream with slashed sleeves that revealed the warm reddish brown of the tunic underneath. A full cape in matching maroon had been draped over his shoulders and fixed in place with a thick gold clasp which matched the ornate crown above his head.
The both of them were so in awe of each other, they nearly forgot to walk forward when the Revered Mother paused in her chanting. Even then, Finella had to resist the urge to run straight to him. It was a near thing. Somehow, they managed to make it to the altar and their hands found each other quickly, eyes speaking words the hushed audience wouldn’t allow them. At least not until there was more chanting first.
The ceremony was a bit of a blur after that. Time didn’t return to its normal speed until it came time for the marriage cup. It was a gold, two-handled goblet with a small amount of red wine in the bottom. A sister held the cup as the Revered Mother blessed it and then set it before the royal couple.
This was the part that had been hardest for them in rehearsal. The sweet flavor of the wine was nothing like the foul mix of tainted blood and lyrium they’d both drank during their Joinings, but the color was the same. It was all just a little too familiar.
Alistair lifted the cup from the altar and held it out to Finella. “From my hands to your hands, I promise you all I have,” he recited.
Finella accepted the cup and took a sip, before holding it out again. “From my lips to your lips, I promise you all my love,” she replied.
He took the cup again and drank this time before holding it out before him. She placed her hands over his and they intoned the final oath together. “On this day and all my days, I promise you my life to safeguard as your own.”
It was Finella’s job to replace the cup on the altar now, but it wasn’t until she was looking into Alistair’s eyes afterwards that it sunk in that they’d gotten through the whole thing in one piece. A smile split her lips and he beamed in return. The Revered Mother droned on beside them, oblivious.
If it hadn’t been for the months Finella had spent telling herself that she couldn’t become involved with Alistair, she would have said that she’d never had to wait so long to kiss someone in her life. Alistair, similarly impatient, had dipped her small frame, nearly unseating the golden tiara they’d only just placed on her head. The assembled nobles and stately persons of Ferelden laughed when she’d had to grab her head to keep the damn thing in place.
Then that was it. They were married. The happy thought kept bubbling up in her head as she lay in Alistair’s arms on the way back to the palace.
“It doesn’t seem real,” she purred into his side. “I can’t believe we’re really married now.”
“I can’t believe I didn’t faint the moment I saw you in that dress,” Alistair said breathlessly. “Maker, and I thought you looked beautiful before.”
“To be fair, I also can’t believe you wore that in the first place. I know you’re supposed to wear something special on your wedding day, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in anything so impractical.”
Finella laughed, loud and bright. “Well… there was one thing I wasn’t willing to give up.”
She pulled up the long hem of her skirt to reveal the footwear that had Leliana in a tizzy. Instead of wearing some elegant slippers to match her dress, she’d worn the soft leather boots she’d broken in by wearing day in and day out. They were more than a little scuffed and scarred, but they were as comfortable as a cloud.
It was Alistair’s turn to laugh, and she shrugged, grinning beside him. “It was a floor-length dress. No one was going to see them.”
“Maker,” he choked out when he finally stopped laughing. “You are a wonder.”