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Chapter One: Solona

The Fade was a wild and wondrous place. “Formless, ever-changing,” the Chant of Light called it. A bit like the blank spaces in a pencil sketch, Solona always thought: full of smudges from the everything around it. Once she was older, she’d find out exactly how dangerous those smudges could be. But at eight, Solona thought it was nothing less than fascinating. She could see -- and speak to -- spirits, of all things. Wisps would follow her through her dreams, seeming to take an interest in her. She talked to them like people. She wondered if that was why they liked her.

There were demons, too, but she was too small to be of any real notice to them yet. Like the Templars in the tower, really. As long as she kept her head down and didn’t stray too far, she would be safe until she was old enough to handle herself.

Tonight, though, as soon as her eyes closed, she found herself in the boys’ dormitory in the Circle. Solona pinched herself. No, she was still asleep; the sting was much duller than it would have been in real life. So why was she here? She looked around wildly, searching for answers.

“No, no, don’t pull. You’re forcing it, when you should be calling it. Try again.”  She caught a glimpse of Anders, with Jowan and… herself. Jowan was bleeding, and Anders was coaching her.

Oh, this was the day Jowan fell down the stairs again, and Anders had taught her how to heal.

“Inhale, concentrate -- good. Now exhale, and release the mana. That’s it!” The spirit playing as Solona clapped its hands with glee, as Anders beamed with pride. Jowan’s torn-up knee closed, leaving only a scab behind.

But wait… if this was her dream, why was a spirit posing as her? It didn’t make sense. Solona walked out the door. Maybe she’d find the answer if she went somewhere else. She went upstairs, toward the library -- if she’d find herself anywhere, it was there.

At the top of the stairs was a large wooden door. She opened it.

There was another door, identical to the first one. She opened it, too.

Another door? What was this?

She opened door after door after door, frustrated that she didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Behind the doors, she heard a young voice speaking in a language she didn’t understand. From the inflection, Solona thought maybe it was telling a story. Soft giggles punctuated throughout the story, as Solona continued to open the endless doors.

“Come on,” she grumbled, “just stop already, weird dream!”

She ripped open the door in front of her with a grunt - and blinked from the light. Sunshine poured through the now open doorway, and, peeking out a bit, Solona saw a tree and a large stone staircase. A courtyard, maybe? She took a few hesitant steps forward, resisting the urge to call out, or she’d call every nearby demon to come swooping down on her head. The Fade shivered in response to her anxiety.

“Oh, shut up,” she muttered, wishing she could just wake up and go back home already.

The false sun beat down on Solona, and the plants in the courtyard were a rather aggressive green. In front of her stood a large keep made of solid, silent stone. The grass didn’t so much as move as she stepped on it; it simply went through her, like she wasn’t even there. Solona shrunk back at the bigness and wrongness of it all. Maybe that’s what was wrong. The Enchanters always said that the Fade reflects emotions. So if she stopped being nervous, maybe it would be a nice castle. She strode forward, trying to project confidence onto this place.

It didn’t work. The castle was just as creepy as before. Wasn’t this a dream? Why couldn’t she fix it? She took a few more hesitant steps -- then stopped. A voice rang out through the courtyard, loud and abrupt as a whip-crack.

“You don’t care about me at all, do you? You just pretend to care because you have to!”

Somewhere very close by, someone was crying. Oh, so maybe the crying person thought this wasn’t a nice castle, and that’s why it looked like this. Maybe… maybe it wasn’t her dream, but theirs. There were mages who could go into other people’s dreams. Maybe Solona was one of them. She turned slowly around in a circle, trying to hear where the crying was coming from. As the Fade sensed her desire, it drew her awareness off to the left.

Following, she found herself in a stable. It smelled of straw and horse dung. Ugh. Why a stable? Solona had never even seen a real horse; her family hadn’t been rich and now… well, she lived in the Circle, and horses weren’t really needed for towers in the middle of lakes, were they?

“I hate you! And I hate her! This is all her fault! She’s hated me from the start!”

The crying was louder here, but she didn’t see anyone. The harsh sunlight peered in through cracks in the ceiling, and the straw was simply everywhere. No horses, though. Odd. There were boxes for them, but…

Oh! She spotted a staircase. Maybe she’d find whoever was crying upstairs. The steps didn’t so much as creak under her weight. At eight years old, Solona didn’t weigh much, but old wood should creak. Actually, nothing had been at all bothered by her since she opened that last door. She couldn’t even hear her own footfalls.

“Just go away!”

Did the voice mean her? Probably not. It couldn’t know she was here, right? She wasn’t making any sounds or anything. She should just continue on.

As she reached the top of the stairs, the room became much brighter. There were holes in the roof that needed repairing, and the false sun seemed determined to show off what it could do. She spied a bedroll on top of haphazardly-stacked bales of hay, and a shattered necklace lying carelessly nearby, as if it had been thrown aside.

And then she saw the boy.

The wrongness of everything -- the weird sun, the silent castle, the horseless stable, everything -- just… sort of… evaporated. And in its place came a tangle of soft, lovely feelings that started to whisper inside her heart. It was frightening and wonderful and so terribly right.

The boy was her age or a little older, kneeling on the other side of his makeshift bed, his head pillowed on his arms, sobbing his heart out. He looked grubby, like he’d been rolling in the dirt and hadn’t washed yet. Her heart went out to him just before she did. Solona sat on his bedroll and looked down at him, trying to summon a smile.

“Boy,” she said courteously, “why are you crying?”

He didn’t answer. She tore her eyes away from the boy and looked desperately around for something that would fix this.

“Is it your necklace?” she asked. “We could mend it! This is a dream, it doesn’t have to be broken, look!”

But as she willed the necklace to mend… it didn’t. Oh. This really wasn’t her dream, then. She blinked back tears, because she couldn’t help him and he was hurting and she didn’t know what to do.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I can fix it… Oh! But maybe you could! Here, stand up now, and give it a try! I know you can do it,” she urged him.

“They, they don’t c-care,” he sobbed. “They’re sending me away and they d-didn’t even ask if it’s what I wanted.”

“Well... that’s wrong of them,” Solona said, trying to sound soothing. “They should say they’re sorry. They should be nicer to you.” Whoever they were, they’d made the boy miserable. She was starting to get angry that someone had made him feel this way.

But anger wouldn’t help him here, so she swallowed it down. “Did they break your necklace? Maybe we should get them to fix it. They should make it right,” she said. “Please stop crying and tell me what’s wrong. Please? I’ll help you.”

A dangerous promise to make in the Fade, she knew, but she had to do something.

“They’re going to make me a Templar. I don’t want to be a Templar, I just want to be me.”

Solona flinched at the idea of sitting next to a future Templar, considering that she was a mage trespassing in his dreams, but she tried her best to be soothing anyway.

“... Would -- would you like me to make you a butterfly? It -- sometimes it helps the other apprentices when they get scared,” she babbled. “Not that you’re an apprentice, I’m an apprentice. In the Circle, I mean, I’m a mage. Is… is that okay?”

The silence between them grew and stretched, punctuated only by the boy’s sniffles.

“I’m, I’m not in your dream on purpose. I just sort of… ended up here, and I want to help you, so please… just please tell me what I can do. Whatever you need, I’ll try my best, okay?”

The boy didn’t say anything else, and Solona started to get suspicious. She clapped her hands right in front of his face. “Hey! Can you hear me?” she shouted.

His lack of reaction was a slap. Tears started to sting her eyes.

“... Boy? Can you see me at all? My name is Solona,” she whispered. “Do you even know I’m here?”

He didn’t move. And he didn’t say anything. He couldn’t see her or hear her. She couldn’t make herself known at all. So he still thought nobody cared. Her heart started to break for the lonely little thing.

“Well, I can -- I’ll sit with you, whether you can see me or not. Maybe it will help? Maybe -- maybe you’ll know, somehow,” she said, shifting a little closer to him.

Even though this wasn’t her dream, maybe the Fade would be good and let him know someone was listening, if she just hoped hard enough. Solona stayed with the boy in friendly silence until he stopped crying and started to fade away. She waved at him, even though he couldn’t see it.

“I hope you find a nicer dream. Or nicer people,” she said. “Or both. Both would be good.”

She woke up to a pillow smacking her in the face and Anders and Jowan’s cackling. Maybe she should have kept her hopes for herself.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Two: Irving

The lesson had gone reasonably well so far today, Irving reflected as his eight young students leafed through their textbooks, searching for the correct pages. There had been a minimum of distractions, and, while it wasn’t a day for practical magic -- which they all loved, Irving included -- no one had fallen out of their chairs in boredom. Irving was prepared to call it a good lesson.

However… it hadn't gone perfectly. Irving was concerned about one of his students: Solona Amell. She was petite, with a heart-shaped face and a long black braid that she often flipped over her shoulder for dramatic purposes. Today, that braid was dangling over her notebook, and she hadn't even opened the text he'd asked them all to read. It was most troubling.

“So… has anyone found the four schools of magic?” Irving asked as he walked between the desks.

Usually, he would have suspected that Solona's hand would be the first in the air, ready as ever to answer… but it was not . One of his other students, Kinnon, answered instead.

“Entropy, Creation, Primal, and Spirit.” Kinnon said.

Irving nodded. "And can anyone tell me how the schools are divided?"

Again, another student, Keili, was first to raise her hand. Irving looked at her and gestured for her to answer.

"P-primal and Spirit are the schools of -- of energy? And Entropy and Creation are matter?"

Irving made sure his smile was warm; Keili was shy and rarely answered questions, but she was exactly right.

Very good. Does anyone here know the difference between the two schools of matter?” Irving asked.

The class was silent. No hands were raised.

“Hmm,” Irving said, pretending to ponder the question himself. “ No one knows? Apprentice Amell, do you have any ideas?”

Solona blinked and looked up from her notebook. Glancing at it, Irving saw nothing written down. This was most unlike her. Solona wasn’t the most powerful of his apprentices, but she was easily one of the best students, ever scribbling notes on his lectures (complete with doodled commentary in the margins). Many, many lunch hours were spent with her sitting in his office, peppering him with questions about concepts far above her skill level. She didn't always understand the answers, but it seemed she liked learning them anyway. (Irving, again, made a mental note to direct her to more age-appropriate reading material.)

“Um,” Solona closed her eyes, as if clearing her thoughts, “The… The Four Schools says that Creation is the school of life, and Entropy is the school of death. They’re opposites.”

Irving nodded at her. Technically, Entropy was the school of negation, not death, but he hardly expected an eight-year-old to know that. And it was more important for Irving to know that, despite whatever was going on, she was still paying attention.

“Isn’t Creation the school of healing magic?” Kinnon asked.

“It is,” Irving said. “Though the exact process is complicated, and we’ll study that another day.”

“First Enchanter?” Jowan, Solona’s friend, called out.

Irving turned to him. He was a tall boy, black-haired and light-eyed, and thoroughly attached to Solona. The two of them were together often, though Irving often detected a hint of jealousy from the older boy to the younger girl. Irving had taught enough apprentices to know that Jowan was reasonably talented, and, in raw power alone, easily surpassed Solona… but he wasn’t willing to apply himself the way she was, and his nervousness and need to do everything right got in his way. Solona, being more flexible and willing to make mistakes, ironically often did better than her more powerful friend.

“What about blood magic? What school is that?” Jowan asked.

Irving stayed silent for a moment, allowing the mood in the classroom to shift from an easygoing lesson to a deadly serious one.

“Blood magic is technically its own school,” Irving said, slowly enough that none of the students would mistake his meaning, “and we will not be studying it, even theoretically.”

A murmur went up around the classroom as Jowan sank slowly into his seat. It spoke a great deal about Solona’s distraction that she hadn’t noticed the exchange, the shift in tone, or the embarrassment of her friend.

As the Chantry bell rang out, tolling the hour, Irving dismissed the class. As if by magic, the students all brightened and left… save two. Solona remained at her desk, staring down at her notebook as if she hadn’t heard the bell, and Jowan waited next to her.

“Apprentice Amell,” Irving called, beckoning her over to him. She started and looked up, surprised to see that no one else was left.

Jowan looked between the two of them, almost as if he were torn about staying nearby. She gestured toward the door, letting him know he could leave. Once he had gone, Solona shyly met Irving’s eyes and shifted her weight from foot to foot. A classic guilty stance. This did not bode well.

“You are not yourself today, child,” he said gently.

“I know,” she replied, glancing away. “I’m sorry.”

“Is there anything I can help you with?”

“I… I didn’t sleep well last night, ser.”

That was cause for true concern. He swept an arm across her shoulders and brought her to a pair of chairs farther away from the door and the Templar standing guard in the hall. He sat in his chair and reached for her hand, signaling that she should look at him.

She did, thank the Maker, and she sat down.

“What troubles you, child?” he asked, his voice gone quiet, as to not be overheard.

“I -- there was a boy, last night. In my dreams. Or I think I was in his dream, maybe. He was crying,” she replied just as softly, cuffing the tears out of her own eyes. “I don’t know what to do.”

Oh, the poor girl.

She’d found her Voice.

The truth about Voices was simple enough: they were the other half of a mage’s soul. Mages and their Voices were, colloquially, soulmates, but it was so much more than just love. Once a mage was fully bonded to his or her Voice, the mage was both safe from demons and far more powerful than they would have been otherwise.

The Chantry feared that power, but Irving thought they feared the loss of leverage over the mages even more. The Chantry liked to claim that the Circle existed for two reasons: to protect the common folk from the mages, and to protect the mages from themselves. But if no mage ever had to worry about possession, what happened to the Chantry? Why would mages who were immune to demons need to be locked away? Why would apprentices fear the Harrowing, the Fade, or their own abilities?

The Chantry lost half its power through that knowledge alone, and they well knew it.  And so, they insisted on teaching their apprentices precisely nothing about Voices… or, at least, nothing true. Apprentices weren’t even allowed to search, meaning that many became full Circle mages, Tranquil, or even died without ever having heard the people who held the other halves of their souls. Often, even if they did hear their Voices, they didn’t realize what it was. Much like Solona now.

Were things different, Irving could see himself being happy for her. But with the Templars watching their every move? He had to do his duty and caution her.

“Listen to me,” he said, his voice quietly taking a teacher’s tone, “what you saw in your dream last night -- the crying boy -- you must never seek him out again.

“I didn’t, I swear!” Solona protested in a whisper, “I don’t know how it happened.”

“I believe you,” he urged, squeezing her hand. “But now that you have found him, you must keep away from him, do you understand? We do not need to give the Templars any excuse to suspect you of anything.”

“Why would they --”

“Because he is your Voice, child.”

The words had little impact on her. Damn the Chantry for their insistence on the miseducation of his apprentices.

“The boy you heard…” Irving began, hiding his frustration, “you will always hear him, calling out in the Fade. He is your Voice. If things were different, I could tell you exactly what that means.”

The young girl’s eyes narrowed as she tried to comprehend the few scraps of information that Irving could give her.

“All mages have them, and the Chantry fears that… as it does everything else. You must not give them reason to suspect that you will turn apostate to search for him,” Irving pressed upon every single word, willing her to understand.

“But First Enchanter? Why is a… a Voice so frightening?” she asked.

Irving smiled. She was a good student.

“Because bonding with a Voice makes a mage more powerful… among other things. The Chantry fears that because they say that you are broken. They would have you believe that you will be fulfilled by a life of service to the Maker in the Circle,” Irving said.

“That’s not true, is it.”

“No,” he replied, his smile turning softly sad, “it isn’t.”

Solona looked away, her thoughts somewhere far distant. Still, Irving trusted her. She was cautious. Careful. Dutiful , even as he was. He had a sudden, vivid image of her sitting in this very spot, counseling an apprentice of her own, long after he was gone.

Maker, if You ever listen, then please. Not this girl.

“Do you understand, child?” he asked, wanting to be certain.

“Yes, ser,” she said, rock-solid as in any of her lessons.

“And if anyone asks what we were speaking of?”

Her eyes darted to the side for a moment as she thought. This sort of improvisation was necessary if she was to survive in the Circle. Irving knew that better than anyone.

“I… I wanted to show you my newest sketch?” Solona suggested, “It’s of you, and I was nervous about you seeing it.”

Irving beamed at her as she whisked her sketchbook out of her satchel. If he’d ever been so fortunate as to have a daughter… well. It wasn’t worth thinking of now. The sketch of him was quite good, apart from the beard being a bit too bushy. He “confiscated” it, and kept it in the desk in his office for a long time afterward.

Chapter Text


 

Solona really wished she could just stop dreaming of him. She tried to do what Irving had asked of her, she really did. But...

An orphaned bastard, unwanted, unloved, inconvenient at every turn. A mother dead, a father gone, a caregiver who didn’t care, and a faith that offered no comfort. Regret. Heartbreak.

… he didn’t have anyone else. How could she leave him to be lonely?

Another boy was making an appearance tonight. He had kind grey eyes and curly black hair. The spirit was kindness and gentleness itself. Literally. The Fade was like that. Solona could tell, just by looking: he was always smiling, and he followed wherever her boy went.

He seemed very missable. Solona felt sorry for her boy.

“Come on, Aidan! Let’s sneak into the castle!”

“Be quiet, Alistair!” The laughing spirit hissed. “ Do you want to get caught?”

Oh. His name is Alistair.

Solona rather liked it, and a blush started to slink across her cheeks, though she wasn’t sure why. Ignoring the pounding of her heart, she decided to follow along with them. He -- Alistair -- might need her. For something. Maybe.

The three of them crept over to a big windmill. Alistair unlocked a secret door in the floor with a ring. Was this real, or was it a metaphor for something? Solona wasn’t sure.

Alistair and the spirit stifling giggles, they started down a long, dark tunnel -- and the dream shifted. Solona couldn’t say what had changed, exactly. It was a subtle shift, like an otherwise lovely song having one note just a tad too sharp.

“Wait!” she called out. “This isn’t a nice dream anymore! We need to go back!”

Of course, her boy couldn’t hear her, and the spirit ignored her. This wasn’t her dream, after all.

The long tunnel let out in the middle of a great stone room, even bigger than the Great Hall in the Circle Tower. Spirit-Aidan had disappeared. The firelight in the room was a sickly green, and even the air seemed dark.

Hundreds and hundreds of identical boys in identical armor with the Templar sword on the breastplate filed out around Alistair. He was suddenly dressed in it, too, trying to keep up with their noisy unison marching, but they outpaced him. He ran, faster and faster, doing anything to keep up, but the armor slowed him down until they were out of sight and he collapsed in a heap on the floor.

“Wait, please!” He called out, with all the breath he could spare.

One of the Templars -- a snotty, rat-faced man -- turned on his heel and marched back. He had a Knight-Commander’s armor on, and he was easily double Alistair’s height. Alistair looked up, reaching for a hand that wasn't there. Instead, the Knight-Commander glared at him with disdain.

“Bastard ,” he spat.

A sudden fury choked Solona, and she surged forward.

“Don’t you dare talk to him like that!” she shouted, throwing a completely-ineffectual punch at the demon wearing the Knight-Commander’s shape.

It laughed, turning and walking away as if they meant nothing. Alistair remained on the floor. He didn’t move. Maybe he couldn’t move.

Maker, all she wanted to do was give her poor boy a hug. Let him have a good cry. Make him some tea. If -- if he liked tea. Solona didn’t know. She liked tea. But maybe he didn’t. Maybe he preferred water or milk or, or wine or something.

Oh, what did it matter? He couldn’t hear her, anyway, and here she was obsessing over beverages. Honestly.

“Hey. Hey, listen to me, all right? You’ll get through this. You’re worth all of those other Templars put together. It’ll be okay,” she said, making her voice as soothing as elfroot. “Why don’t we go back to the nice part of the dream? The part with Aidan. You were going to sneak into the castle, remember?”

Alistair faded away, waking up wherever he was. She hoped he didn’t remember the nightmare.

“Have a good day,” she whispered as he disappeared.

 


 

The waves were so high that they flooded over the sides of the ship, covering the deck in at least an inch of water. Rain battered the sailors, who were desperately trying to right themselves and keep anyone from going overboard. The salty sea air that Solona often read about was muted somewhat; smell and taste were often muddled in the Fade. And Solona was the only one who wasn't soaked.

Alistair and a golden man burst out from the cabin just off to her left. Solona hadn’t seen the golden man before, but he and Alistair looked just alike, except the man was about thirty years older.

“It isn’t safe up here! Please, get back inside! ” called a sailor, half-tangled in the sodden rigging.

“Go. Look after your mother. She needs you,” the golden man said quietly to Alistair, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I’m going to lend these men a hand, and I’ll be down as soon as this is all over.”

“No,” Alistair insisted, “I’m not leaving you.”

Alistair moved to assist the sailors without waiting for further permission. The golden man sighed, and they were ordered to pull on some ropes to shift the sail. Apparently the spirits were as knowledgeable about sailing as actual sailors would be, because they were trying to angle the sail to harness the power of the rain. Solona guessed that would translate into forward motion, hopefully getting the boat through the storm.

As Alistair, the golden man, and the sailors pulled on various ropes and jettisoned supplies overboard to lighten the ship (and hopefully increase their chances of survival), Solona wondered why this was Alistair’s dream. He had never been on a ship, as far as she was aware. And stormy seas weren’t usually part of his dreams, either.

The glint in the sailor’s eye as the golden man pulled him free from the rigging was enough for Solona to realize that this dream wasn’t going to end happily.

He slipped, stumbling backwards. A sudden gust of wind catapulted him over the edge of the boat. While another sailor called out “Man overboard,” the golden man and Alistair rushed to help. The sailor was clinging on to the side of the boat with all his strength.

“Help me, please!” he cried.

The golden man reached for the sailor, catching hands and starting to pull -- when the water on the deck and another sudden roll of the ship forced him overboard instead.

“No!” Alistair called out, rushing forward, reaching -- but too late.

“I’ve got him!” Solona shouted, forgetting for a moment that this was a dream. She took a fast breath, and with it, expelled a glyph of paralysis on the surface of the water.

The golden man’s foot touched the glyph… and he froze before he could break the surface.

“I -- it worked?” Solona asked. “It really worked?”

Oh, wait. Of course it worked. It wasn’t real water. It’s still the Fade.

Alistair threw a rope overboard, which, after a moment of paralysis, the golden man was able to grab. Some sailors helped to hoist him back on board the ship. He rested his hands on his knees, panting.

“That was a close call,” the golden man said.

Alistair grinned at him, about to make any number of puns, when the golden man pulled him into an embrace. After a long moment, Alistair relaxed into the hug, and the storm began to subside.

“Don’t do that again,” Alistair said, his voice muffled into the golden man’s shoulder.

“I’ll try my best.”

“King Maric! Prince Alistair! Are you all right?” the spirit who was presumably the captain said, rushing up to them.

“Yes, thank the Maker and my son,” the golden man answered.

Oh .

“I’m so sorry,” Solona whispered.

No wonder he’d never fit in at Redcliffe, or referred to anyone as “mother” or “father.” King Maric was his father. So all the name-calling was actually true. (Still wrong to do, but true.)

And worse, the real King Maric had been lost at sea. Recently, in fact. Well. If Alistair was mourning his lost father in real life, that was one thing. But he didn’t have to do it in his dreams. Not if Solona had anything to say about it.

Solona cupped her hands together and breathed into them, focusing her energy and infusing some white light with warmth and calmness. She shaped the light into a butterfly, and she let it loose over Alistair and the spirit posing as King Maric. The two of them visibly relaxed, and the tone of the dream shifted as the sun broke through what was left of the storm clouds.

By the time Alistair started to fade away, returning his consciousness to the waking world, King Maric had told him dozens of stories of closer calls than this one: armies, dragons, darkspawn,  swamp witches -- King Maric had seen it all. And Alistair gobbled up every word, as excited as if he were a small boy again.

Solona didn’t dare get too close to them, for fear of spoiling the happy dream, but her heart broke for Alistair. He didn’t have to mourn in his dreams, but it didn’t seem like half enough.

 


 

The small cloister was dark, save one burning candle. Alistair knelt before a statue of Andraste, reciting.

This was usually done before the vigil that culminated in a Templar’s final vows. Unless this was a memory, but somehow, Solona didn’t think so. It felt too… insubstantial. The edges of the dream were too grey and formless for this to be a real thing that happened.

He whispered,

O Maker, hear my cry:

Guide me through the blackest nights.

Steel my heart against the temptations of the wicked.

Make me to rest in the warmest places.

 

Trying desperately to ignore the sudden awareness she felt, she walked over and knelt beside him, reciting in unison.

 

O Creator, see me kneel:

For I walk only where You would bid me.

Stand only in places You have blessed.

Sing only the words You place in my throat.

 

My Maker, know my heart:

Take from me a life of sorrow.

Lift me from a world of pain.

Judge me worthy of Your endless pride.

 

If anyone knew a life of sorrow, it was him. She gently brushed his hair away from his face, a lump in her throat and tears in her eyes. He continued to recite.

He’s worthy of anyone’s endless pride. I’m sure of it, Solona thought.

She watched him pray, seeing him for the first time as something more than the grubby boy from the stables.

He’d grown tall and broad, with shoulders that should not have commanded her attention as much as they did. Red-blond hair that looked soft to touch. Eyes a gentle amber color. A jawline that was clearly sculpted by some kind of god. A bit of stubble, for just the right amount of “I-don’t-care-how-I-look” scruff. And seriously, those lips should be illegal. Actually, considering the Chantry rules against fraternization, they were, weren’t they?

Her heart gave a terribly treacherous lurch.

Maker, he’s beautiful .

No, wait. No. This was dangerous and wrong. The Templars could make her Tranquil if they thought she was trying to find her Voice. They would do anything to keep her away from him. If she had been younger, maybe they would have understood, but she was getting close to her Harrowing now.

She finally understood Irving’s warning from all those years ago. If only she had bloody listened. Instead, she’d treated this like a fairy story, like… well, a dream, thinking that it couldn’t hurt her if it wasn’t real.

But now…

Maybe… maybe it would be better if she just left. Maybe she should leave for good, ignore his cries from now on. If he was lonely... well, it’s not like she could do anything for him from inside the Circle, and she couldn’t very well run away. She was fine. She had her teacher and Jowan and Anders and her books and her drawings. That was enough. That had to be enough. He didn't know she was here, anyway.

For all it was a dream, she was putting herself in very real danger here, and not just from demons.

“I’m sorry,” she couldn’t stop herself from whispering.

Solona turned to leave the cloister as Alistair finished:

For You are the fire at the heart of the world,

And comfort is only Yours to give.

 


 

Solona didn’t make it a week.

She tried her best to ignore Alistair as he cried out into the Fade. She practiced spells, or talked with spirits, or worked on meditation and breathing -- though it was surprisingly difficult to empty her mind while she was inside it.

Still. He kept calling. It haunted her. She started to think she could hear it while she was awake, sometimes. It hurt to know he was hurting. It felt… it felt suspiciously like heartbreak. Like being crushed from the inside. An implosion of the soul.

And then, one night, everything… shifted. Solona felt the difference as soon as she fell asleep. It was like the feeling just before casting a spell. Anticipation, almost. With a slight undercurrent of fear, and a few other muddled emotions besides.

What if he needed her?

No, Solona, keep yourself still.

But it felt different. She couldn’t deny that it felt different.

She sat, trying to breathe through it.

… One little peek into his dream couldn’t hurt, right? She’d just make sure he was all right, and then she would leave and come back here and meditate. He didn’t need her, but for her own peace of mind, she could check. She couldn’t clear her head with this hanging over her it, anyway. Right?

Solona found Alistair’s dream -- and stepped directly in the middle of a grand tournament. Why were they having a tournament? Templars didn’t have tournaments. Wish fulfillment, maybe? Did he want to be a knight once, before they met?

But no. Every spirit she could see was dressed in full Templar regalia, and they all began a grand melee. She found Alistair off to the side, sword and shield in hand, staring.

“Well? Go on, then,” Solona encouraged. Alistair didn't move, because of course he didn't. This is the Fade, you ninny. He still can't hear you.

“So, what’s the tournament for?” she asked, more to herself than him. She looked around and saw Templar after Templar: this one was clearly a Knight-Captain, these were initiates…

Oh, Maker , no.

She saw an armored man with a Grey Warden insignia on his breastplate. She shook, shocked worse than a lightning spell. If she’d been clear-headed, she would have tried to calm herself before a demon felt her panic and rage seeping out into the Fade. But this was important and so she couldn’t be clear-headed. Not this time.

“A Grey Warden? That’s what this is for? You want to be a Grey Warden? ” she cried, suddenly furious. “Do you have any idea what could happen to you? People say things about the Wardens! They, they, they recruit people and then they’re never heard from again! They join the Wardens and they die! Is that what you want?”

He didn’t answer. Of course he didn’t answer, he couldn’t answer, but for the love of Andraste, please just look at me, I don’t think I can bear it.

Alistair was her Voice . She would never be able to find him, not truly, not with the Circle and the mages and the Templars and just, just everything. But as a Templar he was safe. Being a Templar, as much as he hated it, he was safe. She could never find him, but she couldn’t lose him .

“Alistair,” she whispered, “you could die. And… and I don’t think I would survive that. I can’t. I… I love you.”

It had taken her ten long, lonely years of spying on his dreams to admit it to herself. She sucked in a long breath.

“I hate this,” she confessed. “But, but Alistair, if this is real, this tournament… it will change everything. I -- I can’t lose you. You’re all I really have. You know? No, wait, of course you don’t. You don’t even know I’m here. There’s only one heart here to break.”

She gave a hopeless, watery laugh, and stared at Alistair for a long moment, drinking him in. His jaw was set, and his eyes glinted with a hitherto unseen determination.

Oh. That’s what was different. She’d never felt him hope before.

Maybe… maybe he had never felt hope before.

Her breath shuddered, tears pricked her eyes, and her heart broke again for him. For them both.

“If… if this is what you want. And if you get it, then. Then okay. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? When you, I don’t know, when you love someone? So… so if it means you’ll be happy, and away from all these people who make you so miserable, and it means you don’t have to, to peel potatoes or get called a bastard or, or any of it, then… okay. I mean,” she finished with a half-hysterical sob, “it’s not like I’m going anywhere.”

With one long, last look at him, Solona turned and left. She would never see him in her dreams again.

 

Chapter Text

 

This is it, Alistair thought upon waking. He’d done well the last several weeks. He’d been good. He hadn’t caused any trouble -- well, as much as that was possible, given that his mouth had a tendency to run off randomly. More than once, he’d wanted to slap a smart remark back -- but it was too late. He couldn’t unsay a word any more than he could un-ring a bell.

Still. His behavior had been stellar, all things considered. He was practically a model student. Or at least, as close to one as he could get. Which is why he was here, waiting in the antechamber with his fellow templars, probably looking like a puppy desperate for walkies.

Please, he thought. Please just let this happen. Let me try, at least. Just this once, let something go right.

Knight-Commander Glavin, a man whose face was eighty-percent chin, gestured everyone forward, probably to receive their instructions for getting ready and the rules of the melee. But when he saw Alistair, he held out a forbidding hand.

“Not you.”

“But --” Alistair began.

“No.”

This was it, then. His last chance at getting out of this Maker-forsaken place, at being someone , at, at, freedom just disappeared with one syllable and a hand gesture. The hope he had foolishly allowed to grow in his chest shattered. None of the other templars gave him so much as a sympathetic glance as they readied themselves for the tournament. One knocked into his shoulder in a way that had to be deliberate, causing him to stumble slightly.

“Bastard,” he heard someone hiss.

When they’d all left, he sat, put his head in his hands, and groaned. This was going to be his life forever. Maker’s breath, what a mess he was in. He usually tried not to feel sorry for himself, but this… this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and it was gone before he’d even been able to try. Resigned, Alistair decided to just watch the tournament. At the very least, he’d get to see who won. He walked out into the courtyard. Since it was just being held for the Grey Warden, at least he’d be guaranteed a decent view.

A short while later, the proper templars had made themselves ready, gathering in the courtyard for the tournament. From the way they were setting up, it appeared to be a grand melee, every man for himself. And, Maker, next to Knight-Commander Glavin -- that, that must be the Grey Warden. He was dark-skinned, and had long, dark hair tied back behind him. Between the hair and the earring, Alistair was prepared to say he probably wasn’t Fereldan. Rivaini, maybe. But he had a grim, battle-hardened look about him, and a determined glint in his eyes that intimidated the Void out of Alistair.

At first, it was near incomprehensible -- to him, anyway. So many men and women on the field made for confusing viewing. Alistair stole a glance over at the Warden and saw him exchange a few words with the Knight-Commander -- and, and were they talking about him? It was too far away to hear, but the Warden was definitely looking at him. Knight-Commander Glavin sighed, and then Alistair was sure they were talking about him.

A few more whispers passed between the two of them… and the Knight-Commander nodded at him . Grudgingly, yes, but still. Alistair’s eyes darted over to the Grey Warden, certain he must have misunderstood… but the Warden was smiling at him. With inelegant and improper haste, Alistair bolted from the room, donning his armor faster than he ever had before.

Maybe… maybe there was reason to hope after all.

Bundled in an old set of splintmail, which was all he could find, Alistair rushed back to the courtyard for the melee. The rules were fairly simple: it was a free-for-all, and once a warrior was knocked down, he or she was considered “captured” and was escorted off the field. In real tourneys, those “captured” would be ransomed for real coin, and some people made good wages off of it. But here, for the honor of the Grey Warden, and in the sight of the Maker, the “captured” warriors had just lost.

Maker. The chance to even try, to be standing here , was something.

He didn’t expect that the Knight-Commander would start the whole thing over -- the man was barely looking at Alistair, anyhow -- so he entered the melee without any ceremony or pomp whatsoever.

Immediately, one of the other recruits charged at him, sword down to strike low. Following the boy’s momentum, Alistair caught the blade with his shield, pushing his opponent’s arm much too far to the right. His opponent stumbled; Alistair gave one extra little shove with his shield, and the boy was down.

Alistair dropped his sword and extended a hand to help his opponent up. But the boy stuck his nose in the air and stomped off the field in a huff. Alistair shrugged and flashed a smile at the Grey Warden that clearly said what can you do, right? And continued his progress in the melee.

Picking up his sword again, he waited, biding his time. And after a moment, Ser Brinley and Ser Wallas looked over in his direction. The two of them were cousins, and they were always together. They’d formed an alliance, unsurprisingly, and Alistair was their next target. Positioning his shield in the middle of his torso to hide the movement of his shoulders and hips, Alistair let them come to him. Ser Brinley, with his big two-handed sword, rained blow after blow down on the shield; he was always impatient. Alistair kept the shield locked in place; terrible technique, but he had a plan. Brinley tired quickly; his sword was too heavy for him to keep up that pace forever. Alistair pushed his shield forward as hard as he could without causing real damage. Brinley was exhausted enough that his form was off; he fell over.

Wallas growled at Alistair, rushing forward. Alistair side-stepped. Wallas passed him, and Alistair wheeled around, keeping his sword at his hips and shield at his chest. Wallas struck high; Alistair jammed Wallas’s sword arm on the shield, shutting him down. Alistair pushed his own sword arm between the two of them, sweeping left to right around the shield and knocking Wallas down.

The two warriors grumbled, annoyed at being disqualified. Alistair offered a hand to each of them in turn. Brinley took it; Wallas refused.

There were only a few combatants left on the field now, eleven or twelve at most. Alistair wondered, in a detached way, if he’d still be standing here if he’d competed in the tournament from the beginning. His arms and shoulders were starting to complain, and his back was already screaming with the exertion.

Alistair was unfortunate enough to attract the attention of Ser Ehryn. One of the only women on the field, and she deserved to be there. She was good. Better than most of the men they trained with, which chafed some of the others. Alistair, on the other hand, often copied her techniques if he could. She didn’t wait even a moment to press forward, trying to overpower him with her shield. She struck again and again, trying to stun him or knock him down, forcing him to keep his shield locked in position. His arms and shoulders were on fire as Ser Ehryn drove Alistair back farther and farther.

That’s when he felt the sharp pain in his back. Blunted, but still. Alistair turned his head to investigate.

Ser Kalvin. He wore light armor and fought in a decidedly Antivan style, or so the swordsmaster had always told them. Above everything else, he fought fast and he fought dirty . Alistair thought he’d wheel forward to keep his shield between him and both opponents, but Ser Ehryn had moved while he was distracted. She pushed one last time with her shield, and Ser Kalvin struck the pommel of his sword into Alistair’s face. He tasted blood, and his world darkened for a moment.

He was dazed, but still not out. The two of them aimed to fix that.

Ser Ehryn resumed attacks on Alistair’s shield; Ser Kalvin dropped his sword and bent forward. He grabbed Alistair by the knees, pulling forward and knocking Alistair on his ass.

The two of them ignored Alistair from that point, fighting each other instead. He could barely see as he struggled to his feet and stumbled out of the melee. He found a rag and put pressure on his nose to try to stop the bleeding. It didn’t feel broken, this time. Kalvin had held back from doing any real damage.

After a few more minutes, Ser Ehryn was the last warrior standing. Alistair tried his hardest to be happy for her.

At least I tried, he thought. I had the chance, even if I didn’t win.

“Congratulations, Ser Ehryn,” Knight-Commander Glavin’s voice rang out. Cheers, and some mumbled protests, went up all around the courtyard. Alistair applauded loudly; she deserved it.

“And the place in the Grey Wardens?” Ehryn asked.

The Grey Warden looked uncomfortable.

“You fought well,” he said, “but being a Grey Warden requires more than skill in combat.”

“We were led to believe that the winner of the tournament would be given a place in the Wardens,” Ser Ehryn protested.

“I did not ask for the tournament, nor did I offer recruitment as its prize,” he answered, gently deflecting criticism back onto the Knight-Commander. “Being a Grey Warden takes dedication, and loyalty to your brothers and sisters above anything else. I have only seen this from one fighter today. Alistair, would you please step forward?”

He was dreaming, right? He had to be.

But as the Warden’s eyes searched the crowd, looking for someone, looking for him , it became harder to doubt. Their eyes locked, and the Warden smiled. Alistair tried to smile back, but his face still hurt. The Warden beckoned him forward. Alistair moved stiffly, trying to look composed, but his body was yelling at him.

“Welcome,” the Warden said quietly.

This could not possibly be happening. There was no way .

“But I didn’t even win the tournament!” Alistair exclaimed, still disbelieving.

“I came here looking for a warrior of conscience, and I believe I have found one.”

“Duncan, my friend, I have to object,” the Knight-Commander said.

Oh, wait. This was definitely happening. The Grey Warden -- Duncan -- turned his head slowly toward the Knight-Commander as if his opinion held no weight whatsoever. Alistair was vaguely aware of another Templar running off somewhere, but he didn’t care, he didn’t care , he was going to be a Grey Warden if Duncan had anything to say about it. Maker. This -- this was everything he’d ever dreamed of. Not the Warden part, specifically, but getting the Void out of the Chantry . Not having to be a bloody Templar.

Duncan simply stood there silently as Knight-Commander Glavin listed everything wrong with Alistair -- he’ll shame your order, he can’t hold his tongue, he’s not worthy -- and maybe Alistair wasn’t worthy, but Duncan just stood there with a placid look on his face until the Knight-Commander finished.

Duncan turned back to Alistair.

“Let me make my offer formal. I, Duncan of the Grey Wardens, extend the invitation for you to join our ranks,” he said, extending a hand.

He doesn’t care , Alistair thought, dizzy with the speed everything was going. But he grinned his usual grin, and reached for Duncan’s hand -- and a woman’s voice cut through the din.

Absolutely not.

Ah. The Grand Cleric. Alistair’s hand froze in mid-air. He’d almost forgotten she was visiting. She charged forward, her skirts practically billowing around her. She wasn’t an old woman, but she wasn’t young, either. Really, she was the word “bitter” personified.

“Grand Cleric Elemina,” Duncan said, bowing to her as if he were made of pure politeness.

“He is not fit for service among the Grey Wardens. As he is unfit to be a Templar,” she sneered.

Meaning: we don’t want this bastard, and you won’t, either.

“If he is unfit to be a Templar, then would it not be better to let him seek his own path elsewhere?” Duncan asked mildly.

The look on Grand Cleric Elemina’s face could have curdled fresh milk. Alistair stared at her, busily committing it to memory.

“I forbid this, Duncan of the Grey Wardens,” she declared, with all the authority the Chantry bestowed upon her. “This… boy will not be joining your order.”

“Then I hereby invoke the Grey Wardens’ Right of Conscription, and I remove this young man into my custody,” Duncan said, casually handing Alistair a bottle of elfroot potion.

Oh, no, this was the face Alistair wanted to commit to memory. Grand Cleric Elemina was practically purple with rage. Priceless. Alistair drank the potion at her, smiling around the lip of the bottle.

“Go, and get your things,” Duncan said once Alistair was finished. “Your new life awaits.”

He ran off too quickly for politeness, clanking in his armor all the way.

A new life. A fresh start. Maker. Someone actually valued him for something. It had taken nineteen years , but someone actually cared . And maybe it was only because he was a decent fighter, but oh, it meant… it meant everything. As Alistair hurriedly shoved his few belongings into the nearest bag -- which, on reflection, wasn’t even his, but who cares, I’m leaving anyway -- he became determined not to let the Grey Wardens down. Not to let Duncan down.

I’ll do whatever it takes, I promise, he prayed. Just… let me belong somewhere. Please.

 

Chapter Text


 

Solona wasn’t in class that morning.

Jowan could see the worry etched into every line of First Enchanter Irving’s old and tired face. She was supposed to be here; therefore, she should be here. This wasn’t like a fancy school, where students could miss classes. The Circle was always a prison, and, as such, the jailors needed to know where you were at all times.

Technically, Irving should have called the Templars by now, to tell them Solona was missing. He hadn’t, and everyone in the classroom knew why.

This was bad.

Even worse, this was a practical magic class. They were actually going to cast some spells today; Irving had made a special challenge for them all. Solona had been looking forward to it just last night.

A loud clanking made its way down the hall, and a Templar stood in the doorframe. Jowan stared without quite meaning to… but this had to be about Solona. She was his best friend, after all.

“My apologies, First Enchanter,” the Templar said. “Apprentice Amell is unwell today. I just escorted her to the infirmary.”

Thank the bloody Maker.

This was the best possible outcome. This Templar was the one who liked Solona -- Callum, Colin, something like that. Whatever his name was. Jowan and Anders had a bet on when he first came to the Circle. He’d acted so stupid around Solona -- stumbling over his words, blushing, stammering, all of that -- that Jowan was half-convinced the Templar was Solona’s Voice.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Anders had said. “Binding a mage and a templar as soulmates? The Maker wouldn’t be that cruel.”

Still, it was hard to argue when she spoke so quietly to him, her head inclined forward as if he were the only thing worth listening to. And he followed her with his eyes wherever she went. Jowan was reasonably certain he’d win a sovereign out of it.

Alas. He was wrong. But not far wrong. Solona had told him later that her Voice was , in fact, a Templar. Just… not this one. Jowan maintained that was worth a few silver, at least; Anders disagreed. Solona just laughed at them both.

She was just ill, was all. And even if she wasn’t , this Templar wouldn’t do anything to rat her out. He was too far gone for that; everyone could see it.

“Would you take Apprentice Amell’s work to her after class, Jowan?” Irving asked, snapping Jowan’s attention back to the present.

“Yes, First Enchanter. I’d be happy to.”

 


 

Solona was sitting on a cot in the infirmary, staring blankly but not really looking at anything. She didn't so much as turn her head when Jowan came in. She hadn't even done her hair up in that braid he'd seen every day for the last decade.

“Unwell,” Ser Whats-his-face had said. If that wasn’t a fucking understatement. 

“Hey,” Jowan said, sitting down on the cot next to her. “You missed Irving’s challenge. He lit a book on fire and we had to put it out without damaging it. You’d have loved it.”

Solona said nothing. She didn’t even seem to notice he was there.

“I -- I brought your work for you? It’s a chapter of reading from In Pursuit of Knowledge. Genitivi again. I know you like his writing, though.”

She continued to stare off into space, as if he weren’t even there.

Now truly panicked, Jowan started to look at her -- was there any sign of a brand? -- but no. Nothing on the forehead that he could see, though the Circle here seemed to favor the upper right arm, and hers was covered.

“If you can hear me, can you, I don’t know, blink twice or something? It’s starting to get a little creepy.”

She didn’t blink twice, but she did look in his direction. That was something, even if her eyes didn’t quite focus on him.

“Look,” Jowan said, dropping his voice, “I don’t know what’s happened, but I do know what will happen if you don’t pull yourself together and at least act like yourself. And I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.

Probably the wrong way to go about it, but he wasn’t the healer. She was. Anders was. But Anders had fucked off somewhere again, and she couldn’t seem to heal herself, so. There they were. It didn’t work, anyway. She just blinked at him again, as if she knew him from somewhere, but couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

Wait.

Jowan put his hands on both sides of Solona’s head and moved it briskly from side to side. She was trying to look at him, he knew that much, but her eyes kept drifting.  Dizzy and not terribly responsive. Shit.

“You… haven’t gone and done something stupid , have you?” he asked, pianissimo.

Solona was blinking hard, as if to clear her field of vision. Then, when that didn’t work, she rubbed at her eyes.

Shit shit shit.

“Where in the Void did you get lyrium, and why did you take that much?”

Solona’s eyes finally started to focus on him at last -- and she looked away.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Jowan hissed, dropping to a knee in front of her. “I’m not letting up until you tell me what’s happened.”

“He’s gone,” she said, almost Tranquil.

“Who’s gone?” Jowan demanded, but quietly. He still didn’t want the Templars to hear, after all.

“My Voice. He’s gone.”

Sweet fuck , Jowan was an asshole. This was what grief looked like. Nothing else could have possessed straight-laced Solona Amell to go hunting for lyrium, so that she could stay longer in the Fade.

“How? Do you know? I’m sorry, I probably shouldn’t ask, but --”

“The Grey Wardens. I think. They recruited him and now he’s gone,” she said, her voice dropping to a heartbreaking whisper. “I can’t find him.”

People said awful things about the Wardens. Jowan, admittedly, knew less than Solona did about… well, almost everything, really. But it hadn’t escaped anyone’s notice that people who joined the Wardens were often never heard from again. It didn’t surprise Jowan that Solona’s Voice might have died becoming one.

His Voice was a Chantry initiate, of all horrible things, but she was alive and well, and one day, Jowan might find her. But Solona didn’t have that option anymore.

“I -- I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

“So am I.”

Jowan stifled the strangled, heartbroken noise in his throat. He climbed up on the cot beside her and ran his hand up and down her back, trying to be comforting. Maybe it worked, because she laid her head on his shoulder, just letting herself be .  He probably needed to go somewhere, the Templars would be looking, but right now, he would have fought anyone who said anything, because, damn it all, she needed to grieve. The Templars took so much from them, they would not take this from the girl who was all but his sister.

Eventually, her breathing evened out, and he stole a glance over at her. Her hair had fallen in messy waves across her face, and her eyes were gently closed. She was asleep. Thank the Maker, she looked like she needed it. Jowan just hoped she actually got some rest . And… maybe she’d find her Voice in the Fade and it would be all right.

She didn’t. And it wasn’t.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Jowan tried to cover it up, acting like he was stressed, too -- oh, sorry, don’t you know, Irving keeps us so busy -- but even if it worked at all, it wouldn’t work forever. If she didn’t change back to who she really was… They could make her Tranquil for real. And the thought of that horrified him.

Still. He hoped. For himself, for his friend. He dreamed of the life he and Lily would share one day, when he got out of this tower and found her. Maybe he could persuade Solona to come with them, wouldn’t that be great, and she’d find a way to be happy, even without her Voice. He hoped and dreamed, building what his mother would have called “castles in the air” for all three of them.

But that wouldn’t happen if his best friend didn’t come back from the bowels of grief. He didn’t know what to bloody do. This wasn’t his thing. Anders and Solona were the soft touches, cooling hands on swollen skin, or warm, white light seeping into a wound to knit someone back together. If -- Maker forbid -- it had been his Voice dead, Jowan had no doubt that Solona would have known what to say and do to ease his pain.

Jowan? Had no idea .

… Well. Maybe he had one .

It took him a long, long time to build up the courage to talk to Irving. By this point, even the unflappable First Enchanter was as worried as any of the rest of them were. Jowan stayed for a bit after class, as the two of them watched Solona mechanically pack her bag and leave without a word to either of them.

“What troubles you, Jowan?” Irving asked, playing the kind schoolmaster. Jowan didn’t trust it for a minute… but Solona did. And that’s what mattered.

“Something’s wrong, you have to know that. Solona is just -- empty. It’s like there’s nothing in her. I… I just want to help, First Enchanter, and I don’t know how ,” Jowan said.

“It would be best if you’d begin at the beginning. What happened, exactly?”

Jowan bit his lip. Voices were more than forbidden; they were denied . The only reason anyone had even heard of them was a whispered, half-remembered rumor passed from bunk to bunk in the apprentice quarters. Telling Irving could get Solona in a lot of trouble.

Telling Irving could also get Solona some help.

“Her Voice, ser,” Jowan replied, his voice gone soft and reverent. “He’s dead.”

Irving didn’t seem surprised. Though he did quirk an eyebrow. That figures , Jowan thought, exasperated.

“How do you know this?” Irving asked.

“She told me,” Jowan said. “He was recruited into the Grey Wardens, she thinks. And now he’s gone from the Fade.”

Irving nodded, seemingly lost in thought. The pause stretched an awkwardly long time, and Jowan was beginning to wonder if he should make his excuses and leave, when Irving returned to himself.

“Mention this to no one else. Not even to Solona,” he said. “I will see that the matter is taken care of. Thank you, Jowan.”

Jowan knew a dismissal when he heard one. But Maker’s balls Irving was frustrating. He’d take care of it himself? What was there to take care of? Solona needed help , not vague promises and a best friend who couldn’t even bloody talk to her about the bloody problem!

Not for the first time, Jowan desperately wished he were strong enough to handle things himself , without having to rely on anyone else for help. Not Solona, not Anders, and not bloody Irving .  

It was in this mood, in this hallway, that Senior Enchanter Uldred found him.

And, unbeknownst to Jowan, his castles in the air began to crumble.

 

Chapter Text

As he stood on guard in the hallway outside the First Enchanter’s office, ignoring the muffled argument from within, Cullen still wasn’t sure he’d done the right thing.

He’d followed protocol, of course. Taking her to the infirmary was the textbook response. Templars were not supposed to make judgments on the health of apprentices unless there was reason for suspicion. And no one had ever been less suspicious than Amell. Even still, he’d been able to sense the lyrium on her before he actually saw the state she was in. The scent in the air was familiar enough by now that it alone could have told him everything he needed to know.

Well… maybe not everything. He still didn’t know how she got it or why she’d used it. A better Templar would have asked. Would have rooted around, interrogated Jowan, tried to figure out the cause behind all of this. Good apprentices don’t just swallow a sub-lethal dose of lyrium for no reason, and none of the possible reasons were good.

Still. She’d earned Cullen’s trust a long time ago.

His first day on the job, and he’d been boiling in his armor. Ferelden wasn’t the warmest of climates, but it could certainly heat up at midsummer. He’d been desperate to avoid anyone’s notice at all, when someone handed him something. His breath caught and the rest of the world ceased its motion once those big blue eyes locked on his.

“Ice rune,” Amell had whispered. “Put it in your gauntlet. It’s Ser Carroll’s idea, from a while ago. It will help keep you cool.”

Cullen hadn’t wanted to trust it, had known that mages often tried to trick new Templars, even just as pranks, if not for anything more sinister… and yet…

He’d put the ice rune in his gauntlet anyway. He’d been deliciously cool the rest of the day. (And, not to put too fine a point on it, he’d had that same rune in his gauntlet every hot summer day since.) Turned out it had been Carroll’s idea, and half the Templars in the Tower had runes in their gauntlets. No one had told him because they’d all assumed someone else had.

Cullen was grateful to Apprentice Amell from that point onward. They spoke frequently, if all too briefly each time. He couldn’t say he knew her well, exactly. They certainly weren’t friends. Couldn’t be. He was a Templar and she was a mage, and -- well, anything happening between them shouldn’t ever have entered into his head.

It did anyway. Her frame was just on the right side of too curvy, and her eyes often sparkled in a way that Cullen hadn’t seen -- or perhaps, hadn’t cared to notice -- in most other girls. She flipped her long black braid over her shoulder at dramatically appropriate moments, almost as punctuation.

And it may have been stupid and dangerous, as well as hopeless, but he couldn’t help but imagine running his hands across her full cheeks, along her jaw, to cup her chin in the sweetest and gentlest of kisses. He didn’t dare acknowledge anything darker, more primal, or even more intimate. Amell, in his mind, was a china doll, not to be sullied or broken.

(His dreams were another story; best not to speak of those.)

And so, at this point, he couldn’t tell if not pursuing this obvious lead, in letting Amell off the hook and not telling the other Templars about the lyrium, was the right thing to do… or if it had been fueled by this pointless, daydreamy infatuation with her.

A better Templar would have told. He wasn’t sure what a better man would have done. Shouldn’t those two be the same thing?

The dull, quiet arguing inside the First Enchanter’s office became louder and more intelligible; Cullen wished it hadn’t. Irving and Greagoir had been at it for at least an hour. Maybe more. Cullen had lost track of the time. It didn’t matter until someone came to relieve him, anyway.

“Irving, it is not up for discussion! Even my people have noticed! We need to get to the bottom of this!” Knight-Commander Greagoir shouted.

“Have you considered that it may be nothing serious? Teenagers are prone to occasional mood swings, you know,” Irving answered, as unflappable as ever.

“She doesn’t eat, she barely speaks -- it’s been this way for six months and you want to pass it off as a teenage phase? Need I remind you that your apprentice is and always has been a mage? Or that drastic changes in behavior often mean dangerous things in Circles?”

Cullen could almost see the Knight-Commander through the closed door, pacing wildly and pinching the bridge of his nose. There was a slam, as if something heavy hit a table -- or perhaps a desk.

“The girl’s Harrowing. Is. Tomorrow,” Greagoir declared. “Whether you like it or not. Something is wrong here, Irving, and I will not stand by and allow her to be a foothold for demons in this Circle!”

“You push her too quickly, Greagoir,” Irving’s voice came through the door, softer than Cullen would have expected. “If she is not ready, and she fails because she went through her Harrowing too soon --”

“You would rather risk possession than --”

“She is just a girl, Greagoir,” Irving insisted. “Mage or otherwise, she is still a girl.”

“A girl who could -- this is getting us nowhere,” Greagoir sighed, exasperated. “Her Harrowing is tomorrow.”

The Knight-Commander stalked out of First Enchanter Irving’s office like some kind of beast.

“Cullen!” he barked.

“Ser?” Cullen asked, starting and sounding surprised like Greagoir had shaken him out of his own thoughts.

“There is a Harrowing tomorrow night. You’re to be there.”

“Yes, ser.”

Greagoir started to storm off… then paused. He walked back over to Cullen.

“I’m going to give you an assignment,” he said quietly.

That could only mean one thing.

Shit.

“Yes, ser,” Cullen said, his face implacable.

 


 

He’d found her in the library, as per usual. He couldn’t warn her about what was coming. That was forbidden. But he could, perhaps, try to get her to open up. To be like she used to be.

(A secret, sinful part of him wished she would confide her troubles to him; the rest of him knew that was foolish.)

She was sitting at her usual table, with her sketchbook open in front of her. Instead of scribbling away as she usually did, she was drawing aimless circles, looping endlessly around themselves. She wasn’t even looking at her work.

Greagoir was right. Something was definitely wrong here.

He cleared his throat, hoping she was just daydreaming. Maybe that would snap her out of it. All it did, though, was draw her attention to him.

Cullen flushed a brilliant red and mumbled something that sounded apologetic. Normally that would have made a soft smile appear on her face, the one he secretly liked the best. This time, she looked at him with something akin to sympathy. Or regret, maybe. Her eyebrows furrowed, and her eyes flicked away almost as soon as her gaze had landed on him.

He took a furtive glance around the library. No one else was in this corner. If he spoke quietly, he wouldn’t be overheard.

He took a few halting steps toward her, not entirely sure what he was going to say.

“Is -- is everything all right?” he asked.

Her eyes snapped back up toward him.

“I… well. No. Not really,” she said.

“Is there… anything I can do?”

“Right now? No,” she said. “And thank you.”

He understood: you’ve already helped more than you ought to. Cullen smiled at her, and Andraste preserve him, she gave him a small, fragile smile back. Flustered, he rubbed at the back of his neck, and she returned to her drawing, starting a proper sketch this time.

Maker, was he ever hopeless.

 


 

The Harrowing chamber was large, and for good reason. It needed to house one apprentice, one First Enchanter, and a full guard of templars, with enough room to fight if it came down to it. It didn’t make him any happier about being here, though.

As he saw Amell paraded in, her hair still mussed and her eyes still hooded from sleep, his heart gave a treacherous lurch. He knew why Greagoir had asked this of him. He knew. Perhaps not about the lyrium, though who could tell with Greagoir? But certainly about the rest of it. Nothing escaped the Knight-Commander, and so his foolish infatuation with Solona Amell couldn’t have gone unremarked forever. It was a test to see where Cullen’s loyalty truly was: the Chantry or the girl. And while Cullen’s chest went tight when he was near her, he served the Chantry. He’d sworn himself to this life, and he would keep his vow, whatever it took.

Besides, if she became an abomination, he would need to protect his other charges from her. He’d save her from the demon the only way he could. Perhaps a mage’s spirit could rest, if the demon was excised. No one knew. Cullen liked to think so anyway, keeping the thought safely hidden in the corners of his mind.

… Amell wouldn’t become an abomination. Right?

As he saw her take the lyrium and sink slowly into the embrace of the Fade, he became less certain. Over the last few months, he’d seen her go from a bright, sunshiny girl to a whisper of a woman. Even her smiles, rare as they had become, were sad now. And, to make matters worse, her only friend had abandoned her, Cullen thought, half-angry at Jowan. Cullen couldn’t do anything but exchange pleasantries with her at most, but Jowan could have done something. Instead, he spent all his time in the Chantry. Cullen wondered what he could possibly have to pray for that was more important than his friend.

But… Amell wouldn’t become an abomination. She’d get through her Harrowing just fine, and Cullen would only have been here as a formality. No matter how different she’d been lately. No matter the incident with the lyrium and hardly speaking to anyone… They’d talked. It had helped. She’d been more like herself today, it would be fine.

Right?

The Harrowing Chamber was silent, save for the breathing of the assembled Templars, the First Enchanter, and Amell. Plus the occasional clank of armor as a Templar moved, but that hardly counted.

Knight-Commander Greagoir seemed oddly reluctant to meet the First Enchanter’s eyes today. Perhaps he was regretting this? Looking down at Amell, she did seem… small. Young. She was, what, seventeen? She was petite, so that might have had something to do with it. Her head came up to the middle of Cullen’s chest, and while Cullen was fairly tall, she was also just short.

… Amell was capable, though, no matter how small she looked. Or how fragile and delicate she seemed while she was sleeping. Or how gentle he knew her to be, personally.

No. She would be fine. She’d kill the demon. (His heart shivered from the thought of Amell killing anything.) She wouldn’t become an abomination. She would be fine. She would be fine. Cullen tried so hard not to stare, and yet his eyes were drawn to her, again and again, like an apple falling to the ground. He had to look. He had to know.

Amell gave a shuddering breath, and color returned to her cheeks. The First Enchanter visibly relaxed, and even the tension around the Knight-Commander’s eyes faded just a bit.

Thank the Maker.

Cullen watched as another Templar carried her to her bunk in the apprentice girls’ dormitory, safe and whole. He let out a long, relieved breath, and he caught Knight-Commander Greagoir’s eyes. The look he saw there was… difficult to read. Some cross-section between pride and pity. Cullen nodded at the Knight-Commander, knowing it would be the only acknowledgement between them. Mechanically, he walked to the Templars’ dorm, ready to steal a few hours of sleep before he had to begin his duties for the day.

She was safe. And now, so was he.

 

Chapter Text

When Solona came to, she realized two things: first, that she had a splitting headache. And second, that Jowan was gone. She looked around and saw Lily -- Jowan’s Voice, Maker help her -- already being escorted out by the Templars.  Jowan had misled her -- misled them both . Irving was so intent on making sure the Chantry had to punish someone -- his own need for vengeance -- that he failed to see the real, human suffering of Jowan, of Lily, even of Solona herself.

The true dangers of the Fade are preconceptions, careless trust… pride, the demon at her Harrowing had said. That careless trust had done for Jowan and Lily. If only she’d never said anything to Irving. Somewhere, she was sure, the demon was laughing at her.

Irving groaned as he tried to lift himself up. Solona cast a general but minor healing spell, just to give him enough strength to stand.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “Where is Greagoir?”

The Knight-Commander was also staggering to his feet, cursing about Jowan.

“I knew it… blood magic. But to overcome so many,” Greagoir stormed. “I never thought him capable of such power.”

“None of us expected this,” Irving agreed. “Are you all right, Greagoir?”

“As good as can be expected, given the circumstances! If you had let me act sooner, this would not have happened! Now we have a blood mage on the loose and no way to track him down!” Greagoir all but shouted.

“And you ,” Greagoir stalked over toward Solona. “You were in a repository full of magics that were locked away for a reason. Your antics have made a mockery of this Circle! Ah… what are we to do with you?”

Truth be told, some form of punishment was certainly in order. Not for entering the repository, but for betraying her best friend and his Voice. She didn’t deserve to have a friend again, not ever. Whether Jowan was a blood mage or not was irrelevant. He’d counted on her and she’d betrayed him.

“She was working under my orders,” Irving said. He would support her to the end, Solona knew, since she’d proven her loyalty to the Circle. Maker . The thought alone made her sick .

“And this improves the situation?” Greagoir turned his ire back to Irving. “The phylactery chamber is forbidden to all, save you and me!”

“I had my reasons,” Irving said, folding his arms. Stubborn old man.

“You’re not all-knowing, Irving! You don’t know how much influence the blood mage might have had. How are we to deal with this?”

“Knight-Commander, if I may,” another voice cut in. It was Duncan, the Commander of the Grey Wardens she’d met earlier.

“I’m not just looking for mages to join the king’s army. I am also recruiting for the Grey Wardens,” Duncan said. “Irving spoke highly of Miss Amell, and I would like her to join the Warden ranks.”

...what?

“What?” Greagoir thundered at Irving. “You’ve promised him a new Grey Warden?”

“She has served the Circle well. She would make an excellent Grey Warden,” Irving said.

For her part, Solona was on Greagoir’s side. What was even happening right now?

“We look for dedication in our recruits,” Duncan explained. “Fighting the darkspawn requires such dedication, often at the expense of all else.”

“I object. You say she operated under your instructions, Irving, but I do not trust her. I must investigate this issue, and I will not release this mage to the Grey Warden,” Greagoir concluded, with all the certainty of a man rarely refused.

“Greagoir, mages are needed. This mage is needed,” Duncan said. “Worse things plague this world than blood mages -- you know that. I take this young mage under my wing and I bear all responsibility for her actions.”

Solona looked up at Duncan -- who was easily a head taller than she was -- just… shocked. The only other person who had ever defended her like this was Irving, but Duncan barely knew her. How could he be so certain that she was everything he thought?

“This mage does not deserve a place in the Order!” Greagoir growled.

“Why?” Irving asked. “Do we not reward service? Solona has served the Circle well.”

She… she was getting out of the Tower. She’d find out what had happened to Alistair. She’d be able to actually use her magic, to -- to help people and heal them and, and just everything.

She’d be the Grey Warden that Alistair had never gotten to be.

Was this why Irving had asked her to tell him what Jowan was up to? So she could go and be a Grey Warden? Was this his game? Had he schemed this all up for her? It was wrong to do that to Jowan and Lily, even if it was for her, but part of her couldn’t help wondering anyway. Jowan and Anders had always said that Irving was more cunning than Solona had ever given him credit for -- to her, Irving was the closest thing she’d had to a real, loving father. She’d only wanted to see the best in him.

And so, at this, her last moment in the Circle, Solona did what she had wanted to do since she was a child -- and she threw her arms around Irving’s neck. Her eyes filled with tears she didn’t dare shed, not in front of Greagoir, but she held him tight. After a long moment, he returned the embrace, clearly as emotional as she was.

“You have an opportunity few even dream of,” Irving whispered to her. “Do not squander it.”

“Thank you for everything, First Enchanter,” she whispered back before breaking away.

Solona cuffed the tears away from her eyes as Duncan led her out of the room, to the main hall. To those doors she hadn’t seen opened in years. The sunlight that streamed in was so bright it blinded her for a minute. Blinking to clear her eyes, Solona stood on the threshold and paused.

Was she really going to do this?

Was she really capable of doing this?

Steeling herself, Solona took that first step. Then another. Then a few more as Duncan led her to the boat waiting there for them both. He exchanged pleasantries with the boatman, but Solona heard none of it.

She saw the sky reflected in the water. Fluffy white clouds drifted lazily by, disturbed by the ripples the oars made as they moved. After a few moments, she looked at the actual sky, and not its mirror image. It had been ten years since she had looked up and seen anything other than ceiling. There were clouds and the sun and it was blue and big and a breeze rustled her hair. There was noise , the creak of the oars on the boat, the splash as they went in and out of the water, birdsong , just… just everything.

Before she was done noticing things, the boat stopped at the other end of the lake.

Duncan got out, then extended a hand to her. This was it. The moment of truth. If she got out of this boat, there really was no turning back.

But then… did she even want to go back?

She placed her hand in Duncan’s, letting him help her out of the boat. She stumbled anyway, getting the hem of her robe wet in the process. Duncan smiled gently at her and led on.

They traveled to Ostagar in almost complete silence, but it was companionable silence. Solona was just so… interested in everything around her -- it was autumn and the leaves and the plants and the small animals … it was overwhelming.

In the quieter moments in her bedroll at night, Solona was grateful for Duncan’s patience. He was allowing her to get her bearings, and she knew it. After everything that had happened on that last day in the Circle, she needed that space more than she’d have thought. Now, she was able to look back on it all with a steely, almost emotionless distance.

She had lost her Voice, and she’d started to mourn. She’d felt her friends’ (Jowan and Cullen both) worry about her, and she’d felt guilty. She’d gone to her Harrowing, and she’d been terrified. She’d passed her Harrowing, and she’d been relieved. She had met Duncan, and she’d been determined to join him, for Alistair’s sake. She’d heard Jowan’s plight -- that he was going to be made Tranquil -- and she’d been outraged. She’d gone to First Enchanter Irving for help and been conned into giving up Jowan’s plans, and she felt horrified. She’d found out her best friend was a blood mage, and she’d felt… just… sick.

And then she’d been recruited into the Grey Wardens, and she didn’t even know what to feel anymore, except that all this back-and-forth of emotion was going to give her whiplash.

Within a week, they were in sight of Ostagar. And it was -- big. Very, very big.

Solona must have said that out loud without meaning to, because Duncan chuckled from beside her.

“The Tevinter Imperium built Ostagar long ago to prevent the Wilders from invading the northern lowlands. It’s fitting we make our stand here, even if we face a different foe within that forest. The king’s forces have clashed with the darkspawn several times, but here is where the bulk of the horde will show itself. There are only a few Grey Wardens within Ferelden at the moment, but all of us are here. This Blight must be stopped here and now. If it spreads to the north, Ferelden will fall.”

A man in golden armor strode toward them. For half a moment, Solona was convinced it was King Maric. But it couldn’t be; he was dead. It had to be his trueborn son, King Cailan. As he and Duncan talked, Solona scrutinized his features, looking for a resemblance to her lost Voice. It was the nose, of all things, that sold her. They had the same exact nose. A small, petty part of her thought that Alistair had been more handsome, even if Cailan was king.

“I’ll have the mighty Duncan at my side in battle after all. Glorious!” King Cailan said… then turned his attention to Solona for the first time. “The other Wardens told me you’d found a promising recruit. I take it this is she?”

“Allow me to introduce you, Your Majesty.”

“No need to be so formal, Duncan. We’ll be shedding blood together, after all,” King Cailan smiled at them both. “Ho there, friend! Might I know your name?”

“I am Solona, Your Majesty.”

“Pleased to meet you!” and it sounded like he meant it, of all the strange things, “The Grey Wardens are desperate to bolster their numbers, and I, for one, am glad to help them.”

Solona smiled back at him.

“I understand you hail from the Circle of Magi. I trust you have some spells to help us in the coming battle?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “And… and afterward as well. I’ve begun to specialize as a healer.”

“Excellent. We have too few mages here.” he said. “Allow me to be the first to welcome you to Ostagar. The Wardens will benefit greatly with you in their ranks.”

“You’re too kind, Your Majesty,” she said, falling back on politeness. But Solona hoped it was true.

“Your uncle sends his greetings, and reminds you that Redcliffe forces could be here in less than a week,” Duncan cut in, sounding for all the world like… well, an uncle, offering what he knew was unwelcome advice.

King Cailan laughed. “Eamon just wants in on the glory! We’ve won two battles against these monsters and tomorrow should be no different.”

“You sound very confident of that,” Solona offered, as diplomatically as she could.

Over -confident, some would say. Right, Duncan?”

“Your Majesty, I’m not certain the Blight can be ended as… quickly as you might wish.”

“I’m not even sure this is a true Blight! There are plenty of darkspawn on the field, but alas, we’ve seen no sign of an archdemon.”

“Disappointed, Your Majesty?” Duncan said dryly.

“I’d hoped for a war like in the tales! A king riding with the fabled Grey Wardens against a tainted god. Ah, but I suppose this will have to do.” King Cailan said. “I must go before Loghain sends out a search party. Farewell… Grey Wardens.”

Solona and Duncan both bowed as the king made his exit.

“What the king said is true,” Duncan said. “They’ve won several battles against the darkspawn here.”

“He didn’t seem to take the darkspawn very seriously,” Solona answered in a near-whisper.

“True,” Duncan agreed. “Despite the victories so far, the darkspawn horde grows larger with each passing day. By now, they look to outnumber us. I know there is an archdemon behind this, but I cannot ask the king to act solely on my feeling.”

“Why not?” Solona asked. “He seems to regard the Grey Wardens highly.”

“Yet not enough to wait for reinforcements from the Grey Wardens of Orlais. He believes our legend alone makes him invulnerable. Our numbers in Ferelden are too few. We must do what we can, and look to Teyrn Loghain to make up the difference. To that end, we should proceed with the Joining ritual without delay.”

“What do you need me to do?” Solona asked. She didn’t know what this Joining entailed, but it would probably be best to get it over with.

“Feel free to explore the camp here as you wish. All I ask is that you do not leave it for the time being. There is another Grey Warden in the camp by the name of Alistair. When you are ready, seek him out and tell him it’s time to summon the other recruits.”

Did… did he just say Alistair?

“Duncan, I’m -- I’m sorry, could you repeat that? I’m still… a little overwhelmed.”

Duncan blinked, his eyes scanning her with true concern. Still, he repeated himself, and yes , Solona had heard correctly. She thanked him, and he left her standing on the bridge to the camp proper.

Alistair… was alive . And he was here . How, how was that even possible? She hadn’t been able to find him in the Fade in months , so unless he hadn’t slept in that long, this shouldn’t be possible.

She pinched herself. No, she wasn’t dreaming.

He was alive. And he was here. In the same place that she was. Maker, how did she look? Had the wind and the camping for a week completely wrecked her? She quickly untied and re-did her long braid, hands shaking. It probably looked worse than it had before, but he was alive and he was here and… and this was more terrifying than leaving the Tower could ever have been.

Deciding on a pace somewhere between as quick as her hopes and as slow as her fears, she walked into the camp. One of the Senior Enchanters from the Circle caught her eye, and they had a quick talk about darkspawn, but she paid little attention. She was looking for a tall young man with red-blond hair and those shoulders.

“Hmm, this isn’t good,” she heard from somewhere off to her left. “I’d hate to waste such a promising member of the breed. Say! Are you the new Grey Warden? I could use some help.”

Solona reminded herself that she was here to help people, and she curtailed her search. From the barking and the stronger-than-usual scent of dog , she assumed she was near the kennels.

“How can I help?” she asked.

“This is a mabari,” the kennelmaster said. “Smart breed, and strong. His owner died in the last battle, and the poor hound swallowed darkspawn blood. I have medicine that might help, but I need him muzzled first.”

Solona looked into the kennel and saw the dog. He was lying on his side, breathing heavily. The poor baby.

“I’ll give it a shot,” she said.

“Go in the pen and let him smell you. We’ll know right away if he’ll respond.”

The kennelmaster opened the small gate for her, and she stepped inside. He handed her the muzzle over the top of the fence. And the dog... t he dog was obviously unwell. At the sound of her footsteps, he lifted his head -- just a few inches -- and looked at her. From the slow but desperate scrabbling of his feet, he probably wanted to get away.

“Hey, boy,” Solona whispered. “It’s going to be all right. I won’t hurt you. I’m here to help.”

The poor dog tried to focus his gaze on her. Solona saw a great deal of intelligence in those big brown eyes. And something just -- clicked -- into place. The dog stopped his scrabbling and went still, eyes locked on her.

“That’s a good boy,” she said, calm and gentle. She fitted the muzzle around his nose and mouth -- but not too tightly. He whimpered softly.

The kennelmaster told Solona about an herb that could save the dog. If she had to ask Duncan to let her go into the Wilds alone to get it, she would get it. She promised the kennelmaster that she would try her best, and he beamed at her.

After one last, long look at the poor dog, Solona continued her search to find Alistair. Up the stairs, along to the right… and…

Oh. There he was.

A stupidly sappy grin spread across her face, because it was true , he was fine. She’d figure out how later, but for now…

Solona straightened her posture, patted down any flyaway hairs, and walked confidently up to the man who already, unknowingly, held her heart.

“What her Reverence ‘desires’ is of no concern to me!” said a mage Solona hadn’t noticed was there. “I am busy helping the Grey Wardens, by the king’s orders, I might add!”

“Should I have asked her to write a note?’ Alistair asked, with all the sass Solona had ever expected of him.

“Tell her I will not be harassed in this manner!”

“Yes, I was harassing you by delivering a message.”

“Your glib tongue does you no credit.”

“And here I thought we were getting on so well! I was even going to name one of my children after you: the grumpy one.”

“Enough! I will speak to the woman if I must.”

“You know,” Alistair said, turning his attention to Solona for the first time ever , “one good thing about the Blight is how it brings people together.”

A strange sort of lightness bubbled up from inside her somewhere, and she laughed, really laughed, for the first time in… oh, ages . And she suddenly realized -- there was no one watching her to make sure she was behaving within appropriate boundaries. There was no one to tell her to be quiet, to sit still, to move slowly, to keep her hands where they could be seen. There was no one to stop her from running, from jumping, from shouting if she wanted to.

She was so far away from the Tower that she couldn’t even see it anymore, and no one would ever make her go back. She never had to go back there, not ever again.

She flashed Alistair her widest grin, tears in her eyes, feeling more like herself than she had in forever . And, Maker bless him, he smiled back.

Chapter Text

It had been ages since someone had laughed at one of his jokes. Mostly he just got blank stares or exasperated noises. It was good though, wasn’t it? Alistair had been concerned that he hadn’t brought his A-game today.

The girl in front of him didn’t look familiar , exactly, but… he didn’t know, there was -- something . She had one of those faces, he supposed. Or maybe it was the hair… Just on the right side of too curvy, black hair, big blue eyes -- something about her was familiar in a way he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Just… she looked right, somehow. Which sounded ridiculous, on reflection, but it was true. She just looked right.

“Wait, we haven’t met, have we?” he asked, suddenly concerned that maybe he did know her and he’d just forgotten. “I don’t suppose you happen to be another mage.”

The girl looked down at her robes with the large Circle insignia about the hips, over her shoulder at her very obvious staff, then finished it off with a look leveled directly at him.

“No,” she deadpanned. “This is my elaborately-carved walking stick.”

That startled a laugh out of Alistair, which got her laughing along with him. A sense of humor? He liked her already.

“You’re Alistair, right?”

She… knew his name. Huh.

“I, um. Duncan sent me,” she clarified, suddenly blushing. “He said it’s time to summon the other recruits.”

Other recruits-- Oh! You must be the new one, from the Circle of Magi. I should have recognized you right away, I apologize.”

That must be why she looked familiar. He’d been looking for a young woman of her description all day. Not -- not like that , of course, he was just… keeping an eye out. So that he’d know when Duncan got back. Nothing odd about that at all.

“Recognized me?” she asked, tipping her head slightly to one side.

“Duncan sent word ahead,” Alistair explained.

“Oh, no, of course he did, I was there ,” she mumbled, more to herself than to him. “I’m sorry, this is all just…” she trailed off, looking for the right word, “big. Very, very big.”

A warm feeling of sympathy bloomed in Alistair's chest. He knew how disorienting it could be, going from a highly-regimented place like the Circle or the Chantry to the Grey Wardens. Granted, Alistair's experience had been mostly positive, but she'd just got here. She looked a bit like a cat set adrift in the middle of a lake: not really sure how she’d got there and not certain what to do now.

“Being out of the Circle must feel strange,” he agreed.

“Oh, it is. Overwhelming, actually. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about any of this. It was all very quick.”

“That sounds familiar," Alistair said with a smile in his voice. "Did Duncan conscript you?”

“Not quite. But he was… insistent. Argued with the Knight-Commander, actually.”

Alistair laughed, “He argued with a Grand Cleric when he recruited me.”

“A Grand Cleric? Really?” She gave him an inviting smile.

Oof. This was going to be an awkward, gut-punch sort of moment. They’d already established that she was a mage. And he … well. He knew what he was. But she didn’t, so… this might not go so well. It hadn't gone well with the other mages he'd met since they came to Ostagar, after all. The thought was more upsetting than it should have been for a girl he’d known all of two minutes.

“Ah. Yes. I… was a Templar. Before. Well, not a full Templar. I was recruited into the Grey Wardens before I took my final vows.”

Her smile shifted to something more… teasing. Not that kind of teasing. The friendly kind.

“Tell me: at what point in training do they cover the adorable blush-and-stammer thing? Seems like it’s done by every Templar ever.”

Alistair grinned. “Details of our training are kept secret, you know. I can’t go blabbing about them all over the place.”

“A shame,” she said with an exaggerated sigh. “You could weaponize that. It’s a hitherto unknown talent, so it would be awhile before every mage became cynical and jaded enough to resist it.”

“Hmm, I don't know," he paused, pretending to consider it. "I’m just wondering how it would work against darkspawn. ‘Er, hello? Could you, um, I don’t know, go away? We’re, ah, a bit busy right now, but we’ll work you into our schedule as soon as possible.’”

“And when they persist anyway, take it like they’re interested in you: ‘look, I’m flattered, but this would be, er, inappropriate? I. Um. I should go.’”

Alistair snorted. The joke wasn’t at his expense, exactly, and that could have gone so much worse. The two of them began to walk together, at a leisurely pace, toward Duncan’s fire -- though Alistair couldn’t tell which of them was leading, exactly. The silence was stretching between the two of them, but he wasn’t used to making good impressions on people. He had no idea what to do with this.

“So, I’m curious. Have you actually encountered darkspawn before?” he asked.

Great conversation topic there, Alistair. Well done.

“No, I haven’t. Not yet, anyway,” she said.

“When I fought my first one, I wasn’t prepared for how monstrous it was. I can’t say I’m looking forward to encountering another.”

A look flashed behind her eyes. Alistair wasn’t sure what sort of a look it was -- he thought maybe it was sympathy? Concern? Something like that, anyhow.

“Well, I suppose I’ll see for myself soon enough,” she said, after a moment.

They arrived at Duncan’s fire, and it was time for introductions.

“This is Ser Jory, a knight from Redcliffe,” Alistair said. “And this is Daveth, a… fellow from Denerim.”

“Charmed, m’lady,” Daveth winked at her.

“And this is --”

Oh shit. All that banter and he’d never gotten her name? Wonderful. He was certain Duncan had told him at one point, but it was just out of reach of his memory.

“Solona, from the Circle of Magi. Pleased to meet you all,” she said, mercifully sparing him any further awkwardness.

Ser Jory looked visibly uncomfortable; he shifted slightly away from Solona, as if he’d just noticed she were made of bees. From the way her face fell, she knew why.

Alistair swallowed a sudden burst of anger at Jory. Her being a mage didn’t make any difference; they were all Grey Wardens. Well. They would be Grey Wardens, if they survived the Joining. Maker, he hoped they all  survived the Joining.

After getting some quick instructions from Duncan, the four of them entered the Korcari Wilds. It was odd for Alistair to be leading anyone. He didn’t really know what he was doing. His armor felt both too big and too small for him, under the pinch of this responsibility. What if one of them got hurt on his watch? What if someone died? What would he say to Duncan then? ‘ Oh, sorry, I know we needed those new recruits to bolster our numbers so everyone doesn't die, but they all got eaten by wolves’?

He heard a groan, a thud, and a soft but fervent, “Over here! Please!”

Solona, walking right next to him, nudged his shoulder and pointed forward. A soldier was literally crawling to get to them. He was covered in blood, and clearly in pain.

“Well. He’s not half as dead as he looks, is he,” Alistair said. He wasn’t sure what to say. Death wasn’t often so up-front, this wasn't a situation he often found himself in -- thankfully. (His Joining had been the first time he'd seen anyone die up close, and that had... not gone well.)

Solona dropped to her knees in front of the man, grasping his hand and looking directly into his eyes.

“Here, it’s all right,” Solona whispered, soothing. Her hands glowed with white light, which surged forward into the soldier’s body.

She was a healer. Most of Alistair’s worry about injuries and death seeped out of him immediately. No wonder Duncan recruited her. Magical healing was invaluable on any battlefield. She had her work cut out for her, that was certain. There’d be no end of injuries during a Blight.

“My scouting band was attacked by darkspawn,” he explained. “They came out of the ground . Please, I have to return to camp.”

“You’ll be fine, just let me help,” Solona insisted, giving the man a once-over. She pushed more of that white light into him and helped him to his feet. He was listing slightly to the left, but he was upright.

“Do you want us to take you back?” she asked.

“No, I think I can do it. Thank you, Grey Wardens,” he said.

“Get one of the proper healers to look at you when you get there, please,” Solona replied.

He gave her a smile as wobbly as his legs and limped away in the direction they had come. Alistair’s mouth opened; he had so many questions to ask… but he was interrupted by Ser Jory.

“Alistair, did you hear? An entire patrol of seasoned men killed by darkspawn!”

“Calm down, Ser Jory, we’ll be fine if we’re careful.”

“Those soldiers were careful, and they were still overwhelmed. How many darkspawn can the four of us slay? A dozen? A hundred? There’s an entire army in these forests!” Jory insisted.

“There are darkspawn about, but we’re in no danger of running into the bulk of the horde.”

“How do you know? I am not a coward… but this is foolish and reckless. We should go back,” Jory said, his voice starting to quaver a bit.

“Know this: all Grey Wardens can sense darkspawn. Whatever their cunning, I guarantee they won’t take us by surprise. That’s why I’m here."

“You see, Ser Knight?” Daveth interrupted. “We might die, but we’ll be warned about it first!”

Solona snorted. Somehow that was charming.

“That is… reassuring?” Jory grumbled.

“That doesn’t mean I’m here to make this easy, however,” Alistair said. “So let’s get a move on.”

The bog was wet and cold. The mud and muck made every step go squelch , and it smelled like decaying plant matter. But Alistair supposed none of that should be surprising. It was a bog. He led on, single-minded: let’s finish this and get back so I don’t have to be in charge anymore.

He stopped for a moment when he heard a small “oh” from Solona.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, half-turning to look at her. She was in the middle of picking a flower: white with a bright red center. How he’d missed seeing it, he’d never know.

“The -- ah, the kennel master asked me for this,” she said, blushing a red as vibrant as the middle of the flower. “He said it could cure one of the hounds he has. Poor dog swallowed darkspawn blood, and he’ll have to put it down otherwise.”

She took several of the flowers, carefully wrapping them in a handkerchief and placing them in her pack.

“I’m sorry,” she said when she was finished, smiling apologetically at Alistair in a way that made his breath catch.

“It’s -- it’s all right, let’s just keep going,” Alistair replied, flustered.

The four of them began to move forward at a reasonable pace. After a moment, the conversation began again.

“So, M’lady Mage,” Daveth started. “You’re a healer?”

“Yes? Sort of? I’m learning to be,” she explained. “Normally, once you become a mage of the Circle, you can choose to specialize. But I was only a full mage for -- what, six hours? -- when Duncan recruited me.”

“You were only in the Circle for six hours ? Jory asked.

“Oh! No, I said that badly. There’s a hierarchy. At the bottom, you’ve got your apprentices -- which is what I was. That’s children and young adults. Then there’s the mages, then the senior mages, the Enchanters, the Senior Enchanters, and the First Enchanter,” Solona said. “I’ve been in the Circle most of my life, but I only graduated from my apprenticeship recently.”

Alistair knew all of this, of course, but he kept quiet to hear her talk.

“So you healed that soldier with no formal training? That’s impressive,” Jory said.

“A friend of mine is a healer, and a good one at that. He taught me. But yes, I haven’t had any formal training so far. I’m hoping to fix that at some point.”

“So if my arm got chopped off, you could fix it?” Daveth asked.

“Well, um, no? It… it’s like this,” she said, fumbling for an explanation. “I use my mana to augment the body’s natural healing processes. So if you got a cut, I’d help your blood clot and your skin repair. If it was a deep cut, I’d help scar tissue develop. If you broke a bone, I could help it repair itself after it was set, or it’d heal wrong. But I couldn’t make your arm re-grow if it was cut off, because that’s not something your body can already do.”

Alistair held a hand up, and his three companions stopped and were silent.

“Darkspawn,” he warned. “Be ready.”

Solona unholstered her staff, Jory readied his sword, and Daveth drew his daggers. The three men crept forward, leaving Solona a good distance behind them, when they saw the creatures. Maker, they were ugly. Yes, horrifying; yes, twisted facsimiles of man; yes, abominations in the non-Templar sense of the word. But most of all, they were just ugly. Two hurlocks and two genlock archers. Not too many darkspawn, but enough to get what they needed.

Alistair signaled to the others that he was ready to attack, and with a “For the Grey Wardens!” he charged forward. He saw Jory, cutting one of the creatures messily in half, and Daveth behind the one Alistair was attacking.

There was an odd light below the genlock archers, and then they were both still, frozen to the spot. Solona’s doing, perhaps? He could see bursts of frost hitting one of the archers; he had to assume it was from her staff.  But if they unfroze before Alistair was done with this hurlock, they’d shoot her . Jory, apparently thinking along the same lines, charged forward to take the genlocks’ attention from Solona, and Alistair pummeled the hurlock with his shield. After one more quick stab from Daveth, the hurlock was dead.

Turning his attention to the genlocks, he saw that one of them was currently being killed by Jory, and the other was ready to fire an arrow at Solona when a big fuck-off rock flew across the field. It looked like a vat of lamb stew had splattered all over the bog.

The three men stared at her, jaws open wide, as she caught up with them. She blinked when she saw their gobsmacked expressions.

“... What?”

No one had the heart to tell her.

Chapter Text

After a bit of fiddling about in the Wilds and collecting the three vials of darkspawn blood they needed, the four Wardens came upon the tower that was supposed to house the treaties Duncan had asked for.

“Hmm. That’s odd,” Alistair said.

Solona had to agree. It was less “tower,” more… “crumbling ruin.” Honestly, if Alistair hadn’t been so certain that this was the place Duncan had asked them to go, Solona might have questioned it: they were in a bog, in the middle of nowhere, by nothing particularly significant, and this is where the apparently super-important treaties were supposed to be kept? Though, it had been four hundred years. Perhaps there was more here , then.

They walked what could generously be called “inside” and saw -- a broken chest. Solona looked around; perhaps there were other places the treaties might be -- but no. Nothing. She turned to Alistair to ask what they should do now, but was interrupted.

“Well, well,” a woman’s voice cooed, “what have we here?”

Solona and the others turned and saw a young woman -- maybe Solona’s own age -- with black hair, pale skin, and an unmistakable air of confidence. She owned any room she was in, of that Solona was certain.

“Are you a vulture, I wonder?” the unknown woman asked, sauntering forward. “A scavenger poking amidst a corpse whose bones were long since cleaned? Or merely an intruder, come into these darkspawn-filled Wilds of mine in search of easy prey?”

It was only now that Solona noticed the staff. This woman was a mage -- an apostate. Solona wasn’t quite certain how she felt about meeting one, but if appearances were any indication, this woman was strong enough to handle herself. The woman glared at them all, daring any of them to answer.

“What say you, hmm? Scavenger or intruder?” she demanded, her gold eyes finally settling on Solona. It seemed she expected a response.

“I’m not a scavenger or an intruder. We’re Grey Wardens, and the Grey Wardens once owned this tower,” Solona said, trying to open an avenue for explanation.

“‘Tis a tower no longer. The Wilds have obviously claimed this desiccated corpse,” the woman replied. “I have watched your progress for some time. ‘Where do they go,’ I wondered, ‘why are they here?’ And now you disturb ashes none have touched for so long. Why is that?”

“Don’t answer her,” Alistair advised in a whisper. “She looks Chasind, and that means others may be nearby.”

“Ooh, you fear barbarians will swoop down upon you,” the woman mocked.

“Yes. Swooping is bad,” Alistair replied by way of a comeback.

“She’s a witch of the Wilds, she is! She’ll turn us into toads!” Daveth blurted, sounding truly fearful.

Another one frightened of mages. First Jory, back at Duncan’s fire, and now Daveth. A tiny fear began to curl around her mind as she spared a glance at Alistair.

“Witch of the Wilds?” the woman said in a darkly amused tone. “Such idle fancies, those legends. Have you no minds of your own?”

After a pause, the woman turned her attention back to Solona.

“You there. Women do not frighten like little boys. Tell me your name and I will tell you mine.”

When in doubt, fall back on politeness. It had served her well with the Templars in the Tower. No reason it couldn’t work on an apostate, too, right?

“I’m Solona. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Solona said, putting on a friendly tone.

“Now that is a proper civil greeting, even here in the Wilds! You may call me Morrigan.” She sounded… well. It was hard to say. But “pleased” might be a good word for it.

“Shall I guess your purpose?” Morrigan asked. “You sought something in that chest, something that is here no longer?”

“‘Here no longer’?” Alistair demanded. “You stole them, didn’t you? You’re… some kind of… sneaky… witch-thief!”

So much for politeness. She shot Alistair a small, disapproving look that he didn’t notice. He was too busy glaring at Morrigan.

“How very eloquent. How does one steal from dead men?”

“Quite easily, it seems. Those documents are Grey Warden property, and I suggest you return them.”

“I will not, for ‘twas not I who removed them,” Morrigan said. “Invoke a name that means nothing here any longer if you wish; I am not threatened.”

“Do you know who removed them, Morrigan?” Solona interjected, trying to right this sinking ship. They’d never get what Duncan needed if Morrigan turned hostile toward them.

“‘Twas my mother, in fact.”

“Does she still have them? Can you take us to her?”

“Now there is a sensible request,” Morrigan said. “I like you.” And wonder of wonders, it sounded like she meant it. Solona gave her a genuine smile.

“I’d… be careful. First it’s ‘I like you,’ but then zap! Frog time,” Alistair advised, sotto voce .

Oh, Alistair, not you, too.

He really had been a Templar, hadn’t he. That small fear in her mind started, slowly, to expand.  From the way his eyes widened, Solona must not have done a good job keeping the hurt off her face.

She looked to Morrigan, whose expression was carefully neutral. If they were going to be acquainted longer, she’d have asked how Morrigan pulled that off. She stepped up beside the dark-haired apostate, trying not to care if the men followed her or not. She would get the treaties with or without them. She refused to look back now.

“That’s… a lovely necklace you have,” Solona offered.

“What?” Morrigan sounded like she’d been jolted out of her thoughts.

“Your necklace?” Solona repeated. “It’s beautiful.”

“Oh. ‘Tis kind of you to say,” Morrigan said, looking a bit flat-footed.

“Kind or not, it’s true.” Solona smiled at her. Morrigan didn’t smile back, but Solona had already gotten the impression that Morrigan didn’t smile much.

The bog here looked exactly the same as all the other parts of the bog they’d seen today, except for the small, ramshackle hut in front of them. There was a cooking fire out front, with a pot of something bubbling. The men would probably think it was a potion; Solona was confident that it was stew.

In front of the fire was an old, old woman. She looked wild herself, like the word “hermit” made manifest. Her hair was a mess and her clothes were in much worse repair than Morrigan’s. This was a woman who had seen some shit.

“Greetings, Mother,” Morrigan said. “I bring before you four Grey Wardens who --”

“I see them, girl,” her mother cut in sharply. “Hmm. Much as I expected.”

“Are we supposed to believe you were expecting us?” Alistair said, half-laughing.

“You are required to do nothing, least of all believe. Shut one’s eyes tight or open one’s arms wide… either way, one’s a fool!” Morrigan’s mother stated, a bit unkindly.

“She’s a witch, I tell you! We shouldn’t be talking to her!” Daveth said, in an audible whisper.

“Quiet, Daveth!” Jory answered. “If she’s really a witch, do you want to make her mad?”

Witch again. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Alistair look over at her. She kept her expression aggressively neutral, copying Morrigan.

There’s a smart lad,” Morrigan’s mother said, amused. “Sadly irrelevant to the larger scheme of things, but it is not I who decides. Believe what you will.”

Morrigan’s mother then turned her eyes on Solona… and she started to understand why the men felt so unsettled. There was power in that frail form, so strong it almost knocked the wind out of Solona. (And all of it was focused on her right now holy shit what should she do?)

She blinked; Morrigan’s mother smiled like a wolf would smile at a particularly stupid sheep.

“And what of you? Does your woman’s mind give you a different viewpoint? Or do you believe as these boys do?”

“I -- I’m not sure what to believe,” Solona said. She had never felt anything like this kind of power before -- best to tell the truth. Solona had the feeling Morrigan’s mother would know if she didn’t, anyway.

“A statement that possesses more wisdom than it implies. Be always aware… or is it oblivious? I can never remember,” Morrigan’s mother replied airily, as if her mind were wandering off somewhere.

Solona was reasonably certain she was joking. Or putting on an act for the men, to make them think she was just a crazy old lady. Either way, she wasn’t being genuine.

“She’s a Witch of the Wilds, she is! She’ll turn us into soup!” Daveth said again . Solona knew she should be understanding of his fears, every child in Ferelden knew of the Witch of the Wilds and to avoid her, but fuck if it wasn’t getting on Solona’s nerves right now. She was right there. Some discretion and tact would seem to be called for.

“Witch of the Wilds? Morrigan must have told you that,” Mother said, sounding deeply amused. “She fancies such tales, though she’d never admit it. Oh, how she dances under the moon!”

“They did not come to listen to your wild tales, Mother,” Morrigan said, firmly returning her mother to the conversation.

“True. They came for their treaties, yes?” Mother replied, turning to fetch the treaties -- which she conveniently had on hand, it seemed. “And before you begin barking, your precious seal wore off long ago. I have protected these.” Solona could easily believe that.

Morrigan’s mother handed the treaties to her , for some reason. There was probably some kind of significance to that, upon reflection. Or maybe Morrigan and her mother just liked her. She was the only one who’d been halfway polite this whole time.

“You -- oh. You protected them?” Alistair said.

“And why not? Take these to your Grey Wardens and tell them this Blight’s threat is greater than they realize!”

“We will,” Solona said, half bowing, to Morrigan and her mother’s amusement. “Thank you for looking after these -- and for returning them.”

“Such manners! Always in the last place you look. Like stockings,” Morrigan’s mother said with a laugh. “Oh, do not mind me. You have what you came for.”

“Time for you to go, then,” Morrigan said.

“Do not be ridiculous, girl! These are your guests!” Morrigan’s mother chided.

“Oh. Very well. I will -- show you out of the woods. Follow me,” Morrigan replied, sounding almost confused.

Solona walked beside her in silence, trying not to let it be awkward. The men were quiet as well, giving Solona time to think about… all of this. She had vastly underestimated how unkindly people felt about mages outside the Tower. Even Alistair, and he was supposed to be her Voice. She knew he had trained to be a Templar, but he’d always seemed like one of the kind ones, like Cullen.

But… what if he wasn’t? The things he’d said to and about Morrigan, the look on his face when she’d taken down that darkspawn, even the way he’d treated the mage he’d been talking to just before they met… What if… when she told him everything, what if he didn’t want to be her Voice? What were you supposed to do if your soulmate didn’t want you? Keep living as if you’d never found them? Her heart was pounding in her chest so hard it felt like it might break.

“‘Tis lovely,” Morrigan said, out of the blue.

“What?” Solona looked at her, confused.

“Your ring. ‘Tis lovely.”

Solona looked down at her hands; she hadn’t even remembered she was wearing a ring. It was the one Irving gave her. Her heart gave another squeeze at the thought of everything she’d been so eager to leave behind. Maybe he’d been right in the first place.

“‘Tis the Circle insignia, is it not?”

“Oh, yes. It is. I got it when I became a full mage of the Circle.”

“When you passed your Harrowing,” Morrigan said.

“Oh! You know --”

“Indeed.” Morrigan smiled a cat-like smile. Solona really shouldn’t have been surprised.

“Well. Then, yes. When I passed my Harrowing.”

“And when was that?”

Solona counted in her head. “A week ago? Thereabouts?”

“Truly?” Morrigan asked, sounding taken aback.

“I live an exciting life,” Solona joked.

“Indeed.” And that was all she said.

But the way Morrigan’s face went carefully neutral again said an awful lot . More than it ought to, perhaps. Solona supposed she should be skeptical of Morrigan and her mother -- but she had never felt anything like that kind of power.

They were approaching Ostagar, and Solona was certain Morrigan would want to get out of sight quickly; there were a number of Templars there, and there was no guarantee they’d stop themselves from arresting an apostate, Blight or no.

“Thank you for showing us out, Morrigan. I’m sure we’d have gotten hopelessly lost otherwise,” Solona said, trying to smile at her.

Morrigan didn’t respond beyond a nod. She turned away. Hesitated. Looked back. And then she was gone.

“I vote that we let you handle all the talking from now on,” Ser Jory said, staring dumbfounded at Solona. “How in the Maker’s name did you pull that off?”

“How did I pull what off?” Solona asked.

“We just talked to the Witch of the Wilds. And we lived ,” Daveth insisted.

“Oh. Well. I mean -- us witches are people, too. Right?” Solona said, shrugging.

The three men just blinked at her. She led them back inside the walls of Ostagar.

Chapter Text

Maker’s breath , he was an asshole.

Normally Alistair tried not to use that kind of language, but today, he deserved it. As they all readied themselves for the Joining, Alistair tried to think of a way to apologize to Solona for all the things he’d said about Morrigan -- not realizing that they could easily be extrapolated to mean all mages, including her. But “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say anything bad about you , I just don’t trust her, ” seemed like it wasn’t enough.

It almost felt funereal: here lies his good impression with the only woman who’d ever been willing to give him the time of day. Rest in peace.

And worse, she’d actually hit it off with Morrigan, getting them what they needed while Alistair had been happy to just accuse. If she hadn’t taken charge, the Grey Wardens wouldn’t have those treaties right now, because there was no way Morrigan or her mother would have given them to him .

Maker. What was he going to do? He couldn’t think of a suitable apology, and she was about to undergo the Joining, which killed almost as many people as it made Grey Wardens. If she died here, which Alistair really hoped she didn’t , she’d die thinking he was an asshole. Which he was, but he was a repentant asshole. That had to count for something, right?

She was silent as she looked out into the distance, half-turned away from them all. He wondered what she was thinking. None of them had come out of this looking spectacular, except, you know, her . He wouldn’t blame her if she thought they all didn’t like mages; all that “witch” talk had clearly gotten to her.

It was, again, Ser Jory who broke the silence… though not in the way Alistair would have hoped.

“The more I hear of this ritual, the less I like it.”

“Are you blubbering again?” Daveth asked.

“Why all these damned tests? Have I not earned my place?” Jory said.

“Maybe it’s tradition,” Daveth said. “Or maybe they’re just trying to annoy you.”

“It’ll be all right, Ser Jory,” Solona cut in, soothing as ever. Did the woman even feel fear? Alistair was close to screaming with it for her. For -- for them all, that is.

“I only know that my wife is in Highever with a child on the way. If they had warned me… it just doesn’t seem fair.”

“Oh! Do you know how she’s been doing?” Solona asked, animated and interested.

“I -- had a letter from her last week. She’s doing well, and the baby is healthy, far as anyone can tell.”

“When is she due?”

“Early in the spring.”

“That’s wonderful. Truly,” Solona said, smiling warmly at Ser Jory. “How did you meet her? What’s she like?”

As Jory began to tell of his wife, Alistair realized -- she was calming him. Getting him to talk about something he really cared about to take his mind off things. Daveth must have figured it out at the same time, because he turned to Alistair.

“Do you want to do that?” Daveth asked, grinning cheekily and gesturing at their companions.

Alistair laughed. “Sure. But be prepared to be underwhelmed by my ability to carry on a conversation.”

“I’m sure you can’t be that bad,” Daveth said -- and then they were interrupted.

They felt Duncan’s arrival like a heavy velvet curtain falling on them. This is it, the air seemed to say, it’s the moment of truth.

“At last, we come to the Joining,” Duncan said, walking slowly forward to an altar near the four of them. “The Grey Wardens were founded during the First Blight, when humanity stood on the verge of annihilation. So it was that the first Grey Wardens drank of darkspawn blood -- and mastered their taint.”

“W-we’re… going to drink the blood of those… those creatures ?” Jory asked, sounding absolutely terrified.

“As the first Grey Wardens did before us, as we did before you. This is the source of our power… and our victory,” Duncan said.

“Those who survive the Joining become immune to the taint. We can sense it in the darkspawn and use it to slay the Archdemon,” Alistair explained.

He looked to Solona to see her reaction… and realized that, once again, he’d put his foot in it. Those who survive. It was written all over her face, so that even someone who barely knew her could see. This was the fear he’d jokingly wondered about not a few moments ago.

She took a breath. Let it out. Swallowed. Looked at Duncan and nodded.

“We speak only a few words prior to the Joining, but these words have been said since the first,” Duncan said. “Alistair, if you would?”

“Join us, brothers and sisters. Join us in the shadows where we stand, vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn. And, should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten… and that, one day, we shall join you .”

Duncan called Daveth forward. The young man took a sip from the chalice -- and choked, clutching desperately at his throat, falling to his knees. Alistair saw Solona’s hands ignite with white fire, looking to heal him, but there was nothing to heal; to some, the Joining was poison.

“I am sorry, Daveth,” Duncan whispered.

He turned to Jory next.

“But -- I have a wife. A child. Had I known --” Jory stammered, drawing his sword.

Alistair wanted to call out, tell him to put the sword away, please , mentally begging Solona to say something, calm them all down again. Someone, save this man from what’s about to happen.

“There is no turning back,” Duncan said, voice gone dark as he put the chalice down.

“No! You ask too much! There is no glory in this!”

Duncan drew his dagger. At least it was quick.

Jory fell to the ground, and Solona tried to rush forward. Alistair could see what she was thinking -- I can heal this, please, just let me through -- but she was blocked by Duncan returning with the chalice.

“You are called upon to submit yourself to the taint for the greater good.”

The face she made, looking at Duncan while Jory bled out beside them -- was nothing short of horrified.

Don’t look at him like that, Alistair wanted to say. You don’t understand yet.

She said nothing. Closed her eyes, and took another breath. She took the cup.

Alistair watched -- well, really that wasn’t strong enough. His eyes locked on her, and he wasn’t able to look away. His hands curled themselves into fists almost without him noticing, and he leaned forward just slightly, worried beyond belief but trying to look unconcerned.

She took a long draught from it, like Daveth had.

Please don’t die . It was the only coherent thought he had, repeating over and over again in his mind. Please, please don’t die.

“From this moment forth, you are a Grey Warden,” Duncan pronounced.

She clutched at her head. Her eyes went white, rolling back. She collapsed, falling beside them, but Duncan reached an arm behind her back, catching and lowering her gently. He and Alistair both took a knee next to her, checking her breathing.

“She will live,” Duncan said.

Alistair sighed with relief. Duncan looked over at him, quirking an eyebrow and faintly smiling. Alistair flushed bright red, and wanted to stammer out something about it not being like that , but it felt inappropriate, considering. Instead, at Duncan’s urging, he went to ask one of the Chantry mothers to do something for Daveth and Jory. They deserved that much. (And if he ran on the way there and back, not wanting to miss when Solona woke up, at least he had the sense to do it when Duncan wasn’t looking.)

Solona was rousing by the time he came back. She opened her eyes and rubbed at her forehead. If she was anything like him, she had a splitting headache right about now.

“It is finished,” Duncan said. “Welcome.”

“Two more deaths. In my Joining, only one of us died, but it was -- horrible,” Alistair offered. “I’m glad at least one of you made it through.”

Meaning: If only one of you was going to make it through, I’m glad it was you.

She sat up, breathing hard. Alistair offered her a hand. Solona looked at it, then their eyes met.

And… wow. Had he noticed they were this blue before? Like those blueberries he had always failed to steal in the Redcliffe market. Or, or the color of the ocean at midnight. Or -- something. Maker.

She took his hand and he helped pull her to her feet. She wobbled a little, but she didn’t fall. After a long moment, she looked away. Alistair was disappointed, but couldn’t say why.

“How do you feel?” Duncan asked.

Solona shrunk back and didn’t meet Duncan’s gaze. Alistair could almost feel the wall being built between her and everyone else. No, no, don’t do that, he wanted to say. It’s easier to get through it if you’ve got people with you, I swear.

“It’s over,” she said. “I’m fine.”

“Did you have dreams?” Alistair poked, trying to get her to open up the way she’d done for the rest of them. “I had terrible dreams after my Joining.”

“Such dreams come when you begin to sense the darkspawn, as we all do. That and many other things can be explained in the months to come,” Duncan said kindly. “Take some time. When you are ready, I’d like you to accompany me to a meeting with the king.”

Solona nodded, but didn’t say anything further.

“The meeting is to the west, down the stairs. Please attend as soon as you are able.”

Duncan turned and left at the barest hint of a second nod from Solona. Alistair saw the way Duncan’s eyes went tight, and he knew his mentor regretted everything about this interaction. This was not a Joining that had gone well. Granted, they never went well, but this one was worse than most.

Solona had turned away from him, probably expecting him to leave, too. Maybe he should have, but… He reached out to put a hand on her shoulder, then thought better of it and kept his arms solidly by his side.

“Solona?” Alistair asked softly.

She looked at him. From the way her face looked like it was about to crumple -- Maker, she was going to cry.

He had no idea what to do.

“Before -- before I forget, there is one last part to your Joining,” he said, reaching for the first true thing he could think of. “We take some of that blood and put it in a pendant. Something to remind us… of those who didn’t make it this far.”

He fixed the pendant and handed it to her. She lifted her long braid. Hesitated.

“Would you mind…?” she asked, gesturing.

Mind -- what? Oh, she needed help putting it on.
“Of course,” he said, trying to smile.

She turned away from him, and he brought the pendant down around her neck, trying not to think of how she smelled like lavender. He fastened it quickly, ignoring the flush spreading down his neck and up his face.

“Thank you,” she said, her voice gone quiet. She looked back at him -- and again, when those blue eyes met his -- Alistair’s breath caught somewhere before it reached his lungs and wow, they were standing really close together, weren’t they? He’d seen women before and known they were beautiful, but this was attraction in -- almost in the magnetic sense. Something about her drew him in. And he was glad he at least had the sense to not say that out loud, because it would have sounded really stupid , but it was nevertheless true .

She opened her mouth as if to say something… then shook her head, almost like she was clearing her thoughts.

“I… should probably go meet Duncan,” she said, not taking her eyes off his.

“Oh. Right. Of course,” Alistair replied, making himself move out of her way. “He’d -- be disappointed if you didn’t. He might cry. Best to avoid that, right?”

Solona gave Alistair a thin smile as she walked away.

Alistair sighed, feeling somehow… empty. After a long moment, he started to walk away himself. He’d wait at Duncan’s fire. They’d be able to find him there.

“Excuse me? Warden?” the kennel master called to him before he could get too lost in his thoughts. Alistair turned.

“I haven’t seen the other Warden in a while -- you know, the girl. Is she all right?”

“She is,” Alistair said. “Solona is… just talking with Duncan at the moment.”

“Oh, good, ” the kennel master said, looking as relieved as Alistair had felt. “When you see her, could you tell her the medicine worked a treat? I’ve got to get the other dogs ready for the battle, so I won’t be able to.”

“Sure,” Alistair said. “She’ll be glad to hear that.”

“Did you know she brought back enough of those flowers to save any dogs who get sick from this battle, too? She’s a good one.”

“Yes,” Alistair agreed. “She is.”

He walked away, waiting for her -- and Duncan, I’m waiting for them both -- at the bonfire. They were only a few minutes -- must have been a short meeting.

“What happened?” he asked Solona, sotto . She gave him a look that could have meant anything from “I’ll tell you later” to “I’m annoyed you even asked.”

“The two of you will go to the Tower of Ishal and ensure the beacon is lit,” Duncan said.

“The beacon will tell Loghain’s men when to charge the darkspawn,” Solona explained quietly.

“What?” Alistair said. “I won’t be in the battle?”

“This is by the king’s personal request, Alistair. If the beacon is not lit, Teyrn Loghain’s men won’t know when to charge.”

That doesn’t mean he needs to send me, Alistair thought, annoyed.

“So he needs two Grey Wardens up there holding the torch. Just in case, right?” he said instead. Duncan knew exactly what he meant, even if Solona didn’t.

“I agree with Alistair,” Solona put in. “We should be in the battle.”

Wait, what? Alistair looked at her. Why would she agree with him? Nobody ever agreed with him.

“That is not your choice,” Duncan insisted. “If King Cailan wishes Grey Wardens to ensure the beacon is lit, then Grey Wardens will be there. We must do whatever it takes to destroy the darkspawn, exciting or no.”

“I get it, I get it,” Alistair said, pacifying. “Just so you know, if the king asks me to put on a dress and dance the Remigold, I’m drawing the line. Darkspawn or no.”

“I think I’d like to see that,” she said, almost to herself.

“For you? Maybe,” Alistair replied, flirting with every part of him that knew how -- which was not many, but he could try. “But it has to be a pretty dress.”

She snorted; Duncan sighed. Probably thinking something like, Maker’s breath, not two of them.

“The tower is on the other side of the gorge from the king’s camp, the way we came when we arrived. You two will need to cross the gorge and head through the gate and up to the tower entrance. From the top, you’ll overlook the entire valley.”

“When do we light the beacon?” she asked.

“We will signal you when the time is right,” Duncan said.

A flaming arrow, usually. Hard to mistake when it got shot straight into the air, and easy to see.

“And how much time do we have?”

“Once I leave, move quickly. You’ll have less than an hour,” Duncan said. “Once the beacon is lit, stay with the teyrn’s men and guard the tower. If you are needed, we will send word.”

“Understood,” Solona said, nodding.

“From here, you two are on your own. Remember, you are both Grey Wardens. I expect you to be worthy of that title.”

Duncan started to turn away, but Alistair couldn’t leave it like that.

“Duncan… may the Maker watch over you,” he said.

“May he watch over us all,” Duncan answered.

And then he left. Alistair couldn’t explain the sudden, existential dread he felt. It was probably because this battle was so much bigger than the others he’d been in, but… still.

Solona gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze, looking at him encouragingly. They didn’t have time for Alistair to go woolgathering in her eyes again, so he nodded, and the two of them set off for the Tower of Ishal.

 

Chapter Text

Cailan was alone in his tent, already in his father’s golden armor, feeling like it was several sizes too big for him. He was uncomfortable in his own skin, getting a creepy-crawly feeling of not-right-ness . He knew this battle wouldn’t go well. They were outnumbered, outmatched, outclassed in every way. They were stuck here in this crumbling hole of a fortress while the horde grew larger and larger, and they lost people with every skirmish. Teyrn Cousland’s men were lost in the Wilds, including his older son, and his younger son had died in the last attack by the darkspawn.

No one needed to tell Cailan their position was bad. He wasn’t stupid. Everyone thought he was, and it suited him to keep it that way. But he was nowhere near as dumb as he pretended to be.

His only hope had been in Loghain seeing reason and agreeing to an alliance with the Orlesians in the face of Ferelden’s certain doom. Cailan had put this battle off as long as he could, hoping he could soften Loghain’s opinion, but, no. Loghain had stopped even pretending to like him over the very idea. He insisted that the Orlesians would invade as soon as their chevaliers arrived in Ferelden, but they didn’t need to invade, since Cailan had been talking with Empress Celene.

And anyway, that was his father’s war. It was in the past , and Loghain insisted on continuing to fight it in the present , throwing his father’s name in his face as if it had ever actually meant something, like every other old fossil of a man who ever complained about “the youth of today.”

And if Cailan had been stupid , he’d have said that to Loghain, instead of just thinking it.

So, if this was going to be his last battle, he wanted to fight with the Grey Wardens. If Loghain insisted on bringing up his father, he’d gone with the Grey Wardens into the Deep Roads once, and no one had bothered him about it. Cailan could be as good a leader as Father had been -- or better, if someone would just point him at a war that was winnable and gave him a general who wasn’t stuck somewhere around thirty years ago.

But it was also good for the morale of the troops, to see Cailan fighting with them. They needed to know they had a leader who would bleed with them. They needed to know they had a leader who felt their pain. Even if they all died here, they’d die knowing they fought with a king who cared about them. And didn’t that count for something? Yes, they’d still all be dead, but maybe one of them could put in a good word with the Maker for him.

Either way. That was why he’d had Alistair sent to the Tower of Ishal. The Grey Wardens didn’t need to be the ones to light the beacon. But Cailan and Anora had no heirs -- not that he wanted any heir of hers at this point, their marriage was basically dead now -- and so, if anything happened to him, a son of the Theirin blood should rule Ferelden.

Loghain would have kittens. But Loghain was always having kittens, so that didn’t mean much.

After this battle, though… It was horrible that he probably wasn’t going to make it out of this, not only because death has a way of being rather permanent, but also… Cailan had planned to finally talk to his half-brother. He was king now, and Alistair was an adult, out of the clutches of the Chantry. There was no one to interfere or to stop him from doing it anymore, not Anora, not Uncle Eamon, not Loghain, and not his bloody father . Maybe Cailan could have convinced him to leave the Wardens, to come to Denerim. If only for a visit.

Cailan had always wanted a brother. His father had kept that from him, like he’d kept everything from him. He’d only found out when he eavesdropped on an argument Father and Uncle Eamon had one spring during one of Uncle Eamon’s occasional visits to Denerim.

“What the bloody fuck were you thinking?” his father had yelled, which had caught Cailan’s attention in much the same way a barking dog would.

“Maric, we’ve only done what we thought was best. The boy will do well in the Chantry. He’ll have the chance to make something of himself,” Uncle Eamon had replied, soft and soothing.

“Make an addict of himself. Make a mage-hunter of himself. Quite the distinguished positions you have in mind for him.”

“Is it any better than what you had in mind for him? To be a servant’s son forever? You entrusted his education to me, and I’ve made my decision.”

Isolde made this decision, not you. She’s always hated him --”

“Because you wouldn’t let me tell her the truth!”

“I had my reasons, Eamon,” his father growled. “I have half a mind to send your son off to the Chantry as soon as he’s born. Then maybe you’ll understand. Get out.”

Uncle Eamon left the study and the castle then, furious. (The two of them didn’t speak for a year after that.)

But Cailan hadn’t known what they’d been talking about. It sounded like his father had been angry at Uncle Eamon over sending Cailan away… but Cailan hadn’t gone anywhere. Not yet, anyway.

It was the only thing that made any sense, though why Father would have entrusted Cailan’s education to Uncle Eamon was still a mystery. But even that was plausible. Father had never been overly-involved, and Cailan had been passed off to nannies, tutors, and relatives since his mother died.

Still. He didn’t want to leave Denerim. He was supposed to be king someday, and he couldn’t do that in the Chantry. At fourteen, he was far too old to cry or even to sniffle. Instead, he strode into the room to confront his father with all the confidence his years could bring him.

What -- ” his father began, truly terrifying… then he softened. “Oh, Cailan. I’m sorry. Did you need something?”

“Am I being sent away?” he demanded.

“Why -- why would you think that?” his father asked.

“You were just arguing with Uncle Eamon. I overheard.”

His father sighed, turning away from Cailan and facing the window. He always got like this when he was upset about something. Cailan braced himself for the impact -- why else would his father be upset?

“No, you’re not being sent away,” Father said. “And I’m sorry you thought you were. This has nothing to do with you, Cailan. It’s a personal matter between me and Arl Eamon.”

“Then -- what, you have another son I don’t know about?” Cailan asked sarcastically.

His father paused a moment, still gazing out the window. He got like this sometimes, as if he were focusing on something far away. Cailan was used to having to wait for his father to deign to respond, but as he was growing older, it was starting to chafe.

“Yes,” Father said.

The room spun around Cailan and he felt very much like he should sit down (though he couldn’t, not with his father here). He couldn’t possibly have heard right… could he?

“...Wait, really?”

“Really,” his father said, still not looking at him. How reassuring, Father, Cailan thought bitterly.

“So… I have a brother?”

“Yes.”

His father’s tone declared the matter settled, but Cailan was far from done. Where was this brother? What was his name? Was he a younger brother or an older brother? How old was he, anyway? What was he like? Could he come to Denerim? And why didn’t Father ever mention this before?

But his father continued to be silent, staring out the window as if the scenery was more interesting or more important than the fireball Father had just dropped on Cailan’s life.

“And what, that’s it? You’re not going to tell me anything about him?”

Father sighed again, leaning his head back and looking up to the ceiling.

“What do you want to know?”

“Everything,” Cailan said.

And he meant it.

Cailan had lived a long and lonely childhood. His mother died when he was young, Anora was never any fun to play with -- but a brother . A brother would have changed everything for Cailan, and, when he still really believed in the Maker, he’d prayed every night for years for a brother. Even a sister would have done. All he wanted was someone who would understand. That’s something no one could ever be, not his father, not Loghain, not Anora, not anyone -- except his brother.

He was deeply resentful of his father for keeping his brother away from him all those years. Father knew it, too. Their relationship had never been the same from that day. Cailan supposed a better man would regret that now. But he couldn’t. Keeping Alistair away from Cailan was the lethal blow to a relationship that had been strained for Cailan’s entire youth.

Still. Father had at least been forthcoming. Cailan knew all about Alistair. He knew that he’d been training to be a Templar -- and that he hated it. He knew that Alistair hadn’t spoken to Uncle Eamon since he was sent away -- and he didn’t blame Alistair for that, not one bit. He knew that Alistair was shy and awkward, and he was sarcastic, just like Cailan, and he didn’t have anybody, not until the Grey Wardens. Neither of them had anybody, not really. They were both orphans now, and neither of them had any true friends.

And it was that -- that one simple point of commonality -- that had made Cailan determined to acknowledge Alistair as his brother once this battle was over. He’d even have named Alistair as his heir if that’s what Alistair wanted.

All Cailan had ever wanted was a brother .

But he couldn’t talk to Alistair here , not with Loghain sniffing around. And he couldn’t leave him anything, and he couldn’t even write a note. All he could do was keep Alistair safe and fight alongside the Grey Wardens himself. He hoped it was enough to prove his love of the brother he’d never been able to know.

Maybe, if he got lucky and he really was wrong about the steady chorus of darkspawn drums in his head, pounding out the beat of this battle is not survivable … maybe, if he was really wrong, he could invite Alistair and the little mage girl who was with him -- whatever her name was, he’d forgotten now. Remiss of him. But Cailan could invite them to Denerim, give them each a medal for their bravery or something. If only to take the excuse to talk to Alistair.

If only he could be sure he’d get through this battle.

Maker, he hoped for once that he was as stupid as everyone thought.

“Your Majesty?” Duncan called from outside the tent. “We’re ready.”

“Coming,” Cailan replied, taking one last look in the glass before he left. He looked like a king. He wished he’d had the sense to just look like Cailan. Just this once, since it was the last time. But the people needed their king, and he didn’t mind.

“The plan will work, Your Majesty,” Duncan said.

If Cailan had been stupid, he wouldn’t have known Duncan was lying.

“Of course it will,” Cailan lied back confidently. “The Blight ends here.”

Chapter Text

The rain was as unrelenting as the enemy, and Solona and Alistair were thoroughly soaked by the time they reached the far side of the bridge, leading up to the Tower of Ishal. Looking around, Solona saw soldiers fighting darkspawn even here, which struck her as odd… and the darkspawn absolutely outnumbered their side. That definitely hadn’t been the plan as she’d understood it.

And something else struck her as odd. Their men weren’t defending . They were trying to push forward, the same direction Solona and Alistair were going.

“Alistair,” she said, resting a hand on his arm to stop him from charging forward. “These men are fighting hard, but I think the darkspawn have probably broken through already. Our side is trying to get to the Tower, like us.”

“You think the Tower’s been overrun?” he asked.

“It looks that way to me. What do you think?”

He paused for a moment, squinting to get a good look at the soldiers. He shook his head -- the rain was getting harder, and visibility was getting worse by the second.

“I can’t see much of anything, but if the Tower’s been taken, then we have to get to the beacon and light it ourselves!”

“I’m with you,” Solona said, nodding and falling in behind him.

Fighting alongside Alistair felt as easy as breathing, which was saying an awful lot, given Solona’s very limited combat experience. She just fired her staff at whatever darkspawn Alistair was currently attacking, throwing down glyphs to freeze them in place so that he didn’t have to face more than one or two at a time, and shooting out a healing spell every time he started to get too banged up. He certainly hadn’t complained. Yet.

They entered the Tower of Ishal -- and immediately stumbled into a grease trap. Solona froze the grease before the darkspawn could light it on fire, and she and Alistair skated across with little difficulty. He shot her a quick smile before he went charging off to handle the darkspawn.

The enemy had all the advantage here; attacking a tower was much more difficult than defending a tower, and they had numbers on their side. What could two Grey Wardens -- two neophyte Grey Wardens, at that -- do against a whole tower full of darkspawn? There was no rescue coming, and no one was going to help them. If the darkspawn had filled this front room so thoroughly, the king’s men were already done for. But the plan had to continue as they had stated, or every soldier in the valley, including the Grey Wardens and the king, would be dead.

Solona and Alistair had to survive. Or at least, one of them had to live long enough to light the beacon.

The darkspawn fanned out across the room, making Alistair’s job more difficult. Solona froze one with Winter’s Grasp, and another with a glyph, when a fireball exploded in front of her.

An emissary.

Solona whirled, looking around for the darkspawn mage -- there it was. Hiding in the corner, far enough away that Alistair would have to be crazy to go after it. The other darkspawn would flank him for sure.

Which meant only one thing: Solona had to take it down herself.

She fired a bolt of arcane energy at the emissary, more to get its attention than anything else. She dodged its answering attack -- the same spell, that copycat -- and tried to freeze it where it stood.

The emissary shrugged off the cold and shot another fireball at her -- right as she threw a Stonefist spell at it. The two of them were knocked down -- and Solona was half-sure the skirt of her robe was on fire.

“Solona!” she heard Alistair call. She couldn’t see; her eyes had filled with dust and dirt.

“I’m fine!” she called back. “Just keep doing what you’re doing!”

She heard the disgruntled noise he made in return, followed by more clanging of metal on metal. Good. He’d listened.

Desperate to clear her eyes, Solona conjured some ice in her hands, then melted it into water. She rubbed at her face vigorously as more bolts from the emissary’s staff hit her square in the chest. Each one knocked her a little farther back; if this continued, she was going to slip on the ice she’d made, and she’d be easy pickings for any darkspawn nearby.

She blinked; her vision was still blurry. She blinked again; her vision was a little clearer. She could make out basic shapes, at least. She saw the brown smear that was once the emissary, and she knew what she had to do.

Focusing all her mana, she thought of ice and cold and snow . She poured every ounce of concentration into this one cold spell -- and she aimed it right at the emissary.

It became the most horrendous ice sculpture the world had ever seen. Solona fell to her knees, panting hard, as Alistair casually walked up to the emissary and shattered it. She had definitely overextended herself there, but if there was ever a time that overextending herself was the appropriate response…

She rummaged through her bag, hoping that maybe she’d tucked a lyrium potion in there… but no. There was nothing.

Well. There was no other way out but through. Solona forced herself to a vaguely standing position and flashed Alistair a wobbly smile. With an answering grin, he led the way up the tower.

“That was a good trick, by the way,” he said as they pushed forward.

“Freezing the emissary?”

“And the grease!”

“Oh. Thanks,” she replied. “I was put on kitchen duty sometimes, and that’s how we’d get rid of the cooking grease. Freeze it and throw it away.”

“You didn’t keep it in the food? That’s where all the flavor is!” Alistair said, pretending to be shocked.

“Try telling that to the kitchen witches,” Solona quipped -- as they entered yet another room full of darkspawn.

“Maker’s breath!” Alistair swore as the darkspawn scattered across the room, “What are these darkspawn doing ahead of the rest of the horde? There wasn’t supposed to be any resistance here!”

“I don’t know,” Solona muttered. “But I know I don’t like it. Something about this feels… off. We haven’t seen a single one of our soldiers since we got here, and this tower was supposed to be defended.”

“We’ll have to worry about that later. Right now, we need to hurry.”

He was worried for Duncan, Solona knew that. If it had been Irving fighting down there, she’d have been a wreck. Alistair was handling it well (better than she would have, that was certain).

Several arrows flew their way over to the pair of them. Solona threw up a simple barrier and the projectiles bounced off harmlessly. It would take some mana and concentration, she knew, but she could maintain that spell on the two of them, effectively disabling the genlocks.

Alistair rushed forward, knocking down a genlock archer and pummeling it with his shield. Solona kept well behind him, throwing down a glyph of paralysis. Two hurlocks crept behind Alistair -- they weren’t usually the stealthy types, but Alistair’s attention was on the genlock. Panicked, Solona fired a Stonefist spell at the two of them. The giant rock knocked both hurlocks to the floor, and one of them didn’t get back up.

Unfortunately for Solona, the other one did.

It roared at her, sword drawn, its unholy mouth opened wide enough that she could practically see its tonsils. Low on mana, she tried to freeze it with a simple Winter’s Grasp spell, but the fear was caught in her throat; she froze the floor underneath her instead. She was nearly out of mana, and if she didn’t think fast , she would be out of time.

The hurlock sauntered over toward her, as if savoring the idea of killing her.

Out of better ideas, she grabbed her staff and swept the hurlock off its own feet. It landed abruptly on its ass, and Solona beat its head with her staff, over and over. Alistair must have heard the racket, because he turned -- and once he saw the hurlock, he charged, ending the battle rather decisively with one sharp blow of his sword.

“All right there?” he asked, helping her up.

“I’m fine. Thanks for the assist.”

“You’re… you’re really not hurt or anything?” He sounded worried. That shouldn’t have been as endearing as it was.

“Low on mana, and my ass and my dignity are bruised, but I think I’ll live,” she replied, smiling at him.

“Do you have any lyrium potions?” he asked. “I didn’t think to bring any.”

“No, I don’t. But it should be fine. We’re almost to the top of the tower.”

As they ran out of the room and up the last flight of stairs, Solona wished anything about this could have gone to plan. She wished this could have been an easy mission, like King Cailan and Duncan had intended. She’d argued that they should fight, but she hadn’t meant this . Mostly she just hadn’t wanted Alistair to feel like no one needed him.

She hoped, desperately, that once they got up to the beacon, nothing else would go wrong.

“Thank the Maker,” Alistair breathed as he pushed open the final door. “We made it.”

But as the door opened… they saw the ogre. A huge, purple horned thing that could have had Alistair for dinner and Solona for dessert. It must have heard the door open, because it slowly turned its head toward them.

“Oh, shit, ” Solona whispered. The ogre roared, then began stalking forward as if to say, now you have nowhere to run, little Wardens.

Even though they had fought as quickly as they could to get here, Duncan had said they’d have less than an hour. There was no way they wouldn’t miss the signal while fighting the ogre… if they hadn’t missed it already. So Solona made an executive decision while Alistair tried to draw the ogre’s attention. She was dangerously low on mana -- so much so that she was starting to get a wheezy feeling in her chest -- but, given everything… she had to try.

She’d never been very good with fire. Stone was her best of the classical “four elements,” and ice was the next best thing. Sweat stinging her eyes, she called forth a tiny ball of fire, just barely enough to light the beacon with -- and once it was ready, she threw it across the roof. It landed just off to the side of the beacon, but close enough that a spark lit the wood underneath like wildfire.

The signal went up. Even if they didn’t defeat the ogre, the army would be all right.

Unfortunately for Solona, again, Teyrn Loghain wasn’t the only one the beacon signaled.

The ogre turned to look -- their eyes caught -- and then it ran at her, faster than Alistair could follow. It reached down a long arm and picked her up in its hand, as easily as if she weighed nothing. It squeezed -- hard -- the pain bore down on her, and the world turned red. She was dimly aware of Alistair attacking the ogre frantically, trying to get it to drop her, he was yelling or something, she wasn’t sure what.

Alistair slashed at the ogre’s arm, and it dropped her to the ground. She thought that she heard a few loud cracks as she hit the floor. The pain shot through both legs and her spine, her head smashed into the tile, and she lay still.

She thought she saw Alistair leap at the ogre, stabbing it repeatedly in the chest -- and then it went still, too.

“Solona,” she heard him say, almost like he was speaking from underwater. He tossed his sword and shield aside, dropping to his knees next to her.

She focused her eyes on him as much as she could ( hello there, Ser Concussion, how are you today?) , but even though she was having trouble focusing, Solona easily saw the relief flood his face.

“You’re -- it, it’s all right, I’ve got elfroot in my pack, hold on,” he said. She heard bottles going clink as he rummaged desperately in his bag. He shifted his arm underneath her back, supporting her weight as he held the little red potion bottle to her lips. She drank -- swallowed wrong, coughed -- and kept drinking. He took the bottle away every few sips to keep her from drinking too much too quickly.

The potion tasted terrible. But her head was less swimmy and her legs hurt less -- more like a dull ache than the sharp, overwhelming pain it had been a moment ago, and certainly much more bearable. Elfroot didn’t hold a candle to magical healing, but it had curative and pain-relieving properties that more than made up for the awful taste.

And she looked at him again, now that the edge was taken off the pain, and he was looking back at her with such… care . Such concern. His amber eyes were focused squarely on her face, and it… it was really starting to feel overwhelming again. They weren’t bonded, they hadn’t even begun to bond, but the care was there already, and Solona didn’t know what to do with it. He reached down and pushed her now-disheveled hair out of her face, stopping just short of cupping her cheek.

“Thanks,” she managed to squeak out.

“Can -- can you heal… would you…” he sighed, starting again, “are you all right?”

“I’ll be fine, but I can’t heal my legs right now. I’m out of mana, and anyway, I’d need someone to set the bones in the right places, or it’d heal wrong.”

“Right. You mentioned that before,” Alistair said, his thoughts obviously far away.

Solona gave him a moment to gather his thoughts, just enjoying the feeling of leaning up against him. Even if this all went tits-up, she’d had this. It was more than she’d ever had, and didn’t that just bring her sad little life into perspective.

“Here,” he said suddenly, “I’m going to bring you over behind this wall. You rest up, and stay quiet, hide as best you can. I’ll get some help, and I’ll be right back -- it’s… it’s going to be all right, you said so yourself.”

Solona was about to tell Alistair to put her down and pull her across the floor, instead of carrying her, since that could lead to further injury -- when the door opened with a loud bang. They both looked over, half-expecting to see someone coming to their rescue.

It was not.

A genlock archer drew an arrow before Alistair had a chance to even move , and fired it directly into Solona’s shoulder. She heard Alistair yell “ No!” before, finally, the pain took her down and the world went dark.

Chapter Text

It was all his fault. He knew that much. If he had insisted on fighting in the battle with Duncan… if he hadn’t put his sword and shield down, if he’d defended her like the knight he was supposed to be… if he’d noticed the things she’d noticed and disobeyed his orders to inform Duncan and the king that everything had gone wrong… maybe he could have saved them. But he didn’t. He didn’t save them and they were gone and it was all his fault.

“You’re going to put me off my stew, young man,” the old woman said from her cooking fire, a fair distance away. 

Alistair half-hoped Daveth had been right, and this old witch was going to eat him.

But then the word witch and the thought of Daveth and the last time they’d been here made him think of Solona, and she was… this was too much, far too much for anyone to expect him to bear.

That great beast lifting her into the air, the panic and the rage as he desperately hacked away at it, anywhere he could reach -- just let her go, he’d called. Let her go. Her cry as it nearly crushed her, the dazed, half-conscious look she gave him when he killed it, the darkspawn’s arrow in her chest -- where was his shield?

“She’s going to be fine,” the old woman cut in again. “She’s just taking some time to recover.”

“I wish I could believe that,” he said, without really meaning to.

But the old woman just chuckled and continued stirring the pot.

“She’s rubbed off on you already, has she? Good,” she said, taking the ladle from the pot and sipping gently. “A bit too sweet for my taste, but serviceable.”

Somehow Alistair didn’t think she was talking about the stew. He glanced over at her, but she’d returned her attention entirely to her dinner.

They were gone. If the old woman was telling the truth, maybe Solona was... but the rest of them -- were gone. Alistair was the only one left who knew anything about the Grey Wardens. And if the old woman was telling the truth, and if Solona was all right… what would she even do? Alistair didn’t know what he was going to do. What could he do?

The door opened. Alistair didn’t turn, expecting it to be Morrigan.

“See? Here is your fellow Grey Warden. You worry too much, young man.”

Now Alistair turned, taking several steps toward her, just staring in stark disbelief. She was… the old woman hadn’t lied.

“You -- you’re alive,” Alistair said with a watery chuckle. “I thought you were dead for sure.”

And Maker, she was looking at him with just… concern and affection , he couldn’t deny that’s what it looked like, and Alistair felt a lump rise in his throat.

“How are you?” she asked, taking his hand and starting to examine him for any signs of injury.

“Me?” he asked.

“Do you doubt my work, young lady?” Morrigan’s mother interrupted. Solona suddenly flushed a brilliant red.

“Oh, no, of course not,” she said. “I -- I was just worried, and --”

The old woman smiled indulgently, but there was a bite behind it, too.

“It’s quite all right. I understand. After all, you are the only two souls left in the Grey Wardens right now.”

Solona took a step back, her eyes wide and locked on the old woman. Alistair had the feeling he was missing something here.

“Thank you for rescuing us,” she said instead. “And for the healing.”

“No, no, thank you . You are the Grey Wardens here, not I.”

Solona’s eyes narrowed, as if answering a challenge of some kind. Then she shook her head and turned her attention to Alistair.

“Speaking of which,” she said, “we should figure out what we’re going to do now.”

She… she was going to stay? The relief Alistair felt was enough to make him dizzy.

“It has always been the Grey Wardens’ duty to unite the lands against the Blight. Or did that change when I wasn’t looking?” Morrigan’s mother said.

“No,” Solona replied, as Alistair finally let some anger find its way to the surface, “But we were fighting the darkspawn! The king had nearly defeated them! Why would Loghain do this?”

“Now that is a good question. Men’s hearts hold shadows darker than any tainted creature,” the old woman said. “Perhaps he believes the Blight is an army he can outmaneuver. Perhaps he does not see that the evil behind it is the true threat.”

“The archdemon,” Alistair agreed darkly.

“Then we’d need to find it,” Solona said.

“By ourselves?” Alistair asked. “No Grey Warden has ever defeated a Blight without the armies of a half-dozen nations at his back.”

“No. Not by ourselves,” Solona replied. “We do have allies we can call on.”

“Do we? Duncan said the Grey Wardens of Orlais had been called, but… I don’t know. And Arl Eamon would never stand for this, surely. I know him. He’s a good man, respected in the Landsmeet. We could go to Redcliffe and appeal to him for help!”

“That sounds like an excellent idea,” Solona said.

“Such determination! How intriguing,” the old woman cut in.

“But I was also referring to the treaties,” Solona finished.

The sudden fierce joy that bubbled up from somewhere inside him felt a bit like emotional whiplash. He’d just been so… but now, maybe they could do this, together, and he could finish what Duncan had started, and… Maker help him, he could have kissed her for suggesting it.

“Of course! Grey Wardens can demand help from dwarves, elves, mages, and other places! They’re obligated to help us during a Blight!”

“I may be old, but dwarves, elves, mages, this Arl Eamon, and who knows what else… this sounds like an army to me,” the old woman declared.

“So… can we do this? Go to Redcliffe and these other places and… build an army?” Alistair asked.

Please say yes. He couldn’t do this on his own, he knew that. And she was good with people, and she was from the Circle, so they’d get the mages’ help straight away, and… he didn’t think he could handle being alone anymore. Their eyes met -- and held.

“Of course we can,” she said, with all sincerity.

Oh. Alistair’s heart gave a sudden lurch, as if it were going to rip itself out of his chest. And… and he’d thought it jokingly a moment ago, but… he really could have kissed her.

“Thank you again for everything,” Solona said, her attention fully on the old woman.

“Yes,” Alistair added, “thank you -- ah, what do we call you? You never told us your name.”

“Names are pretty, but useless. The Chasind folk call me Flemeth. I suppose it will do.”

The Witch of the Wilds. You were right, Daveth.

The Flemeth?” Solona asked.

“I suppose you have questions,” Flemeth said, smiling predatorily at Solona.

So many,” she admitted, “but I think I’ll savor the curiosity.”

Flemeth chuckled.

“Now, before you go, there is yet one more thing I can offer you,” Flemeth said, turning her attention to her daughter.

“The stew is bubbling, Mother dear. Shall we have two guests for the eve or none?” Morrigan asked.

“The Grey Wardens are leaving shortly, girl. And you will be joining them.”

“Such a shame -- what?”

Alistair had to agree: what? How could Flemeth think sending her daughter with them was a good idea? She didn’t know them! And there was a Blight on!

“You have been itching to get out of the Wilds for years. Here is your chance,” Flemeth said. “And as for you, Wardens, consider this repayment for your lives.”

“You’re welcome to come with us, Morrigan.” Solona smiled at her.

Right. He’d almost forgotten how Solona had made friends.

“Not to… look a gift horse in the mouth, but won’t this add to our problems? Out of the Wilds, she’s an apostate,” he said.

“If you do not wish help from us illegal mages, young man, perhaps I should have left you on that tower.”

Ouch.

“Point taken.”

“Mother,” Morrigan interjected, “this is not how I wanted this. I am not even ready --”

“You must be ready. Alone, these two must unite Ferelden against the darkspawn. They need you, Morrigan. Without you, they will surely fail, and all will perish under the Blight. Even I.”

“I… understand,” Morrigan said.

“And you, Wardens? Do you understand? I give you that which I value above all in this world. I do this because you must succeed.”

“We understand,” Solona said, speaking for both of them. Alistair didn’t mind.

After a short discussion, they chose to take Morrigan’s suggestion of the village of Lothering as their first stop. They bade farewell to Flemeth, and, after a few heated words passed between Morrigan and her mother, the three of them were on their way.

Solona and Morrigan were in front of him, Solona chatting away about life in the Circle -- and Alistair supposed he should have listened, but all he could think was that every step took him further from Ostagar. He wanted to go and be a Grey Warden like Flemeth said, but what if… what if Duncan hadn’t been killed? What if he needed help? And if he had been killed, what about his body? Shouldn’t Duncan get to rest, after everything he’d done for Ferelden and for Alistair?

Each step away from Ostagar felt like a step too many.

And suddenly, he heard frantic barking. Solona stopped, and he and Morrigan followed suit. Where was it coming from? A brown blur ran through the trees, charging toward them. A Mabari? That explained the barking.

The dog aimed its large, furry body straight at Solona, tackling her to the ground. Alistair put his hand on his sword hilt before he heard Solona’s terrified giggling. When saw the dog licking Solona all over the face, he relaxed a bit.

“Hey there, you,” Solona said, trying to sound firm and failing utterly. “Get off, would you? We’re married in some parts of this country now.”

The dog barked and obediently climbed off her, sitting to one side with its stubby tail wagging furiously. Solona sat up on her knees, looking the dog in the eyes -- and melted, a warm, genuine smile spreading across her face.

“Hey, boy,” she said. “So you found me, did you?”

The dog barked an affirmative. Solona beamed at him.

“Who’s a good boy?” Solona asked in a perfectly ordinary tone.

The dog whimpered excitedly, his stump of a tail thumping hard on the ground.

Who’s a good boy?” she asked again, still sounding normal.

The dog looked a bit like the anticipation was killing him.

“Iss you! Oh jess it idd. He’d my good boy, jess he idd! Jess he idd!”

Solona attacked the dog with affection, rubbing her forehead on his and petting anywhere she could reach. The dog, in return, fell to the ground with a fwump, exposing his belly for a rub. Solona happily obliged.

“I think he was looking for you. He’s… chosen you. Mabari are like that,” Alistair explained. Solona had never had a pet. Maybe she didn’t know.

“Does this mean we’re going to have this mangy beast following us about now? Wonderful,” Morrigan said.

“He’s not mangy!” Alistair protested.

“Well,” Solona said after a long moment, standing up and dusting off her robes, “if you’re going to come with us, you’ll need a name.”

The dog barked happily.

“Calenhad might get confusing, since we’ll be traveling by the lake at some point. Hmm. How about Cathaire? Disciple of Andraste?”

The dog huffed in clear disapproval.

“All right, then,” Solona said, thinking. “Ooh! How about Cadarn? It’s Avvar for ‘mighty.’”

The dog growled.

“So that’s a no. What about Dane? Famous figure in Ferelden mythology and history, allegedly lived as a werewolf for a year?”

The dog gave her a flat look, as if to say, Really? That’s the best you have?

“All right, then, you come up with a name, you horrid little barkspawn,” Solona said, rubbing the dog’s ears affectionately.

The dog barked, wagging its tail excitedly. Solona stopped rubbing his ears and closed her eyes with a long-suffering look.

“Please tell me you don’t like ‘barkspawn.’”

The dog barked again, bouncing from side to side.

Solona muttered something under her breath; Alistair couldn’t tell what she was saying, but it was clear enough that she was swearing. He couldn’t help the soft chuckle that escaped him, and he knew he thoroughly deserved the glare he got from Solona in return.

“Maker, why is it always the brown-eyed sarcastic ones?” Solona groaned, casting her eyes to an uncaring sky. “All right, then, come on… Barkspawn.”

The sun was sinking low in the sky well before they got to Lothering, and the two women decided it was a good idea to set up some kind of camp. They didn’t have tents or bedrolls, but Solona had two spare robes to lie on, one each for her and Morrigan -- and Alistair was fine in his padded undershirt.

Morrigan set herself apart from the two of them, and the dog decided to go to sleep, huffing and snoring softly nearby. It was just Solona, Alistair, and the crushing weight of Alistair’s despair. He half-expected that she would just keep to herself, leave him be the way she’d done for the last two hours.

Instead, she sat herself down beside him. The two of them stared straight ahead. Solona brought her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around her legs and resting her chin on top.

“You don’t have to talk about it today, or -- or ever, if you don’t want to,” she said abruptly, “and you won’t be bothering me if you do. Thought I’d just make that explicit. I’m fine just sitting here if you are. And if you’re not, you can tell me to go away. I won’t be offended.”

The two of them sat in silence for a while, as Alistair tried to figure out whether or not he wanted to talk about “it”. The battle. Ostagar. Loghain. Cailan… Duncan.

Duncan was gone.

No. Duncan was dead.

And with that last thought, the floodgates opened. He probably should have felt embarrassed about crying in front of this girl he barely knew, but the grief just… swallowed him. Duncan was the only person who’d ever given a damn about Alistair, and now Duncan was dead.

Nobody could ever replace him.

As Alistair tried -- and failed -- to bring himself under some measure of control, he felt two arms wrap around his shoulders, and Solona’s forehead resting against his temple. He brought his hands up to her arms, just… holding on. Peering over at her, he saw that her eyes were shut tight, trying to hold back the tide of her own tears -- and failing, as drop after drop hit his shoulder. She took in a shuddering breath almost at the same moment he did, and he leaned his head toward hers.

It occurred to him after a few long moments of this… he couldn't remember the last time anyone had just held him. Even when Alistair was a child, the Arl had rarely bothered, and once he married, any affection between them stopped dead. He had no parents and few enough friends. And when he was sent to the Chantry, they tried to destroy any desire to touch, even a friendly handshake or clap on the shoulder. Not that the other Templars had liked him enough to shake his hand, but there it was.

Touching was wrong, wicked, sinful, even, and yet… and yet this touch, here, with this woman -- it felt…

It felt surprisingly like home.

Alistair didn’t know how long they sat like that, but he knew that she was the one to calm first, her breathing gone steady but for the occasional sniffle. It was absolutely dark by the time he had regained some measure of control.

“I’m so sorry, Alistair,” she whispered, sounding almost like she was about to start crying again.

This hushed, brief peace -- it was sacred. Almost like moving too much or talking too loudly would shatter the soft moment she'd made for his grief. The pain was still there, of course, but it had gentled somewhat for now. It was less overwhelming, less bleak. Almost like she was giving him some strength. Maybe she was. Alistair wasn’t sure. All he knew was he didn’t want this to be over. Not yet.

“I -- I’d like to have a proper funeral for him. When all this is over, if we’re still alive. I don’t think he had any family to speak of,” Alistair whispered back.

“He had you.”

He pulled away slightly, just to get a better look at her, and as she opened her eyes to look at him… His heart decided that this would be a great time to visit his tonsils, and banged rather hard on the door of his larynx. Maker, he was completely incoherent now, wasn't he?

It was too soon to be feeling like this, but the way she acted… it was like she really cared. And even if she didn’t, even if she was just being polite, he clearly needed someone to care. She showed no intention of moving or even letting go; he was so… just, grateful.

“Have you… had someone close to you die? I don’t mean to pry, I’m just…”

Solona went quiet for a few heartbeats, and Alistair was about to apologize and take it back when she answered.

“I’ve felt a pain that rhymes with yours.”

Alistair must have looked confused, because she clarified.

“First Enchanter Irving used to say during our history lessons that ‘History doesn’t repeat herself, but she has a lovely gift for rhyming.’ The same themes pop up over and over again in history, in religion, in art… in any life experience, people’s stories tend to sound similar,” she said. “I can’t feel your pain, not exactly. I’m not you. But I’ve felt pain that… well… rhymes.”

He was a bit… struck by that. She started to pull away, and he realized that his legs had fallen asleep from the ass down, and that the ground he was sitting on was cold and uncomfortable, and there might be a bug in his boot.

Solona rubbed at her legs -- so he wasn’t the only one -- and looked very hard at the ground for a few minutes. It was hard to tell in the dark, but he thought he saw a blush.

“Solona?” he called softly.

She snapped her gaze to him.

“Thank you. I mean it. It was good to talk about it, at least a little. And I’m sorry --”

She reached a hand out and cupped his cheek, ensuring he looked her in the eyes.

“Don’t you ever apologize for this.”

Alistair blinked. He’d been bothering her, crying all over her robes, and…

“You deserve to grieve as much as anybody else. All right?”

He… didn’t know what to make of that. Nobody ever said he deserved things, unless it was “you deserve worse than the little we’re giving you, so be grateful for it.” But he nodded like he understood, if only to make her feel better. She smiled -- a thin one, but still there -- and walked back over to her makeshift bedroll.

“Goodnight,” he said.

“Goodnight, Alistair,” she replied, yawning and letting herself drift off to sleep.

He watched her for a few minutes afterward. She showed up in his life and gave him care he never knew he needed. What was she?

As he laid himself down on the least-uncomfortable patch of dirt he could find, the answer came to him: everything. She was everything, now.

 

END OF PART ONE

Chapter Text

After traveling with them for nearly a week, Morrigan had only one opinion for all of her new comrades: each and every one of them was an utter fool.

There was Alistair, the perfect Templar, truly, and everything her mother had told her about that wretched Order. The newly-joined Chantry sister, Leliana, who was so sweet it made Morrigan’s teeth ache. Sten, the Qunari, who was marginally more sensible than the rest of them, but still shackled to an undesirable ideology that made him see mages as things. The dog, who was a constant nuisance with his barking and stubborn insistence on leaving “gifts” for Morrigan in the form of spoiled meat amongst her clothes.

And, of course, their leader, Solona, who never met a lost cause she didn’t try to solve. She’d spent the best part of two days in Lothering, fixing things and gathering supplies for people who were already dead, though they didn’t yet know it. And while Morrigan had tried her hardest to convince Solona to keep moving, that every moment they didn’t keep ahead of the darkspawn was a moment closer to the failure of their mission, Solona simply smiled and said, in a mild tone, that there was always time to help someone.

Not if you are trying to keep pace ahead of a darkspawn horde, went Morrigan’s largely-unspoken reply. She did scoff, though, almost by reflex, and Alistair shot her a look so angry it was a wonder his face did not stay that way.

Now, the ragtag companions were in camp for the night, and even Morrigan had to admit it was a far cry from the first night of sleeping on a rolled-up Circle robe. They had purchased bedrolls and tents in Lothering, and, after a long and involved argument regarding whether or not a regular fire would be too visible if Loghain had them followed, Alistair had built a real fire pit. Solona had even somehow wheedled a merchant into traveling with them, so they were near supplies at any given time.

Morrigan usually set herself apart from the rest; camaraderie was not required for her to perform her duty. She knew, however, that Solona would come and speak to her anyway. She seemed to think it her duty to speak to everyone each and every time they rested. Why, Morrigan wasn’t sure, but Solona’s company was not entirely unwelcome. If only to stop Solona and Alistair’s current interminable debate.

The pair of them were poring over a slightly-outdated map of Ferelden they’d bought from the innkeeper in Lothering, trying to figure out if it were best to go to the Circle Tower or Redcliffe Village first. The two areas were close enough in distance that the Wardens wouldn’t lose much time no matter where they went first, and, to make matters worse, each had a certain childish sentimentality toward one place or the other.

And so Morrigan found herself in the unenviable position of having to listen to the last two Wardens in Ferelden debating over where to go next, with each trying to be the more accommodating party by suggesting and arguing for the other’s home.

Honestly . The rank foolishness of the two of them for each other, even at this early stage, was plain for anyone to see. The way Solona leaned her head toward Alistair as the two of them spoke quietly, how his hand stopped just short of touching hers as he reached for the map to make his case… it was pure stupidity from the top down. And while Morrigan would expect that Alistair would behave so, Solona was more sensible than that. Or perhaps she should be more sensible than that.

However. Their behavior was enough to raise one of Morrigan’s eyebrows. While she couldn’t say for certain if the two of them were Voices, the obvious attraction that already existed was enough that it should have been stamped out the moment it was felt. The Circle ought to have done that much; it was the only thing Mother had ever praised them for.

“No, really,” Alistair said, “we can go to the Tower first, it might even be better. We’re more likely to convince Arl Eamon to put an army behind us if we’ve already got someone else’s confidence.”

“Now you’re just repeating what I said about the dwarves and the Dalish,” Solona teased. “And honestly, it’s more likely the other way around. It’s not the First Enchanter I’m worried about convincing; it’s the Knight-Commander. He only let seven mages go to Ostagar --”

“Eight,” Alistair corrected, nudging her shoulder with a smile.

“Oh, fine, eight,” Solona said, sighing. “But he didn’t want me to go, that’s for damn sure. But if we’ve got the men of Redcliffe behind us, he might just be persuaded to let us have a few more mages in this trying time. Or, Void, even some Templars. I’d take either or both, whatever we can get.”

“I understand that,” Alistair replied. “But I haven’t seen the Arl in years. Last he knew me, I was a little boy, and he might not have much confidence in me -- I certainly don’t -- and so, already having allies would warm him to the cause.”

“Then couldn’t we just show him the treaties themselves, and have that work in our favor? Assuming, of course, that you’re right and he will be hesitant to the idea.”

“Well, I suppose, but --”

Parshaara, ” Sten’s voice boomed.

The two Wardens’ heads shot up to look at him. Solona was blushing hard enough that Morrigan could see it, even at a distance in the dim.

“Is that Qunari for ‘shut up’?” Solona asked, smiling sheepishly.

Sten ignored her question. “Which is closer?” he asked.

“Redcliffe,” Solona said.

Marginally ,” Alistair insisted.

“Go there first.”

“But --”

“It is closer,” Sten said. “ Go there first.

Solona chuckled; Alistair looked annoyed; Morrigan wished she believed in a Maker, simply so she could thank it. Alistair went to fetch more firewood, and Solona folded up the map and walked over toward Morrigan’s corner of the camp.

“I have a wonder, if you’ll indulge me,” Morrigan said as soon as Solona approached.

“Of course,” Solona replied, her most accommodating face on.

“For two individuals who have known each other such a short time, you and Alistair are already quite… close. Why is that?”

Solona had the grace at least to blush.

“Well. We -- we just -- we get on well, is all.”

“Indeed? That is all ?”

Solona’s blush deepened.

“Why do you ask?”

Not an outright denial. How curious.

“An idle observation of mine,” Morrigan said airily, “you needn’t worry about it further.”

“Right,” Solona replied, smoothing her hair. “Right.”

Solona returned to the main section of the camp without speaking to Morrigan further, which was unusual, but nothing to be concerned about. Solona was easily flustered, and that was probably all the reason she’d needed to wander away.

Still. One had to wonder how anyone could believe in a Maker so cruel as to bond a competent Circle mage to a Templar idiot. And how that competent Circle mage could be so very foolish as to allow it.

“Love is nothing but weakness,” Flemeth had often said to Morrigan, and, as a young girl, she’d taken it to heart. She’d done her best to ignore her Voice in the Fade, which was fairly simple, as he’d lived a reasonably-idyllic life until his untimely death just before Ostagar. He hadn’t called to her much.

(Odd that somehow Solona ended up with his warhound. Not that Morrigan would ever mention that. Not that the mongrel would ever know , since Morrigan had never met her Voice, let alone bonded with him.)

(And yet, Morrigan was wise enough to know that, had anything happened with her Voice, both of them would likely have lived to regret it. And so she was grateful, in some way, to Flemeth for refusing to allow her to seek him out.)

(Morrigan had to ignore the small pang in her chest when thinking of it. She had become too good at ignoring such things, however, and it would pass in a moment.)

Solona sat apart from the others, cooling her cheeks. While she was too far away to hear from here, for which Morrigan truly was grateful, Morrigan could see Alistair approaching her after he returned from fetching firewood. She observed Solona’s movements: halting, hesitant -- certainly less easy than they had been before. Alistair responded in kind. Perhaps he thought he had done something wrong.

Morrigan supposed that he had, in a way. As much as he was evidently beginning to care for Solona, he would not be so heartless as to continue down the path they were on if told it would hurt her in the end.

And given Flemeth’s instructions to Morrigan… it almost certainly would.

Chapter Text

The sun was close to setting when they arrived in Redcliffe. Well. Just outside Redcliffe, really, they weren’t in the village proper yet. Alistair was taking it all in slowly, and Solona slowed her pace so she didn’t leave him behind. (They’d decided it might be best to leave the apostate and the Qunari back at their nearby camp, Barkspawn had been sleeping, and Leliana had asked to stay behind, since everyone else was.)

He didn’t mean to delay them. It was just weird , seeing Redcliffe again. Last time he’d been here, he was a boy, frightened and angry about being sent away to the Chantry.  Alistair had remembered everything being… bigger. Grander. More impressive, somehow. But here it was. He could have walked down this hill blindfolded. Granted, he probably would have tripped on a rock or something, but still. He’d make it down the hill. Alistair could see the windmill in the distance, could hear the rush of the water as it barrelled its way down past them, and he decided… If he was going to see Arl Eamon, he was going to have to fill Solona in. About him. The whole truth.

She’d been so quiet the last few days, and he’d been racking his brain to try to think of what he could have said or done to upset her. He’d come up with nothing, so either he was as stupid as Morrigan said he was, or it had been something else that had shaken her. He didn’t know, and she didn’t seem eager to talk about it. Or, well, anything. So he’d put it off, but now… there was no putting it off anymore.

The big question was: how would she react? He wasn’t even sure how he wanted her to react. If she didn’t like him because of his blood, that would hurt, sure, but if she started liking him because of it… that would hurt more.

Ugh. Not for the first time, he wished Maric could have stayed faithful to his real wife. Or, at least, that he’d been somebody’s trueborn son. Alistair wasn’t responsible for the cause, so it seemed unfair that he was responsible for the effect.

“Look, Solona, can we talk for a moment?” he asked quietly. “I need to tell you something I… probably should have told you earlier.”

She took a step closer and -- and just… looked at him with that open expression of hers and his jaw unhinged for a minute. 

“I… did I mention to you how I know Arl Eamon?”

“He raised you,” Solona said, then bit her lip. “At -- at least, I -- Isn’t that what you said?”

Alistair hadn’t remembered mentioning it, but he must have, if Solona knew. Or maybe she’d guessed. Well, that was one awkward confession out of the way.

“Right. Well. My mother was a serving girl at Redcliffe Castle, did I mention that? And Arl Eamon took me in. And the reason he did that -- is because -- my father… was King Maric. Which made Cailan my… half-brother, I suppose.”

And it was out there. Alistair scanned her expression, hoping that she wouldn’t be either too put off or too put on by this. She looked down for a moment, then met his eyes with an unreadable, stoic look.

“You royal bastard, ” she said. But it didn’t have any heat behind it. A moment later, she snorted and broke out into just… the biggest grin.

Thank the Maker , she was joking. Alistair had to chuckle, himself.

“Sorry,” she said, giggling. “I couldn’t resist.”

“No, don’t apologize! I should use that line more often,” Alistair replied.

Why had he been so worried about her reaction? Solona just… got him. Without him having to really say anything, even. How many times would she have to prove that to him before it finally sank in?

“I would have told you, but it never really meant anything to me. I was inconvenient, a possible threat to Cailan’s rule, and so they kept me secret. I’ve never talked about it to anyone.”

“Why not?” she asked.

“Everyone who knew either resented me for it or they coddled me. Even Duncan kept me out of the fighting because of it.”

Solona was quiet, looking at what had to be a very interesting plant just to the left. The silence stretched between them, and Solona took a deep breath -- then shook her head. Alistair sighed and softened. This wasn’t the moment to let his bitterness show.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to know as long as possible.”

“Oh, believe me, I get it,” Solona said, sotto voce. She cleared her throat. “Thank you for telling me, Alistair. Not to cheapen the moment, but how secret do you want this to be? Is this a just-between-us thing, or are you planning on telling the others?”

“I -- they can know. I’d rather not have this conversation more than once, but they should know what they’re getting into.”

“Would you rather I told them?” Solona asked.

“Yes? Please? If -- if you don’t mind, that is.”

She smiled. “If I minded, I wouldn’t have offered.”

Alistair grinned back at her. She was -- no one had ever shown him that sort of kindness. Not until the Grey Wardens, anyhow.

Solona blinked, and her smile vanished.

“Alistair,” she said, “do you think Loghain knows?”

“Why wouldn’t he? He and Maric were best friends.”

“Hm. Well, then, we need to find out if he knows you survived the battle. If he doesn’t, we need to keep that information from him as long as we can.”

She met his eyes briefly, then swallowed and looked away.

“I don’t want him coming after you,” she said.

Solona looked so small and so frightened, Alistair was seized by a sudden impulse to do something . But he didn’t even know what to do. He wanted to hold her close and tell her it would be all right, but he couldn’t say that it definitely would be all right, and anyway they’d only really just met and he didn’t know if that was at all appropriate. So he decided to put a reassuring hand on her shoulder but he didn’t know if that was appropriate, either, so they just sort of stood there, Solona looking away and Alistair staring at her, his hand awkwardly hovering between the two of them.

And he was so concerned with how to comfort her that the substance and subtext of what she said flew completely past him.

“At any rate, that’s it. That’s what I had to tell you. I -- thought you should know about it,” he said. “So.. can we move on? And I’ll pretend you still think I’m some nobody who was too lucky to die with the rest of the Grey Wardens.”

He’d meant that to be flippant. He was aiming for flippant. He did not expect to feel a sudden, firm grasp on his hand and to see Solona look somewhere in the range of horrified.

“Alistair, that’s not what I’ve ever  -- that’s not what you think, is it?”

Those big blue eyes were practically boring holes into him, and she was holding his hand , and Alistair didn’t really know what to say. Because, of course, no , he hadn’t genuinely thought that Solona’s opinion of him was that low, but also sort of yes ? Alistair was some nobody whose only positive attribute right now was not dying when he was supposed to.

“I -- well -- no. At least… at least I can help make things right. And I’m not alone.”

There was that sad smile again. And she let go of his hand, just as a young man ran up to them.

“I thought I saw travelers coming down the road. Have you come to help us?”

Alistair caught Solona’s concerned glance -- and shrugged. He hadn’t heard anything about any trouble in Redcliffe, but his mind was going a mile a minute. What was going on here? Was there a problem in the castle, or was it a problem in the village itself? But if it were a problem in the village, why hadn’t the arl intervened? And if it were a problem in just the castle, why was this villager so concerned? Were the people all right? Was Arl Eamon all right? What had happened?

“We’re… always happy to help,” Solona said. “What do you need?”

“You -- you don’t know? Has nobody out there heard? We’re under attack! Monsters come out of the castle every night and attack us until dawn. Everyone’s been fighting… and dying. We’ve no army to defend us, no arl, and no king to send us help. So many are dead, and the rest are terrified they’ll be next.”

No arl? Why not? What happened to Arl Eamon? Focus, Alistair. One thing at a time.

“Hold on, what is this evil that’s attacking you?” Alistair asked.

“I.. don’t rightly know. I’m sorry, nobody does,” the man said. “I should take you to Bann Teagan. He’s all that’s holding us together. He’ll want to see you.”

“Bann Teagan? Arl Eamon’s brother? He’s here?” Alistair felt a small ray of hope. Bann Teagan was always a sensible fellow. He’d know what was going on. But then again, he was the heir to the arling, after Arl Eamon’s son. Bann Teagan being here could mean any number of things… and very few of them were good.

“Yes. It’s not far, if you’ll come with me.”

Solona and Alistair shared a look, as they followed the young man down the hill and into the Chantry.

“I don’t like the sound of this,” Alistair admitted quietly.

“Neither do I. An evil no one can explain? Hopefully Bann Teagan has some answers for us.”

“He will,” Alistair said.

With more confidence than he had any right to feel, of course. He hadn’t seen Bann Teagan since he was nine. Maker, a decade ago. When had he gotten all old?

The young man led them into the Chantry. Maker’s breath, it looked exactly the same as thenight before he’d left, even with old Revered Mother Hannah still at the front. Well. There had been fewer terrified villagers in it the last time he was here, but the building looked the same. And there was Bann Teagan himself. He’d gone a bit gray since Alistair had last seen him, and his face had gone pale with worry, but everything else about him was much the same.

The young man introduced them, and Bann Teagan didn’t seem to recognize Alistair. It was stupid to be disappointed by that, of course, it had been ten years , and it’s not like the Bann had lived with them, but still. It hurt a bit.

“Greetings, friends,” Bann Teagan said, in that kind voice of his. “My name is Teagan, Bann of Rainesfere, brother to the arl.”

“I remember you, Bann Teagan,” Alistair said, “though the last time we met, I was a lot younger -- and covered in mud.”

“Covered in mud?” the Bann asked. “ Alistair? It is you, isn’t it? You’re alive! This is wonderful news!”

Alistair could tell by the sudden start and stop of Bann Teagan’s motions that he’d been debating going in for a hug. Alistair extended a hand instead -- which Teagan eagerly took in both of his own.

“Still alive, yes. Though not for long, if Teyrn Loghain has anything to say about it.”

“Indeed. Loghain would have us believe all Grey Wardens died along with my nephew, amongst other things.”

Alistair… hadn’t told them he was a Grey Warden. He hadn’t spoken or written to the arl since he’d been sent away to the Chantry. So they’d been… checking up on him?

Oh, wait. He was a royal bastard. Of course they were. (Part of him desperately wanted to believe that they had wanted to know about him for his own sake, though. Ten years away didn’t make his need for their approval vanish, apparently.)

“I think introductions are in order, Alistair,” Bann Teagan said gently.

“Oh! Right. Of course. This -- this is Solona. She’s… she’s a Grey Warden. Like me.”

“A Grey Warden and a mage of the Circle. I’m glad to meet you,” she said with a polite bow.

Bann Teagan smiled warmly at her.

“A pleasure to meet you as well, though I wish it were under better circumstances.”

“So… what’s been going on here? That young man, Tomas, I think? He said that Redcliffe was being attacked.”

“We are. It started a few nights ago. Evil… things… surged from the castle. We drove them back, but many perished during the assault.”

“Tomas said he didn’t know what sort of evil it was. Do you know?”

“They appear to be walking corpses. The dead returning to life with a hunger for human flesh.”

Solona’s eyes went wide. Alistair’s probably did too. That… was bad. Really, really bad. Like, scary-magic-bad.

“Each night they come, with greater numbers,” Bann Teagan went on. “With Cailan dead and Loghain starting a war over the throne, no one responds to my urgent calls for help.”

“What about Arl Eamon?” Solona asked softly.

Part of Alistair didn’t want to hear this answer. If the corpses were coming from the castle, then…

“No one has heard from the castle since before the attacks began. No guards patrol the wall, and no one has responded to my shouts.”

Alistair wanted to sink into the ground. He’d told Solona that if they came here, Arl Eamon would help them, and now, Arl Eamon was… He felt a steadying hand on his shoulder. Solona was looking up at him with sympathy shining in her eyes -- or maybe those were tears.

“It will be sundown soon, and I have a feeling tonight’s assault will be the worst yet. Alistair, I hate to ask, but I desperately need the help of you and your friend,” Bann Teagan pleaded.

“It isn’t just up to me --” Alistair started.

“Of course we’ll help,” Solona interrupted, giving his shoulder a squeeze.

“Thank you! Thank you… This means more to me than you can guess,” Teagan said.

“We actually have a few other friends at our camp. They’ll help, too. I can run and get them, and I’ll be back shortly,” Solona said. “Redcliffe won’t be in this fight alone.”

Solona bowed quickly and ran off.

“Neither will the Grey Wardens, when the time comes. I swear it,” Teagan said quietly, once she’d gone.

“You -- don’t believe Loghain… do you?” Alistair asked.

“What, that he pulled his men in order to save them? That Cailan risked everything in the name of glory? Hardly,” Teagan scoffed. “Loghain calls the Grey Wardens traitors, murderers of the king. I don’t believe it. It is an act of a desperate man.”

Alistair could have hugged him. He hated Loghain for what he did, and for what he was saying about the Grey Wardens -- and by extension, about Cailan and especially Duncan. But Alistair was glad at least that this one person didn’t believe it. It gave Alistair hope that maybe there were more who didn’t believe it.  

“Bann Teagan, I don’t want to pry, but… what happened to Arl Eamon?” Alistair asked.

“I don’t know, exactly. He… fell ill, and was in grave condition, last I knew.”

“I’m so sorry. I -- don’t really know what else to say, but…”

“Thank you,” Bann Teagan said.

Arl Eamon ill. It was certainly better than he’d feared. Still, it was bad enough. He knew Teagan would help the Grey Wardens, but he didn’t have the same authority Arl Eamon had -- not in the Landsmeet, anyway, though the common folk adored him. Arl Eamon could help bring the country back from the civil war Loghain seemed determined to start. Bann Teagan would try his level best, but it just might not be enough.

“Your young lady seems nice.”

“She is. Really, she’s… wait. No, she’s not -- we’re just --”

Bann Teagan chuckled.

“I apologize, Alistair. But, you see, I need someone new to tease. I’ve only got one nephew left, and he’s too young yet.”

Alistair smiled. He’d always been fond of Bann Teagan. Apparently, it had gone both ways.

“That’s -- that’s fine by me,” Alistair said.

Teagan was called away by one of the villagers, and he had to go. Alistair stood awkwardly at the front of the Chantry. He wanted to go and help, but he also wanted Solona and the others to be able to find him.

It was only an hour until sundown when Morrigan, Leliana, Sten, and Barkspawn walked through the doors.

“Solona said she will rejoin us after she is finished speaking with the mayor,” Leliana explained, before going to Mother Hannah and offering what little assistance she had to hand. Barkspawn entertained a small cluster of frightened children, while Sten stood guard by the door and glared at everyone who came in.

Morrigan stood next to Alistair. Great.

“I am curious about something, Alistair,” Morrigan said.

“Oh, are you? Then why are you asking me?”

Morrigan ignored that.

“When you told Solona of your parentage, did she seem at all… surprised?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I simply wanted to ask if she had any kind of reaction to the news.”

“She -- made a joke. To make all the… awkward go away, I’m sure.”

“Interesting.”

“What do you mean, ‘interesting’?”

“I simply would have expected someone being confronted with such vital knowledge to have had a stronger reaction,” Morrigan said. “And now she is off preparing for this battle… and she has left you behind.”

“I --” Alistair didn’t know what to say to that. He wanted to defend Solona, to believe that she wasn’t treating him the same way Duncan and Cailan had treated him during battles… but she was off preparing, and he was here, in the Chantry, doing nothing in particular.

Maybe… maybe she had been more affected by the “royal bastard” thing than she’d let on. Or maybe… Morrigan was messing with him. Solona had been nothing but kind and thoughtful since they’d met. He’d even told her that everyone always left him behind. She’d understand. She’d never do that to him on purpose. She got him. Right?

“Solona has her reasons for doing it this way. And I know that if I ask, she’ll tell me what they are,” Alistair said.

Morrigan stared at him with an unreadable expression.

“What?” he asked.

“You seem very certain. You’ve not known each other long.”

“I know her well enough to trust her.”

Morrigan said nothing, but Alistair could practically feel the waves of disapproval oozing off of her. Not that it mattered whether Morrigan approved of him or not. But something in him rankled at the idea that Morrigan didn’t approve of Solona. As if she could lead them any better than Solona did. Honestly. Solona led them with caring, compassion, and empathy; she was the perfect person to show Ferelden that the Grey Wardens weren’t the traitors Loghain said they were. She didn’t deserve to be second-guessed by the likes of Morrigan.

“Why don’t you trust her?’ Alistair asked.

“I? I said nothing about my opinion of our leader. I simply inquired into the nature of your relations with her.”

“Relations? There’s no ‘relations’ between me and her, thank you.”

“Truly? How interesting.”

‘Interesting’ again. Maker. He wasn’t going to give Morrigan the gratification of asking this time. But it seemed she wanted to clarify anyway, because she went on.

“I suppose that’s better. I’m certain there are rules against two Grey Wardens who… fraternize. It seems most undisciplined, for an organization that claims it will do anything to end the Blight.”

“One thing has nothing to do with the other,” Alistair said.

“Oh no? And what if a Grey Warden was forced to choose between the Warden he loved and ending the Blight? What should his choice be?”

“That is… a ridiculous question.”

“And I have my answer. Most kind of you.”

With that, Morrigan walked away. It was just as well, anyway. She was trying to knock him off balance, he could see that much. Even worse, he knew full well that it had worked. Damn her.

The Wardens didn’t have any such rule that he knew of, and anyway, it was a ridiculous question. Nothing was certain in these times, but he was fully confident that Solona would find a way to end the Blight without having to make any horrible sacrifices like that. She was smart enough -- good enough -- to figure something out. The last vestiges of his faith, the bit the Chantry hadn’t beaten out of him, were centered around that. The Maker would not be so cruel as to give him one person who understood him just to take her away. He believed that. He had to believe that.

Wait.

Morrigan said... making a choice between ending the Blight and “the Warden he loved”... He -- he didn’t… he’d never… they’d only just met , really. No. No, not yet. It was too soon to say anything like that.

And then the Chantry doors opened, and Solona herself came in. The nearly setting sun streamed in behind her, catching in her dark hair and making her seem to glow. Her eyes landed on him, and she smiled, her whole face softening with what looked like real joy.

Oh.

Something in Alistair melted as he smiled back and waved to her.

And the idea that he might… care for her -- like that … fluttered gently into his heart, like a butterfly, and just rested there, waiting for them both to be ready.

Chapter Text

The time was inching ever-closer to sunrise, and Solona had come to one fateful conclusion: fighting the undead sucked.

Solona’s last-minute idea to set a barrel’s worth of lamp oil on fire had worked to slow them down, but it hadn’t stopped them the way she’d hoped, damn it. She had hoped to leave this hilltop with a -- no-pun-intended -- skeleton crew while she, her team, and the knights defended the village proper.

But she couldn’t leave this hill to go and help, despite the shouting she heard. If the makeshift soldiers here fell, the ones at the bottom of the hill would too. And then the undead would massacre the innocent villagers in the Chantry. The elderly, the children… Bann Teagan himself.

She didn’t need to take a glance at Alistair to know that would be bad. He’d lost so much already, between Duncan, the Wardens, the King, possibly Arl Eamon himself… she couldn’t let Bann Teagan fall too.  

But she was no veteran commander of armies. She was a sheltered little girl, fresh off her Harrowing, who’d read maybe one or two books on military tactics ever , on recommendation from Cullen, and even then, the books were more historical than anything else -- and focus , Solona, they need you.

There was only one thing for it: split the team.

“Knights! Stay here and defend the path. Sten, Morrigan, you can help. Leliana, Alistair, Barkspawn, you’re with me. We need to keep the villagers safe. Whatever happens, the Chantry can’t fall.”

Sten grunted an acknowledgement, and the knights saluted. Morrigan didn’t say anything, but then, she didn’t have to.

Alistair practically overtook her on the race down the hill -- of course he did, he was worried about this village, it was his home, after all -- and they walked right into a melee.

Grand.

Alistair charged forward, almost knocking over a villager in his haste to get to the undead, and Leliana found a spot in the shadow of the Chantry to fire arrows in relative darkness. She shot one corpse directly in the head before Solona had figured out what she was even going to do down here.

Freezing the floor -- her new favorite trick -- was as likely to help the undead as it was to help the villagers. So that was out. But maybe… she could keep any further undead from coming in and flanking them all.  Summoning up all the power she had, she inhaled… and a wall of pure ice appeared around the rickety fortifications. It was taller than she’d have been if she’d sat on Sten’s shoulders, and thicker than both of his arms.

Solona blinked. She… hadn’t expected that. She was low on mana from the spell, sure, but pure spellpower like this had never been her strength. She was better at specialized application of spellpower than… just raw mana.

Alistair shot her an approving grin from where he was engaged with one of the walking corpses, and a few villagers turned and stared at her, open-mouthed. Solona squirmed uncomfortably, before remembering that this was a battle and firing off an Arcane Missile spell at a nearby corpse. (The missiles were larger than she’d intended and took about half an inch off Mayor Murdock’s mustache.) She could deal with their opinions, low or high, when they’d survived this.

“How long will that last?” Alistair called over to her, gesturing toward the wall.

“A few minutes? Should give us time to deal with these assholes and regroup,” Solona said.

Alistair nodded at her, and with the help of the villagers, all of the undead inside the wall of ice were dealt with quickly.

However, there were at least a dozen more standing just outside the wall.

“What do we do?” Alistair asked, panting hard.

“Everyone pull back to the Chantry steps. Anyone who can use a bow, arrows on strings. Everyone else, just wait,” Solona said.

Alistair looked confused -- as did several villagers -- but they did as she ordered. Solona stood boldly in front of them, waiting. Worried, of course. She didn’t really know what she was doing, but she had an idea.

And if she had learned anything from the ice wall and the missiles… she could do this.

The ice wall disappeared, and the corpses rushed forward. Solona planted her feet firmly and pushed her mana into the ground -- then roughly yanked it all back up.

The ground came with it.

So did the corpses.

The distant sploosh noise they made sounded like at least some of the undead had landed in the lake. The cheers from right behind her made it clear that all of the undead were gone for now.

Solona fell to her knees; breathing felt like scraping the bottom of an empty bottle, but the corpses were delayed -- if not mostly gone. She felt a hand on each of her elbows, lifting her up, and a furry head under her chin. Two blurry figures and a blurry dog practically carried her back to the Chantry steps, where someone pushed a skin of water into her hand.

“How long have you been able to do that? ” she heard Leliana’s voice whisper in a tone of wonder.

“I have no idea,” she said, trying to decide which of the Lelianas near her should get her eye contact. “I just thought of it.”

“Is it getting lighter out, or is it just me?” Alistair’s voice said, slightly farther off.

“We should -- we should do a sweep of the village before sunrise,” Solona said. “Make sure all the undead are gone.”

She tried to stand up, but felt a strong pair of hands on her shoulders, gently but firmly holding her back.

“If by ‘we,’ you mean Leliana, Barkspawn, and me, then sure. But you are sitting right here.”

“That’s -- but --”

“I have to agree with Alistair,” the Lelianas said. “You need to rest.” It was looking like the Leliana on the right was the real one; she was getting clearer every minute.

She felt a doggy head nudge her elbow, not-so-subtly asking for petting. Solona chuckled and felt around for a pair of Mabari ears to scratch.

“This is mutiny,” Solona said, unable to repress her smile. They really were starting to care about her, weren’t they?

“Yes, well. You’re going to have to get used to it,” Alistair replied. “I’m not going to let you hurt yourself, not even with a really good reason.”

“What if I had a healer write a note giving me permission?”

You’re the healer.”

She could hear the smile in his voice -- one day, maybe, she wouldn’t have to rely on aural cues to figure out what he was really feeling. And that thought -- and what it entailed -- made her blush furiously and look down at the blurry ground.

“Are you all right?” Leliana asked.

“I’m -- I’m fine,” Solona squeaked.

Solona heard the trio walk away, and she hid her face in her hands, rubbing at her eyes to give herself some plausible deniability.

Even with her poor eyesight, she could tell Alistair had been right: it was getting lighter out.

Sunrise.

They’d made it.

“Fuck of a thing you did there, Warden. Thank you,” Mayor Murdock’s voice came from her left.

“How many did we lose?” Solona asked.

“Of the knights? Can’t say. But the villagers --”

“Ah, and here we find you. My lady, we are grateful for your assistance,” one of the knights -- Ser Perth, she thought -- called from farther away.

“The knights on the hill made it through all right?” she asked.

“Yes, my lady, all of us.”

All of you?”

Mayor Murdock’s sudden laugh rang very loudly through her head.

“Teagan is going to shit himself!”

“I hardly find that appropriate --” Ser Perth interrupted.

“Shove it, Perth. Warden, we didn’t lose anyone from the village, either.”

“We -- everyone made it?”

“Yeah, Warden. We did.”

Solona was absolutely gobsmacked. She had to tell Alistair -- the others, that is. They’d be so pleased.

“Ser Perth, if you’d let my friends on top of the hill know that it’s all clear down here, I’d be forever grateful.”

“Of course, my lady.”

“And could someone help me up, please?”

“You appear unwell. Rest would be --”

“Sure thing, up we get.”

Murdock hoisted her up.

“Your other friends -- and little Alistair, can’t believe he’s all grown up -- went off toward the docks,” he said.

“Thanks. Would you mind…?”

“Aiming you?” Murdock laughed and turned her slightly to the left, “There you are.”

“Thanks.”

He grunted.

Solona blinked a few more times, and could somewhat see at least blurry shapes in front of her. Getting out of the barricade only involved her bumping into three villagers, which was better than she’d thought she would do.

In the distance, she saw a blurry trio -- two humans and a dog -- and called out.

“Alistair? Leliana?”

The blurry dog bounded toward her, whimpering at her as if she could pick him up.

“I thought you were waiting by the Chantry,” Leliana said, smiling.

“So did I,” Alistair added.

“We didn’t lose anybody.”

“What?” Alistair asked.

“Everyone made it, Alistair. Everyone.”

Alistair grabbed her around the waist and lifted her up into the air for the huge, joyous hug. He put her down after a long moment, but didn't let go.

“You did it,” he whispered as he held her close.

She pulled back slightly, looking him in the eyes -- one of the few things she could see clearly. Gently, she put a hand on his cheek.

We did it.”

He made a small noise, like he was deeply touched.

They stood there for a minute, the weight of something momentous between them, keeping them still. He was staring into her eyes and… and wow, he was really tall , wasn’t he? And… and something about the intensity of the look he was giving Solona took her breath away. She could easily see herself rising onto her tiptoes to kiss him, like she’d been dreaming about doing for… quite some time -- before her dreams became infested with darkspawn, anyway.

And then she remembered they’d only just met and this was all moving way too quickly . From his perspective, they’d known each other a matter of what, two weeks?

You’re not even putting the cart before the horse; the horse is a foal and the cart isn’t built yet. Don’t rush things, Solona.

And as much as she might have wanted to have a long talk with Alistair about everything, to come clean and be fully honest… she had to admit the idea terrified her. She couldn’t tell him now , not after he’d lost everyone he cared about, not after Duncan. What if he thought she was trying to wallpaper over his grief with this? Hey, don’t be sad about your dead mentor anymore! You’ve got a soulmate now!

Even more than that, she’d never -- been interested in someone like this. (The closest thing she’d had was with Cullen, where the two of them were attracted to each other to some degree, and tacitly agreed nothing would happen. And that was a whisper of a feeling compared to this .) She had all the grace of a twelve-year-old boy when it came right down to it. She wasn’t even sure how to start the conversation about Voices and what they were, let alone what to do about it once they’d had that conversation.

So, for now, Solona pulled back, biting her lip slightly and looking away.

“We should -- we should tell Bann Teagan and the others in the Chantry the good news. They’ll want to hear it,” she said.

“Oh! Right, of course. We should. And… there don’t seem to be any more undead in the village itself. We killed a few who climbed out of the lake, but there weren’t any more.”

Face burning, Solona led the way back to the Chantry.

Maker, this was going to be difficult.

* * *

“Dawn arrives, and all of us remain! We are victorious!” Bann Teagan announced, long after everyone had heard the news.

Still, the cheers from all the village folk were loud enough to cause a ringing in Solona’s ears. She loved them for it.

“I thank you all,” Bann Teagan said. “The Maker smiled on us when he sent you here in our darkest hour.”

“We were glad to help, my lord,” Solona replied with a small bow.

She saw Alistair and Bann Teagan exchange a look -- but it seemed to be a happy one. She was glad for them both.

“Let us bow our heads and give honor to those who gave their lives in defense of Redcliffe,” Mother Hannah said.

Solona heard derisive snorts from both Sten and Morrigan, and wished she could elbow them to remind them to hold their noise. As it was, she was standing too far away to make that happen, and she didn’t want to use any more magic in front of this crowd. They’d had reason enough to fear it turned against them; she didn’t want to give them any more. As it was, she simply remained silent, head bowed, during the prayer. She didn’t believe in the Maker herself, not to any significant degree, but she didn’t see a need to be disrespectful.

“My lady, and Alistair, would you two accompany me? I’d like to ask for more information on the enemies you defeated last night.”

“O-of course,” Solona stammered.

Something in Bann Teagan’s tone suggested that this wasn’t just going to be a casual stroll. Silently, he led the pair of them up the hill to the windmill. From there, they could see the castle. It looked almost like a painting of a castle, rather than the real thing. It was so… still.

Bann Teagan thought so, too.

“You’d think nobody was inside at all,” he remarked. “But I shouldn’t delay things further. I had a plan to enter the castle once the village was secure.”

“Oh! Good, then. I was wondering what the plan was,” Alistair said.

“There is a secret passage here, in the mill, accessible only to my family.”

“An… escape tunnel, should the need arise?” Solona asked.

“Yes, exactly. I would have gone into the castle myself, but I could not leave the villagers.”

Just as Solona was about to tell Bann Teagan that she thought he’d done the right thing, something caught his attention. He rushed forward with a sincere Maker’s breath!

Oh. It was her .

The woman who was responsible for making Alistair sleep in the stables. The woman who’d destroyed any scrap of affection passing between Alistair and the closest thing he’d ever had to a father. The woman who, right now, was running toward them in absurd Orlesian high-heeled shoes, calling out for Teagan in a horrid accent. (Not a lovely accent like Leliana had, no. This woman's accent sounded like she was trying to pull a string of beads out through her nostrils while she spoke.)

Solona had seen enough of Alistair’s dreams to know and hate her on sight: Arlessa Isolde.

“Teagan! Thank the Maker you yet live!”

She saw how Alistair instinctively tensed, and hated this lady all the more. It was heartburn-hate.

“Isolde! You’re alive! How did you… what has happened?”

“I do not have much time to explain. I slipped away from the castle as soon as I saw the battle was over, and I must return quickly.” Lady Isolde looked down and swallowed hard before continuing. “And I… need you to return with me, Teagan. Alone.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

Solona hadn’t meant to say it, it just… slipped out. Apparently, she could hold back her hatred or her tongue, but not both. 

Isolde fixed her with an icy stare.

“What -- who is this woman , Teagan?”

Alistair stepped between the two of them, gently nudging Solona behind him with his shoulder.

“You remember me, Lady Isolde, don’t you?” he asked, sounding weary already.

Isolde examined his face, then recoiled.

Alistair. Of all the… Why are you here?”

If Alistair hadn’t literally been standing in front of her, Solona might just have lit this ungrateful wench’s hair on fire. He’s here out of concern for your village and your husband, you harpy.

“They are Grey Wardens, Isolde. I owe them my life,” Bann Teagan cut in mildly.

“Pardon me, I… I would exchange pleasantries, but… considering the circumstances…”

“Please, Lady Isolde,” Alistair said, “we had no idea anyone was even alive within the castle. We must have some answers.”

“I know you need more of an explanation, but I… I do not know what is safe to tell,” she replied, directing her answer at Teagan, rather than Alistair. “Teagan, there is a terrible evil within the castle. The dead waken and hunt the living. The mage responsible was caught, but still it continues.”

She paused here, as if choosing her words carefully.

“And I think… Connor is going mad. We have survived, but he won’t flee the castle. He has seen so much death,” she said. “You must help him, Teagan! You are his uncle! You could reason with him. I do not know what else to do.”

A small child not fleeing a place with literal undead? She’d found a young boy named Bevin hiding in a wardrobe in the village. He was probably older than Connor, and he was frightened enough to run and hide. There was something else to it.

“But,” Bann Teagan said, “I do not understand what you mean by this evil. Did it create the walking corpses? What is it?”

“Something the mage unleashed. So far it allows Eamon, Connor, and myself to live. The others… were not so fortunate. It’s killed so many, and turned their bodies into walking nightmares! Once it was done with the castle, it struck the village!” Isolde said, sounding close to tears. Solona felt some sympathy -- but more for the ones who had died, and for Connor and Arl Eamon. Isolde was far down on the list.

“It allowed me to come for you, Teagan, because I begged, because I said Connor needed help!”

Demon.

Perhaps she was jumping to conclusions, but the idea made too much sense. Isolde had mentioned a mage, it would take powerful magic to reanimate this many dead, and Arl Eamon’s life was being sustained.

But… there were a few missing pieces.

“The mage you mentioned…” she said.

“He is an… infiltrator, I think. One of the castle staff. We discovered he was poisoning my husband. That is why Eamon fell ill.”

“Eamon was poisoned? ” Bann Teagan sounded thunderstruck. And from the stiffening in Alistair’s shoulders, he wasn’t taking the news any better.

“He claims an agent of Teyrn Loghain’s hired him. He may be lying, however. I cannot say.”

That answered the question of who would want Arl Eamon dead right out of the gate. The arl was, from Alistair’s report, popular with the people. And he was the person with first-hand knowledge of a potential challenger to the throne with Theirin blood. Of course Loghain’s hand was in this.

But something still wasn’t adding up: why would a demon summoned by Arl Eamon’s poisoner want to keep him alive? Guilt, maybe? He decided he didn’t want to go through with it and tried to undo everything via demon summoning? Weak-sounding motive, but potentially plausible.

Deep-seated hatred aside, Solona was damn sure Isolde wasn’t telling them everything.

“The king is dead, and we need my brother now more than ever. I will return to the castle with you, Isolde.”

“Thank the Maker! Bless you, Teagan! Bless you!”

“Isolde, can you excuse us for a moment? The Grey Wardens and I must confer in private before I go with you.”

“Please do not take too long. I will be by the bridge.”

The moment Isolde was out of earshot, Teagan looked at Alistair and Solona with something akin to pride. Confidence, perhaps.

“I have no intentions of dealing with this evil alone.”

“We had no intentions of letting you,” Solona said.

Bann Teagan smiled thinly at her.

“Here’s what I propose: I go in with Isolde and you enter the castle using the secret passage. My signet ring unlocks the door. Perhaps I will… distract whatever evil is inside and increase your chances of getting in unnoticed. What do you say?”

“I say…  I would urge caution. This sounds like a demon to me, and any demon that could kill so many in the castle and the village is formidable, my lord. I understand that you must go, but please, please be careful. ”

He handed her the signet ring, saying, “Whatever you do, Eamon is the priority here. If you have to, get him out of there. Isolde, me, and anyone else… we’re expendable.”

“Apologies, but that’s not an order I can follow,” Solona replied. “We will all get out of this, I swear it.”

Bann Teagan smiled again, but warmer and more genuine this time.

“You’re a good woman. The Maker smiled upon me indeed when he sent you to Redcliffe. Thank you both ,” he said, looking at Alistair. “Allow me to bid you farewell… and good luck.”

Bann Teagan and Lady Isolde left; Solona watched them go with steely eyes. Once they were out of sight, she and Alistair turned toward the mill, as if their thoughts were already synchronized.

They descended into the tunnel in silence, until they heard a cry for help.

“Get off me! Leave me alone!”

Solona and Alistair broke into a run, barging through the door at the end of the tunnel which led to the dungeons. Three undead were reaching through a cell door, presumably to get at the prisoner within.

“Back, you monsters! Back!” the voice said.

Alistair didn't stop running and bashed into one corpse, taking it down with his shield while Solona used an Arcane Missile spell on the other two. These were obviously not controlled by very powerful demons, since they went down like a sack of kittens.

“Hello? Who’s there? Is there anyone alive out there?” the voice said.

Oh, no. No no no no no.

Solona stepped forward, hesitant, because she knew that voice . A familiar face with a familiar mop of dark hair made a familiar gasp in a familiar tone.

“Solona? Is that you? ” he asked.

Solona’s mouth opened and closed several times, as she desperately racked her brains for something to say.

Oh, Jowan. How could you?

Chapter Text

He had never expected to see Solona again.

After Jowan had run off, ashamed of how he’d acted, furious with her, heartbroken by Lily -- he’d never wanted to see any of them again.

And that was how Teyrn Loghain found him, a week of hiding in barns and haystacks later. Jowan hadn’t known who the man was at the time, but he had a semi-favorable impression, all things considered. Instead of turning Jowan over to the Templars, he’d brought Jowan to a room in an inn, given him hot stew to eat and a bath to take. He even knocked on the door when he wanted to come in and interrogate Jowan.

“Please, sit,” the man said, gesturing to a small dining chair. Jowan hesitated a moment, because the paranoid part of him that had grown up in the Circle was whispering things like what could this really be, what’s his angle, look for an avenue of escape. Still, after a moment, he remembered the taste of the stew and the heat from the bath, and he sat.

“So, young man, I’m told you escaped from the Circle,” he’d drawled.

“I -- how do you know that?” Jowan had asked.

“It’s not important. What is important is this: what are you going to do now?”

“I… well, I…” Jowan sighed. “I don’t rightly know.”

“Hmm. Perhaps I can help you. Or… perhaps we can help each other.”

“What do you mean?”

“There is a particular person, someone who is plotting against Ferelden and her best interests. Someone who seems determined to weaken this country so that we could be easily taken over by Orlais… or any other country with… ideas.”

“That’s awful, but… what’s that got to do with me?”

“I’m told the man’s young son has started showing signs of magical talent. The mother, of course, fearful of losing her only child, is looking for someone outside the Circle to teach the boy.”

“You… want me to teach a child? I’m still an apprentice myself, I haven’t ever --”

“You needn’t do it for long. Or particularly well. The mother will never know the difference. What I want you to do is something… other than teaching.”

“What do you want me to do?” The man’s beating about the bush was starting to get annoying.

“If you can get this man -- out of the way -- you’d be doing Ferelden, and me, a great service. In return, I would be more than happy to… smooth over the unfortunate situation at the Circle Tower for you. Even the Knight-Commander would have to allow a hero back into the fold, no?”

A hero. Jowan had never been the hero, not even in the stories in his own mind. Solona and Anders, as always, took the leading roles (and really, more Solona than Anders, to be honest). The one time Jowan had thought he was in any way important… well, this was how it had ended: disgraced, cast out, on the run from the Templars, and now being offered one small lifeline by this unnamed but evidently powerful man.

But still… the word hero, the thought of doing something truly great -- not just for himself, his friends, or the Circle, but for Ferelden itself -- even Solona had never aimed that high. Jowan could be the hero for once, and Solona could be the bystander, impressed after the fact. Maybe she’d even apologize for betraying him and Lily. Maybe, as a hero, he could even accept it.

The man put his hand out to Jowan -- and he took it, shaking heartily. Into his other hand, the man put a little black bottle. Later, Jowan packed it into a small healing kit, like the ones he’d seen Solona and Anders make a hundred times for the stockroom.

Jowan and the bottle had been brought to Redcliffe shortly thereafter, posing as a simple apostate who had happened to hear of the “difficulties” that were going on in the family. So very sad. How could he help?

Arlessa Isolde was almost comically grateful, and told Jowan to say he was Connor’s new tutor, “Brother Levyn.” He adjusted to the name easier than he did to the Chantry robes, which just reminded him of Lily.

It wasn’t until the first time he’d had to slip the poison into Arl Eamon’s food that it started to really sink in: I’m murdering someone.

Still, though. The man that Jowan had by now identified as Teyrn Loghain had said Arl Eamon was going to betray the country. It was for Ferelden, as much as for himself. Maybe even more.

And yet there were moments, like when he was trying to teach Connor or chatting with the Arl and Arlessa, that he could fool himself into thinking he was just a simple tutor. He taught Connor about astronomy and history, as those had always been his favorite subjects -- though he flubbed some of the magical theory parts. Connor was a patient student, though, and he studied hard.

Over the next few weeks, the Arl started to become really unwell. Arlessa Isolde begged Jowan to do something, and he play-acted at healing, but every piece of elfroot that touched Arl Eamon was tainted by a drop from the little black bottle. One morning, the Arl collapsed in his room and was completely unresponsive.

It won’t be much longer now, Jowan thought, with a great deal of relief.

He should have expected that Arlessa would have ordered a real healer to come in.

The real healer took one look at Arl Eamon (pale face, rapid and uneven breathing, high fever, constant muscle twitching) and declared he’d been poisoned.

Jowan apologized to Arlessa Isolde, saying I only keep my healer’s kit for emergencies. I’ve never been much good at healing. If I’d known sooner, I would have told you.

He should never have mentioned the healer’s kit. He should never have used it in front of the Arlessa. He should never have packed it, keeping the little black bottle in his boot or something instead.

She ordered him to fetch it at once, saying that the real healer needed all the supplies she could get. He couldn’t refuse an order.

Well, no fear, really. The bottle was empty now. He’d used all the poison anyway. This healer might be good, but surely she wouldn’t check every single bottle.

She did.

When Jowan woke up with a headache so bad even he was certain it was a concussion, he was in the dungeons.

Well. No fear, really, right? Surely Loghain would find out what had happened soon. Surely he had someone watching out for Jowan. Surely, if he was really going to fix things with the Circle, he wouldn’t want to be compromised like this. Right?

It wasn’t until the Arlessa ordered her executioner to put him on the rack that he said anything about Loghain. She demanded that he tell her what had caused all of this, why he’d done this to her and to her family, why he’d hurt all of Redcliffe this way. She wasn’t satisfied with his answers, but he had to give himself that much credit -- he’d tried his best. But, as usual, he failed.

No one was coming to his rescue. No one was going to save him from this. For a while, no one came at all.

Until the corpses. He didn’t even try to defend himself, not really. The bars of the cage would buy him some time, and anything he did would just damage them. He didn’t want to fight until he absolutely had to.

And then, just as suddenly, the corpses were dead. Standing in front of him was a young man -- armed and armored like a warrior -- and… no. No, it couldn’t be. She was in the Tower.

“Solona? Is that you? ” he asked, aghast.

The look she gave him in return -- heartbroken, crestfallen, disappointed -- answered better than any words ever could.

“Look, I’ll tell you anything you want to know, but please, please could you tell me -- what they did with Lily?”

“I -- I don’t know. Greagoir had her taken away somewhere, but I don’t know where, exactly. He’d mentioned Aeonar once, but…”

“Did anyone say anything about her? Please , Solona.”

“If they did, I didn’t hear it,” she said. “I left the Tower shortly after you did.”

“You -- you did? Are you being hunted? Don’t they still have your phylactery?”

“They do, yes. But… I have permission. I was recruited into the Grey Wardens.”

“The G -- the Grey Wardens?  Straight from the Circle?  How did that happen? And what are you doing here?”

That’s what Irving meant when he said he’d take care of it, when I told him Solona’s Voice had died. He got her into the Wardens, and he hadn’t wanted it getting out. Maker, I’m an idiot.

“I’d have told you everything, but you were… preoccupied at the time. Now, you said you’d tell us everything. Give me the short version.”

“I… poisoned Arl Eamon. For all I know, he’s already dead.”

The young man squared his shoulders, and Solona looked almost like she could cry.

“I’d guessed as much,” she said, sighing. “He’s not dead. Yet.”

“He’s not? Maker, that’s a relief,” Jowan replied. “I know how this looks, but I’m not behind everything else happening here, I swear!”

“Then who is? ” the young man demanded.

“I don’t know! I was already imprisoned when all of that began,” Jowan said.

“That doesn’t mean you didn’t --”

“Alistair,” Solona whispered.

The young man -- Alistair, Jowan supposed -- took a step back, seething.

“The first I’d heard about the walking corpses was when Lady Isolde came and demanded I reverse what I’d done. She thought I summoned a demon to torment her family and destroy Redcliffe,” Jowan explained in a panic. “She… had me tortured. There was nothing I could do or say that would appease her. So they… left me to rot.”

A strangled sound escaped Solona. And he saw ice starting to spread out under her feet. Maker, she was furious. He’d never seen her this angry.

“Why did you poison the Arl?” Alistair asked.

“I was instructed to by Teyrn Loghain. He said Arl Eamon was a threat to Ferelden, that if I did this, he’d settle matters with the Circle. All I wanted was to be able to return.”

“You didn’t answer Alistair’s question. If you aren’t responsible for all of this, who is? And how did you even get here?” Solona asked.

“Lady Isolde wanted a tutor for her son. Connor had started to show… signs. And she was terrified that he’d be taken away to the Circle.”

“Connor? A mage? I can’t believe it,” Alistair said.

Jowan saw the hurt flash across his friend’s face at her bodyguard’s disbelieving tone. If it weren’t for the bars in the way, and the fact that he’d get clobbered, Jowan might have hit him.

“She wanted someone to teach Connor in secret, away from the Circle, so he could learn to hide his talent. Her husband had no idea.”

“So, your ‘apprentice’, young, inexperienced, poorly taught --”

“Hey!”

“-- and frightened for his dying father, accidentally catches the attention of a demon, who kills everyone and animates their corpses with lesser demons.”

“Or he did something to open the Veil by mistake. But, yes, basically.”

“It’s plausible,” Solona said, more to Alistair than to him.

“If he’s involved in this at all,” Jowan clarified. “I really don’t know.”

“I think I understand. It’s a better thought than you doing it, anyway. You’re not the mass-murdering type.”

She was trying to lighten the mood, but Jowan didn’t deserve that.

“I’ve messed everything up. My entire life, I’ve made such bad decisions,” Jowan said. “We were friends, once. I know I don’t deserve to call you that, after what I did… if it ever meant anything to you, please. Help me fix this.”

Jowan saw the tears shining in her eyes -- saw with every line of her body that she wanted to help -- and saw the stark disapproval on Alistair’s face.

“Jowan, they’ll kill you,” Solona whispered.

“You’ve faced them all right so far --”

“Not the corpses, the knights. Lady Isolde is convinced you did all of this, and there’s no way we’ll be able to persuade her and Bann Teagan otherwise. Let alone the Arl himself, once he recovers,” she said, and he could hear the effort she was making to hold herself back from crying. “I believe you, but they won’t. And they’ll kill you, Jowan. Or if by some miracle you do get to go back to the Circle, they’ll make you Tranquil for sure.”

“I have to make this right,” Jowan insisted.

“You have to live.”

She took a keyring off one of the nearby corpses, and began trying them, one by one, in the lock on his cell.

“You’re letting him out? ” Alistair asked.

“Yes. I’ll tell you the whole story later. ”

Jowan blinked, staring at her.

“Solona, you don’t have to --”

“I broke this promise last time. Let me keep it now.”

“But -- what about --”

“Alistair and I will take care of things here at Redcliffe,” she said confidently. “You -- ugh, there’s so much to explain, and I don’t have time. There are going to be a lot of people who need help, protection, safety from a world gone to the Void around them. Find them. Help them. You can’t fix what’s been done here, but you can make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. That’s how you make this right.”

She dressed one of the corpses in a spare set of Circle robes as he and Alistair stood there, dumbfounded.

At this, their last goodbye, probably forever, he knew he had to ask. He had to know.

“Solona…” he said, his voice dropping solemnly. “Since you’re with the Grey Wardens now, did you… ever find out what happened to your Voice? How he died?”

Alistair shot her a glance; the anger had vanished and was placed by obvious concern. Solona shook her head.

“Not… exactly? I don’t know how to explain,” she said, her voice breaking. “Keep safe.”

He chuckled, and tears stung his eyes. “I know better than to ask you to do that in return.”

“Probably for the best.”

He nodded and started to walk away, down the way she’d come just a few minutes before.

“And Jowan?”

He turned back to look at Solona. Tears were streaming down her face, and, if he was being honest, down his own as well.

“I hope that we don’t run into each other again.”

He knew that she meant stay out of trouble, don’t do anything else stupid, but it still hurt to hear his once-best-friend say that. Despite everything, he still wanted everything to go back to the way it was before… but that wasn’t possible. And even if he could, it wouldn’t have fixed any of the problems he’d had then. Rose-colored glasses weren’t going to fix anything.

The porridge was spoiled, but he still had to eat it, as his mother used to say.

He looked at Alistair -- despite everything, he got the feeling that this was a decent man -- and said, “Take care of her, would you?”

“I -- well. She, ah -- takes care of herself, mostly,” Alistair replied, blushing. “But… sure.”

He liked her? Good. If he was anything like the type Solona usually attracted, he’d make sure Solona came through this all right, whether she liked it or not.

And with that, feeling sadder and yet more hopeful than he had in a long time, Jowan left for good.

Chapter Text

The last few days had been an absolute whirlwind. Going to Redcliffe, finding out it was under attack, preparing for that attack, surviving, finding out Arl Eamon had been poisoned, running into Solona’s ex-best friend (who had, naturally, poisoned Arl Eamon), and finding out from that best friend that one, Solona had, at one point, a Voice, and two, that Voice had something to do with the Wardens, and three, that he was dead now.

Maker. The Chantry and six months with Duncan had not adequately prepared him for this. He wasn’t certain anything could have.

Solona hadn’t said anything after she let Jowan go. Alistair wasn’t entirely sure he would have done the same thing, but she knew him best. If she trusted that he wouldn’t do any further harm, Alistair had to just accept that.

Still, he couldn’t help but be curious. It wasn’t every day he got to hear about Voices.

The Chantry had only ever said two things about them: they don’t exist, and don’t let your charges talk about them, ever. Which was enough for any True Believer, but Alistair hadn’t bought it, not really. Why did it matter if mages spoke about Voices if they didn’t exist, he had asked.

So that they do not want what they cannot have, was the stern-faced reply.

And that was all Alistair had needed to know that the Chantry was full of it. That was too carefully phrased.

He wasn’t entirely certain what a Voice was, exactly. The rumors among the less-devout initiates were… entirely unclear. Some said that a Voice was supposed to be the sworn protector of a mage, keeping them safe from harm within the Fade and without. Others said it was a true love fantasy, straight out of a fairy tale. Some of the more well-read recruits spoke in hushed whispers about the Tevinter unum vinctum, a blood slave, bound to a mage for eternity.

Alistair wanted to ask… but if her Voice had died, and it was significant enough for her ex-best friend to ask about just before they’d never see each other again… would it be poking at a wound? But then, if her Voice had something to do with the Wardens, maybe Alistair could help. Maybe he knew her Voice and could give her some peace of mind.

Maker. It brought back memories of the night after they’d left Ostagar, when she’d given him the space to grieve for Duncan. She’d felt a pain that rhymed, she said. Now he knew what she meant.

Unfortunately, in a castle full of walking corpses and at least one confirmed demon, he couldn’t make that space for her. He wanted to, but… this was neither the time nor the place.

He led the way through the dungeons; he could have walked this castle in his sleep. The two of them were completely silent as they fought corpse after corpse. Alistair wondered what she was thinking. Was she focused on the task at hand, or was she going through the motions of battle and healing, thinking about her friend and all he’d said?

“Wait,” she whispered. “I hear something.”

Some muffled sobbing was coming out of a nearby storeroom.

“Hello? Is someone there?” she called, but quietly. “We’re not corpses, I promise. We’re here to help.”

The door opened, and a young woman with light hair peeked out. She was disheveled and dirty, as if she’d been through the Void itself.

Well, she has been, hasn’t she? Alistair thought.

“Please don’t hurt me,” the young woman said.

“We’re not going to hurt you. Like I said, we’re here to help.” Solona smiled warmly at the young woman, who relaxed a bit.

“My… my name’s Valena, the arlessa’s maid. Is she… all right? What happened to everyone?”

“Valena? I met your father,” Solona said. At Valena’s frightened look, Solona took both of her hands, squeezing tight just once. “He’s all right, and so is the arlessa. We saw them both just this morning.”

“I want to go back to the village. Is there a way out of here?”

“There’s a secret tunnel through the dungeons. It will take you to the windmill near the village.”

“B-but the monsters!”

“We’ve taken care of all of the monsters between here and there, I promise. If you’d rather wait here, we can come back to escort you, but it might be a while.”

“No -- I’ll find my way. I can run fast and I know the castle. Thank you!” she said, racing off.

That was just Solona all over, wasn’t it? She would do anything to help someone in need, no matter what it took. She’d find a way to fix all of this, of that Alistair was certain. She was incredible -- not even so much for her magic, but for her kindness. That was more than he’d ever expected of the new Grey Warden recruit, back at Ostagar. It seemed so long ago now.

He must have been staring without realizing it, because when Solona’s eyes met his, she blushed furiously and looked away, clearing her throat.

“We, um. We should probably go,” she said.

“Right. Right, of course.”

Alistair led the way down to the cellar and up to the courtyard. If they could get inside the main building of the castle, they would find Bann Teagan and the others for sure.

The demons had come to that same conclusion.

A figure, armed like a warrior but made of what looked like dark mist, stood just in front of the stairs.

A revenant.

This was going to be bad.

The Chantry had mentioned revenants in his Templar training. They were powerful demons, usually desire or pride, that possessed a corpse. Usually, powerful demons like that preferred a living host, so revenants were rare… but deadly. They were known to take down entire units of Templars.

And Solona and Alistair were facing one alone .

He grabbed Solona by the arm, forcing her behind him. The enemy hadn’t seen them yet, so they had an advantage there.

“What --” she started.

“It’s a revenant,” he hissed.

“It’s worse than that,” she replied. “It’s also a courtyard full of corpse archers.”

Oh shit. He hadn’t even noticed them, he’d been so focused on the demon. But there they were, surrounding the courtyard, defending where the Arl himself would have put archers if the castle was ever attacked. Redcliffe Castle was a fortress. How were they ever going to get inside alone?

He… didn’t know how to face this. The two of them were a good team, sure, but they would be overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

“We have to run. You have to get out of here, if nothing else. I can --”

“No,” she said flatly. “We’re in this together.”

“If this is as bad as it looks -- and it’s actually worse than it looks -- one of us needs to make it to the Archdemon.”

“We are both going to face the Archdemon, Alistair. Together.

“Not if --”

“Does that lever raise the portcullis?” she asked, pointing.

“I -- yes, it does. We make it over there, and you can get out.”

Or we can take the fight with the revenant out of range of the archers.”

Or we could -- be quiet for a minute and let me be embarrassed for not thinking of that.”

She laughed lightly, squeezing his shoulder.

“Ready?” she asked.

“Always,” he said.

The two of them moved together as one. Solona kept between Alistair and the outer wall, and Alistair kept his shield between the two of them and the archers, who started firing before they were halfway through the courtyard.

“All right there, Alistair?” she whispered, as the arrows helplessly bounced off his shield.

He nodded -- and they were at the lever. He pulled it down as hard as he possibly could, and the portcullis raised.

“My lady! Can we be of any assistance?”

“Ser Perth!” she called -- and then she was gone.

“Solona!” Alistair shouted.

The revenant could pull its enemies to close range. Damn it, Alistair thought. I should have remembered that.

Ser Perth and his knights went charging valiantly to Solona’s rescue; they were going to get themselves slaughtered. Alistair saw Solona fighting with everything she had, but she was never going to overcome its resistance to magic.

She started beating it with her staff, and, for an amateur, she wasn’t doing too badly. Her grip was fine, but she was pulling all her strength from her neck, which made her stance more easily breakable. Not to mention that breaking a magical staff was bad. Like, explosion-bad.

Alistair strode forward, trying to make himself look like the biggest threat here. He pulled his shoulders back, projecting as much ease and confidence as he could. The archers began to turn their arrows back toward him.

“Hey!” he called to the revenant. “That armor makes your stomach look fat!”

Not his best taunt ever, to be sure, but it would be a wound to the demon’s pride. And it served his purpose: the demon turned its attention to him, and Solona slammed her staff on the back of its head, knocking a concave section into the demon’s helmet.

While it was dazed, Alistair raced to help Solona, giving the revenant every bit of strength he had. Solona ran back to the middle of the courtyard before he could stop her -- taking several arrows to her right side.

He wasn’t looking, but he could feel her force her mana forward, pushing with everything she had -- and the skeleton archers all fell down. That was enough to kill some.

“Ser Perth?” she asked.

She didn’t have to say more than that; the knights rushed up the stairs to mop up the remaining archers. And from the cold bursts Alistair was feeling race past him, she was using her staff to help him with the revenant. He was almost overwhelmed -- the last time she’d forced all her mana out like that, she’d been taken out of the battle for several minutes. This time, she was pushing herself to go on, despite everything.

He had to get this revenant down, now.

He bashed the revenant with his shield, over and over again, until the demon lost its footing. One quick stab to the throat, and it was dead. Or, well, gone , anyway. It still lived in the Fade. Probably.

Alistair ran back over to Solona, who was leaning heavily on her staff. She was barely upright, one knee on the ground, and breathing hard -- but smiling slightly, even considering her exhaustion and the arrows stuck in her.

“Maybe you should do that trick a little less,” he said quietly.

“It works, doesn’t it?” She was smiling at him.

“That's... one way to put it, sure.”

She laughed quietly, then clutched her side in pain.

Ser Perth and the others had finished their work, and they came back down the stairs.

“We must remove those arrows before we proceed,” Ser Perth announced.

There were only three in total -- which was fewer than anyone should have expected, given that the courtyard had been full of archers -- one in her right shoulder, her right upper arm, and her right side (though that one was not in very far).

“No,” Solona said. “If you remove the shaft of the arrow, there’s a chance the arrowhead might get stuck, which would cause more damage.”

“We can’t leave you like this, my lady.”

She gave Ser Perth a pained smile.

“Is there a doctor in the village?” she asked.

“Of course. Our surgeon is excellent.”

“Would you mind alerting him -- or her -- to the problem here? Once we’re done with all of this, I can return to the village, and we can remove these arrows properly.”

“Can you heal yourself in the meantime?” Alistair asked. How long was this going to take? He didn’t know. Neither did she. She could be hurting for a long time before they were able to go back.

“If I heal it, the skin will close around the arrowheads. The surgeon will have to cut the wounds back open.”

“So... not ideal, then.”

Solona chuckled, then winced.

“Don’t make me laugh, it hurts.”

Ser Perth and his two knights strode gallantly off to locate the doctor, and Alistair and Solona turned their attention to the staircase. He put an arm around her waist to help keep her steady for the long walk ahead.

“Are you all right?” he asked, his voice low.

Today had been an awful day for everyone involved -- but for her more than most. Her friend had been involved in all of this -- and she’d let him go, but still, to know a friend of yours poisoned an Arl couldn’t be an easy realization. She hadn’t even had a chance to rest since yesterday. (Neither had he, but that mattered less to him right now.)

He noticed that a long black lock of hair had escaped her braid and was hanging in her face in a way that had to be annoying. Without thinking, he tucked it behind her ear for her. She leaned forward, kissing him on the cheek. 

Alistair's breath caught. She lingered there for a moment; he could feel her breath -- and her heartbeat. It was racing.  So was his, probably. He… really should start thinking about what to say in advance. Because she was probably expecting him to say something and he had no thoughts to even organize, let alone words -- and then she cupped his cheek with her good hand. His eyes slipped closed for just a moment, almost like a reflex. 

“You’re sweet to worry,” she said. “I’m fine.”

“Well -- then -- good,” Alistair replied. “I’d hate to think you’d been shot three times or anything. That would just be awful.

She chuckled again.

Damn it,” she hissed, still half-laughing, but pulling as far back as she could without falling over. “When will I ever learn?”

“It shouldn’t be a problem for much longer,” Alistair said, trying to comfort her.

Solona stared at him for a moment. He didn’t know what she was thinking; her face had gone impenetrably stoic.

“I hope so,” she said.

And with that, they turned toward the castle, taking the steps one at a time.   

Chapter Text

Teagan strides boldly through the castle gates. His brother’s castle now, but he grew up here, was made into the man he is today here. He knows every stone of these walls, every blade of grass surrounding them. He knows how the castle will look when the snow comes in a few months, and what flowers will bloom when it thaws. Had he the skill, he could paint it from memory, in each and every season, with every tiny detail.

This is his home.

And yet, this time, the castle unnerves Teagan. There is no one, save him and Isolde, that he can see. No one patrols the walls. No noise comes from the castle, either, not the barking of the Mabari in the kennels, or the shouts of servants calling to one another, or even the sound of birds in the trees.

His castle was alive with life. This is not that castle.

Everyone is gone.

And then, as Isolde leads him into the main courtyard, he sees what has become of them. Instead of a courtyard filled with the noise and bustle of life -- a sort of human friendliness of being -- he finds a skeleton army and a demon made of mist.

This is not his home anymore.

He is not a religious man, not by any means, but he finds himself starting to pray -- or perhaps hope is the better word.

He hopes Alistair and his friend come through all right. He hopes they have the sense to bring their other friends with them. He hopes they don’t come through the courtyard, perhaps finding another way inside. He hopes they can find a way to end all of this without getting themselves hurt. He hopes they see the threat before he did.

As he enters what used to be his castle, he sees that the soldiers who would once have stood guard are now skeletons. They make a horrible gargling noise when they see him, but they do not do anything else. Perhaps it’s because he is with Isolde? Teagan isn’t sure.

The chill in the great room is palpable; Teagan could see his own breath with each frightened exhale. But the air feels… stale. Stifled. As if the castle had been locked up for a long time, and no one had been inside. Yet here he is, standing here with Isolde and… a small boy with darkened eyes.

If Teagan is shocked by what changes have happened to the castle, they do not prepare him for what has become of Connor. Teagan notices how Connor’s eyes sparkle with a cruel delight beyond a child Connor’s age. Its carefree pose, adult-like and unnatural for such a young boy, says everything.

This is not his nephew anymore. This is a demon.

Solona was, sadly, right.

He’d hoped to be able to persuade the real Connor to leave the castle, perhaps finding a way to cure Eamon once they were free… but Connor’s demon is the cause of all of this, and that makes things… complicated.

Still, his job is to be a distraction. And so he treats demon-Connor like he would boy-Connor. He attempts to reason with him, providing excellent reasons for them to go, pretending not to notice his nephew’s formerly bright eyes now sunken and dark, pretending he doesn’t see how thin Connor’s already small body has become -- as if the child inside is wasting away… or perhaps, already dead. He pretends, to save Isolde and Eamon and what may be left of Connor, even as the last few threads of his hope begin to snap.

The demon does not reply.

He keeps his voice steady as he speaks of Eamon, and of Connor’s care for him.

Your father would want you safe, he says. And it’s true, Eamon loves nothing in the world so well as his own son. He once swore he’d atone for his failures with Alistair by lavishing love and attention on Connor, and he kept that vow, as far as Teagan could tell.

The demon does not reply.

And so Teagan tells Connor to leave, to go to the village with his mother, and to let Teagan and the healers take care of Eamon. He suggests even that he would go to the Circle for better healers, and he would, unquestioningly, but he doesn’t mean it in this moment, and the demon can tell.

The demon does not reply.

But as he promises to find a cure for the poison, the demon that was once Connor scoffs.

“I find this tiresome,” he says, his voice rumbling with an unnatural timbre.

And then everything goes… fuzzy. Teagan is dimly aware of what is happening, as if he’s observing it from outside himself -- or to be more accurate, as if he’s viewing what is happening from underwater. He can only make out blurry outlines of what has happened, and he cannot recall what his voice is made to say.

He looks, but cannot see. He hears, but cannot listen.

He notices when two more figures enter the room. After a few moments, he feels a deep-down thought, almost from where his emotions begin: they are intruders, here to ruin everything.

And this castle is his home. He defends it.

 


 

 

“Teagan! Teagan, Are you all right?” Isolde’s voice was the first to return to him, and he’d never been so happy to hear it.

He blinked, and he could see again -- clearly, thank the Maker. Isolde and Alistair were hovering nearby, looking concerned, while Solona was already examining him for injury.

“I am… better now, I think. My mind is my own again,” he said, testing his ability to move his arm and hand. He appeared to be in working order.

Solona and Alistair both let out sighs of relief.

“Blessed Andraste! I would never have forgiven myself if you died, not after I brought you here. What a fool I am!”

“What are we going to do next? Connor is possessed by a demon, and we can’t let it run amok in Redcliffe any longer,” Alistair said.

“Please! Connor’s not responsible for this! There must be some way we can save him.”

“He’s… he’s an abomination.” Alistair’s voice was hesitant and soft, as if he regretted the words as he was saying them.

“He’s not always the demon you saw. Connor is still inside him, and sometimes he breaks through. Please… I just want to protect him.”

“Isn’t that what started this? You hired the mage to teach Connor in secret… to ‘protect’ him.” Teagan was surprised at his own anger. But this was demonstrably Isolde’s fault. Giving up a child to the Circle would be difficult, of course, and he didn’t mean to minimize that. But it was the right thing to do, and none of this would have happened if she had just done it. People in the village and the castle had died because of her inability to let Connor go. And Eamon might join them yet.

“If they discovered Connor had magic, then they’d take him away! I thought if he learned just enough to hide it, then --”

“With respect, that’s now how it works --” Alistair cut in.

“I didn’t know that --”

“So you just let anyone come in here and teach him? And now he’s an abomination!” Teagan said, angry.

“So what am I to do? Let someone just… kill my son?”

“I wouldn’t normally suggest it, but… he is an abomination. I’m not sure we have any choice.”

“Connor is my nephew. But he’s also possessed by a demon. Killing him might be… kinder.”

It killed him to say it. He forced himself not to look at Isolde, but he could hear her heart breaking as her last hopes fluttered away.

“No -- no. There has to be another way! Please, there must be something we can do!”

“Enough!” Solona called out. The three of them turned their attention to the kindhearted mage, who was angrily rubbing at her eyes.

“Warden?” Isolde called gently.

“I’m sorry, I’m just -- I’m trying to remember,” Solona said, sounding frustrated. “I read a book on spirits and demons last year. The author’s name was DuFourier or something like that, the cover was reddish-brown, and there was a whole chapter devoted to possession -- what did it say?”

They all paused for a moment, as if by tacit agreement, to let her think.

“An abomination is a symbiotic relationship. The demon looks through the world with the eyes of the mage, channeling its power through the mage’s body, and the mage is able to cast at a level of spellpower unreachable by other means, blah blah blah… ‘However, the possession is not physical -- the demon’s true essence remains in the Fade, as does the soul of the mage himself --’ ” Solona stopped, her voice dropped to a whisper. “We can save him.”

“What?” Alistair asked.

“We can save him. We need to go into the Fade, and destroy the demon there, and then Connor’s soul can return to his body, free of any demonic influence.” She turned to Alistair, eyes shining. “ We can save him.”

Isolde and Solona both looked like they were going to burst into tears. Teagan was feeling a little misty himself. This was his only remaining nephew.

“Going into the Fade takes a lot of lyrium. And multiple mages. You and Morrigan can’t do it alone,” Alistair said, his tone gentle -- perhaps not wanting to squash the idea too thoroughly.

“I don’t intend to,” she replied. “We have to go to the Circle anyway, for the treaty, so why not kill two birds with one stone, as it were? Irving will help, I’m sure of it, and Greagoir will protest, of course, but it’s in his best interest not to let anyone else die from a demon -- it’s his job, after all -- so we get the first piece of our army, and Connor and Redcliffe are both safe. What do you think?”

“I… well. The Tower isn’t that far. It’s, what, a day from here?”

“But what will happen here? Connor will not remain passive forever,” Isolde said.

“I don’t think he’ll cause any further harm,” Solona replied. “He’s out of troops, for one thing. And he’s shown an unwillingness to hurt anyone in his family, so he’s not exactly in a great position to make more to attack the village with.”

Teagan had to concede that Solona had a point.

“It’s a risk,” Alistair said, “but… I would rather try this first.”

Solona positively beamed at him, warming Teagan’s heart for a minute. He hid it, however; now was not the time.

She took an unsteady step forward -- and stumbled. Alistair reached for her elbow, steadying her without so much as a word. The two of them were close enough, that much was obvious. Teagan believed Alistair that nothing had happened between them -- but he was fairly confident that something would. (Eamon would disapprove, of course, but Teagan couldn’t help but feel anything but glad for his near-nephew. He wanted Alistair to be happy.)

“Are you all right?” Alistair asked, almost too quiet for anyone else to hear.

“I’ll be fine until we get back,” she whispered back.

And it was only now that Teagan noticed the three arrows embedded in Solona’s skin.

“Maker’s breath!” he swore, angry at his own obliviousness. She must think them so ungrateful, after everything she’d done, and everything she was still willing to do. “You’re wounded.

“Ser Perth alerted the surgeon in the village,” Solona replied, with a thin smile. “I can manage until we get back.”

Were things different, he would have summoned the surgeon here . But Solona was right: the demon was only sparing Connor’s family. Anyone else would be in immediate danger -- she herself was in danger. (Teagan was unsure about whether Alistair counted as family to the demon, but it was clear enough that he would do whatever it took to defend his friend.)

“Go to the Tower quickly then,” he said. “The longer you are away, the greater the chances of disaster.”

“I promised you we’d all come out of this,” Solona whispered to him. “I aim to keep it.”

“Thank you, Grey Warden,” Isolde said. She grasped Solona’s hands, her eyes overflowing with tears.

Solona stiffened and pulled away. Her face hardened into something like an Orlesian mask, stoic and impassive, as she said, “ I don’t have it in me to be cruel to a child, my lady.”

Teagan might have imagined it, but he could have sworn there was a slight emphasis on the word “I”. Alistair must have heard it too, because he stared at his companion, eyebrows raised. Isolde certainly took it as an insult, dropping Solona’s hands unceremoniously and recoiling.

And with one last nod from Solona to Teagan, she and a bemused Alistair left.

Isolde instantly began complaining about the impertinence, but Teagan couldn’t stop himself from smiling. Yes, Solona was rude to his sister-in-law, but it was clearly out of care for Alistair. Everything she was doing, saving Connor included, seemed to be for his benefit, even if the young man himself couldn’t yet see it.

Teagan could live with that.

Chapter Text

Coming back to Lake Calenhad was an experience. And having Leliana, Alistair, and Barkspawn in tow just made it awkward. Solona wasn’t certain how she’d feel, seeing the Circle Tower again -- much less going inside. Would it be bittersweet? Nostalgic? Painful? Would the reunion with Irving make her want to go back? She didn’t know. She wasn’t even sure if she missed being in the Circle or not, and hadn’t she been gone long enough to sort this all out?

And so, involuntarily, as soon as the Circle Tower started to peek into view, Solona stopped.

I thought I would never come back here.

“It must be strange,” Leliana remarked from beside her, “to see it again, after all this time.”

“It… it is, yeah,” Solona said. “It’s just… I didn’t have many bad memories of the Tower, not really. It’s the closest thing to a home I’ve had since they took me away from my father. I grew up there. If you’d asked me six months ago, I’d have said I didn’t want to leave, ever.”

“But things are different now.”

Solona took the whole Tower in, from the lake at the bottom to the spire at the top, its shape so familiar and yet so alien to her from this distance.

“Very much so.”

“Do you… remember your family at all?” Alistair asked.

Solona nearly jumped out of her skin. She wasn’t aware he’d been listening.

“I do. A bit. I remember my father, and my brothers -- to varying degrees. I don’t remember my mother at all,” Solona said. “Da said she just… left one day. And he waited for her, for ages , but… she never came back.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Alistair said, immediately looking contrite.

“It’s all right. I mean, it’s -- it really isn’t, but you didn’t do anything wrong.” Solona tried to shoot him a smile, but it came out as a pained grimace.

The four of them began the slow walk down the hill that she’d run up just a short time before. With Duncan.

And with that thought giving her a cold stab to the heart, she led the way to the small dock where they’d find the boat to take them across Lake Calenhad.

… But this time the boatman was a Templar? What in the Maker’s name…

“You! You’re not looking to get across to the Tower, are you? Because I have strict orders not to let anyone pass,” the Templar shouted.

“...Carroll? What are you doing out here? Where’s the boatman?” Solona asked.

“Oh -- oh . It’s you. Well, I don’t know where the boatman is, exactly. But Greagoir told me to guard the dock, and that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “Shame, really. Cullen would have been glad to see you.”

Solona blushed, and Carroll snorted.

“Look, Carroll, we really do have urgent business at the Tower,” Solona said in her most persuasive tone. “Look, it’s a Grey Warden matter --”

She gestured for Alistair to show him the treaties. He did, though they were slightly more crumpled than the last time the Wardens had needed to look at them.

“Ah-ha, I see. You know, I have some documents, too. They say I’m the Queen of Antiva. What do you think of that?”

“... aren’t queens usually female?”

“Don’t question royalty!” he snapped.

Solona smiled in spite of herself. Carroll was an odd one, but generally well-liked for a reason.

“Well, it was nice chatting with you. Now on your way. Right now. Go.”

Solona extended a hand for a hearty shake. Carroll looked bewildered, but he took it just the same.

“I applaud you, my friend. Your strict adherence to your duty, even when it’s urgent news Greagoir himself needs to hear -- and he’d be well within his rights to be truly angry when he hears about it later, now that I come to think of it,” Solona said. “But I’m sure he’ll overlook that when it comes time for his next review of your performance. Right?”

“You think Greagoir would be angry with me for not letting you in?” Carroll said, first scoffing -- then thoughtfully. “Actually, he would. Good point.”

“Well, we mustn’t have that, ” she said. “You’d better take us across and let Greagoir deal with us himself.”

“I -- what -- ugh, fine. Come along, I suppose,” Carroll replied with an exasperated sigh.

Alistair caught Solona’s eye as they loaded into the small boat. His expression could only be described as one of confused awe. Solona tipped him a small wink.

In truth, though, she was glad he couldn’t hear the hammering of her heartbeat right now. Her hands were practically shaking. Something was wrong here.

She remembered the trip across with Duncan: the lovely fall day, the gentle breeze, the overwhelming, beautiful newness of it all -- this was nothing like that. The air felt oppressive, even stifled -- and they were still outside. And her magic was tingling in a way that put her on edge. Not a pleasant tingle, but a creeping, electric feeling running from the back of her neck to her fingertips. She couldn’t tell if it was the fear of going back to where she’d been -- or something far more sinister.

Waving a short farewell to Carroll, the team entered the huge metal doors that Solona had been all but too happy to let close behind her.

“And I want two men stationed in sight of the doors at all times. No one is to open those doors without my express consent, is that clear?”

“Yes, Knight-Commander.”

Greagoir was in the rotunda? Odd. Rotunda duty was usually a safe station, a reward for well-behaved Templars unless they’d heard of an escape attempt.

“The doors are barred,” Alistair whispered to her. “Are they keeping people out… or in?”

This increased security couldn’t still be because of Jowan , could it? There was nothing anyone could do about that, unless he was found, and it’s not like anyone was still around who knew the details of the escape attempt except Greagoir and Irving themselves.

“Now we wait, and pray,” Greagoir said.

“Knight-Commander?” Solona asked, forgetting for a moment that she was a Grey Warden and had to show a bolder, more assertive side.

“Well, look who’s back. A proper Grey Warden now, are we? Glad you’re not dead,” he said, gruff as ever… but Solona thought maybe he meant it.

“Something’s obviously happened here. Why are the doors barred?”

“I shall speak plainly: the tower is no longer under our control.”

“... what?” Solona asked. Greagoir’s words were strangling her; she couldn’t breathe.

“Abominations and demons stalk the Tower’s halls. We were too complacent. First Jowan, now this. Don’t think I’ve forgotten your role in Jowan’s escape.”

Solona wasn’t listening. She was scanning the room, desperately searching. There were maybe a half-dozen Templars in the room, total -- and Cullen was not among them.

“Greagoir, is this everyone?

He softened at her small, heartbroken voice -- but only for an instant. He couldn’t seem to bring himself to say it, but she read it in his clenched fists and furrowed brow. Tears stung her eyes, but she angrily wiped them away.

“No,” Solona said. “No! Someone has to have survived this.”

“Amell --”

No. I refuse to accept it. Irving --”

Is not here, Apprentice.”

Grey Warden,” she spat. “And we do not answer to the Templars, Knight-Commander.”

Greagoir sighed, running a hand through his hair. His usual composure had clearly cracked under the strain of this crisis.

“It’s too late,” he said. “I have sent word to Denerim, calling for reinforcements and the Right of Annulment.”

“The mages are probably already dead. Any remaining abominations must be dealt with, no matter what,” Alistair piped up from behind her.

Whose side are you on?” Solona hissed at him, fury rising.

“Your companion is correct. This situation is dire. There is no alternative -- everything in the tower must be destroyed so it can be made safe again,” Greagoir said, letting his stoic mask slip. “ No one could have survived those monstrous creatures. It is too painful to hope for survivors and find… nothing.”

“I’ll go.”

“What?”

Let me go in. I’ll look for survivors, I’ll -- I’ll make sure no abominations get out, just -- please, Greagoir.”

“I assure you, an abomination is a force to be reckoned with, and you will face more than one.”

“I don’t care.” Her voice broke as she said it, but she meant it more than she’d ever meant anything.

Greagoir stopped -- looking at her for perhaps the first time ever.

“If you succeed, I would owe you much,” he said slowly. “Enough that I would pledge my Templars to your cause.”

He… was going to let her in?

“Without word from Denerim, I must determine our course. Surely destroying darkspawn is a worthy goal.”

He was going to let her in.

Without thinking, she threw her arms around his neck, squeezing as tightly as she could. He stiffened -- then wrapped one arm around her waist. Tears were running down her face. They broke apart, standing there awkwardly for a minute. Greagoir cleared his throat, and the other Templars in the room discreetly looked away.

“A word of caution,” he said, his voice unexpectedly hoarse, “once you cross that threshold, there is no turning back. The great doors must remain barred. I will open them for no one until I have proof that it is safe.”

“What proof do you need?” Solona asked with an undignified sniff.

“I will only believe it is safe if the First Enchanter stands before me and tells me it is so,” he replied, his own eyes misty. “If Irving has -- fallen, then the Circle is lost and must be destroyed. May Andraste lend you her courage… whatever you decide.”

Solona immediately started to walk to the great doors, and Alistair caught her arm. She turned to face him, annoyed.

“Solona -- are you sure you want to do this?”

“I’m sure it’s the only way to save Connor, as well as my mentor and my friends. I’m sure it’s the right thing to do . And I’m damn sure it’s what I’m going to do.”

“No, it’s just -- shutting the door and throwing away the key was definitely the Templar ‘Plan B’. And you were hurt at Redcliffe…”

“I’m going in. Whether any of you accompany me or not is your own choice.”

She jerked her arm free and marched to the doors. She was surprised to hear all three of them follow. On another day, she would have been touched by that. But not today.

The Templar standing in front of the doors looked back at Greagoir for confirmation. He must have received it -- Solona didn’t look -- but he opened the doors just the same. The clang as they shut behind the team echoed through the now-empty halls.

She could hardly believe she used hear the quiet rumble of hundreds of voices, the occasional explosion coming from the library, apprentices calling to each other, the clank of Templar armor -- she’d always thought the Circle was fairly quiet, but this silence was unearthly. She couldn’t recognize this as the same hall she’d walked in every day for a decade.

Spattered across every stone of the hall was blood -- black and brown and red. This was the hall with the apprentice quarters. This was where the children slept. Where Solona herself had slept.

The room swung wildly around her. She thought she might be sick.

“Are you all right?” Leliana asked quietly, laying a hand on her shoulder.

Solona took a deep breath.

“We need to keep going,” she said.

Screams suddenly echoed through the hall, and Solona broke into a dead run, with Barkspawn just beside her. She ignored the startled remarks of her two human companions.

They were children’s screams.

Her fingers fumbled at the latch on the door, but after an agonizing moment, she opened it. The room had five or six children, a few older apprentices she recognized, and one senior mage who looked… oddly familiar -- and she was dispatching a rage demon.

“Solona!” one of the children called, as the older apprentices cried, “Amell!”

The child who’d called ran up to her, hugging her around the legs. It was one of Irving’s younger apprentices, a little elven girl named Neria. Solona saw Petra, Kinnon, and Keili as well, and she gave them all a broken-hearted smile.

“Hey, sweetheart,” Solona said, affectionately ruffling Neria’s hair.

“They said you’re a Grey Warden now, but…”

“I am,” Solona replied, taking a knee in front of her little friend. “And I’m here to fix things, okay? Don’t worry, it’ll be all right.”

“I’m sorry your homecoming has been… marred by all of this,” Kinnon said. “It’s good to see you back, and we’re glad you survived Ostagar.”

Solona was too overcome to do more than nod at him in return. Survivors. That wasn’t everyone. You see, Greagoir? This was one “I-told-you-so” she couldn’t wait to give.

“You’ve returned to the tower? Why did the Templars let you through? Are you here to warn us?” the older mage asked.
“They… asked me to come look for survivors,” Solona replied, with a short but significant look at the children. She hoped the mage picked up on her message: I’m not telling these kids they’re all about to die if I fail, thanks.

“The Templars have barred the doors. They will only open them if they intend to attack us. Is that what is happening?”

Solona shot the woman an irritated look.

“No,” she said, then sighed. “Not yet. I am really here to look for survivors. And Greagoir will only open the doors for Irving. So I came in to look for him.”

“So Greagoir believes the Circle is beyond hope. He probably assumes we are all dead,” she said. “They abandoned us to our fate, but even trapped as we are, we have survived. If they invoke the Right of Annulment, however, we will not be able to stand against them.”

“If anyone could have survived this…” Solona insisted.

“It’s Irving. It was he who told me to look after the children. It’s… a long story.”

Solona swallowed her questions. The more time they wasted here, the less likely it would be they’d find Irving, or Cullen… or anyone.

“I erected a barrier over the door leading to the rest of the tower, so nothing from inside could attack the children. You will not be able to enter the tower so long as the barrier holds,” the older woman said, “but I will dispel it if you will join with me to save this Circle.”

“That’s what I came in here to do,” Solona replied. “But will the children be safe here?”

“Petra and Kinnon will watch them. If we slay all the fiends we encounter on our way, none will get by to threaten the children.”

Solona looked down at Barkspawn, who was standing at attention, like a soldier.

“Barkspawn, you can help. Listen to Petra and Kinnon, and guard everyone in this room. Don’t let anyone come in unless they say they’ve seen me, all right?”

“You have a Mabari? ” Neria gasped.

“His name is Barkspawn?” Kinnon said with a snort.

The dog whimpered, as if to say take me with you. Solona rubbed his ears with forceful affection, and dropped a small kiss on the top of his head.

“You’re a good boy. I’ll get you some bacon when we leave.”

“Petra, Kinnon, look after the others. I will be back soon,” the older mage said.

“Wynne… are you sure you’re all right? You were so badly hurt earlier. Maybe I should come along,” Petra said.

Wynne . That was her name. Solona had known her in the Circle by reputation, but not by sight. (And if Wynne had mentioned her name at Ostagar, Solona didn’t remember it.) She was the best spirit healer Ferelden’s Circle had seen in decades. Anders had tried to switch mentors so that she would be his teacher, but his actual mentor denied the request. That she’d been badly hurt and was now standing and fighting off rage demons was incredible.

“The others need your protection more. I will be all right. Stay here with them. Keep them safe and calm.”

“It will be all right, Petra,” Solona said, trying for a reassuring smile. “We will not fail.”

“Your confidence is refreshing, though you should make sure it does not blind you to your weaknesses,” Wynne replied.

If this hadn’t been a crisis, Solona would have started taking notes. The four of them walked toward the barrier, which Wynne easily dispelled.

“And Solona?” Neria called.

Solona turned, watching her favorite little apprentice hug Barkspawn.

“Good luck.”

Solona winked at her with more confidence than she felt, her stomach sinking as she realized what had become of the place she called home.

Chapter Text

The first thing Alistair was aware of was the smell of something cooking. The second was that he was lying down on a bed more comfortable than he’d had since he left Arl Eamon’s castle. The third was that he wasn’t wearing a shirt, when he always slept in one.

The fourth was that he wasn’t alone . He heard soft breathing and a light snore from next to him. Finally opening his eyes, he saw… Solona. His heart felt like it was going to lurch right out of his chest. She was so -- peaceful. For some reason, he felt like he hadn’t seen that soft, almost contented look on her in… a long time. Maybe… ever.

It was a little fuzzy as to how they got here. Had he been drinking last night?

There was a loud rap at the door.

“Are you two  still abed? We’ve got visitors coming, and I need you up and dressed to greet them!” a woman’s voice called. She had a thick Fereldan accent, and she was heard walking heavily away.

Goldanna, he thought. He… were they living with Goldanna? How much did he have to drink?

Alistair looked back over at Solona. He… should wake her, right? They couldn’t miss… whoever was worth waking them up for.

“Solona?” he called softly. “It’s, ah… time to get up?”

She rolled away from him, onto her other side with a grumpy sigh. Alistair laughed.

“Come on, we’re going to be late. Or something,” he said.

She was muttering to herself; he couldn’t hear it, but she was probably swearing. Solona stretched out her back, like a cat, slowly bringing herself back toward him. Her bright blue eyes blinked open at him and… And…

She was lying practically underneath him, a small smile playing at her lips, her gaze locked onto his. She was wearing one of his nightshirts -- which, he supposed, explained where it had gone. His heart was beating hummingbird-fast, and a slow, heated realization hit several parts of him at the same time: they’d been sharing a bed. How long had they been sharing a bed? And -- had they shared anything else? But how could he ask that? How could he not remember?

“You’re lucky I like you,” she said.

“I know.”

Well… they were sharing a bed…

Alistair laid down beside her, propping himself up on one arm. He reached out and stroked her hair, enjoying how her eyes slipped closed -- again, like a cat.  She grabbed his hand and brought it to her lips in a gentle but deliberate kiss. Alistair let out a breath -- and saw the triumphant, teasing smile spreading across her face.

And he would be damned if he let her win.

He leaned in, as close as he could without touching. He heard her breath hitch, and he smiled himself.

“Something amusing, Miss Amell?” he asked, his voice dropping in a flirtatious way. He hoped.

“No,” she said, “I’m just happy.”

And that -- that -- did it. Alistair closed the small distance between them with a broken noise. His mouth slanted over hers, and he had no idea what he was doing , but the small whimpering noise Solona made against his lips were nothing if not encouraging.

She wound her arms around his neck, pulling him as close as they could be -- and Alistair shuddered when he felt the warmth of her -- everything was touching and she was so soft . She swiped her tongue against his mouth, and his lips parted, and Maker , he had never felt anything like this. He actually moaned at the slick glide of their tongues together, and he started to pull away, embarrassed -- when she curled her body up into his, a clear invitation.

And -- he was enjoying this, but it was getting out of hand. Being here, with this woman, was more than anything he’d ever dreamed of. If this continued, they’d be -- well. He… didn’t think he was ready for that yet. So… maybe they hadn’t been sharing a bed for long. Or maybe it hadn’t meant what he thought it did.

Alistair broke the kiss, practically panting. He rested his forehead against hers, eyes shut tight. How did an idiot like him tell a woman like her that he wasn’t ready to… go all the way? Especially after that?

“Alistair,” she whispered.

He opened his eyes to look at her, and he saw -- her eyes wide, darkened -- her lips wet, a darker pink from kissing -- and he wanted her, he wanted this, but… it was… not now. Not yet.

“It’s all right,” she said, caressing his cheek. “No pressure.”

“No pressure,” he repeated nonsensically.

She was perfect. She was everything. She was… sitting up suddenly, staring off into the distance, her brow furrowed.

“Is -- is everything all right?”

She shot him a bright, false smile.

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

He’d let her keep her secrets before, but this… this one felt important. Vital, somehow.

“You look… upset.”

Solona opened her mouth to say something else -- then another rap came from the door.

“Are you two up yet?”

“Yes, Goldanna, thank you,” Alistair replied.

“Good. Solona, feel free to hit him if he tries anything inappropriate.”

“Hey!”

Alistair heard Goldanna laugh as she walked away again. Solona rose abruptly from the bed, and -- was she shaking?

“Hey, wait, what’s the matter?” he asked, following.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” she said, her voice faltering, “but I know for a fact that I’ve never met anyone named Goldanna in my life.”

“It’s -- she’s my sister. Half-sister. On my mother’s side.”

Solona looked back over at him, looking smaller, somehow.

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“I -- I did some checking after I joined the… Grey Wardens.”

The Wardens. That was how they'd met. Duncan and Loghain and Cailan and Ostagar. Redcliffe. The realizations were hitting hard and fast now, each disjointed memory sliding into place like a puzzle piece.

“What happened with the Blight? And -- and the Circle?”   Solona  asked. That was a bad sign. If he didn't remember, and Solona didn't know... what was going on?

“I -- it’s a little fuzzy. But… the Circle. It was under attack. We went in to stop it, and then…”

“The sloth demon,” Solona finished. “Damn it.

This… was the Fade. And he had just… oh, no. Oh, Maker, no.

Before he could fully contemplate the horror he had just made of his relationship with Solona, Goldanna entered the room. If he hadn’t known she was a demon, he might not have noticed, but there was something… off about her. Her smile was a bit too wide, her movements a bit too fluid.

“Ah, you are up, then? Good,” she said, her voice thrumming with an otherworldly undertone. “Solona, darling, we have a surprise for you!”

Solona stared at the demon, disbelieving -- when four tall men with black hair walked in. They were all of various ages, and one had much greyer hair than the other three. Her jaw dropped, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Triss? Faron? Owen?” she asked. “... Da?”

“It was your man’s idea,” the one who was clearly supposed to be her father laughed, pulling her into a hug. “Surprised?”

“Very,” Solona said -- and then her father disappeared, and Alistair saw a flash of silver in Solona’s hand.

She stabbed him? Well, of course she did, he was a demon. Still, he caught a glimpse of her pained face afterward. That couldn't have been easy.  As the demons all gathered around her, she frantically cast a paralysis glyph, freezing demon-Goldanna -- where was his sword?  And as soon as he thought about it, the sword was in his hand, his shield around his arm, his armor exactly as it needed to be -- and he charged between Solona and the remaining demons. She was in her Circle outfit, staff firing at the demons.

It was a short battle. These were not terribly powerful demons. But once the last one fell, the illusion of the room around them melted into the Fade itself.

“Let’s go,” Solona said. She started to walk off.

He grabbed her arm.

“Wait, where are you going?”

“We need to find the others and get out of here.”

“Right, but we don’t know where they are.”

“Everything in the Fade is based on willpower. If we want to find them, we will. It doesn’t matter what direction we go,” she said.

“Oh.”

This awkward silence that kept cropping up between them was getting annoying and he was starting to hate it. He wanted to just… be able to talk to her, like a person. But he didn't know what to say to her about... anything, really. So they marched on, completely silent, avoiding talking about the one thing they really needed to talk about. As always.

Which was probably why they weren’t getting anywhere.

A thought struck Alistair.

“Solona,” he asked. “Why did the demon put us in the same dream?”

She stopped, but she didn’t turn to look at him.

“You -- didn’t seem surprised, is all. So I thought you might know.”

“I’m --” she groaned, frustrated. “I’m not surprised. I don’t know for certain , but I have a guess, and I’m probably right.”

He stood beside her. Her expression was almost pained.

“Is it… is it because you’re -- you know, a mage?”

She gave a tearful laugh.

“Yeah. It is.”

She didn’t elaborate at first, but Alistair didn’t interrupt the silence this time. He could sense that she needed the quiet.

“I -- I mentioned my family before -- you saw them. I’m from Kirkwall, originally. It was me, my Da, and my brothers that I can remember. I did have a mother, but once my eldest brother was taken to the Circle, she just… left. Da watched and waited for her to come back, told us stories about her and her family. And then, my second brother got taken to the Circle as well. We’re all mages,” she explained. “But once my last brother -- Tristan -- was taken, Da moved us to Ferelden. He gave up on my mother for good, and said there was ‘nothing left for us in the Marches.’

“So it was just me and Da for a few years, and then he caught me making pictures out of the frost on the windows -- like most children do, but with magic. It killed him to give me up, I know it did, but he was very religious and he thought it was the right thing to do.

“I was brought to the Circle when I was almost eight. I met my friends, Jowan and Anders, shortly after getting there. My mentor was the First Enchanter himself, and he was never anything but kind to me. I was never afraid of the Templars. Da had always told me they were good people. But I was still… terribly lonely, even with all of that. I missed my family. I missed my home.

“And one night, a year or two later, while I was sleeping, I heard a little boy, calling out into the Fade. He was being cast off by his family, and he was angry that no one would listen to him. I tried to help, but I didn’t know he couldn’t hear me. The First Enchanter told me to stay away, but… I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. That was my Voice. He was… the other half of me. I couldn’t leave him alone.

“His life turned from bad to worse. He hated where he was, and he didn’t have anyone to talk to. And then -- his father died. He -- had a dream that night, where… they were all on a ship.”

Wait… no . There was no way this was possible.

“And it was raining, and a sailor got tangled in the rigging, and… his father got swept overboard trying to help.”

“Solona --”

“And he was able to pull his father back up, saving his life -- which he hadn’t been able to do in real life.”

Solona --

“And then, less than a year ago, I couldn’t find him in my dreams anymore. He was just… gone one night. I searched for weeks, ” she said, holding back her tears, “but I found nothing. So I… I waited until Irving needed me to get supplies from the storeroom, and I stole all the lyrium potions I could find quickly. I took them all. Every last one.”

At his alarmed look, she quickly clarified.

“Just -- just to stay in the Fade longer, just to try -- but all I found was that I’d seriously worried a Templar friend of mine. He took me to the infirmary and said I had a fever. They left me to rest, and Jowan found me. I told him my Voice was dead. I never found him in the Fade again, after all, so how could I know otherwise?”

“Solona,” he said, his heart breaking for her. "I --"  What could he even say? He'd just listened to... what she'd just told him... He'd never told anyone about that dream. Ever. He'd honestly hoped to have a version of it again so he could save Duncan, even if it wasn't real. And the only person in Thedas who would have understood that was standing right next to him, telling him his own story.

He felt almost weightless as he realized: she's always been here. The Arl cast me off, my father didn't want me -- but she saw it all and she's still here.

“It’s creepy, right?” she said, letting the tears flow freely now. “It -- spending your whole life spying on someone else’s dreams? Learning all about them without them even knowing you’re there? How awful is that? It’s -- that’s what demons do.”

He put his hand under her chin and guided her to look at him. He tried to look reassuring, but he was just -- this was so much. It was everything. Someone had always been there. She had always been there. Listening. Understanding. He hadn’t been alone.

“You're not a demon," he said. "This -- explains a lot, actually.”

Her eyes went wide, and her hands were shaking, but he just grinned at her.

“You really are the girl of my dreams.”

She laughed, even through her tears, leaning into his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and it felt so natural.

“You are the worst, ” she said.

“I do my best. What can I say?”

She looked up at him, her eyes practically overflowing with emotion. His probably were, too. This was why. This was why she understood him so well, why she knew just what he needed. He wanted to learn everything about her -- so that he could do the same.

He swore to himself, silently, that he would be there for her. He would do anything for her.

And he sealed it with a kiss.

Chapter Text

Things passed in something of a blur after that. Or maybe Alistair just wasn’t paying enough attention. (To be fair, if he was distracted, it was for a good reason.)

Leliana’s dream was unsettling -- she had forgotten who Solona and Alistair were, and only agreed to come with them once the demon posing as her old Revered Mother made a mistake. Wynne’s dream, though, could easily have doubled as a nightmare for Solona. Corpses of all the apprentices they’d met were scattered around a tower room, along with the senior mages and the First Enchanter himself. The demons had even remembered to add Barkspawn to the pile, which was an oddly unsettling touch. He knew the dog was alive and well, and so did Solona, but he was quietly relieved when it turned out to be a demon like all the others.

Then they fought the sloth demon itself, and now they were out of the Fade, tearing through the rest of the Tower because none of them knew how long they’d been in there. The Circle didn’t have any windows this high up, and while they knew it hadn’t been a whole day yet, she and Wynne were panicked about the Templars, the children, Barkspawn, and what might have gotten through. The group killed as many demons as quickly as they could, trying not to miss a single one and still hurry to the top of the Tower.

“Uldred has to be here somewhere,” Wynne remarked. “All that’s left is this next room and the Harrowing Chamber.”

“And if he knew we were here, he’d have killed us while we were dealing with the sloth demon. So we’ve got the element of surprise,” Solona said.

She burst through what Wynne had said was the last door -- and they saw a barrier, glowing a sickly purple-pink.

Solona gave a cry and rushed forward, dropping to her knees with a hard thud ; Alistair followed just behind, then realized… there was someone in there, on his knees. Praying, perhaps. He was in Templar armor, and he spoke haltingly, as if in great pain.

“This trick again? I know what you are. It won’t work. I will stay strong.”

“Cullen…”

Alistair could hear the heartbreak in her voice. Maybe this was that friend she’d mentioned, the one who helped her. If so… what had happened to him?

“The boy is exhausted. And this cage… I’ve never seen anything like it,” Wynne said. “Rest easy. Help is here.”

“He’s been tortured, ” Leliana added. “He’s been denied food and water. I can tell.”

Solona choked back a sob, silently shaking her head, as if to deny that any of this was happening. Alistair wanted to lift her up and get her out of here -- but he couldn’t very well do that. Not before getting the poor man out of there and dealing with Uldred.

“Sifting through my thoughts… tempting me with the one thing I always wanted but could never have… using my shame against me… my ill-advised infatuation with her… a mage , of all things…”

With a shuddering breath, Solona summoned up some mana, and tried to dispel the barrier. Nothing happened. She didn’t turn to Alistair, even as she asked for his assistance.

“Alistair, can you…”

“I -- I don’t know if it will work…”

Please .”

Alistair couldn’t refuse her; she sounded almost broken. He tried one of the harder dispelling tactics Templars used. The barrier shimmered, but stayed in place.

“I am so tired of these cruel jokes… these tricks… these…” Cullen said, breaking down into tears. “You broke the others, but I will stay strong… for my sake… for theirs…”

“Cullen, it’s -- we’re going to get you out of there somehow. Whatever it takes --”

“Silence! I’ll not listen to anything you say! Now begone!”

Cullen closed his eyes and took a few shallow, pained breaths. Now that Alistair could see his face properly, he noticed how thin the man looked, as if his skin were stretched over little more than bone. (Alistair couldn’t tell if the fear Cullen had was perfectly justified, paranoia from lyrium withdrawal, or both. Knowing the cruelty of these blood mages, it was probably both.) When Cullen opened his (haunted) eyes again, he started.

“Still here? But that’s always worked before!”

Solona put one hand on the barrier.

“I’m real,” she said. “And I’m going to help you.”

“Why have you returned to the Tower? How did you survive?” he asked.

“Outside circumstances brought me here… I only wish it had been sooner. I -- Cullen, I’m so sorry --”

“I don’t need your apologies!” he snapped. Alistair put a hand on Solona’s shoulder, for support. If he had reached through the barrier and slapped her, Solona couldn’t have looked more hurt. “And I am beyond caring what you think! The Maker knows my sin, and I pray he will forgive me.”

“The -- sin of liking someone?” Alistair interjected. He was fine with letting Solona have a reunion with her friends, and he felt sorry for the man, but Cullen was deliberately hurting her.  And as her Voice, he couldn't let that stand.

“It was the foolish fancy of a naive boy. I know better now.”

Solona had gone completely still. It was almost like she was a statue: on her knees before her friend, her hands clenched into fists, staring up at him in horror. Her eyes were absolutely locked on Cullen’s face, but he refused to meet her gaze.

“And to think, I once thought we were too hard on you,” Cullen spat. “But only mages have that much power at their fingertips. Only mages are so susceptible to the infernal whisperings of the demons.”

“This is a discussion for another time!” Wynne shouted. “Irving and the other mages who fought Uldred. Where are they?”

“They are in the Harrowing chamber. The sounds coming out of there… Maker.”

“We must hurry. They are in grave danger, I am sure of it,” Wynne said.

“You can’t save them! You don’t know what they’ve become!” Cullen argued. “They’ve been surrounded b-by blood mages whose wicked fingers snake into your mind and corrupt your thoughts.”

Despite everything, Alistair felt a stab of sympathy -- and kinship. He hates mages as much as I hate Loghain… and for the same reason.

What did they do to you?” Solona whispered.

Either Cullen didn’t hear her or he didn’t deign to answer.

“To ensure this horror is ended… to guarantee that no abominations or blood mages live, you must kill everyone up there.”

Solona’s face was a mask; Alistair couldn’t tell what she was thinking.

“I’ll assess the situation once we’re inside,” Solona said, swallowing hard. “And… that’s all I can promise. Well. That and I’ll bring you Uldred’s head on a pike.

Cullen said nothing for a long moment, apparently debating whether he wanted to continue arguing or not.

“Maker turn his gaze on you. I hope your wait-and-see plan doesn’t doom us all.”

The four of them walked away from Cullen; Solona didn’t so much as look at him again. Her motions were stiff and mechanical. But just before they opened the door to the Harrowing chamber, Solona shot an arm out in front of Alistair. He looked down at her. The tears were streaming down her face, but her expression was one of rage.

“Uldred is mine, ” she growled.

He couldn’t refuse her that.

Through the door, they heard the telltale crackle of lightning magic, and some muffled screaming.

“Do you accept the gift that I offer?” a deep voice cooed.

Solona burst through the door, Alistair just behind her -- and they saw horror . Abominations lined the chamber, and one mage was electrocuting another in the center of the room. Bodies were huddled together in small groups on the floor.  This… this was a nightmare. 

Before their eyes, the mage who was being electrocuted nodded, glowed white, and transformed into a hideous, twisted facsimile of a man. A hunch of melted flesh had grown over the man’s shoulders and neck -- and the resulting abomination shambled off to join its kin on the perimeter of the room.

The ringleader mage -- who Alistair assumed was Uldred -- was a bald man with a nose sharp enough to cut cheese. He turned to them all with a sickening smile, his eyes settling on Solona.

“Ah, I remember you. Irving’s star pupil,” the mage said with a heavy dose of irony. “Uldred didn’t think much of you then, and I certainly don’t see your appeal now.”

Solona said nothing, but Alistair could see her hands were shaking. It was like the rage was choking her.

“I’m quite impressed you’re still alive. Unfortunately, that must mean you killed my servants,” Uldred said airily. “Ah, well. They are probably better off dying in the service of their betters than living with the terrible responsibility of independence.”

“You’re turning people into -- monsters!” Leliana cried.

“And freeing them in the process. A mage is but the larval form of something greater. Your Chantry vilifies us, calls us abominations, when we have truly reached our full potential,” Uldred said, gesturing to the bodies around the room -- which Alistair was shocked to see were still moving. “Look at them. The Chantry has them convinced. They deny themselves the pleasure of becoming something glorious.”

“You’re mad! ” Wynne shouted. “There’s nothing glorious about what you’ve become, Uldred!”

“Uldred? He is gone!” the abomination laughed. “I am Uldred and yet not Uldred. I am more than he was. I could give you this gift -- both of you. You and all mages. It would be so much easier if you just… accepted it. But some people can be so stubborn.”

“I’m glad so many of them stood up to you,” Alistair said. He would defy this abomination with everything he had.

“What good did that do? I still won,” Uldred replied. “Oh, wait! Look who we have here! Why, it’s the First Enchanter! Come say hello to your old apprentice, Irving! Don’t mind the blood. He’s had a… hard day.”

If Solona was still before, now she was stiff. Frozen and yet tense, like a bowstring drawn back.  Alistair did not envy Uldred.

“What have you done to him?” Wynne cried.

“Stop him… he is… building an army…” Irving managed to sputter. “He will… destroy the templars… and --”

“You’re a sly little fox, Irving, telling on me like that!” Uldred said in a tone that one would use on a particularly precocious pet. “And here I thought he was starting to turn.”

“N-never!” Irving shouted.

Solona was saying something quietly to herself -- and only now did anyone notice. Uldred glided forward, as if he had all the time in the world to spare.

“If you’re reciting a spell, rest assured I am far more powerful than you could ever --”

He was cut off by Solona’s left hook to his jaw. She had knocked him off-balance, and pressed her advantage with a strike to the chest.

The abominations charged forward, forcing Alistair, Wynne, and Leliana to close ranks around Solona and Uldred. Alistair had his shield up, guarding Solona with it as much as he could. Leliana’s arrows made satisfying thwip-thud sounds into the chests of several abominations before they reached the small circle. Wynne froze a few others, and shattered them with a Stonefist spell.

If Alistair had been a lesser man, he might have been jealous. Instead, he took a step to the side, and killed an abomination that Leliana’s arrows hadn’t quite finished off.

Behind them, Uldred began to prepare another lightning spell, but Solona was not in the mood to play nice. She hit him again in the head. Then the chest. Then the throat. She struck again and again, anywhere she could reach. And now Alistair could hear what she was saying.

“You son of a bitch. How dare you,” she growled.

An abomination stumbled its way over towards Wynne, and she pushed it back with a Mind Blast spell. While it was stunned, Alistair charged at it, knocking it down with his shield and stabbing it in the neck.

There were only three abominations left now. Easy work for Wynne and Leliana.  

Alistair heard a thud and turned around, praying it wasn’t Solona -- and he saw Uldred collapse. Solona kicked him onto his back, hard , and straddled his probably-broken ribs, continuing to punch him in the head and neck, repeating the same words over and over: how dare you, how dare you, how dare you.

She didn’t even seem to notice that he was dead.

“Hey -- hey . Solona,” Alistair called.

He pulled her firmly away from Uldred’s body. She seemed deflated now, limp and exhausted. She was kneeling on the floor, like she didn’t have the strength to stand. Alistair pulled her to her feet, wrapping his arms around her waist to support her.

“You did it -- he’s gone, you killed him.”

“Only once.”

She stared off into the distance, unreachable by any of them for a long moment. Then, she seemed to return to herself somewhat.

“Would you and Leliana help my fr-- Cullen… get down the stairs, please? I don’t know what sort of condition he’s in, so bring some water and some elfroot potions… and I hate to ask, but if you’ve any lyrium to spare, I’m sure he could use it.”

Alistair blinked.

“Are you… sure  you want us to go?”

“The mages can look after their own,” she replied. Her words were clipped, but he understood. Give us space.

Solona broke from his grip and stood on her own two wobbly legs. She stumbled over to where the First Enchanter and a small group of other mages were huddled. The First Enchanter grabbed hold of Solona and embraced her with all the protective fierceness of a father. Alistair heard him say something like “well done,” as Solona apologized and buried her face in his shoulder. The two of them started to cry as they held onto each other, and it spread to the other mages and Wynne -- a mournful wail for those lives that had been so senselessly lost.

Alistair turned away from them, wiping a tear from his own eye. He and Leliana walked down the stairs.

Chapter Text

Every child in the Circle learned that tears were a weakness. They attracted the attention of the Templars, who were always watching for “undue displays of emotion,” as well as the other apprentices, who were always watching to make sure no one got them in trouble. And so, every child in the Circle either did away with the need for tears entirely (as Jowan, who cultivated a shallowness of feeling, or Anders, who hid behind his humor, did) or they learned to shed their tears in absolute silence.

Solona was one of the latter.

Alone in the room Bann Teagan had graciously assigned her for the night ( it’s the least we can do after you saved Connor, ), without anyone watching or listening, or any worry that anyone would , Solona could still only let herself go in complete, all-encompassing silence.

A short -- but not too short -- knock at the door announced that perhaps someone was listening.

“Who is it,” she managed to squeak through a swollen throat.

“It’s -- it’s me. Alistair. I know you probably don’t want to talk about it -- and that’s fine, really, you can take your time -- but I brought you something and… I thought you might want it.”

Solona wiped her eyes on her sleeve, fruitlessly attempted to do something about the mess that was her hair, and, taking a deep breath, opened the door.

Alistair, not in his usual armor, but a slightly-too-big dark blue shirt and pants she didn’t know he had, stood just at the threshold with -- a tea tray. A small blue teapot with encouraging steam rising from the spout sat in the middle, with two almost-matching teacups beside it, and some fried bread on a napkin.

She looked from the tray to the man and back again a few times over. He turned pink from the tips of his ears to his cheeks.

“I, ah -- the First Enchanter told me you like tea, and once the new kitchen staff heard that, they were overjoyed to provide some.”

Solona took a step to the side, letting Alistair come in -- which he did with an almost comical amount of care. She shut the door behind him and sat down on the bed. Alistair held the teapot as gently as he would hold a kitten, and he poured her a cup.

He offered her the cup; she took it, feeling somewhat grounded from its warmth against her hands. It was too hot to drink just yet, but it was comforting all the same. Alistair sat down next to her.

“You’ve been up here since you came back from the Fade. I -- thought you might be hungry, and you like tea, and everyone loves fried bread -- um, unless you don’t, I mean, it is a little bland, but I didn’t want to make you wait for something more complicated --”

“Alistair.”

She couldn’t help the soft chuff of breath that escaped her or the smile playing about her lips.

“I guess it was just a stupid impulse. I don’t know, was it the wrong one?”

“Not at all.”

Solona put the teacup on the floor, lest she spill it. She laid her head down on his shoulder, and he wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her close.

“Why are you being nice to me?” she asked.

She immediately felt ungrateful. But, really, why was he? After everything that had happened, she barely felt comfortable in her own skin, so why was anyone -- let alone Alistair, of all people, good-hearted soul that he was -- concerned about her well-being?

“The whole ‘Voice’ thing comes to mind, for one,” he said. She could hear the lopsided grin in his voice.

“... I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“Irving told Duncan to recruit me to get me out of the Circle, and now there’s a Blight, and the Circle’s destroyed, and you’re stuck with me instead of someone capable.”

“You’re perfectly -- you’re more than capable, and you saved the Circle.”

“By, what, a day? The Right of Annulment was all but certain. The Templars would have killed Uldred. Fuck, after what happened, Greagoir would probably have beaten him to death anyway,” Solona said.

“Even if I granted that -- and I don’t -- what about your friend Cullen? You rescued him. Just because he can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not true.

“He survived on his own strengths. He’d have made it through, whether I was there or not,” Solona said, the tears starting to build again. “I changed nothing . I helped no one.

“You helped Connor,” Alistair said. “The Templars even agreed that he can stay home until the end of the war.”

“Because they need time to rebuild the Circle before taking in anyone new. Because I failed them.”

“You helped me.

She looked away. It’s only a matter of time before I fail you, too .

“You know, you can put down the world anytime. It looks uncomfortable to keep holding it like that,” he said, rubbing her arm playfully.

“We’re Grey Wardens, Alistair. And somehow I’m in charge -- of all the horrifying thoughts -- so putting this weight on these bony shoulders is sort of my job now.”

“Your shoulders are not bony. And anyway, being a Grey Warden doesn’t mean you need to carry everything all the time,” Alistair said. “And I would know. I was a Grey Warden for six whole months before you were recruited.”

She took a look at him from her perch on his shoulder in disbelief. The way this man switched from awkward to sincere to sarcastic and back again… she found it endearing, though it wasn’t matching up to the gaping chasm of loss and grief that had settled in her chest.

“... I wanted to come up here and thank you, anyhow. You went out of your way to save the arl’s family and you did it, even though it would have been easier not to.”

“You and I have vastly different definitions of ‘easy,’” Solona replied. “Killing a child would be just about the hardest thing I could ever do. ‘Going out of my way’ to save him was vastly easier.”

“And that’s why Duncan recruited you,” Alistair said, resting his chin on the top of her head. “Irving might have told him about you, but Duncan -- if he recruited someone, it’s because he saw something in them that was worthy of being a Grey Warden. Not just skill, but principles and conscience.”

Solona’s lower lip trembled -- like a child’s, as if her carefully-constructed facade of adulthood was going to come crashing down around her -- and she pulled away, burying her head in her hands.

“Hey -- wait, I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong? Don’t cry -- I mean, cry if you have to, really, it’s all right, but --” Alistair sounded disgusted with himself. “That -- sounded better in my head. But…”

She couldn’t bring herself to be comforted by that. The tears were slipping through her fingers, fast and scalding hot, leaving little drips on the skirt of her robe.

The Circle is gone. Half of Redcliffe is gone. The Grey Wardens are gone, Duncan and Cailan are gone. Irving and Cullen are still here, technically, but -- how many other people are we going to lose? How many more people am I going to fail to save?

Solona heard Alistair get up from the bed -- of course he would, whether she was ruining this because of the crushing despair or he’d realized that what she was saying was true, it didn’t matter. He should leave. Everyone who got close to her, even for a moment, ended up dead, gone, or irrevocably changed. Even him. Perhaps especially him.

And then she felt a strong hand on one of her wrists. Not pulling, just gently resting there -- an invitation that she was free to decline. Please look at me, it said. Or not. Just -- it’s an option, you know?

She looked up -- in spite of every good instinct the Circle had tried to teach her -- and saw Alistair on his knees in front of her, looking, for once in his life, perfectly serious behind his smile. He let go of her wrist and wiped some of her tears away in a deliberate caress.

“Well -- this seems as good a time as any,” he said. “Here -- do you know what this is?”

From behind his back, he revealed -- a big, beautiful, deep red rose. It was trembling slightly -- were his hands shaking? He looked away for half a heartbeat, then locked his eyes on hers.

“Literally?” she asked. Because while yes, it was a flower, metaphorically speaking, it could mean any number of things.

“I was thinking I’d use it as a new weapon. Watch as I thrash our enemies with the mighty power of floral arrangements! Feel my thorns, darkspawn! I shall overpower you with my rosy scent!” Alistair said. “Or, you know, it could just be a rose. I know that’s pretty dull by comparison.”

Solona couldn’t help the tiny smile she had. Alistair took a breath, and continued.

“I picked it in Lothering. I remember thinking, ‘how could something so beautiful exist in a place with so much despair and ugliness?’” He ran a thumb over the velvety petals. “I probably should have left it alone, but I couldn’t. The darkspawn would come and their taint would just destroy it. So I’ve had it ever since.”

“That’s -- very sweet, Alistair.”

“I thought that I might -- give it to you, actually. In a lot of ways, I think the same thing when I look at you.”

Solona was shocked still, her eyes moving from the rose to Alistair and back again.

“You’ve had none of the good experience of being a Grey Warden since your Joining. Not a word of thanks or congratulations. It’s just been death and fighting and tragedy,” he said. “I thought maybe I could say something. Tell you what a rare and wonderful thing you are to find amidst all this… darkness.”

He held the flower out to her; she took it with a watery smile. She could try to overanalyze this, figuring out exactly what it all means using bits of plant lore she’d picked up at her time in the Circle, or what red roses were a metaphor for in poetry, or even beat herself up for being undeserving of it -- because she certainly was , she hadn’t done anything worthy of something like this -- but… this time, maybe she should just make her thoughts shut up and enjoy the pretty flower her Voice gave her.

“Thank you,” she said.

And they sat in silence for a moment, before Alistair cleared his throat.

“So… I’ve, er, never been anyone’s Voice before. How am I doing?”

“You’re perfect,” she said.

“Oh, good.” He let out a sigh of relief. “I was worried there for a minute.”

Solona chuckled. Then hesitated. She put the rose down beside her and took his hand, gently guiding him to sit with her.

“We… didn’t have time to go into it before, so -- do you actually know what a Voice is?”

“Sort of? In the Chantry, some of the initiates would whisper about it a little, that it… gives a mage total control over someone else. A bit like blood magic.”

“Wow,” she said with a very Alistairian laugh. “No. I mean, maybe in Tevinter or somewhere, but just… no. Not at all.”

“I thought as much,” Alistair admitted. “A friend of mine talked about something that sounds similar. He said that he could see into the dreams of another boy. I think he said he was a slave, far away.”

“Was this Aidan?”

“You -- did I dream about him?”

“Often, especially a few years ago. He seemed kind.”

“He was. I wonder if he ever found the boy.”

“I’m sure he did.”

Alistair squeezed her hand. She brought herself to look him in the eyes -- this was a moment for honesty -- and what she found there overwhelmed her. Gratitude and kindness and care -- if she could see him looking at her like that every day, it was all she could ask for.

“Anyway, no. It’s not a blood magic thing. It’s -- between Voices, there is the potential for a bond. A soul bond. I’m… not clear on all of the specifics, but basically, a bonded mage is more powerful, and a bonded couple can sort of… feel each other’s emotions. But like all power, it has a few… functional limitations,” Solona said. “Once the bond is made, I don’t think there’s any way to un make it. So if you bond with your Voice, you’re bonded for life.”

Alistair gave a low whistle. There wasn’t really any other response to that, really. Solona wanted to heal this, smooth it all over so that it didn’t sound quite so bad, so she quickly added:

“Like I said, all that’s there right now is potential. It -- doesn’t have to happen.”

“How would it go from ‘potential’ to ‘real’?”

“Um. Well… it… the bond forms due to… um.”

Her face was hot, and probably the brightest possible red. And Alistair was just smiling kindly at her, waiting for her to finish stammering out her sentence. Damn him. She fussed with the end of her braid, for want of something to do with her free hand.

“It -- forms by itself, there’s no magic ritual or whatever, but… it… it takes intimacy. Like… physically.”

“Oh… Oh. ” Alistair’s blush now matched her own. It wasn’t fair that it was adorable on him. She always felt so horrified when she blushed.

“I mean -- most Voices don’t, um, mind . It usually ends up being a romantic kind of thing. Because it’s… you’re sort of drawn to your Voice, in a way. Like, they get under your skin and settle there -- and you need them there like you need to breathe.”

“Speaking from experience, I take it?” Alistair teased.

“Honestly? Yes.”

He hadn’t expected that, had he? His grin faded immediately, replaced by a vulnerable, earnest expression he didn’t often wear. He cupped her cheek with his free hand, running his thumb along just along her cheekbone.

“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask. Have you ever…”

“Ever… ever what? Ever had a good pair of shoes?”

"You know what I mean, Alistair," Solona said, face both red and grumpy.

“I’m not sure I do. Have I never seen a basilisk? Ate jellied ham? Have I never licked a lamppost in winter?”

“You are ridiculous.”

“I try,” he said with his most charming grin. “Well, tell me. Have you ever licked a lamppost in winter?”

She tried to give him a flat look, but she ended up smiling.

“No. Literally or otherwise.”

“Good, I hear it’s quite painful. One of the younger initiates did it on a dare once and there was pointing and laughing…  oh, the humanity,” he said, playing up the drama. “I, myself, have also never done… it. That. Not that I haven’t thought about it, of course, but… you know.”

“The Chantry will do that,” Solona said.

“Exactly. It’s not a life for rambunctious boys. They taught me to be a gentleman. Especially in the presence of beautiful women such as yourself. That’s… not so bad, is it?”

Solona felt almost weightless for a moment. Nobody had ever told her she was beautiful. Well -- no, Da had, but… this was different. This was very different.

“You… think I’m beautiful?”

“Of course you are, and you know it.”

Solona looked away.

“You -- you do know it, right? Like, all the boys and half the girls in the Circle told you so often it got annoying to hear it? Especially the one with the crush on you?”

“He was too frightened of me to actually talk to me much.”

“... I can see that.”

“Oh, wow, thanks.”

“Beautiful women are intimidating. Especially ones who can throw a rock the size of a house at your head if you offend them.”

“I would never -- well… all right, good point.”

Alistair laughed. Solona joined him, in spite of everything else that had happened. He centered her, grounded her, forced her to find the joy in things.

How could I ever do this without you? she thought, as she reached up to stroke his cheek.

“Can I ask… Why didn’t you tell me earlier? You know, about the whole… Voice… thing,” he said.

“Like, hi, nice to meet you, your name is Alistair, I know that because I watch you while you sleep?” she deadpanned.

“Fair enough.” He laughed.

“Honestly, though?” Her gaze drifted away from him and her tone went serious. “Very little of your life has been by your choice. You didn’t choose your parentage, you didn’t choose to be a Templar, you didn’t even choose to be a Grey Warden, Duncan did. So I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you that here’s something else you don’t get a choice in, something else that someone else has already decided for you. I couldn’t -- I can’t -- do that to you.”

Alistair looked suddenly terrified -- she was mangling this already, and she hadn’t even started. Maker, what a mess she was. Solona took both of his hands in hers, trying to will him to feel how much she meant this.

“So I decided… not to decide. You know what’s going on, and I’ll answer any more questions you have, if I can, but -- when or if any bond forms between us -- it’s your call. No strings. No pressure. I’ll understand either way, and I’ll stand by you regardless.”

Alistair opened and closed his mouth a few times, trying to formulate words, and it was just so Maker-taken adorable that she smiled and squeezed his hands.

“It -- a bond is forever, and… considering that Grey Wardens don’t tend to live long, peaceful, idyllic lives -- I don’t want to stand in the way if this isn’t what you want.”

“Why would you think this isn’t what I want?”

She smiled.

“I don’t. I just -- I’m willing to wait, take this slow, whatever you want. I want you to be happy. I wasn’t -- I wasn’t really prepared to ever meet you. I didn’t think it would happen,” she said. “And with everything we do, all the battles we get into, it’s… it’s like my heart is walking around outside me, and all I can do is protect it as best I can. But even though this is new to me, it’s even newer to you.”

Slowly, he brought his lips down to her hand, for a proper courtly kiss. As if she were a lady. A princess. It was gentle and sweet and almost sacred.

I love you, she thought. It echoed with every beat of her heart. I love you, I love you.

“It feels -- unfair, though. In a way. You know a lot about me, but… I don’t know all that much about you,” Alistair said.

“There’s… not a lot to know.”

“However much or little there is, I’d -- like to learn. If you don’t mind.”

She took a glance at Alistair. His eyes were pleading with her, for just this one chance. And so she reached into her pack, pulling out her small brown leather journal. She flipped to the front.

An old sketch of a middle-aged man stared back at her. His hair was dark, but greying at the temples, and he had a large nose and large, caring eyes. She could see so many flaws in the art, so many different ways she could improve the drawing, that she nearly cringed to look at it.

“This is your father, right?” Alistair asked.

Solona nodded. “How I remember him, anyway. He probably looks different now.”

“You have the same eyes.”

She smiled softly, flipping to the next page, where a much younger Solona had drawn a little house with terrible proportions and a roof that looked like it was going to fall down. She laughed when she saw it.

“Oh, it’s awful, ” she said. “This was supposed to be our house. Da’s and mine. I don’t remember the home we had in Kirkwall; I was too young. This is the only place I ever remember living before the Circle. It was small, but it was home.”

On the next page, First Enchanter Irving stood in front of a room full of students, lecturing.

“I -- forget what he was actually trying to teach us about that day,” Solona said. “I’m sure I know it, I just can’t recall. It had to have been early on, though.”

The two of them went through page after page of the sketchbook, with Solona explaining who each person was and how it mattered to her: this was her old room at the Circle, these were her best friends.

“Now he looks like trouble,” Alistair said, when they reached a picture of Anders.

“He is,” Solona replied with a laugh. “He escaped the Circle something like ten times.”

Ten?”

“It’s a talent,” Solona said, tracing just above Anders’ smile with her fingers. “I even helped once.”

“You -- really?”

“What? Did you think I always followed the rules?” Solona teased. “And it was important, that time.”

“You miss him.”

“Always. But never for long. He’s not so good at staying gone.”

The page that had Cullen’s picture on it -- he was standing, wearing his armor, rubbing the back of his neck with a bashful smile… She’d been so proud when she finally managed to capture her gentle friend on paper. She’d even debated showing it to him, but decided against it. She regretted that now.

“He’ll come around,” Alistair said.

“How are you so sure?”

“They never broke him. He’s still in there under all that grief. He just needs time and distance to sort himself out.”

“You sounded almost wise there,” Solona replied, smiling at him.

“Don’t tell anyone, would you? I have a reputation.”

“I just -- I wish he hadn’t had to suffer at all.”

Solona didn’t expect a reply. There was nothing to say to that. Alistair squeezed her hand and they turned the page. It had a sketch of Duncan on it, with a kind chuckle clearly visible in his body language.

“Here,” she said. “You keep this one.”

Alistair blinked, looking away from the drawing to Solona.

“But isn’t this your only sketchbook?”

“It is, but I don’t really like drawing in it. It’s too nice. It feels so official ,” Solona laughed softly. “So I ended up drawing on anything else I could find. I used to hide drawings behind the mirrors in the apprentice quarters. You know, take off the back of the mirror, put the drawing inside, replace the back? The Templars never look there. I save this book for the important drawings -- things that matter.”

“I don’t want to rip it, if it’s that nice.”

“Do you want the sketch or not?”

“Well -- I mean, yes, but…”

Solona stared him down as she tore the page out carefully and handed it to Alistair. He folded it and set it aside, looking slightly sheepish.

Oh shit.

Solona had forgotten that the next page was a sketch of Alistair himself. Oh no oh no oh no, no, no, he couldn’t see it. It wasn’t a good drawing at all, it wasn’t even finished, he’d be upset, she hadn’t told him that she was drawing him -- she started to move her hand to cover the drawing… but it was too late.

A pencil sketch of Alistair doing battle with a darkspawn stared up at them. The darkspawn was on the defensive, as Alistair pressed forward, trying to take it out with his shield.

“Wow,” he said.

He was silent for a long moment, and Solona wished the ground would open up and swallow her whole.

“I like it. The lines are very… wooshy.”

She stared at him, jaw dropped. That was exactly what she’d been going for.

“What?” Alistair asked. “Did I -- say something wrong?”

Solona closed the sketchbook, put it aside, and kissed him.

He gave a muffled sound of surprise… but quickly relaxed into the kiss, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close. Her lips parted for his tongue, and the two of them cleaved to each other, as if they couldn’t possibly be close enough.

She placed slow, gentle kisses along his jawline and down his neck; he shivered and made a quiet moan.

“S-Solona,” he whispered, his voice gone husky.

And Maker if that wasn’t the best thing she had ever heard.

She stopped, though, in case that was a protest, rather than encouragement. She pulled away, though she noticed he didn’t let go of her.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered back. “I got -- carried away. It’s just… you’re trying so hard to… to get to know me as a person, and to understand. You brought me tea, you listened, you complimented my terrible artwork… I -- appreciate you. And I want you to know that.”

He pulled her back to him and kissed her again. But this kiss wasn’t Solona’s abrupt ‘appreciation.’ This was heartbreakingly tender; he was showing her his heart. And so she showed hers in return, thinking what she wouldn’t let herself say: I love you, I love you, I’ve always loved you.

They spent the rest of the night like that, alternately talking, kissing, and having the (magically-reheated) fried bread and tea. Dawn found them tangled together, holding on as if they never meant to let go.

 

END OF PART TWO

Chapter Text

It was lucky they reached Denerim before it started to snow. Alistair was mostly all right, considering he wore armor most of the time, but Wynne and Solona were obviously freezing with the quick drop in temperature that heralded winter in Ferelden. They’d all agreed to coming to the city in slightly staggered groups so that no one drew undue attention, and Alistair and Solona were on their own for the first half-hour.

The chance to be alone with Solona for the first time since Redcliffe had been rather a large selling point on this plan. When they woke up that morning, after sleeping together -- not,  not sleeping together, just literally sleeping side-by-side -- they’d agreed to… take things slow.

And even though it was his idea, and there were good reasons for it, and all that -- Maker, it was driving him crazy . Now that he knew , now that they’d kissed , it was so much harder to keep away. He felt… touch-starved, and there was only one person who could make that go away. Alistair even mentioned that to Solona, and she’d just smiled softly at him and didn't say anything.

There was another reason for splitting up into groups, though. While the other members of the party were interested in doing shopping of all kinds, Solona and Alistair were going hunting for two very particular individuals: namely, Brother Genitivi and -- hopefully -- Goldanna.

A poster on the wall caught his eye: WANTED, for treason and regicide… with a portrait of Solona, done badly in pencil. She could draw a better one, he thought nonsensically. He hovered an arm behind her shoulders, guiding her away from the poster. He didn’t want her to have to see that, even though he knew she probably should. Still, he positioned himself between her and the street, lest anyone recognize her as they passed the Chantry.

“All men are the work of our Maker’s hands

From the lowest slaves to the highest kings.

Those who bring ham without provocation

Are breaded and accursed by the Maker.”

That… wasn’t exactly how Alistair remembered it. Solona and Alistair, as if by mutual agreement, slowed their walk almost to a stop. I have to have heard wrong, Alistair thought.

“The one who repents, who has faith

Unshaken by the darkness of the world

And roasts not, nor gloats

Over the misfortunes of the weak, but takes delight

In the Maker’s law and creations, she shall know

The bees of the Maker’s benediction.

The Light shall lead her safely

Through the paths of this world, and into the next.”

Oh, there was no mistake. Alistair thought his ribcage was going to explode. He couldn’t breathe, but he couldn't laugh .

“The Veal holds no uncertainty for her,

And she will know no fear of death, for the Maker

Shall be her bacon and her shield --”

The Chanter was interrupted by someone else, but Solona leaned over to him, her whisper a tickle against his ear.

“Blessed are the cheese-keepers, the champions of the crust.”

Alistair snorted. And they both lost it. Their laughter was loud, undignified, and infectious -- or, at least, made people passing by crack a smile.

“I wonder why nobody taught me her version of the Chant when I was a templar,” Alistair managed to squeeze out between giggles.

“It’s clearly better,” Solona agreed, wheezing and wiping a tear from her eye. She stood up straight after a moment and looked at him and… they needed to keep moving, right? Right. No distractions right now.

And yet, there was one. Well, several, really. But one big one. It sounded so stupid, but… he wanted to hold her hand. It… couldn’t be bad to do that, right? It was just holding hands, after all, it’s not like it was scandalous or anything. There were probably dozens of couples all doing it right now -- and… they were a couple, right? His hand reached into the empty space between them, then came back to his side, over and over again, as he tried to decide if he should do this or not.

When they arrived at the address Lady Isolde had given them -- was Solona shaking?

“Nervous?” Alistair asked. She took a deep breath.

“I know we’re here for Arl Eamon. But I've read all  of Brother Genitivi’s books that the Circle had, and I have no idea what I’m going to say to him.”

Alistair chuckled and reached over her to knock on the door. She let out a small squeak, and the door was answered -- by a person who, from Solona’s disappointed stare, was not Brother Genitivi.

“Hello?” the man said, looking bewildered.

“Hello. We were, um, looking for Brother Genitivi?” Solona looked a bit like Barkspawn when he had to wait for dinner.

“My name is Weylon. I’m Brother Genitivi’s assistant.”

“Is he in?” Solona asked.

“No. I haven’t seen him in weeks. He’s sent no word. It’s so unlike him,” Weylon said in a monotone. “I’m afraid something has happened. Genitivi’s research into the Urn may have led him into danger.”

Weylon seemed strangely unconcerned, standing casually in the doorway of the scholar’s home. His voice was that of a man who wished to sound concerned, with no real emotion -- or even decent acting -- behind it. Solona’s eyes narrowed slightly. Alistair doubted Weylon noticed, but he knew Solona well enough to know when she was onto something.

“Why would searching for the Urn lead him into danger?” Solona asked pointedly.

“Perhaps the Urn has been lost for a reason. I pray for Genitivi’s safety, but hope dwindles with each passing day.”

“Where did Brother Genitivi go?” Alistair asked.

“All he said before he left was that he was going to an inn near Lake Calenhad. He was investigating something in that area.”

Solona raised an eyebrow. “What was he investigating, exactly?”

“I don’t know. All I discovered from going through his research was that he was staying at the inn.”

“Brother Genitivi is excellent with this sort of thing,” Solona said, her voice casual. “I mean, he found the lost city of Barindur. What’s the Urn of Sacred Ashes to a city gone missing?”

“He -- he is exceptional, and that was a brilliant find of his. To be sure. But this search -- some things are not meant to be found. I know that now.”

“Who are you, really?” Solona asked.

Got you, Alistair thought, letting a small proud smirk cross his face, even though he didn't know what was happening.

“What -- I’m Weylon, Genitivi’s assistant --”

“Are you? His assistant should know exactly where he is, or, at the very least, would be able to keep his own story straight. And his assistant should know that Genitivi never found the lost city of Barindur. ” Solona, understandably, looked a bit smug.

“I gave you a chance to turn aside and forget you ever heard about Genitivi and the Urn. But you persisted. Now it has come to this,” the man posing as Weylon hissed. “Andraste forgive me. I do this in Your Name.”

He fired a spell at Solona, knocking her back. But he didn’t stand a chance against Alistair. One quick cut of his sword, and the man calling himself Weylon was dealt with.

“Are you all right?” Alistair asked, helping Solona up.

Solona nodded, and the pair of them stepped into the house proper. She looked around quickly, trying to get an idea of the layout, Alistair supposed. Or trying to plan what to do now. Or both.

“Let’s look around,” Solona said. “We might be able to find a clue to where Brother Genitivi really went.”

Alistair began to inspect the books on the shelves, while Solona went into the kitchen.

“That was good thinking, by the way,” he called.

“What was?”

“The Barindur thing. He should have known about Genitivi’s research. You’d have made a better assistant than that… impostor.”

“If I’d ever had half a chance, I’d have jumped at that. It would have been a dream, ” Solona said.

“‘Would have?’” Alistair asked.

“It’s… a less desirable life than the one I have now. Blight notwithstanding.”

He and Solona had been together for weeks, and Alistair still hadn’t managed to figure out how she stole the breath out of him with just words. He paused in his search, turning and intending to go into the kitchen to talk to her properly -- but she was standing in the doorway, framed by the light from the other side. And it was all too easy to imagine that this , one day, could be theirs . One day it might be their kitchen and their dining room, and she might be leaning against their door frame, looking at him fondly in just this way.

“All I’ve found so far are a few books on dragon cults,” she began -- then stopped and smiled. “What’s that look for?”

“I don’t know, is there some particular way you’re supposed to look at your Voice? Be gentle, I bruise easily.”

Solona chuckled, walking towards him. She came close -- very close. He could feel the warmth of her body, though they still weren’t actually touching. And he was positive she could feel his heartbeat. He was positive half of Denerim could feel it, the way his heart was battering itself against his ribcage.

She raised a hand and rested it on his chest. Alistair shivered as she slowly brought her eyes up to his. They caught -- held.

“I’ve missed you,” he said, brushing a wayward lock of hair behind her ear.

“We’ve been together every day.”

“Not like this.”

Solona sighed, pulling away. “I’m sorry.”

Wait, no, that’s not what I meant.

Alistair pulled her back toward him, wrapping his arms around the curve of her waist. The world outside ceased to matter as those big blue eyes that always captivated him met his own. He placed a gentle, reassuring kiss on her forehead. A delicate pink flush swirled up and over her cheeks as she leaned forward, resting her hands on his arms.

“I missed you, too,” she whispered.

He smiled softly as she took a few steps toward what had to be the bedroom. Alistair followed behind. It was probably best that they didn’t get distracted just now. They needed to find out where Genitivi really went.

The room was large -- almost as large again as the kitchen -- and full of bookshelves, papers, and other scribblings. A large desk was positioned near the door, and a bed was located a bit farther away. This room was pulling double-duty as a bedroom and an office.

Toward the center of the room there was a chest. Solona paused a moment, then opened it. She pulled out a large leather book and began looking at it wonderingly.

“His research ,” she breathed.

“Then -- this could lead us right to him?”

“I’ll need some time to look at it and narrow down some options. But hopefully, yes.”

By the bed was a large, oddly-shaped lump of carpeting. Alistair’s curiosity got the better of him. Solona followed close behind as he unrolled the carpet -- and recoiled: a body.

Fuck.”

Alistair had to agree.

“Brother Genitivi?” he asked.

“No, this -- this man doesn’t look like his portrait.”

“Weylon, then? The real one?”

“Probably,” Solona said. “Or someone else who got too close.”

“Poor sod.”

Leaving the house, the pair wandered around a bit more, getting hopelessly lost in the middle of

Denerim. It wasn’t the busiest day he’d ever seen in Denerim, but there were a lot of people outside. More than Solona might be used to.

“How are you feeling?” Alistair asked.

Solona blinked at him.

“I mean, you haven’t been in a city -- have you? Not… not since you went to the Circle, anyhow, right?”

“It’s big and loud and bright,” she said, flashing him the biggest grin. “And I love it.

“Oh. Good. I was -- just wondering if you were… overwhelmed at all. It’s a lot of people.”

“It is,” she admitted. “But I love it anyway.”

“Was the Circle very quiet?”

Solona laughed outright. “No. We were supposed to keep the noise to a minimum, but there were several hundred people all in the same building. There’s only so much you can do. Eventually, the noise fades into a kind of hum in the background and you stop noticing it so much. And there are always quieter corners and out-of-the-way spaces.”

“Like the library?”

“Specifically, one corner of the library. It was dark, so no one liked to read there, but I didn’t mind. Sometimes others would have to use it, but generally speaking, it was mine.”

“The Wonders of Thedas!” Alistair said, pointing out a shop just ahead of them. “Arl Eamon bought me a miniature golem doll here once. I… had to leave it behind when I was sent to the Chantry.”

“That’s awful. You were a child,” Solona said.

“Didn’t you have to leave everything behind when you went to the Circle?”

Solona paused, and Alistair wished he could take the question back. But she had let him in before, and she seemed to want to continue that, because she went on.

“I had one little wooden doll that my father carved for me. I made clothes for her, tucked her into bed at night, read her stories, that sort of thing. She went with me everywhere,” Solona said.

“And that was all you had?”

“Da and I used to play cards sometimes.”

“For coin?”

“No, never. Da used all of the money from his family’s estate coming to Ferelden. He grew up noble and had to learn a trade as an adult, which meant we didn’t have any coin to spare.”

Alistair didn’t know what to say to her, so he reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze. She brought his hand up to her lips -- and didn’t let go, even as they walked on. Why was this so much easier for her?

“I didn’t really feel it, growing up. I had Da, and a friend or two, and my doll. It was just… how things were,” she said. “I remember when I first saw the library at the Circle and my jaw hit the floor. We had a book or two, but that … it was magical. I didn’t think it could possibly be real.”

Alistair stopped. This was the street. The street. Goldanna’s street.

“Everything all right? Was I boring you? Because we could talk about something else --”

“What? No! Not at all, it’s just… that’s… that’s my sister’s house. I’m almost sure of it, this is… yes, this is the right address. She could be inside. Could we… go and see?”

“Of course we can --”

“Do I seem a little nervous? I am. I really don’t know what to expect. I’d like you to be there with me, if you’re willing. Or we could… leave, I suppose. We really don’t have time to pay a visit, do we? Maybe we should go.”

“We can make time --”

“Will she even know who I am? Does she know I exist? My sister. That sounds very strange. ‘Sister. Siiiissster…’ Hmm. Now I’m babbling. Maybe we should go. Let’s go. Let’s just… go.”

“Alistair,” Solona said, giving his hands a squeeze. He stopped. “It’s going to be fine.”

They stepped into a small, dark house -- almost a hut, really -- that looked to be clean, but in poor repair.

“Er… hello?” Alistair called. A tall, slim woman emerged from the shadows of one of the rooms beyond. She spotted them and walked easily forward, as if she were used to this.

“Eh? You have linens to wash? I charge three bits on a bundle, you won’t find better. And don’t trust what that Natalia woman says. She’s foreign and she’ll rob you blind.”

“I’m… not here to have any wash done. My name’s Alistair. I’m… well, this may sound sort of strange, but are you Goldanna? If so, I suppose I’m your brother.”

“My what? I am Goldanna, yes… how do you know my name? What kind of tomfoolery are you folk up to?”

“Look, our mother… she worked as a servant in Redcliffe Castle a long time ago, before she died. Do you know about that? She --”

“You! I knew it! They told me you was dead! They told me the babe was dead along with Mother, but I knew they was lying.”

“They -- told you I was dead? Who? Who told you that?”

“Them’s at the castle! I told them the babe was the king’s, and they said he was dead. Gave me a coin to shut my mouth and sent me on my way! I knew it!”

“I’m sorry, I… didn’t know that. The babe didn’t die. I’m him; I’m… your brother.”

The babe might not have been dead, but any hope of a relationship with his sister died with her next scornful words.

“For all the good it does me! You killed Mother, you did, and I’ve had to scrape by all this time? That coin didn’t last long, and when I went back, they ran me off!”

“That’s not Alistair’s fault!” Solona cut in. Her face was bright red with anger, and her hands were clenched so tightly that her knuckles were bleeding white.

“And who in the Maker’s name are you? Some tart, following after his riches, I expect?”

Alistair was not a man who angered easily. But this time, he’d make an exception. This was Solona.

“Hey! Don’t speak to her that way! She’s -- she’s a Grey Warden, just like me!”

“Ooohhh, I see. A prince and a Grey Warden, too. Well, who am I to think poorly of someone so high and mighty compared to me?” Goldanna spat. “I don’t know you, boy. Your royal father forced himself on my mother and took her away from me, and what do I got to show for it? Nothing. They tricked me good! I should have told everyone! I got five mouths to feed, and unless you can help with that, I got less than no use for you.”

“I… I’m sorry. I… I don’t know what to say.”

Alistair deflated. This wasn’t how he’d expected this going at all.

“I hate to say it, Alistair, but I don’t think there’s anything for you here,” Solona muttered through clenched teeth. She turned her back to Goldanna and brought one arm against his chest, as if shielding him from his sister’s painful words. If only it were that easy.

“Yes, it really seems that way, doesn’t it? I’m starting to wonder why I came.”

“I don’t know why you came, either, or what you expected to find,” Goldanna said. “But it isn’t here! Get out of my house, both of you!”

The sister he’d been hoping to meet for the better part of a year threw him out of her house and slammed the door on his dreams of family.

And the soulmate he’d never expected to have looked a bit like she was about to set that house on fire.

“Are you all right?” Solona asked, putting a hand on his arm.

“... Not really, no. This is the family I’ve been wondering about all my life? That’s my sister? I can’t believe it,” he said. “I… I guess I was expecting her to accept me without question. Isn’t that what family is supposed to do?”

What a stupid question, he thought to himself. Only Duncan and Solona have ever accepted me without question. Everyone else wants something.

“I could do an ice shard between her shoulder blades. It won’t hurt, but it’ll be startling for a minute until it melts,” Solona suggested.

“She’d call the templars and get you in trouble.”

“Might be worth it.”

Alistair had to smile. Almost.

“I feel like a complete idiot.”

And he felt two arms wrap around his waist in a truly suffocating hug. Seriously, it was hard to breathe.

“You are not . Wanting to have people around who care about you is normal, Solona insisted. “And trying to find that in someone who’s supposed to be your sister was a natural starting point.”

“Starting point?”

Solona let him go and nodded. “You can make yourself a family.”

Is she implying… Alistair blushed… and then so did Solona.

“Ah. Ah-ha, no, not what I meant,” she said quickly. “I mean… Maybe it’s better to find people who care about you than it is to make your relatives care. Every Circle apprentice learns that family is what you make it.”

“The only person who ever cared about me is Duncan. And he’s gone.”

Solona melted a bit, and took his hand.

“Alistair… that’s --- that’s just… our friends care about you. And I… so do I, you have to know that by now.” She bit her lip, as if nervous. “Don’t you?”

And he did, of course he did , he wasn’t that stupid, but… right now, it was hard to recall why she cared. Why anyone would care.

“Let’s just go. I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” he said.

She looked away from him. “Do… do you want to head back? To camp, I mean?”

“I -- yes. Please.”

“All right. There are a few more things I want to pick up while I’m here, so I’ll walk you back and…”

“No, it’s -- it’s fine. I’ll go myself.”

He left her standing in the Denerim market just as it started to snow. And he felt like an ass before he’d taken two steps, but… maybe it would be better if he was alone for a while.

 


 

Hours passed. Alistair felt like a moody child, but he stayed in his tent. He didn’t have it in him to talk to anyone right now. At least, not until he apologized to Solona. On his knees, maybe. He wasn’t sure how angry she would be with him. She’d probably be furious. Not that-one-day-in-the-Circle mad, but leaving her by herself in a strange city had to warrant something.

And shit he’d completely forgotten that there had been posters up for her arrest. The city guard was looking for her, under Loghain’s orders, and he’d left her there. What if something had happened to her? It would be his fault.

So he sat in his tent, listening with everything he had, wondering when he should start to really worry, or if he should be already. But all he heard was Barkspawn and birdsong.

He was about to storm back into the city by himself when he heard Barkspawn’s telltale excited barking. Alistair sighed, relaxing into his bedroll. She was safe and she was here and he hadn’t gotten her killed or arrested.

A few moments later, he heard Solona’s voice, almost clearly.

“Knock, knock?”

“I -- think it’s open?” Alistair answered.

“Just wanted to respect your privacy,” Solona said, climbing inside.

And wow. Solona had bought a heavy, dark blue, hooded cloak. And underneath, Alistair caught a glimpse of an honest-to-Andraste dress, in the same blue, with a few glints of silver.

“Leliana ambushed me,” she said, by way of an explanation.

“She… it’s Grey Warden colors,” Alistair said.

“And I don’t know how she talked the merchant down in the price. Seriously, I may be able to control elemental forces, but that was magic,” Solona replied, laughing.

Alistair gave a thin smile. He didn’t know how angry she was, but she’d never been in his tent before, all things considered. How was he supposed to act? And she looked incredible, but was she too angry to want to hear that from him? But she was acting normally, so how upset was she?

“I won’t intrude for too long,” she said. “I just wanted to bring you something.”

She reached into her bag and pulled out…

“A miniature golem doll?” he asked. “You… got this for me?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “It’s for us.”

She showed him a Grey Warden doll, before quickly making the two dolls fight. The golem, understandably, won.

No please!” she said as the Grey Warden doll, in a truly ridiculous voice. “ I have so much for which to live! Aaaarrrggghh...”

The Grey Warden doll died a long, elaborate death, and Alistair had to laugh. She held both dolls out to him; he took them gratefully.

“Our brother-in-arms there was supposed to have a horse, but someone had bought it already,” she said.

“They bought the horse without the rider?”

“I know! Who does that?” Solona laughed. “Oh, and we also got a cloak for you . Same color, I figured you wouldn’t mind matching since it’s the Warden colors and all --”

“Not to sound ungrateful, but… why did you do all of this?”

“It’s… getting cold out and you’re going to need a cloak eventually? And it looks like we might be headed into the mountains soon, so --”

“No, I mean -- the… the dolls and everything…”

“Because I love you.”

She loved him?

She said it as if it were… as if it were obvious and simple and just… as easy as that. As if there was nothing else to it but that. As if she hadn’t just stolen the breath out of his lungs again, with just four words. At this rate, she’d be able to do it with an isolated sound by next week. And part of him was certain she could.

She loved him.

“You don’t have to say it back, or anything at all, if you’re feeling pressured. But I realized today that I… don’t think I showed it enough. That changes now,” Solona said. “If I have to say ‘I love you’ until you’re sick of hearing it, I will.”

She said it again.

It sounded too beautiful. Like the feeling you get when you look at the sun -- bright and overwhelming, and you’re blinded for a few minutes after. Just without the permanent retinal damage and Alistair, there is a beautiful woman in your tent telling you she loves you, will you do something?

The tents weren’t large -- Bodahn had found them somewhere and sold them to Solona at a dubious “discount” -- but Alistair crawled forward and captured Solona’s lips with his own. Her lips parted at the insistent swipe of his tongue, and as his mouth slanted over hers, again and again, and as she let out these tiny and adorable whimpering noises, he tried to show her what he couldn’t seem to figure out how to say.

She pushed forward, the two of them a tangle of lips and limbs. They ended up flopping down side by side on the bedroll, his arms scrabbling to catch them both before they got hurt. The last time they’d spent the night kissing, it… it was just another way to learn about each other, and it hadn’t gone beyond that. It was innocent. Chaste, almost.

This was, um… less so. A low heat blossomed between them, and Solona melted against Alistair’s body in a way that was beyond addictive. He rolled them over onto their sides, and one of her hands traced along his arm.

Could you just stay like this forever?

“I’ll need meal breaks,” she said, dropping kisses in a line along his jaw, and fuck his skin was going all shivery. He gasped and turned his head to the side, exposing his throat. She followed where he led her to go, and Void, it was damn near too much.

“I didn’t mean to -- say that out loud.”

He felt her smile against his skin before she gently bit down. She kissed the sting away and Maker, she was going to kill him.

He didn’t know what to do with his hands. Or any part of the rest of him, for that matter. He didn’t want to stop -- not yet -- but, just, what was he supposed to -- what did she want him to do?

She stopped, sitting up beside him. He wanted to call out, to ask, to apologize -- but Solona just unfastened her new cloak and cast it aside. The dress he’d only caught a glimpse of was a far cry from the Circle robes she’d been wearing -- a long-sleeved navy dress with, Maker help him, a silver bodice, as well as silver lacing along the arms. She snaked a leg over his hips and pushed herself up -- fully on top of him -- and crashed her lips back down onto his.

Alistair moaned -- the, the, the heat of her had his hips stuttering upwards, and his hands flew to her waist, keeping her in place. He didn’t have words for how any of this felt. He wasn’t sure he needed them. This… was an entirely new sensation to Alistair. Not just -- that he’d never done anything like this -- but being so obviously wanted.

And then Solona pressed her hips down, grinding against his cock, igniting the arousal he had been trying so damned hard to ignore. Their kisses went sloppy, almost heedless of everything except the need to be together. One of Alistair’s hands wandered up from her waist to her breast -- she whimpered, barely swallowing the sound back.

Some quiet part of Alistair whispered: you know what she wants. Why not give it to her?

But… Was he ready for that? Like, really ready? Not just for -- the, the sex -- but the bonding and everything.

He didn’t think so, even -- even though she loved him, and even with everything that had happened…

Something must have shifted in the air between them, because Solona stopped and pulled away.

“Everything all right?” she asked.

“I -- yes, just…” he trailed off. How… how could he possibly explain this? He’d sound crazy. Turning down a woman like this , he’d have to be, right? She was his soulmate, and she was literally on top of him .

He was an idiot.

He was the idiot.

“Hey,” she said, putting a hand under his chin and guiding him to look at her. She was smiling softly -- with bright pink cheeks and kiss-swollen lips and eyes blown wide, and Void , he shouldn’t have looked at her, this was not solving his problems. “We follow your lead, remember?”

My lead? No-no-no, no leading! Bad things happen when I lead. We get lost, people die, and the next thing you know, I’m stranded somewhere, without any pants.”

She slid down next to him and pressed a kiss to his cheek.

“You had me until the last part.”

Alistair chuckled, grateful. Grateful that she wasn’t angry, that she understood, that she didn’t want to rush this -- just… everything. All of it.

“I hope this hasn’t… put you off,” Alistair said.

Solona pushed herself onto one arm, looking at him sadly.

“Alistair… you’re not wrong to want to take this slowly. It’s a big commitment. However…” she said, placing a hand on his chest, “not rushing this doesn’t mean it has to be all or nothing. There’s plenty of in-between.”

That had not occurred to him. Why had that not occurred to him?

“No pressure, as always. Just something to keep in mind.” She leaned down and kissed his cheek, once, before sitting up. “Have you eaten? I could make dinner.”

“I, er… no. I haven’t. Eaten, that is.”

She gave him a forced smile and left the tent.

Well. I handled that with my usual deft brilliance, Alistair thought.

Plenty of in-between, she said. He covered his suddenly bright-red face in his hands. How was he going to handle any of this when he couldn’t even convince himself to hold her hand when anyone was around?

He stifled a heartfelt groan. How he had managed to get someone like her to love him, he’d never know. But he knew he’d never deserve it.

Chapter Text

Alistair was avoiding her.

Solona supposed she couldn’t blame him. She had come on a little… stronger than she’d intended last night. To put it lightly.

Above everything else, though, she was ashamed of herself. She’d promised him that there would be no pressure, and then she went and added all the fucking pressure at the first opportunity.

… And maybe he wasn’t the only one doing the avoiding. She could barely look him in the face after all of that.

“... bragged about what they did, trying to impress others,” Leliana was saying to Wynne. She put on a ridiculous accent, “‘Oh, Lady Adele, you fed and clothed twenty orphans, how noble!’ ‘No, no, it is nothing, Lady Clarabelle. You treated forty lepers and gave them massages!’ Like a competition, with false modesty. Sickening.”

“Did Lady Clarabelle really give forty lepers massages?”

“Who knows. Lady Clarabelle had strange tastes. I wouldn’t be surprised if she did that, and more.”

Wynne chuckled lightly, and Leliana turned her attention to Solona.

“Are you religious, Solona?” Leliana asked.

“Me? Oh. Um. No, not really.”

“Do you believe in the Maker?”

“I… N-no. I don’t. I’m sorry if that lowers your opinion of me at all, but I just… can’t.”

“Oh. Oh, I see,” Leliana said. She sounded less disappointed than confused, thankfully. “Then… how do you think everything got here?”

“I don’t know,” Solona admitted. “But I think the most dangerous thing we could do is to pretend we have all the answers. You’ll never find the truth if you stop looking for it.”

“That’s true,” Leliana said.

“‘You,’ as in ‘people in general,’ not ‘you, specifically!’” Solona corrected, flushing. “I -- We could both be wrong. Or we could both be right. I just think that the real answer is bigger, grander, and stranger than we could possibly imagine.”

Leliana was quiet. And the tips of Alistair’s ears were a faint pink.

Brilliant plan, Solona. Admit your atheism to the templar.

“You and Wynne are both good people, without being religious.”

“I… like to help people. And I’d like to be helped if I needed it. So… that’s what I do. It’s… not terribly profound, I’m sorry.”

“Doing good for its own sake doesn’t have to be profound,” Leliana started -- then stopped as a disheveled woman ran up to them. She had scrapes and bruises all over her body, and her hair was wild -- something had happened. Solona walked up quickly, clasping the woman’s hands in her own.

Her skin prickled with an odd feeling… that stopped when the woman let go of her hands.  

“Oh, thank the Maker! We need help! They attacked the wagon; please help us!” she cried.

Solona was bewildered, but she couldn’t back down from helping now , even if her mind was screaming that there was something wrong here. If there was a wagon attacked, she would assist however she could.

When the woman’s frantic run slowed to a saunter, Solona realized that had been a mistake. The woman turned and smiled at them, standing next to a dark-skinned, light-haired elf. He gave a small signal, and men flooded the clearing: archers along both sides, and a few bandits in the clearing. Lightning cracked around the woman’s hands as several of the carefully-positioned men knocked down a large tree behind them. There was no escape.

“The Grey Warden dies here!” the elf shouted with -- what accent was that? Antivan?

Also: he used the singular. One Grey Warden?

She was caught off-guard, and the large group of bandits in front of her took advantage of that fact. If it weren’t for Alistair throwing his shield in front of her, she’d have been perforated with all the arrows coming straight for her.

“Thanks,” she said.

Alistair nodded, keeping his shield up. He was hoping for something powerful, she could tell. Like the spell that took out the corpses in Redcliffe, or the ice at the Tower of Ishal.

Scanning the field quickly, she saw several large rocks to her left. And she noticed that the archers were standing in roughly straight lines. Like skittles, she thought.

She could work with that.

She pushed as much mana as she could into a large boulder stuck in the dug-out wall on the left. It wiggled, wobbled, and broke free, rolling down the hill the archers had created for themselves.

They panicked and broke into a run. Apparently they weren’t getting paid enough for this. Leliana and Wynne, meanwhile, had been whittling down the archers on the right side. They’d be taken care of shortly.

That left one-third of the enemy in front of Solona and Alistair -- the woman who’d tricked them and the elf, along with a few sword-wielding bandits.

The elf charged forward, and the woman fired a lightning spell at them. Solona froze the ground underneath them, and the elf went base-over-apex into the ground.

The woman -- mage -- was still standing. Alistair glanced at Solona apologetically before cleansing the area of all magic, including Solona’s ice. He rushed forward, taking on the bandits himself.

Solona saw the elf getting up and positioning himself behind Alistair, a cruel-looking dagger in his hand.

“No!” she shouted, drawing a glyph of repulsion in the air with her hands. The mana sank into the earth, throwing the elf away from Alistair.

But she was distracted.

A lightning spell hit her square in the chest. Solona couldn’t breathe, her skin was burning and she couldn’t breathe -- she fell to her knees.

She felt Wynne behind her, a hand on her shoulder, a soothing white light -- the panic eased somewhat.

“Serves me right for not paying attention.” Solona wheezed, her hands twitching.

She heard a low chuckle, and she forced her shaky legs to stand. The battle was finished, and Alistair rushed back over to them.

“I -- are you all right? I didn’t see what happened.”

“Lightning spell. I’m fine,” she said.

“I was… I was trying to get to that mage before she hit you, but --”

“It’s fine, the battle’s over and we’re all standing.” Solona smiled at him -- but her mouth twitched in spite of her attempts to keep it under control.

She sighed, frustrated. “Is that going to keep happening?” she asked Wynne.

“Probably, yes. For at least a short while. If it doesn’t stop by the time we reach camp, you may have to take a day or two of rest.”

“We don’t have that kind of time , Wynne.”

“Wait -- look,” Leliana called out. “The leader is still alive.”

The elf was stirring a few feet away. Solona and the team walked over toward him warily.

“Hmm. What? I… oh,” he said, opening his eyes. “I rather thought I would wake up dead. Or not wake up at all, as the case may be. But I see you haven’t killed me yet.”

“I have some questions,” Solona replied.

“Ah! So I’m to be interrogated? Let me save you some time,” the elf said. “My name is Zevran. Zev to my friends. I am a member of the Antivan Crows, brought here for the sole purpose of slaying any surviving Grey Wardens. Which I have failed at, sadly.”

That… was a problem. The Antivan Crows were notorious assassins. Solona had read The Murder of Queen Madrigal enough times (thirty-four, to be exact) to be thoroughly familiar with their reputation.

“Who hired you?”

“A rather taciturn fellow in the capital. Loghain, I think his name was? Yes, that was it.”

“And… you were hired to kill how many Grey Wardens, exactly?”

“One, specifically. And that would be you.”

That should not have made her feel the relief that it did. But there was a chance, then, that Loghain didn’t yet know that Alistair was alive.

“Does that mean you’re loyal to Loghain?” Alistair demanded from behind her.

“I have no idea what his issues are with her,” Zevran explained. “The usual, I imagine. She threatens his power, yes? Beyond that, no, I am not loyal to him. I was contracted to perform a service. It is, as you say, nothing personal.”

“I get that a lot,” Solona said dryly. “So what would happen now? When would you see Loghain again?”

“I wouldn’t. If I had succeeded, I would have returned home and the Crows would have informed your Loghain of the results -- if he didn’t already know. If I had failed, I would be dead. Or I should be, at least as far as the Crows are concerned. No need to see Loghain then.”

If you had failed?” Solona raised an eyebrow.

“What can I say? I am an eternal optimist. Although the chances of me succeeding at this point seem a bit slim, don’t they?” Zevran laughed, then paused. “No, I don’t suppose you’d find that funny, would you?”

Solona bit back the smile that seemed determined to come out, hoping she could hide it as another twitch of her lips. This was the strangest assassin she’d ever heard of.

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“Why not? I wasn’t paid for silence. Not that I offered it for sale, precisely. As it is, if you’re done with the interrogation, I’ve a proposal for you, if you’re of a mind.”

“Go ahead,” Solona said. Alistair bristled next to her.

“Well, here’s the thing. I failed to kill you, so my life is forfeit. That’s how it works. If you don’t kill me, the Crows will. Thing is, I like living. And you are obviously the sort to give the Crows pause,” Zevran suggested, “so let me serve you instead.”

“And what’s to stop you from finishing the job later?” Alistair asked.

“To be completely honest, I was never given much of a choice regarding joining the Crows. They bought me on the slave market when I was a child,” Zevran said. “I think I’ve paid my worth back to them plus tenfold. The only way out, however, is to sign up with someone they can’t touch. Even if I did kill you now, they might just kill me on principle for failing the first time. Honestly, I’d rather take my chances with you.”

“What would you want in return?” Solona rubbed her forehead. Alistair was going to be angry with her, and honestly? So was she. How could she be seriously considering this?

“Well, let’s see… being allowed to live would be nice. And would make me marginally more useful to you.”

And that damned smile actually came out this time. And Zevran saw it.

“And if somewhere down the line you decide you no longer have need of me, then I go on my way. Until then, I am yours. Is that fair?”

She heard Alistair stifle an indignant noise.

“Why would I want your service?” Solona said, not acknowledging it.

“Why? Because I am skilled at many things, from fighting to stealth and picking locks. I could also warn you should the Antivan Crows attempt something more… sophisticated now that my attempts have failed,” Zevran said. “I could also stand around and look pretty, if you prefer. Warm your bed? Fend off unwanted suitors? No?”

“No.” Solona bit back a chuckle. That was a little too far for a would-be assassin. And she wanted to reassure Alistair; she knew his anger was simmering just beneath the surface, bond or no bond.

Zevran just laughed. “I like a woman who knows what she wants, I really do. So what shall it be? I’ll even shine armor. You won’t find a better deal, I promise.”

Solona pretended to think about it. But really, she wasn’t going to kill a man on the ground in front of her, who hadn’t really wanted to kill her in the first place. It would be like hating Alistair for being a templar, when he’d never chosen that life.

She extended a hand to Zevran, helping him up.

“I accept,” she said.

“What?” Alistair demanded. “You’re taking the assassin with us now?”

“Do you want to kill him?” she asked, with the air of one of their usual quips.

“I -- all right, I see your point. Still, if there was a sign we were desperate, I think it just knocked on the door and said hello.”

“I hereby pledge my oath of loyalty to you, until such time as you choose to release me from it. I am your man, without reservation. This I swear,” Zevran said with a flourish.

“Terribly dramatic, aren’t you?” Solona replied, smiling. “This is Leliana, Wynne, and Alistair.”

“Welcome, Zevran. Having an Antivan Crow join us sounds like a fine plan,” Leliana said.

“Oh? You are another companion, then? I wasn’t aware such loveliness existed amongst adventurers, surely.” Zevran’s voice dropped suggestively for the fourth time in the span of two minutes.

“Or maybe not,” Leliana replied flatly.

“Oh, um. Were you injured at all?” Solona asked.

Zevran laughed. “No, I appear to be in decent shape. But that spell of yours! For just a moment, I knew what it was like to fly.”

“It’s -- a simple Glyph of Repulsion,” Solona said.

“A beautiful woman like you would need a spell like that to keep the undesirables away, no?”

Solona gave him a flat look, even though she wasn’t offended. This elf reminded her too much of some old friends. “Ah, so you’re that kind.”

“For you, I would be any kind you like.” Zevran winked at her.

Solona laughed outright, clapping him on the shoulder.

“Come on, we’ve got to get to the Brecilian Forest. We’ll fill you in on the way,” she said.

 


 

Werewolves.

Fucking werewolves.

It was never easy, was it? The treaties that Duncan said would oblige people to help them seemed to be treated as mere suggestions .

If the dwarves pulled this shit, Solona might scream.

They hadn’t ventured into the forest proper yet; Solona made the call that they should do it early the next morning, when they were refreshed and had plenty of daylight. Less likely that they’d get lost in the forest that way. Everyone seemed grateful for the opportunity to rest; it had been a lot of walking to get here, and there was even more ahead.

Zevran fit in as well as flirtatious men always do: all of the ladies, Solona excepted, threatened to separate some of his body parts from the others -- with especially graphic detail, per Morrigan. He just laughed, backing off when they asked him to. Solona couldn’t help giggling. Which made her his most frequent target, much to Alistair’s obvious irritation.

After the fifteenth or so suggestive line in the past ten minutes, Alistair abruptly stood up from where he sat across the fire.

“Solona,” he said, awkward as ever, “I -- I think we need more firewood. We don’t know what we’ll find in the forest, and I’d hate to run short.”

Solona glanced from him to the massive pile of firewood just between them and Morrigan’s usual campsite. It was a threadbare excuse, but it might be a chance to apologize for yesterday.

“Sure,” she said. “Going to need a hand?”  

“Yes, please -- I mean, if you can, if you’re still eating…”

Solona just smiled at him and stood up, smoothing the front of her new blue dress.

The pair of them walked in silence toward the entrance of the forest, but didn’t stray beyond where the Dalish told them the forest truly began. There were plenty of twigs and small pieces of wood just between the Dalish camp and the forest to make this plausible.

“So… Zevran,” he said. “The two of you were quite… friendly.”

Solona’s jaw dropped. And so did the wood.

“You -- think I’m interested in Zevran.

“I -- well, it’s just…”

She couldn’t help it; the laughter just bubbled up and out of her, as if it had a mind of its own. Alistair just sort of stood there, flat-footed and uncertain. Solona put a hand on his shoulder to steady herself.

“I’m sorry, Alistair, I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing at the idea. I must not have done a good enough job explaining about Voices.” She cleared her throat and tried to steady herself. “There is only one thing that could get me to even consider being with anyone else.”
“And that is?” he asked, sounding more nervous than he perhaps intended to.

“If, for whatever reason, you aren’t an option. If you’re not interested, if you break it off, if -- Maker forbid -- if something happens to you,” she fought a lump that wanted to rise in her throat at the thought, “and even then, it would take a long time for me to even think of it. Otherwise, the only way you’re getting me away from you is with a very strong pry bar. Flirtatious assassins or no.”

“But he’s -- I don’t know, suave. He talks to you so easily, and it’s --”

“This may surprise you, but suave doesn’t do it for everyone,” Solona said, squeezing his arm. “Besides, it’s a heady thing, to know that you can flummox an otherwise confident young man into forgetting how words work. It’s endearing and, most of all, sincere.

Alistair stared at her. Almost as if he were waiting for something else, some final reassurance. She cupped his cheek for a moment, pulling him to look at her.

“I love you. That isn’t going to change.”

He looked away, blushing and running a hand through his hair.

“I… feel like that might be my greatest accomplishment.”

“And you didn’t even have to do anything!” Solona laughed.

Alistair chuckled, then dipped his head to kiss her once, as softly as he could.

“So, then,” he said, clearing his throat, “about -- well, last night.”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry, I pressured you and I said I wouldn’t, and I’m --”

“What? No, that’s -- I mean, I just… I wanted to ask… what you meant by, um, in-between.”

Solona blushed -- not a delicate whirl of color, either, a full-on pigment change from her usual peaches-and-cream to tomato-red.

And then, pushing her blush and embarrassment aside, she rose onto tiptoes and dropped her voice to a near-whisper in his ear.

“Are you asking for a description or a demonstration?”

“I… um, I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”

“Hmm,” she murmured, resting her head on his shoulder. “So I get to choose?”

“I…” he gulped, “I suppose.”

She took a long moment, placing gentle kisses along his jaw. Alistair shivered and tipped his head up to allow her to reach more easily. She followed his movements until her lips met his with a ghost of a touch, then she grinned.

“I’ll have to keep that in mind,” she said brightly, turning away and pretending to look for more firewood.

Alistair stood behind her for a minute, then shot his arms around her waist, playfully dragging her back. She yelped in surprise and delight as he turned her around to face him and crashed his lips down onto hers, then softened, using the same ghost-like touch she’d done to him before.

“You,” he said, punctuating each word with a kiss, “are a horrible, mean person.”

She didn’t reply, opening her lips for him to deepen the kiss -- but he didn’t. She whimpered, frustrated, trying to move closer to him -- and he stepped away. She tried again, and he stepped away again. She was only too content to follow, chasing after the kiss he wouldn’t give her.

“The literal worst,” he whispered, and Maker , only now was she aware of how much her body was humming in response to this man, of the heat blossoming between the two of them.

She stumbled and one knee nearly hit the ground, but Alistair caught her by the arms.

“Are you all right?” he asked, his voice gone husky.

“I’m fine,” she said. Solona stared up at him, barely daring to breathe.

Alistair reached out, cupping her cheek; she leaned into his touch, making it perhaps more obvious than she needed to. He smirked -- smirked! -- and finally gave her the long-awaited kiss. And with that spark, she ignited , responding to his every movement, breath, and sound with every ounce of desire she had.

Solona slid a hand up into his hair, pulling him as close as she could manage with the other hand. Alistair huffed out a breath, almost a moan, sliding his tongue against hers in obvious retaliation.

That did it. If he was going to tease her, she was going to make him regret it.

She broke the kiss, taking two steps backward and leaning against a tree, her hands behind her, signaling that she was here for the taking. Alistair stared in disbelief until she met his eyes -- whatever he saw there, it made him moan and rush forward, one hand steadying himself against the tree, the other tracing the line of her waist and hips, over and over, as if he didn’t quite believe it. He kissed her neck, and she sucked in a gasp. She’d forgotten she was more exposed than she was used to in the new dress.

After a long moment, the two of them stopped, wordlessly staring at each other against the tree, trying to memorize each other -- to burn this moment into their minds forever. Or, at least, Solona was doing that, and she assumed Alistair was doing the same from the soft, caring look on his face.

That, ” she said, delicately putting a hand to his lips, “is what I meant by in-between.”

“Good to know,” Alistair whispered.

And with that (and without any firewood), Solona and Alistair walked back to camp, hand-in-hand.  

Chapter Text

Well, so far, this was the most interesting mission Zevran had ever been on--werewolves and forest spirits were not usually in the Crows’ repertoire--though he would never tell anyone that. He was rather enjoying being seen as the experienced one in comparison to his mostly young and idealistic companions. In the Crows, while he’d been seen as quite skilled, he wasn’t one of the master assassins--again, a fact he would keep to himself.

The one thing he couldn’t quite make out was his mark-turned-leader. She was the youngest and most idealistic of them all, but she had some sort of magnetic ability to turn people to her cause. Zevran would have wondered if it was magic, but if Solona was able to cast such a powerful spell without anyone noticing, she was probably deserving of their admiration anyway.

(And Zevran did admire her, for all the dirty looks he received from Alistair for it. She was pretty, and Zevran wasn’t dead. If he was going to be expected to follow a shapely young woman around, he could at least appreciate the view, and Solona seemed more amused by it than anything else.)

But for such a sheltered, seemingly innocent girl to have the wherewithal to negotiate a peaceful solution between a clan of notoriously-hostile-to-outsiders Dalish elves and actual werewolves seemed incredible until Zevran remembered she would likely have to do it again, on an even grander scale to solve Ferelden’s civil war, in the end. And while the Dalish were perfectly willing to risk an outsider’s life and limb to potentially solve their problem, Loghain was willing to hire the Crows to assassinate Solona. He didn’t seem likely to be reasoned with, all things considered.

Still, managing to broker this peace was a small victory, and one to be celebrated.

“It’s… over. She’s gone, and we’re human! I can scarcely believe it,” Swiftrunner said. The other former werewolves were embracing, laughing, looking at their new hands and feet, and touching their faces, trying to determine what they looked like.

“What are you going to do now?” Solona asked.

“We’ll leave the forest, I suppose. Find other humans, see what’s out there for us. It should be quite interesting, don’t you think?”

“Yes, it should,” Solona replied with a soft, tired smile. “Best of luck.”

“And to you, Grey Warden.” Swiftrunner patted Solona on the shoulder awkwardly, then he and his pack of new humans ran off.

Solona watched them leave, then let out an exhausted sigh.

“And now we go tell Lanaya what happened and hope she doesn’t hate us too much to help us against the Archdemon, when the time comes,” she said. Zevran could hear the fatigue in her voice; this had been a long day for them all.

“Hey,” Alistair said, nudging her with his shoulder, “we did the right thing.

The warmth of the look that passed between them gave Zevran pause. He hadn’t seen anyone look at each other like that since--well, it had been quite a while. The last two Grey Wardens in Ferelden very obviously cared for each other, though Zevran wasn't quite sure how far that extended. He knew the feelings were there--which were, of course, the dangerous part--but whether or not the physicality--the less dangerous part--was present, he wasn't certain, though he was prepared to guess that it was not. It remained to be seen whether or not they would act on it. Zevran privately hoped they would, if only to stop their purity from infecting the rest of the party. Leliana being a former sister was bad enough!

“I’m just… hoping Lanaya sees it that way.”

As they started to slowly make their way out of the ancient elven ruins, Leliana interrupted Zevran’s eavesdropping in a way that had to be deliberate.

“These markings of yours… they have a certain appeal. They remind me of how we used to paint our faces in Orlais.”

“Ah, but these are not just paint,” Zevran replied.

“Do they mean anything to you? These symbols?”

“Some do… some symbols are sacred to the Crows. I am not permitted to tell you what they mean,” he said. “Others are there to accentuate the lines of the body… its curves and musculature. It is hard to explain with clothing on.”

“But I don’t recall seeing many markings on your body.”

“Ah, no, of course not. They are not in the places you have yet seen.” Zevran affected an eager tone. “I can show you, if you wish.”

“Er, no. I think not.”

“Is this a problem?” he asked, feigning innocence.

“Not at all. I am merely content looking at the markings on your face. That is all.”

No more than Zevran expected. Leliana wasn’t interested, and he knew it. The teasing was just entertainment--hopefully for them both, but Zevran wasn’t fussy.

“Have it your way,” he said with an exaggerated shrug. “Should you ever change your mind…”

“You’ll be the first to know, don’t you worry,” Leliana replied.

“I hear that someone gets those by having needles put the ink under your skin?” Alistair asked suddenly.

Ah-ha! Who was eavesdropping now?

“A great many needles, amongst other things. Yes, that would be true.”

“Didn’t that hurt?”

Zevran chuckled. “Oh, yes, yes. But it is not so bad, in truth. If you like, I could give you one. I learned a bit of the art myself in Antiva.”

“Oh, no. No, I don’t think so,” Alistair said. He probably intended to sound decisive, but Zevran wasn’t done teasing. Alistair was too much fun to--well, needle.

“Come, it will be just a small one. Perhaps the symbol of the Grey Wardens? Something manly! Where are my needles?”

“Um, maybe some… other time. I’m going to go… stand over here, now.”

Zevran bit back a laugh--and apparently, he wasn’t the only one, judging by Solona’s broad grin that she was utterly failing to hide. He found it quite charming, in truth.

The companions walked mostly in silence through the forest--it still felt wrong, somehow, to speak much as they passed through the trees. Zevran had heard from the others that the trees could hear them because the Veil was thin here, and, while he wasn’t sure if he believed that, he couldn’t deny that something in the air of the forest kept them quiet.

As it turned out, now-Keeper Lanaya did not hate them for the death of the previous Keeper, and pledged her Dalish warriors and hunters to the Grey Wardens’ cause. The immediate look of relief on Solona’s face made Zevran laugh--which he had to quickly pretend was a cough when Alistair shot a glare at him.

They walked on, heading toward their base camp outside of the forest, where their other companions waited for them. Zevran walked quickly, coming up alongside their leader.

“My lady Warden, while we were returning to the Dalish, we were speaking of tattoos. Leliana and Alistair won’t take me up on my offer, but what of you? Would you be interested in receiving one?”

Solona was quiet for a moment as she appeared to actually consider it .

“If I think of a good design to use, then sure. If you’re serious, that is,” she said.

Zevran blinked, but didn’t outwardly lose his composure. He’d expected more banter, for Solona to hit back with a quick refusal. He hadn’t expected her to accept . Perhaps the sheltered little Circle mage was more adventurous than he’d previously thought.

Yes, this was definitely the most interesting adventure he’d been on so far.

Chapter Text

 

Brother Genitivi wasn’t sure how long he’d been lying there on the floor in the secret room of Haven’s so-called Chantry, hidden from view by the false wall. Ever the scholar, he was mentally cataloguing Father Eirik’s sermon and its similarities to those he’d given in the past. His voice was muffled by the stone and the hidden door, but it was mostly understandable. We’re special because of our important but nonspecific task… We have been chosen by Andraste to be Her guardians. It seemed fairly standard fare for one of this cult’s religious meetings, but it was hardly the Chant that Brother Genitivi was used to.

“This sacred duty is given to us, and us alone. Rejoice, my brethren, and prepare your hearts to receive her,” Eirik was saying. “Lift up your voices and despair not, for she will raise Her faithful servants to glory when Her--”

There was a pause. Unusual for a sermon of this stripe, and during a regular service to boot.

“I understand you are new here, but common courtesy dictates that one shouldn’t interrupt.” Eirik’s voice had taken on a sharp, bitter tone.

Who was the newcomer? Was it foolish to hope for rescue? Genitivi ignored the pain in his legs, straining every nerve to listen and missing about half of what was said. Should he cry out for help? Would this new person hear and investigate? Or were they a new member of the cult and uncertain of the rules?

“That is all for today, my children. I shall see you tomorrow. For now, I should see to our visitor,” Eirik said, his voice laced with a dangerous undertone.

Which would be worse, waiting here in silence and darkness and potentially missing the chance to escape, or calling out, being ignored, and suffering Eirik’s wrath for it later? Genitivi was often called the most intelligent man in Thedas, but he just didn’t know.

What if the newcomer was in danger themselves? Perhaps they hadn’t caught onto Eirik’s scheme--though if they were Andrastian, they had to know something was wrong.

A voice, soft and gentle, spoke, but too quietly for Genitivi to hear or understand--or perhaps Genitivi’s familiarity with Eirik and his sermons had enabled him to guess at what the “Revered Father” was saying, but wouldn’t apply to a new voice.

“It is better this way. Many of the villagers are… uncomfortable in the presence of strangers.”

The new voice spoke again, and Genitivi heard the tones that made up his name.

Oh, no. The poor thing.

They couldn’t know, whoever they were, that mentioning his name was as good as a death sentence here in Haven. Perhaps they didn’t know what had happened to Redcliffe’s knights--or maybe they were Redcliffe knights, just another group of them.

“We find outsiders… disruptive. They bring others and, before long, Haven is changed. We will go to any lengths to prevent that,” Eirik replied. “You understand a man’s need to protect his family, don’t you?”

Genitivi took a deep breath and cried out, trying to shout some sort of warning-- run, flee, he’s going to kill you --but his voice was drowned in the sounds of battle: steel on steel, stone on stone, the hisses of dragonlings, and the cries of the wounded. 

It was a short battle, all things considered. 

The calm after the storm was the worst few minutes of the old scholar’s life. He heard footsteps, going toward and away from the false wall. Was it Eirik, cleaning up the mess of the unfortunate would-be rescuer? Or was it that rescuer, searching for a clue to his whereabouts?

He couldn’t be sure. And he couldn’t risk his health any further on a guess. Not with the Urn still to be found.

And then a woman’s voice came through, closer than any of the others, with an Orlesian accent.

“Solona, come have a look at this. I think it’s--”

The false wall rumbled across the floor as it opened. Genitivi sat up as best he could, hardly breathing, hardly daring to believe what was happening.

“Nicely done, Leliana! Maybe we can find out what that asshole was hiding--”

Genitivi took their measure as quickly as he could: a petite young lady with black hair and dark blue eyes, carrying a staff and wearing a ring with the Circle insignia--a mage, for certain. With her, a similarly-dressed older woman (so two mages), a red-headed girl with a bow strung across her back, and a young man in armor with a sword and shield--a Templar, perhaps? No, he wasn’t wearing the armor.

Still, there was one thing Genitivi was certain of: if the girl standing in front of him was calling Eirik an asshole, Genitivi liked her already. 

“You’re--you’re not one of them, thank the Maker,” Genitivi said, letting his head fall back. Relief flooded over him, even through the sharpness of the pain in his legs.

“Brother Genitivi?” the young man asked, as the younger mage opened and closed her mouth several times without saying anything.

“Yes, I--”

“You’re injured ,” she breathed as she crept forward.

“The leg’s not doing so well, and I can’t feel my foot,” Genitivi said.

The two mages exchanged a glance between them. The elder, clearly in a mentoring role, placed a hand on her younger companion’s shoulder.

“We can set the leg and ease some of the pain,” the older mage said, “but you will require rest in order to heal fully.”

“I don’t have time to rest now. I’m so close--the Urn is just up that mountain,” Genitivi replied impatiently.

“It is?” the young man asked, a hopeful look spreading suddenly across his face.

“We need the Ashes to cure Arl Eamon,” the young mage explained, her voice soft. “He was poisoned under Loghain’s orders.”

“The arl was poisoned? Will he live?” Genitivi asked.

He had known Arl Eamon for quite some time. They weren’t friends, exactly, but they were friendly acquaintances. Occasionally, the arl would sponsor some of Genitivi’s research. He was a good man, of that Genitivi was certain.

“We hope so,” the young mage said, “but it’s a bit… chancy right now.”

“Politics. Never did anyone any good.” Genitivi shook his head in disgust. “The arl is a noble soul. But the Ashes--The Ashes will surely cure him.”

After a few moments of the two mages fussing over Genitivi’s broken leg and tending to the frostbitten foot--which the younger mage looked distressed to report may have to be amputated at another time--they returned to the subject of the Urn of Sacred Ashes.

“Haven lies in the shadow of the mountain that holds the Urn. There is an old temple there, built to protect it,” Genitivi explained. It was so much easier to think without the pain intruding on his thoughts. “Eirik wears-- wore -- a medallion that opens the temple door. I’ve seen what he does with it.”

“This medallion?” the younger mage asked, holding it up for Genitivi to examine.

“Yes, that is your key. Take me to the mountainside, and I will show you,” Genitivi said, smiling for the first time in what felt like ages. He could still get to the Urn, with the help of these people--it hadn’t all been for nothing.

“Are you well enough to make the journey, Brother?” The younger mage’s mouth flattened into a worried line as she anxiously re-examined his leg, checking for any further injury. 

Genitivi’s smile softened. She was a good sort.

“It is not that far, and… will you let me lean on you? For the Urn, any pain is worth enduring.”

“It’s probably best if you lean on Alistair. He’s the sturdiest,” she said, still looking worried.

Alistair smiled at her, warm and caring. Genitivi caught it, keeping it at the back of his mind for closer examination later.

“So, you’re Alistair,” Genitivi said, glancing at the young man. “And the rest of you are…?”

“Oh--oh, no, I’ve been terribly rude, I’m sorry,” said the younger mage. “I’m Solona, and this is Wynne and Leliana.”

“I don’t think I can call you rude if you’ve rescued me, patched up my leg, and offered to take me to the Urn,” Genitivi said wryly.

Alistair stepped forward, helping Genitivi to his feet and draping one of the old scholar’s arms around his young shoulders. Genitivi hated to admit it, but taking the weight off his bad foot was an immense relief.

“Don’t mind her. She’s just star-struck because she’s read everything you’ve ever written. Twice, probably,” he said, smirking at Solona, who turned the same bright red as the rug Genitivi had been lying on.

“I--it--there’s nothing wrong with taking your education seriously!” Solona stammered, obviously flustered. “And having a favorite author is perfectly normal. ” 

“Oh, sorry, my mistake,” Alistair replied, chuckling lightly. “ Three times.”

Genitivi flashed Solona a grateful smile.

“Which book was your favorite?” he asked.

“Um, In Pursuit of Knowledge, definitely,” Solona said, risking a nervous glance at Genitivi. “I grew up in the Circle, and--well, it felt like I was traveling, too.”

His heart warmed. He’d heard a lot of praise for his books from grateful readers, but every time was special.

Hobbling and leaning heavily on Alistair, Genitivi led the way to the temple--and, if the Maker consented to smile on them, the Urn of Sacred Ashes.

 


 

The temple hall was more than Genitivi could have dreamed. The mountain had reclaimed this temple, casting a stark but beautiful white glow on everything within. A gentle snow fell softly through the holes in the ceiling, and the columns, statues, and carvings were crystallized in glittering ice. 

As incredible as it was, though, Genitivi couldn’t help but feel a bit wistful: what had the temple looked like when it was first built?

“What I wouldn’t give to see the hall in all its splendor, as it was meant to be,” Genitivi said. “Still, sweep away the ice and snow, and traces of beauty remain.”

The young leader of his companions seemed as awestruck as he was, and Alistair was more than happy to help Genitivi over to some of the carvings on the wall.

“We can’t afford to linger here,” Wynne reminded them gently.

“These statues and carvings were created just after Andraste’s death, and they may reveal things about Her life that we do not yet know… I think I need more time to study them,” Genitivi said.

“Wait, no. You worked so hard to get to the Urn. You should get to see it in person!” Solona protested.

“I would not be able to keep up with you with my injuries. I should be safe; I don’t think there are any villagers here.”

“But--”

Her face was twisted with worry, regret, perhaps even guilt. Genitivi put a comforting hand on her shoulder--perhaps a bit awkwardly, since he was still using Alistair as a human crutch.

“Go. I will be all right. Perhaps my destiny was only to lead you to the Urn.”

Still, she hesitated, casting her eyes over everything in the room, as if the solution to “how to get the old man with the leg injuries further into a temple of unknown length” would be written on the wall somewhere.

“Solona’s right, Brother, you should get to see it, too, so…” Alistair started, then trailed off, face red as their leader gave him a look full of gratitude and hope. 

“What if we don’t think of it as leaving you behind?” Leliana suggested. “We’ll scout ahead and we can come back for you once we figure out where the Urn is.”

“Provided that it’s not too far to travel with your leg, then yes, I agree,” Wynne said.

Genitivi nodded. “That would be wonderful, but if it isn’t possible, then I understand.”

Solona offered Genitivi a small, shy smile. “With any luck, we’ll be back soon.”

“Just--be careful, that’s all I ask. The temple is… perilous,” Genitivi said, giving Solona’s shoulder a squeeze before letting go. “Now, I just need something to write on.”

Before he’d finished his sentence, as if by magic, Solona was holding out to him a quill, a small bottle of ink, some decent-looking blank vellum, and a sturdy book to use as a base. Genitivi gave a small chuckle and unwrapped himself from the study young man who’d been supporting him thus far. With a few more words of gratitude and farewell, he watched them go further into the cultist-and-trap-filled temple.

Maker, turn Your gaze on them. I think they just might need it.

Chapter Text

Solona:

It was definitely too far from the temple to the Urn for Brother Genitivi to walk, assisted or otherwise. Solona had tried to argue back in the caverns that maybe between the four of them they could have carried him, but even she knew it was pointless.

It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t Maker-taken fair that he’d worked so hard and come all this way for nothing. She would find some way to make it up to him, somehow. She had started a mental catalogue of the carvings and statues they’d seen--Maferath, Hessarian, Andraste Herself--and she was making a list of things to talk about with her favorite author when they got back, when suddenly the group was standing on a mountaintop, facing down a fucking high dragon, enormous, red-scaled, and directly in their way. Its bulk took up the entire path to the secondary temple

There is no way to get by. 

The only way out is through. 

It looked her directly in the eyes and roared.

We are not prepared for this, Solona thought.

And then, nonsensically, I’m really glad we didn’t bring Brother Genitivi now.

Before she could think anything else, she spotted Alistair, braver than he ever let himself believe, standing strong in front of them all, shield positioned to defend them from dragonfire; Leliana had an arrow nocked on her bowstring; Wynne was preparing a barrier spell--for Alistair, of course, he was closest to the dragon.

Solona had no idea what to do.

Focus. Just focus.

There were crumbling rocks all over the ruined temple. For a start, that would do.

Just as Alistair began to charge forward, Solona broke a boulder out from the side of the mountain, sending it flying at the dragon.

It fell, temporarily vulnerable to Alistair’s sword and Leliana’s arrows. Wynne shot icy bursts from her staff, saving her mana for when someone needed healing. Solona followed Wynne’s lead, her hands literally trembling as she held her staff and her heart somewhere in her larynx, trying to stand firm, trying to take enough space to figure this out, trying to breathe through the panic of noticing how very, very small Alistair was in comparison to the fucking high dragon he was very, very close to.

Why hadn’t they thought that a dragon cult might have an actual dragon nearby? They weren’t strong enough to take down a dragon, not yet. They couldn’t force their way through--they needed to be smart and do something unexpected.

Solona, think, damn it, your brain is supposed to be good for something. He needs you. They all need you.

The dragon roared again, the ground trembling as it stepped closer to Alistair, completely unbothered. It slowly turned its long, snakelike neck and bared its teeth, letting out another roar and unhinging its jaw, preparing to bite.

“No!” Solona cried, instinctively casting a glyph of paralysis and a glyph of repulsion under the dragon’s feet.

She’d been told, back in the Circle, never to cast two glyphs on top of each other, because the results could be unstable and unexpected. But right now, she couldn’t think, she couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t lose him. 

There was a woosh of magic as the glyphs reacted to each other, sending a mist across the mountaintop. 

It froze. It froze, its mouth still open, threatening to swallow Alistair whole, like a particularly threatening-looking statue. Alistair scrabbled away, dashing to the other side of the dragon to buy himself a few seconds of bite-free stabbing after the spell wore off.

Solona gritted her teeth and forced her mana into the side of the mountain, slamming another boulder into the dragon’s stupid, ugly face. She wasn’t going to fail the people she cared about, not again.

The instant the dragon started to step forward, moving its legs again and trying to find Alistair, Solona re-cast the glyphs and the dragon froze in place.

Not again. 

She slammed another boulder into its side, hearing the tell-tale crack as its ribs split. If she had been looking carefully, she could have seen the bones protruding from under its scales.

Not ever, ever again.

Alistair, trusting her, always, always trusting her beyond the bounds of reason, leapt onto the dragon’s neck. It started to move, twisting left and right at the sudden presence of the heavily-armored warrior, trying to shake him off.

She couldn’t cast the glyphs again, he would freeze, too. She couldn’t hit it with a boulder. It would hurt him.

Solona shot fire from her staff, trying not to fear, trying to trust the way he had, but Maker, the dragon was so big. So very, very big and he was puny and insignificant in its shadow.

Alistair struck at its face, and the dragon shook its head, throwing him skyward. Solona’s hands glowed with healing light, but he didn’t need it, he didn’t need it, he brought his sword down, stabbing the dragon’s neck and eyes and face over and over. The dragon’s blood splattered all over the mountaintop, and finally, finally, it fell to the ground with a resounding thud that felt like an earthquake.

And the man who held Solona’s heart just rolled off the dragon, breathing hard but letting out a loud whoop before resting his hands on his legs . She raced toward him, dropping the staff, hearing it clatter on the stones behind her. Alistair stood straight as she approached, caught her in his arms and lifted her, spinning her around once, before they both fell ass-over-teakettle onto the ground with a yelp.

“Maker’s breath,” he said, half-laughing. “Well, that was bracing.”

“Are you all right?” she asked, running her hands over Alistair’s face, arms, and chest, checking for injury. “What do you need, where--”

Solona. I’m fine, I’m fine .” 

Solona threw her arms around his neck, aware but uncaring that she was sitting in his lap. Alistair pulled her in and held her close.

“That thing could have killed you. ” Her voice was shaking--and so was the rest of her. 

Alistair softened. He gently stroked her hair and whispered into her ear. 

“I’ll be more careful next time. Promise.”

“You’d better, you mad bastard.

He chuckled. “Hey, that’s another one I should use more often.”

She slid out of his lap, still a bit shaky. Alistair looked around at their companions, flushing a beet red when he noticed that Leliana could barely hide her giggle behind her hands and Wynne was smiling warmly at the pair of them. He stood, then offered Solona a hand up with a grin and a bow.

“My lady,” he said, teasing, as he helped her to her feet. He wrapped an arm around her waist, gently making sure she didn’t trip over the rocks or the dragon’s corpse and keeping her on the path to the second temple. 

Where--hopefully--the Urn of Sacred Ashes awaited them.

 

Alistair:

Right. Well, this was creepy. Another temple, though this one seemed less… ruin-y. Ruined. Whatever.

And standing in front of the door was a weird-looking man in weird-looking armor.

“I bid you welcome, pilgrims,” the man said. His voice echoed with a strange, otherworldly sound, and he looked almost transparent. A spirit, for sure. “I am the Guardian of the Urn of Sacred Ashes. It has been my duty, my life, to protect the Urn and prepare the way for those who come to revere Andraste.”

“We need to see the Urn,” Solona said, all business. 

“You have come to honor Andraste, and you shall, if you prove yourselves worthy.”

“And how would we do that?” she asked. 

Alistair couldn’t help the grin spreading across his face, even though this was a solemn moment. Leave it to his Voice to find the final resting place of the prophet Andraste. She was faced with impossible tasks every day, and she met them all.

Maker, he was so bloody proud of her.

“It is not my place to decide your worthiness. The Gauntlet does that,” the spirit explained. “You will undergo four tests of faith, and we shall see how your souls fare.”

Solona looked back at the others. Alistair tried to look confident, strong, like a man who’d just killed a dragon, but he was pretty sure he only succeeded in looking goofier than usual.

“We’re ready,” Solona said to the Guardian.

“Before you go, there is a request I must make. I see that the path that led you here was not easy. There is suffering in your past, your suffering and the suffering of others,” the Guardian said.

“Whatever you need us to do, Guardian, we’re ready,” Solona replied, but Alistair noticed how her hands shook slightly. 

“I ask only that you step into the room behind me, one by one. Do not fear, you will meet with each other again in the room beyond this one.”

One by one into the darkness, all on their own? He… didn’t like the sound of that. He wanted to be with Solona and the others if they needed him. He was the only one of them who could take a hit .

“Wynne, Circle mage and adviser, step forward.”

Wynne put a hand on Solona’s shoulder for a moment before stepping into the doorway behind the Guardian.

They stood in silence, listening hard but hearing nothing.  

The Guardian motioned that the next one of them could go forward.

“Leliana, bard and Sister.”

Leliana winked--actually winked --at Solona before she left. And again, there was nothing but silence.

“Do you think they’re all right?” Solona whispered.

“I’m sure they are,” Alistair replied, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.

“Alistair, knight and Warden.”

He glanced back at Solona, flashing a smile that he hoped was reassuring, before he stepped into the room.

And saw Duncan.

“Maker’s breath,” he whispered.

It… it was really him. He was here, he was okay… Duncan was…

Wait. No.

Duncan was dead.

“This isn’t real.”

The spirit nodded sadly, agreeing.

“You know that I am gone, and all your prayers and wishes cannot bring me back,” Duncan said.

Tears stung at Alistair’s eyes, not again, not again, he thought he was over this. He’d moved past it.

“Grief is nothing to be ashamed of,” he said, stepping forward and placing his hands on Alistair’s shoulders. His own eyes glittered with tears. “But you have a long road to walk yet. It’s time now.”

The tears in Alistair’s eyes threatened to spill over, and he shook his head nonsensically.

“You wonder if you could have shielded me, if you’d been there,” Duncan said. “Whether you could have saved me or not, that isn’t what I would have wanted for you.”

He met Duncan’s eyes… they were warm and kind, exactly like Alistair remembered. Unlike what Alistair remembered, though, Duncan pulled him in close, holding him tightly.

Okay, now he was definitely crying. But it didn’t matter, it didn’t matter… he wanted to say something, anything. And, and maybe it wasn’t really Duncan, but right now, it was Duncan enough.

“Duncan…”

Lost for words, Alistair let out a hard breath somewhere between a chuckle and a sob. He leaned into the hug, resting his chin on Duncan’s shoulder.

“It’s time to stop your guilt from controlling you,” he said, pulling back and looking his young protege in the eyes. “Alistair. It’s time to let me go.”

Slowly, ever so slowly, Duncan began to evaporate in front of Alistair’s eyes. 

No, no, he couldn’t leave. Alistair couldn’t lose him again. He grasped at Duncan, trying to hold on to whatever he could, but all he caught was air--and as Duncan’s form finally faded away for good, Alistair heard a whisper.

Your father would be proud of you. And so am I.”

 

Solona:

“They’re--they’re okay, right?” Solona asked the Guardian.

“They have received what they needed, pilgrim, to meet Andraste with a joyful heart.”

The Guardian’s voice echoed, bouncing off the walls strangely. Wrong , somehow. More like the spirits of the Fade and less like someone standing in the room with her. (It made sense that the Guardian would be a spirit, but it was still unsettling, so soon after seeing all the demons in the Circle.)

“Solona, mage and Hero.”

No, not a hero. Never a hero.

But she couldn’t argue. All she could do was shake her head, as she walked into the room last, after her friends had disappeared--and ran face-first into another one. The last person in the world she expected.

Cullen. 

Over by the far wall, watching her with his soft brown eyes, a warm smile as she walked forward, like he used to have when he looked at her.

Cullen stepped toward her, his smile widening, shifting slightly into something warm and genuine and Maker take her, loving.

No. No. He hates me now. He should hate me. I failed him.

“Amell...  Solona, ” Cullen said gently, brushing an errant strand of hair behind her ear, the way he’d never dared to. “You have so much doubt. Did you do the right thing, could you have spared my suffering if you’d gotten there sooner, should you have left at all--I see it written in the lines on your face and the scars on your heart.” 

“Knew me better than you let on, did you?” Solona asked, tears starting to sting her eyes.

Cullen just tilted his head and gave a half-smirk in reply, which was all the confirmation she needed.

But no, no , this wasn’t Cullen. This was a spirit, an echo of an echo of her pain and her regret, not the real thing. If he could manage to put up with that and worse , how could she fall for it now?

This isn’t real. He would turn himself inside out before he talked to me like this.

“You’re right,” the spirit said, though Solona hadn’t spoken. “I am Cullen, I am part of the Gauntlet, and I am part of you. I am the words you both wanted to say and couldn’t. I am an opportunity for you to see the man you made. All these things are true.

A flash of light, and he changed before her eyes. He was older, for certain. Scarred. Still in armor, but not the standard templar plate. His golden hair was slicked back and tamed instead of the unruly curls his helm had always brought out. Smiling softly, he looked her in the eyes and spoke with the sincerity of the pure-hearted Fereldan boy she’d always known him to be.

“Never doubt this.” He pulled her in, wrapping his arms around her, his breath rustling her hair as he whispered the truths neither of them would ever have said aloud. “I loved you. You loved me. You saved my life. More than that, you saved my mind. And I knew you would.

Solona screwed her eyes shut, a few treacherous tears escaping as he squeezed her tight and dropped a soft kiss on her forehead. His voice was warm and reassuring and confident like she’d never heard it.

“Take the pain and the guilt, acknowledge it, and let it go. You have a lot of work ahead of you. I’ll be all right in the end.”

When Solona opened her eyes a moment later, he was gone, the tear stains on her cheeks the only sign that anything had happened at all. She choked back a sob, took one stuttery breath, and stepped forward.

The others needed her now.

 

Alistair:

The Urn of Sacred Ashes had been everything any of them could have expected--whatever snide remarks Zevran and Morrigan were no doubt making as Leliana told the story in camp that night to the ones who hadn’t been present

Alistair wasn’t paying attention, though. Meeting Andraste with a joyful heart hadn’t exactly happened. Seeing Duncan again was… it was too much, more than he could handle. It wasn’t the goodbye he’d have wanted, but it was better by far than the goodbye he’d had. He was a tangled mess of grief and fear and relief and gratitude… he didn’t know if he’d be able to sort that out anytime soon.

Solona came back with water from the nearby spring, and something was… off. Something had been wrong since the Room of Regrets, but she’d refused to talk about it at the time. We need to keep moving was all she’d said, and he had, they all had, giving her the space she seemed to need. No one had said a word when she’d volunteered to go out into the woods beyond the camp.

Looking at her now, though, maybe someone (Alistair) should have.

“Hey-- hey, Solona, are you all right?” Alistair asked as she passed him.

It took half a glance in his direction for him to realize that she’d been crying. He wasn’t the most observant man in the world, but he had been around her long enough to know the signs--and oh, no.

Everything snapped into sharp relief in that moment: the number of times she’d been hurt, upset, and, yes, crying--and how little he’d been able to actually do for her. Worse yet was realizing how much she’d done for him. The golem doll and the soft but certain way she’d said I love you , the confession and the kiss in the Fade, the night they’d left Ostagar for good and the way she’d made space for him and his grief… He’d helped after the Circle, he’d at least done that much, but she’d done so much more.

Maferath’s hairy arse, he had to, to do something, to fix this, for her, for her, anything, always.

Alistair stood up from the cookfire, walked to her, and put a hand on her shoulder. 

“I’m fine,” Solona said, and Maker did it hurt to hear that when it obviously wasn’t true. 

He wanted--he wanted to bundle her up in all the blankets and get her something tasty and bad for her (and probably covered in chocolate) and, and tell her terrible jokes until she smiled again and then they could talk about whatever was bothering her, whatever she’d seen in that room, and maybe he could go charging back up the Frostbacks to yell at the Guardian for putting her through this. He’d yell at Andraste Herself if it would make Solona feel better.

And then maybe she wouldn’t feel like she could only cry when she was alone.

Solona peeked up at him, looking lost and lonely , her deep blue eyes half-hidden behind dark lashes, and… please, no, I’m here, I promise, don’t look like that. 

With a soft, broken sound, Alistair brought his lips down to hers in a sudden kiss, desperately sweet and sad all at once, his hand reaching up to cup her cheek. It was the first time that he’d kissed her in front of anyone, and he didn’t care, he couldn’t care, not now. The whole Blighted world could be watching and he wouldn’t have cared. It wasn’t this. It didn’t matter.

“Solona…” he breathed. 

Alistair blinked open his eyes to look at her. Even red-nosed and tear-stained, she was still so beautiful, caught between the moonlight above her and the firelight beside her, it made his breath catch. He swiped his thumb across her cheek, wiping the last remnants of tears away, wishing that the hurt could be taken away so easily. 

“You… know you can always talk to me, right? That’s, ah, that’s what I’m here for,” he said, clearing his throat.

Solona just nodded, stepping back from him, pulling away. She started moving in the direction of her tent, but he gently caught at her elbow and stepped in as close as he could. She was warm and soft against him and Maker, he just wanted to hold onto her forever, to keep her close and tell the world to let her bloody be.

“Whatever happened... whatever you saw, I’m so sorry,” he whispered.

She closed her eyes and leaned gently against him, resting her head on his shoulder. Alistair wrapped his arm around her waist and stroked her hair. Even with her being so upset, he was haunted by the inescapable feeling of rightness. Nothing felt right unless he was holding her.

“No.” Her words were barely a breath; even being so close to her, he had to strain to hear. “No, I’m sorry, you didn’t--it’s fine, it’s fine, I promise. I just…”

She cut herself off. He wasn’t sure what she’d been going to say, and he didn’t have a good guess.

“I’m here for you, all right?” he murmured, dropping a kiss on the crown of her head.

He tipped her head up to look her in the eyes, to really see her answer--and made a shocked noise that wasn’t as quiet as it should have been when she rose up to kiss him, wrapping her arms around his neck. 

And since he couldn’t find the words to say what she deserved to hear, he poured every ounce of care and affection and confidence and just, just everything she meant to him into this moment: the way he deepened the kiss, slicking their tongues together as if he had any idea what he was doing; the way he hauled her up against the broad plane of his chest (Solona rising on tip-toe to keep her balance); the way he grabbed one of her hands and pressed it against his heart, which was battering itself against the inside of his ribcage.

Yours. All yours. Always.

Maker, the quiet sound she made against his lips was almost enough to unmake him. Maybe she understood what he was trying to tell her. He hoped so.

They’d been here before, after all: Alistair, overwhelmed with dizzying emotion and wanting to show her how she made him feel; Solona, taking whatever he was willing to give and nothing more, despite the potential for their bond buzzing between them every time they so much as made eye contact. But he wasn’t pulling away, not this time. He needed her to know how he felt for her, that she wasn’t emptying herself into the void. She deserved to feel supported and cared for and--just, everything.

His templar training and his upbringing told him that he shouldn’t get to want things, that nothing he wanted was ever going to happen--with becoming a Grey Warden as the exception that proved the rule. But here, now, some kind of a something snapped into place, and he had to admit it: he wanted this. He wanted to press her down against the earth beneath them, feeling her soft skin against his bit by bit, taking as much of her as she was willing to give.

And it seemed like she was willing to give him everything.  

Solona took the hand that was trapped between them and caught one of his, and he barely had time to think it was sweet before she was decisively placing it on her breast like a woman who knew exactly what she wanted, consequences be damned. He gave a muffled shout into her mouth, surprised--but he followed as she showed him how she wanted to be touched.

And Maker’s breath did that bring up some interesting mental imagery, since she said she’d never been with anyone before. 

He felt like a clenched fist, body flush against hers, all too aware of how her hips had started to arch against his, how hard he was, and how she could very certainly feel that . Judging from the tiny whimpers she was utterly failing to swallow, she didn’t mind, but still. It conjured up some more interesting mental imagery --just the thought of her slight, scholar’s hands wrapped around his cock or learning and relearning the shape of her breasts with his mouth--it was enough to have him giving out a low moan. 

Andraste save him, he wanted to bring her into one of these tents and see if any of this imagery was as good in reality as it was in his head. He was pretty sure this would all still count as in-between, if that even mattered anymore, and he was pretty sure it didn’t . Heedless of anything but his hunger for her, he slowly pushed forward, grinding against her hip bone, testing the waters and swallowing the gasp she made in response--Maker, fuck , he wanted her, he needed her.

“Well, I see the Wardens are enjoying their evening.” Zevran’s voice cut through their moment on a laugh.

Solona didn’t look much like she found it funny. Her eyes were wide, her face bright red, and she ducked into her tent without another word.

Alistair’s body was still throwing off sparks, and he was suddenly very aware of how close he and Solona had been to their companions the whole time--Leliana had apparently finished her story and was brushing her hair; Sten was polishing his sword and determinedly not looking in the Wardens’ direction; Wynne was fussing over Brother Genitivi near her tent, with Zevran sitting there, pointedly not helping ; even Morrigan was polishing off her dinner just a few paces away from where Solona and Alistair had been… preoccupied. 

Still, though. Rude. Alistair shot a glare at Zevran, who just laughed again.

“I simply wanted to say that I think I joined the wrong organization, my friend, if the Wardens are as permissive as they are attractive.”

Brother Genitivi smiled solemnly and rattled off various facts about historically promiscuous organizations in Thedas, which, thankfully, did not include the Grey Wardens. Alistair ignored them, heading toward Solona’s tent before Morrigan caught his arm. Goody.

“Leave her be,” Morrigan said, quiet enough for the others not to hear. “‘Tis understandable that she would require a moment to compose herself, is it not?”

“But I--” 

Leave her be.”

No. She needs someone to talk to, and I should apologize for getting her embarrassed like that,” Alistair hissed.

Morrigan just let out a long-suffering groan, and muttered under her breath.

“As if we all couldn’t see how completely foolish the two of you are for each other from the very beginning, and as if I wouldn’t know what that means. Maddening.”

“You… know? ” Alistair asked, curious and angry in equal measure. “Did she tell you?”

“Perhaps you require others to point out the blisteringly obvious, Alistair, but I do not,” Morrigan scoffed. “You are both exceedingly foolish for encouraging it thus far--you should have ripped this attraction out at the root the moment you felt it begin, but since you are determined to be idiots, I find it unlikely that you would do so now.”

Alistair was furious --how could Morrigan talk about Solona like that? (Calling him a fool and an idiot was one thing; Morrigan did that all the time. But Solona? She was anything but .)

“Didn’t you have a Voice once?” he asked, a hair too loud. “Didn’t they ever matter to you?”

The camp was shocked silent, as everyone processed what Alistair had just inadvertently revealed.

Morrigan just shot Alistair a look somewhere between smug and hurt , and the others went back to their whispering--though it was for certain about Alistair and Solona now.  Frustrated and annoyed with himself--that was such an obvious trap , how could he fall for that --he took a seat by the fire and rested his head in his hands.

After a long moment, he heard someone come up and sit beside him.

“So,” he heard Brother Genitivi’s voice say quietly. “Voices.”

Alistair jerked his head up to look at the old scholar. He was sitting there, cross-legged, his elbows resting on his knees, making a tent with his fingers. His expression was wry, with the beginnings of a gentle smile on his face.

“Voices,” Alistair said, nodding.

“I’ll admit, I had my suspicions about the two of you, but I wasn’t certain if you were soulmates or not. You could have just been in love, like the rest of us regular folk, after all.”

“Well. I mean… it’s just… how…” Alistair whispered. “How do you know? You know, that it’s really love?

Brother Genitivi raised his eyebrows at Alistair. His face felt hot, and he knew, he knew he shouldn’t have asked.

“How do you feel about her?” the brother asked. “Using other words, any words that feel appropriate.”

“I…” Alistair had to think about that. He didn’t know how to put it into words. “It’s that… I get this… squibbly feeling when she walks in the room. Like there’s not enough air for all the, umm, feelings.”

Brother Genitivi chuckled quietly, though it didn’t feel mean-spirited.

“Would you say that you place her well-being and happiness above your own?”

The answer came immediately and without hesitation.

“Yes.”

“Going one step farther, is her well-being and happiness essential to yours? If she’s upset, can you feel happy?” Genitivi asked. “Or is it... like a check in chess, where you have to resolve that first before you can do anything else?”

“The… the chess one. Definitely.”

“That’s love, my young friend.”

The breath got sucked out of Alistair’s lungs. It couldn’t, it just couldn’t be that simple.

“Wait… that’s it?

“That’s it.” Genitivi shrugged.

“It feels like it should be… more complicated than that.” He turned to face Genitivi fully, needing to understand this, once and for all.

“Well, how simple or complicated it is depends on you. But I have to ask you, Alistair,” Genitivi said, “to say it to yourself. How does it feel to think that way? Frightening, perhaps? Overwhelming?”

Alistair’s head snapped up and he met Genitivi’s eyes. He was stunned, shocked alive. 

“Or, maybe, does it feel right? ” Genitivi asked.

I… love her.

Oh, wow. 

Wow.  

Maker. ” Alistair ran a hand through his hair and swallowed hard.

I love her. Maker’s breath, I love her. And she… she loves me, she told me so. We love each other. 

It had been so simple the whole time. He felt like an idiot.

“What do I do? ” he asked, voice still a whisper.

Genitivi blinked at him, one eyebrow raised and face fully given over to a wry smile.

“Are you seriously asking the Chantry’s best-published scholar how to tell your soulmate that you love her?”

Alistair groaned and buried his head in his hands.

“Well, when you put it that way, it sounds completely stupid.

Genitivi chuckled. “Just tell her, and don’t worry so much about the how of it.”

“But I… want it to be perfect. She deserves--”

“It will be better than perfect,” Genitivi said gently, “because it will be yours.”

Alistair stopped, thinking. He folded his hands together, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. A soft breeze rustled the leaves in the trees, and all of a sudden he felt cold, even by the fire.

He'd... probably always feel cold when she wasn't near, now.

“Thank you,” he said. “I mean it, really. Thank you.”

“Some more advice: go talk to her, ” Genitivi said. “Now, if possible.”

Alistair nodded, knitting his brows together. Going and talking to the woman he loved.  That wouldn’t be hard at all. It had never been difficult to talk to her before. Just… go and tell her how he felt, like she’d already done ages ago. He wiped his brow--was he sweating , even in the cold?  Maker, he was hopeless, wasn’t he?

He stood up, taking a few steps toward Solona’s tent. 

He stopped. 

Took another step.

Then a few more, and he was at the entrance to her tent. The flap was shut and he couldn’t quite hear anything.

“Er, Solona?” he called. “Knock, knock?”

He peeked inside and saw Solona’s huddled form, lying curled up on her bedroll. She didn’t say anything.

“Solona?”

Alistair crawled inside the tent, and she still didn’t move. He placed a hand on her arm and looked closer at her face. 

She was curled in on herself, wearing a plain white nightgown that he didn't even know she had. Her beautiful eyes were shut, her face was more relaxed than he’d ever seen it, and her hair was out of its usual braid, spread in a halo around her. 

Alistair’s heart broke open looking at her. She was asleep.  

She made a whimpering noise and her hand twitched. 

“It’s all right, I'm here,” he whispered, lying down beside her. “It's just me.”

A soft sigh escaped her, and she turned to face him.

“Alistair?” she asked, her eyes starting to blink open.

He shushed her and dropped a kiss on her forehead, before pulling away, intending to get up and leave her be.

“Go back to sleep, love. I’ll see you in the morning.”

A sleepy hand caught at his elbow. Her eyes were closing again, blinking hard but trying to focus past it.

“Please? Stay?”

If his heart had broken open before, now it melted . He kissed her hand, settling back in next to her.

“Always.”

I love you, I love you, Maker’s breath, I’m so sorry it took me so long to realize I love you.

Alistair wrapped an arm around her waist. Solona let out another sigh, resting her forehead against his. He kissed her once, sweet and soft. His mouth parted for her tongue ( Maker’s breath, he could not believe this, even still ), and her lips were so soft and so was the rest of her.

He huffed out a breath as he pulled back.  Are her needs more important than your own? Genitivi had asked. Well, she needed to sleep more than he needed to kiss her, no matter how amazing and wonderful and right it felt.

He stroked a hand up and down her arm, placing one tiny, playful kiss on her nose.

“Solona?”

“Hmm?”

Without the incentive to stay awake, she was fading fast. He couldn’t help the smile as he looked at her trying desperately to keep her eyes open by blinking hard. It was precious.

She was precious.

“I love you,” he said, soft but clear.

The reply, when it came, was barely coherent, but it made Alistair’s face break out in a goofy grin in the dark to hear it.

“I love you too.”

Chapter Text

The sun was just starting to rise when Solona woke sharply, sitting bolt upright, panting, beads of sweat running down her face. Maker, she was never going to get used to these nightmares, never. She held her head in her hands and let out a soft huff of breath.

“Andraste’s left tit.

She heard a quiet chuckle beside her in the darkness. She whipped around, looking but not seeing anything.

“‘S all right, just me,” Alistair said, his words slurring together slightly. He sounded exhausted.

He was in her tent. When had he come into her tent?

“You’re here, ” she breathed. 

“I…” Alistair leaned up on an elbow. “I came in here to talk to you. To apologize for getting you embarrassed, among other things. Do… do you not remember?”

Some half-formed memories flitted across her mind-- his lips meeting hers, above all -- but… She shook her head, then recalled he couldn’t see her.

“No,” she whispered.

“Oh.” 

She still couldn’t see him, but he sounded disappointed.

“I’m sorry,” she said, lying back down and grasping blindly in the dark for one of his hands.

“No, it’s… it’s all right, you were tired.”

“You could… remind me?” Solona suggested. 

“I--sure, I could do that.” Alistair replied. He slid an arm around her waist, and it felt so comfortable and right to have him there that she scooted closer and dropped a kiss on his neck. Through her nightgown, she could feel brass buttons pressing against her as laid fully beside her and pulled her close. She didn’t have to see him to know that he was still in the day clothes Leliana had picked out for him in Denerim: a long-sleeved deep blue tunic in a traditionally slim Fereldan cut… with, to Leliana’s eternal shame, a traditionally Fereldan sensibility toward decoration: the tunic was mostly plain with silver embroidery only on the cuffs, the hem, and the button line on the front placket. She ran a hand down to his waist and found he hadn’t even taken off the brown leather belt. Had he taken off his boots, at least?

She chuckled at the thought of him actually falling asleep in clothes that could not have been comfortable, and her curiosity grew: why would he do that?

Alistair pressed a kiss to her brow, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear..

“When I came in here to talk to you, you were sleeping. You started to wake up, but I told you to go back to sleep and that I’d see you in the morning,” he whispered. “Then you asked me to stay.”

Oh. That’s why.  

The thought brought a broad smile to her face. He stayed because she’d asked him to; he’d gone to sleep dressed because he hadn’t wanted to make her wait. Maker, the moment was so sweet she felt a lump rise in her throat. 

Alistair squeezed her tight. She could feel his heart beating triple-time, knowing hers wasn’t any better. The hand on her back was trembling slightly--was he nervous? Why would he be nervous?

“Are you all right?” she asked, nudging his nose with hers.

“I… yes. I’m fine, I just… wasn’t done,” he said. “I kissed you.”

She grinned and kissed him once, gently. He hummed in response.

“Like that?” she asked.

“No, more like…”

With one hand cupping her face, Alistair brought his lips to meet hers. Solona’s eyes closed reflexively and she let out a soft whine--the kiss was almost heartbreakingly tender.

Maker,” Alistair breathed when he broke away from her. 

Solona could tell from how he held himself back, putting a slight distance between them, that he wanted to lose himself in her again, but he wasn’t allowing himself to. He ran his hand along her jaw with something that felt almost like reverence .

“Was that all?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “It wasn’t.”

Solona paused, waiting for him to finish, but he didn’t say anything. Between his reluctance to talk, his shaking hands, and his unwillingness to keep kissing her, there was something wrong here. She pulled back a bit, wanting to give him space.

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, Alistair, you just seemed upset, so I thought--”

“I love you.”

She laid there, staring at him, stunned. Time itself seemed to stop entirely as the world righted itself around this man beside her. Then he pressed in close again, his hand tipping her chin up.

“You love me,” she breathed.

This was more than she’d ever had any right to expect. She’d found her Voice in the Fade, then she lost him and found him again in the real world, and now he was here and somehow, against all logic and sense, he was in love with her, and…

How empty her life in the Circle had been . And if it weren’t for Irving and Duncan and a thousand steps and mistakes in-between, she’d never even have known. Blight or no Blight, she couldn’t regret the path that brought her here. Not for a moment.

Solona leaned in, pressing her forehead against his. Her smile was wobbly but true as she let out a breath that was half a laugh and half a sob.

“Maker, I love you, too,” she murmured against his lips.

He made an almost stricken sound, like he hadn’t expected her to say that, like he’d been afraid she’d change her mind, closing his eyes tight and running a hand wonderingly up the curve of her waist. She kissed him, heart cracked open and vulnerable, before pulling him down to lie beside her.

Alistair wrapped an arm around her, and Solona laid her head on his chest. They stayed just like that, awake and in comfortable silence, until the sound of their friends packing up camp meant they needed to start the day.

 


 

Traveling back to Redcliffe was the best part of the journey so far, in Solona’s opinion. No matter how hard the road or how cold the weather, she could be certain of a warm night spent curled at Alistair’s side. When the nightmares woke her, she knew Alistair would hold her close until she felt better enough to sleep. When the nightmares woke him, she could be there, making sure he knew he wasn’t alone.

It was absolutely worth the sideways glances and snide remarks that the others made, if enduring them meant she could go to their tent ( their tent, hers and Alistair’s, they had something that was theirs and no one else’s ) at the end of the day and be held close and kissed absolutely senseless.

They were a day out from Redcliffe, and she’d just seen Leliana off to bed when she came back to the tent. Solona had undone her braid and taken off her Warden-blue-and-silver dress, about to take off her breast band and change into her white nightgown, when she heard something fall behind her.

Flushing hard, she turned and spotted her Voice, with her sketchbook and pencil on the ground at his feet, standing stock-still at the entrance to the tent. Alistair was staring, his jaw dropped as he tried to formulate words. His fists crumpled the hem of his tunic, the rest of his body taut as a bowstring.

She was hyperaware of the feeling of his eyes on her, running over and over the lines of her body, heavy enough to almost be a touch. She shuddered, a low heat lancing through her, as her teeth worried at her lower lip.

A life of confinement in the Circle had shaped Solona into a young woman of generous curves, and, while several months on the road had hardened her in several ways, her body was still lush and soft, especially when compared with Leliana’s or Morrigan’s.

“I…” he started, then swallowed hard, looking away from her, his face painted a furious red . She took a step to stand beside him and raised a hand to cup his cheek, guiding his attention back.

And then Alistair met her eyes--the candle in the tent hadn’t burned low yet; she could still see his face. His gorgeous hazel eyes were nearly black, his lips slightly parted, and his breathing harder than usual as he looked down at her.

The realization hit like a fist: he wanted her.

Maker, if you really exist, thank you.

Solona rose onto the balls of her feet and brushed her lips against his.

“You can tell me what you want, Alistair,” she said, trying to sound teasing. “Who knows, maybe I can even make it happen for you.”

He shut his eyes and shivered.

“I want… I want to see you. ” he whispered, forcing the words past his natural shyness in talking about this sort of thing. “ All of you.”

“That’s…” She let out a quiet laugh before taking a step back, not taking her eyes off his as she pulled her breast band over her head. Alistair made a soft noise as Solona casually dropped it on the ground, before hooking her thumbs into her smallclothes and pushing them down. In half a moment, she was naked, flicking her hair over her shoulders to her back, exposing her peaches-and-cream skin to the winter air.

But it was hard to feel cold when he was looking at her with such heat.

She reached a hand out to him, and he took it, but didn’t press further, ever mindful of her boundaries in a way that made her smile. Her heart was beating hummingbird-fast, but she stayed still, letting him look his fill.

“Well,” she whispered, guiding his hand to her cheek, “here I am.”

“Maker. Solona, I…” Alistair breathed. Closed his eyes. Swallowed hard again. Continued. “I am so Void-taken lucky.”

She hummed in mock-agreement, then leaned forward and caught his mouth with hers, snaking her arms around his neck and pulling him in close. Solona pulled her body flush against his, her bare breasts brushing the linen of his tunic. He brought his lips to hers, soft, gentle, still not pushing.

“It would appear,” she whispered against his lips, teasing, “that one of us is very overdressed. I don’t mind if you don’t, but I thought it was worth mentioning.”

The realization that she was so very exposed while he was fully dressed should probably not have been as arousing as it was, but the awareness of it thrummed through her body, even as she wanted to see him , all of him, as the man himself might have said.

Keep it light, Solona. He hides behind his humor when he’s uncomfortable--give him that space.

“If you’re feeling awkward about it, I already saw you half -undressed when we were trapped by the sloth demon. And I’ll admit, I’ve been interested to see you for real. ” At his startled glance, she smiled slyly. “Did the Fade manipulate what you look like, or was it accurate?”

Alistair guided her down to the bedroll, so she was fully underneath him. Her breath caught somewhere in her throat, and his smile went teasing and smug.

“Academic curiosity, I take it?”

“Oh, of course,” she replied, her voice gone husky, betraying her.

“Anything else? ” He lowered himself over her, placing tiny kisses along the line of her throat.

“Maker forfend, ser,” she whispered. “Do not besmirch my good name as a magical researcher.”

“Maker forfend, ” he murmured, grinning broadly, before slowly grinding his hips against hers. 

She whimpered and he met her lips for one long, lingering kiss that made her writhe against him--before he pulled away, undoing the belt at his waist and tossing it aside. 

When he began to try to open the brass buttons that closed the top half of his tunic, Solona sat up--she had to help, even with her hands shaking as badly as they were. At the first brush of her fingers against the buttons, though, he stopped, eyes blown wide, just… watching her undress him.

“Everything all right?” she asked, pausing for a moment. She’d pushed too far in the past; she didn’t want that to happen again tonight. Not this time.

He snapped his eyes to hers, before shaking his head, looking at her as if he were willing her to understand something.

“Everything’s fine, better than fine, so much better than fine, it’s just…”

She waited a moment for him to finish before sitting back on her heels, pulling her hands away. “It’s just?” she prompted.

“I never thought I’d find someone like you,” he said. “And it’s… I honestly can’t believe this is happening.”

Solona laughed lightly. “What can’t you believe? That I’m helping you undress?”

“And the fact that you’re, you know, naked.

“We can’t forget that ,” she teased, dropping her voice. “Though I don’t imagine you could.”

She pressed a languid kiss (that she hoped felt seductive) to his lips, twining her tongue against his and very deliberately pushing in close enough to brush her breasts against him again.

Following the joke, Alistair groaned. “Don’t even tempt me like that, you minx.”

“Oh, so sorry, darling,” she said. “I should have asked if there’s a way you would prefer to be tempted. I apologize.”

That got a laugh out of him, and he scooted closer to her. He took her hands and placed them directly on his chest, just over the buttons of his tunic, eyes almost pleading. She leaned in, kissing him gently once, then gently took hold of his shoulders, pressing him down against the bedroll and straddling him with her thighs. Between the quiet of the camp and the way her dark hair fell in a curtain around them, the world could have ended at the tent flap for all Solona knew or cared.

There’s only us here. This is the only thing that matters.

Maker’s breath,” Alistair hissed, his hips stuttering up to meet hers.

Solona popped open the first button. He closed his eyes and sucked in a breath as her hands wandered slowly to the second.

“Good?” she asked, dropping a kiss on his neck. The second button came free.

“Yes, it’s, Maker, Sol--”

He ended his incoherent sentence on a moan as she brought her mouth to the spots where the first and second buttons had been shut. She continued following the line of his tunic with her hands and lips, loving the gasps and sighs he made. She pushed the tunic open as far as it could go, tugging the bottom hem free of her legs, sliding the fabric up his chest and over his head.

“Oh, sweet Maker,” she whispered .

Alistair was gorgeous.

He had a pair of shoulders and a chest that both seemed to go on forever and still gradually tapered off to a flat stomach and a slender waist. A light trail of hair ranging in color from coppery-blond to almost white led down his flushed-hot, tanned skin. 

Solona’s eyes and hands roamed over the breadth of him, unsure where to begin. She wanted to touch everywhere.

“Well?” Alistair asked with a breathless laugh. “Not as good as in the dream, right? You can tell me, I can take it.”

She dragged herself back up his body in a semi-deliberate tease, her full breasts brushing against his chest as she leaned in to press her lips to his. The two of them moaned together at the first brush of skin on skin . She hid her face against his shoulder, resting her cheek against his, overwhelmed with everything she felt for this man.

“That demon didn’t do you justice, ” she whispered, soft and serious. “You… I just… Maker, I want you.”

Alistair (gently, ever so gently) rested his hands on her shoulders, pushing her back to meet her gaze. He reached out to run his hand down the line of her neck, his expression one of wondering disbelief.

“I love you,” he whispered.

Then he surged upward to meet her in a blistering kiss. One of his big, calloused hands slid decidedly down the curve of her waist to her hip.
“Oh!” Solona gasped, grinding down at the shock of his touch.

She could feel his cock trapped between them, hard and hot, separated from her by only a few layers of fabric. She was aching and wet, her body tense as a bowstring, wanting him, needing him.

“Alistair--” she murmured, but he was in no mood to let her finish a sentence. He had her and he was not about to give up now. His tongue stoked deep into her mouth--and Maker, she wanted to feel his tongue everywhere --lancing heat through her with every thrust.

His other hand ( Andraste save her, his other hand) wandered down her neck to cup the weight of her breast, running his thumb across her tight nipple, drawing an undignified whimper from her. Her hips were moving on their own in helpless little circles, a reminder of being so close and yet so far.

She could feel his grin going smug again as he gently pushed forward, sitting up underneath her. He pulled her fully into his lap, her legs still straddling him. The hand that had been on her hip snaked around to her back, holding her close as he rocked his hips upwards. Letting out a groan, he dropped open-mouthed kisses along her jawline and neck--then moved down to her collarbone, making her gasp.

He paused at the sound for half a heartbeat, waiting for a nod before continuing downwards, landing on her breast, his stubble lightly scratching her, his hand warm against her cool, soft skin. With a broken noise, he swirled his tongue against her nipple, and Solona damn near came undone.

“Alistair,” she moaned, tangling her fingers in his hair. “ Maker, Alistair.”

She had never in her life felt anything like this. She’d never been so obviously loved, wanted --let alone both at the same time.

She wanted--she wanted to touch, to taste, to fuck this man, to be broken open and taken, here, now.  

But she was suddenly all too aware of the magic humming between them, her magic reaching out to him, trying to bind their souls together--and she had to check.

“Sweetheart,” she said, tipping his head up with her hands as he began to migrate over to her other breast. “Just to clarify, we’re still on in-between, right?”

Looking almost drunk on her, he slowly raised his eyes to meet hers, then (tenderly, as if she were something precious) brought his lips to her temple.

“We can be, if… if that’s what you want,” he said, his breath hot against her skin.

She must have heard him wrong, or misunderstood, or something. She pulled back, looking him in the eyes, heart pounding , jaw somewhere in the Deep Roads.

“If that’s what… I want?” she asked.

“I,” he started, then swallowed hard. “I wanted to wait for the perfect time, the perfect place, but… when will things be perfect? If things were, we wouldn’t even have met.”

It wasn’t possible to be this happy. It just was not possible, but Solona felt giddy, young, like the solemn little Circle apprentice she used to be had never existed.

“We sort of… stumbled into each other, and, despite this being the least perfect time, I still found myself falling for you, in between all the fighting and everything else,” he said, holding her tight. “I… really don’t want to wait anymore. I will, if you do, but I want… I want you. I want to be with you. While we have the chance. In case…”

“Alistair,” she whispered, overcome, reaching up to cup his cheek with her hand. “Sweetheart. You’ll always have me.”

“Will I? You don’t know that. I don’t know that.” He leaned in, murmuring against her lips, his eyes shut tight. “Neither of us knows anything about tomorrow, but I know I love you now.”

Everything went very still and silent as Solona’s world was rocked to its core. He’d told her he loved her, he’d shown her he wanted her, but this… this was different. This was something she had to believe.

She let out a soft giggle, trying to blink back the tears of joy that were threatening to fall. 

“What’s gotten into you? ” she asked, cuffing at her eyes. “You were terrified if I so much as held your hand not too long ago.”

“Is it any surprise that I find intimidating women incredibly attractive? ” he said, grinning broadly. “Besides, it’s not like you had to twist my arm too much. I hope.”

“No,” she murmured, brushing her lips against his neck. “But if that’s something you’d like to try, I’m open to it.”

He let out a noise that was half-chuckle, half-moan before pulling her in tight.

“So… do you want to…?” he whispered.

“Do I want to… what?” she teased, rocking her hips down against his. “Do I want to… rebuild the Grey Wardens?”

“Solona…” he said, laughing.

“Do I want to… go to the theater?”

She pressed down with her hips again , riding out the waves of pleasure and frustration-- so close, but not nearly enough .

Maker, Solona.”

“I’m sorry, darling, but I’m really not sure what you mean.” Lie, of course, utter lie , but she continued the tease as she bit down on his neck once, hard, before kissing away the sting. “Do I want to…?”

She finished her sentence with a yelp as Alistair flipped the two of them, carefully cradling Solona’s head. She ended up flat on her back underneath him, caught between his legs, giggling helplessly as he kissed down her neck. He lowered himself over her, his weight on one arm, his other hand sliding shyly down her stomach to her hip.

“You are perfect, ” he whispered between kisses. “How are you so bloody perfect?

She turned her head and brushed her lips against his cheek. “I have the same question about you .”

He went completely still and made that small, broken noise again, like when she’d said she wanted him.

Oh.

He really didn’t think I would want him, did he.

“Alistair?”

She nudged him with her nose to get him to look at her. His face was cracked open, vulnerable--and it broke her heart to see it.

This time, though, she didn’t have words. Instead, she pulled him close, meeting his lips with hers, sliding her tongue against his. She writhed her body upward, trying to signal that she was here and she was his for the taking.

“Maker’s breath .” The one hand that was on her hip dug into her skin.

Solona, still kissing him with everything she had and feverish with want for this man, magic buzzing between them, nearly high on the knowledge that he loved her and he wanted to be with her , couldn’t stand this anymore. She took the hand that was on her hip and placed it directly over the folds of her sex.

He gave a muffled shout, surprised.

“Maker, Solona, you’re--”

She never knew what he was about to say, because in that moment a loud, otherworldly scream came from outside the tent. Their eyes met for half a moment before they bolted to their feet.

“What--” Alistair started, pulling his tunic back on, not bothering with the belt or buttons.

“I don’t--” Solona agreed, throwing her nightgown over her head and handing Alistair his sword and shield.

Be careful,” she called as they went charging out of the tent--where tall, thin darkspawn with blades attached to their forearms were attacking their camp. Leliana, Wynne, Sten, and Zevran were already fighting their hardest, in varying states of armor, camp dress, and nightclothes themselves. (Zevran in particular was wearing very little. )

Shrieks, these darkspawn were called; Solona had read about them but never seen them in person--but where was Morrigan?

Casting her eyes wildly about, she saw her dark-haired apostate friend about to be overwhelmed by three of these creatures at once. More than that, Morrigan didn’t look well. Her staff wasn’t fully upright, and her spells were wispy around the edges, like she was distracted. 

From this distance, Solona knew she couldn’t do much. So she did what any sensible mage would do: went charging across the battlefield by herself, barefoot and in a nightgown, casting a glyph to throw the shrieks away from Morrigan.

“Solona!” Alistair called from somewhere behind her, worry clear in his voice.

The shrieks turned their attention fully on Solona, rushing forward to attack. She glared down the darkspawn in front of her. She wasn’t a frightened little Circle apprentice anymore. She could handle this.

Inhale: narrowing her focus on the power within her, calling forth her mana. 

Exhale: thoughts of stone, rock, earth, stillness, silence .

One of the shrieks in front of her was a statue in the time it took her to breathe. 

The other was bearing down on her with one of its blades. Solona ducked out of the way, but not quite in time, ripping open the hem of her nightgown and the skin on her thigh. Hissing in pain but otherwise ignoring the cut--it wasn’t that bad at the moment--she broke a boulder out from a nearby hill, throwing it at the darkspawn, which laid still on the ground.

She rushed forward to Morrigan, who was sitting on the ground, breathing hard and looking pale. She was bleeding from somewhere, if the inky pool on the ground beneath them was any indication.

“Hey, it’s all right, I’ve got you,” she said, stooping and brushing Morrigan’s hair out of her face. Solona’s power took form and shape--a bright white orb that seemed to relax into Morrigan.

Some color returned to Morrigan’s cheeks, and she took a deep breath.

“Does it hurt anywhere? Do you need any more healing?” Solona asked, looking her friend over for injuries.

“No. I believe--”

And then there was nothing but pain.

There were three , Solona realized, seeing the sword point jut out from her chest, blood dyeing her white nightgown red. Her body jerked as the shriek pulled its blade out of her back. As she fell, she met Morrigan’s eyes, barely registering the shock on the apostate’s face before the fog of pain clouded her eyes.

A long moment. Earth against on her back, unyielding, getting warmer and wetter with her blood. Each breath a little more impossible, the air rattling in her throat. Fighting, the clash of metal on metal, people crying out for her, or maybe just calling to her-- Solona! Warden! --from far away. Being lifted and cradled close by someone.

A surge of warmth went through Solona’s body, and she let out a groan. She sputtered and coughed, trying to sit up.

“Lie still.”

Morrigan of all people was holding her, hands aglow with warm, white light.

She didn’t know how to heal before.

“And her eyes clear. What have you to say for yourself?” 

“You are great and in your shadow I am but a bug?” Solona tried to chuckle but ended up coughing, her hand flying up to cover her mouth. When she pulled her hand away, she could see drops of blood on her skin.

Morrigan scoffed but put a hand on Solona’s shoulder, pushing more healing light into her.

“What possessed you to charge across a battlefield alone? ‘Tis the one thing your Circle can do properly , to instruct its apprentices about the dangers of being run through with a sword.”

“You were hurt,” Solona said simply.

Morrigan blinked at her. “And?”

“And… that’s all?”

“You would put yourself in danger over such a thing?”

“You needed healing,” Solona explained with a shrug, “and I didn’t know you’d learned how.”

Morrigan scoffed again. “I had not tried healing until a certain fool decided to make it necessary.

She’d learned healing in combat , specifically for Solona’s sake. Solona felt a pinprick of tears behind her eyes, and she threw her arms around Morrigan, resting her chin on the apostate’s shoulder.

“You do realize you just saved my life,” she said.

Morrigan froze, shocked still--though whether it was because of the embrace or the words, Solona didn’t know. 

“‘Tis nothing of note. You… required a spell, and I cast it.” She sounded uneasy, less composed than Solona had ever heard her.

“‘Tisn’t nothing to me, ” Solona said, pulling back and letting Morrigan go. “Thank you.”

She (slowly, painfully) climbed off Morrigan and tried to stand. Morrigan shot an arm around Solona’s waist and was silently helping her to her feet when Alistair ran up to them, eyes darting between the two dark-haired mages as if he wasn’t sure what to do.

“Maker’s breath, Solona--I saw… I don’t even want to think about it. What happened?

“Another day, another scar.” Solona tried to shrug and winced--which the both of them caught. Morrigan handed Solona over to Alistair in a way that was almost tender.

“Take your Voice back to your tent,” Morrigan ordered, her voice slightly wobbly. “She was badly injured by those creatures. Make certain she rests.”

For once, instead of bickering, Alistair just nodded, lifting Solona into his arms. She hissed in a breath and his eyes went wide with worry.

“I’m all right, it’s fine, Morrigan took care of me,” she said, leaning her head against his shoulder. She was more tired than she expected. The wound must have been worse than she thought.

Alistair took a breath. Looked at Morrigan. And decided to be heroic.

“Thank you,” he said.

Morrigan let out a contemptuous snort. “Yes, because I did it for you.”

“What did you do it for?” Alistair asked.

“Because she is great and in her shadow I am but a bug, honestly, Alistair,” Solona faux-chided, a soft smile overtaking her. She was so tired. Alistair held her ever-so-slightly tighter.

“You ought to ask her why she ran off,” Morrigan replied, ignoring Solona’s comment. “ I asked, but received only nonsense in response.”

“I told you, you were hurt. And, anyway, what’s a little stabbing between friends?”

Morrigan’s face cracked, softening just a bit. She looked like she wanted to say something… but her eyes closed for half a heartbeat, and when she reopened them, she was the cold apostate again.

“Go,” she said to Alistair. “ Make certain that she rests. ”  

Alistair just nodded and walked away, Solona still in his arms. He carried her into the tent, ignoring the inquiries of their other companions beyond a nod of acknowledgement that she would be fine. For Solona’s part, her head was still a little swimmy and the wound was still painful and sensitive. 

Her Voice sat her up on the bedroll and carefully removed her bloody nightgown, before easing his nightshirt over her head. She watched in silence as he went to his pack to get some elfroot for her. She could see his hands trembling as he tried to unstopper it. 

Solona took the elfroot before calling more healing and pushing it toward her wound, instantly feeling like the world was spinning a bit less. She sighed, easing herself down onto the bedroll. Alistair ran a still-shaking hand over her face.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“Better now. Tired.”

Alistair laid down, wrapping his arms around her--avoiding the spot where she’d been wounded, but still holding her close. 

“Don’t you ever, and I mean ever, do that again,” he whispered fiercely, burying his face in her hair. “Maker, I couldn’t get there in time, and I saw … I thought I was going to lose you.”

She shifted herself over--painfully, but she needed to look at him. He was blinking back tears, which threatened to spill over as soon as she met his eyes. Her heart broke --and wasn’t it funny that she was more upset that Alistair was going to cry than that she’d been hurt? Her arms felt like they were made of lead, but she reached up to boop him on the nose. 

“I’m sorry. I’ll be more careful.” She tried to crack a smile. “For your sake, if nothing else. Since I know how much you hate the idea of being in charge.”

Solona.” He shut his eyes tight, a few tears squeezing through. “I can’t--just… just promise me that you’ll take me with you the next time you feel the need to go running off somewhere.”

She pressed a soft kiss to Alistair’s brow. 

“I promise,” she whispered. “Whatever comes, we face it together.”

He let out a shuddering breath, then opened his eyes. He brushed her hair out of her face, then resettled them both so she could rest her head against his chest. Solona’s eyes slipped shut, and she let out a contented sigh.

“You’d better get some rest, love. Or Morrigan will turn me into a frog.”

“Frogs are pretty cute, though,” Solona said.

Alistair gave a watery chuckle and started stroking her hair. After a long moment, his low baritone rumbled softly:

You know Andraste's old mabari.

He don't show up in the Chant.

And if you ask those holy sisters,

Well, they'll say Andraste can't

Have had some big old smelly wardog,

But all Ferelden knows it right:

Our sweet Lady needed someone

Who would warm Her feet at night.

Solona smiled sleepily, eyes still shut. Even with the lingering pain of her wound, she was warm, safe, and comfortable in Alistair’s arms. She hadn’t had anything like this in a long time--not since before she was taken to the Circle. 

“You have such a beautiful voice,” she murmured. 

Alistair stopped singing for a moment, squeezing her tight. 

“Yes, I do,” he said, pressing a soft kiss to the crown of her head.

In lieu of a blanket, he pulled his cloak up over them both (more over her , and Maker, she’d never felt so cherished).

This is what home feels like. I’d forgotten.

And there's Andraste's mabari

By the Holy Prophet's side.

In the fight against Tevinter,

That dog would never hide.

They say the Maker sent him special,

Always loyal, without pride,

So he could be the sworn companion

Of the Maker's Holy Bride.

 

Oh, that dog, he guards Andraste

Without arrogance or fear,

Only asking of his mistress

Just a scratch behind the ears.

Solona was asleep before he reached the second chorus.

Chapter Text

Isolde hadn’t left her husband’s side in weeks, not since Connor had been cured. She was exhausted, strained, worn raw with worry.

The one saving grace of everything that had happened was that Eamon, at least, did not seem to be getting any worse. The one cutting edge was that he remained exactly as he had been the day the Wardens and their companions left. 

Some days she found herself praying that it would come to an end, one way or another. Any end had to be better than living in an open wound forever. 

On other days, she berated herself for those feelings: to prolong doubt was to prolong hope. He might recover yet. Brother Genitivi and the Wardens may yet find the Urn of Sacred Ashes. They may yet find a way to cure him. There was such hope and such pain waiting in that word: yet.  

She didn’t know what future she had awaiting her, but she hoped it was for the best. She had to believe it was for the best. She had to have faith.

And yet… 

It seems so cruel that he is left like this--so close and yet so far away from us all, Isolde thought, running her hand over Eamon’s brow.

The door behind her shot open with a bang. She turned, alarmed, half-panicked that it might be the corpses again, that the demon had returned--but she saw only Teagan.

“Isolde!” he cried. “Alistair and Solona have returned.”

The Wardens. She had no love for Alistair, and the mage girl had been terribly rude , but they had saved Connor. She barely dared to look at Teagan; the smile that was splitting his face made him look ten years younger. Her heart was in her throat--she hoped, she hoped, she had to hope they could save Eamon as well.

“Did they…?” she asked.

“We’ll have to see,” he replied. “They’re downstairs, awaiting your permission to come up.”

They treated her with the respect that was her due as the lady of this castle--but she’d never wanted that less than in this moment. They were here , why weren’t they curing Eamon now?

“Yes--yes, they can--they should…” Isolde said, clenching her fists to hide the way her hands were shaking. “Tell them to come here immediately.”

Teagan chuckled, too full of anticipation to chide her about her wording. He went out into the hall, heading downstairs to fetch the Wardens.

Isolde returned her attention to her husband. He looked so peaceful sleeping there, lost in dreams to them--but perhaps not for too much longer. She took his hand in hers, holding on in the only way she could.
“We are going to try something, my love,” she whispered. “It may bring you back to me yet.”

Yet.

Andraste save them all, yet.

Teagan returned a few moments later with both Wardens: Alistair, his arm wrapped firmly around Solona’s waist in a way that made their relationship undeniable; Solona, permitting it, holding something in her hands. 

Could it be…?

Solona gave a slight nod when she met Isolde’s gaze.

“With your permission,” she said, more gently than when they’d last spoken. She held a small leather pouch in front of her, showing it to Isolde and Teagan alike.

Isolde couldn’t speak; she couldn’t breathe. She nodded, screwing her eyes shut tight and trying to calm herself .

“Please,” Teagan said on her behalf. She’d never loved her brother-in-law more than in that moment.

Solona placed the pouch on the bed at Eamon’s side. She took a breath, and an orb of light glittered into being, looking for all the world like a large jewel. The radiance was almost too much to look at, but Isolde couldn’t tear her eyes away from her husband, offering the only prayer she’d been able to think about since he fell ill.

Please. 

Maker, please.

Bring him back to me.

The light faded.

Eamon sucked in a breath.

And opened his eyes.

Isolde was dimly aware of Alistair throwing his arms around Solona, hugging her close, looking like might cry, and Teagan behind them, throwing his arms around them both . But she only had eyes for Eamon.

“Isolde…?”

His voice sounded so soft, so weak, it broke Isolde’s heart all over again.

“I am here, my husband,” Isolde whispered. 

“Where is Connor? Where is our son?” Eamon asked.

“He lives, though many others are dead. There is much to tell you.”

“Dead?” Eamon breathed. “Then… it was not a dream.”

Solona cleared her throat, stepping forward. “I’d like to make certain there have been no further ill effects from this illness, if that’s all right.”

Eamon’s eyes snapped to the girl before him--not unkindly, but obviously taking her measure.

“This is the Grey Warden who healed you,” Isolde said.

“Solona Amell, my lord,” she offered. 

“You have my thanks.” Eamon smiled at her.

“With respect, it’s Alistair you should be thanking,” she said, indicating the young man beside her. “It was his idea for us to come here in the first place.”

Isolde read Eamon’s reaction easily: shock giving way to guilt mingled with pride.

“Your help is appreciated, Alistair. Thank you.”

“I… you’re welcome, my lord. I’m just glad you’re all right,” Alistair said, pulling back, embarrassed.

“No, truly, I feel you are both worthy of a reward. Allow me to declare you champions of Redcliffe. You will always be welcome guests within these halls,” Eamon said so decisively that it made Isolde smile--her husband was back, he’d come back to her.

The two Wardens exchanged glances with such obvious care that, even had all the other signs not been there, Isolde would have been able to say they were lovers without question.

“As your healer, I have to ask: are you in any more pain?,” Solona asked. “I can do more healing--or I have elfroot if you’d prefer.”

“I don’t think any of us are in danger from your magic, Solona,” Teagan said, then turned his attention to his brother. “Much has happened since you fell ill. Some of it will not be… easy for you to hear. But you will be impressed with what these Wardens have done for Redcliffe when you know everything.”

“Then tell me. I wish to hear all of it,” Eamon said as Solona stepped forward, standing beside the bed and examining him herself.

Even Isolde had to admit the Wardens were doing everything they could for her husband.

And what more could she ask for than that?

 


 

After a few hours of hard talking, Isolde’s husband had learned everything that had happened since the Battle of Ostagar. He was well enough to sit up in bed, but Solona insisted that he begin exercising his muscles again slowly, and under the supervision of a healer who could stay in Redcliffe. Teagan had already left to write to the Circle for someone reputable (and sent in chairs for Alistair and Solona, on his way out).

“You say you have one treaty left?” Eamon asked.

“Yes, my lord,” Solona replied. “For the dwarves of Orzammar. There have been complications with every treaty so far, but I’m hopeful that the dwarves will be able to offer their aid quickly.”

“That should be dealt with as soon as possible. But we must move to counter Loghain immediately. He instigates a civil war while the darkspawn are on our very doorstep. Whatever happened to him, Loghain must be stopped,” Eamon said. “However, we can scarce afford to fight this war to its bitter end. Someone must surrender if Ferelden is to have any chance at fighting the darkspawn.”

“I… I understand,” Solona replied. “What do you propose we do?”

“I will spread word of Loghain’s treachery, both here and against the king… but they will be claims made without proof. Those claims will give Loghain’s allies pause, but we must combine it with a challenge Loghain cannot ignore. We need someone with a stronger claim to the throne than Loghain’s daughter, the queen.”

Isolde saw the moment Solona understood. Her eyes grew wide; she swallowed hard; her hands shook; her face could only be described as heartbroken.  

“You mean Alistair,” Solona said, trying to be strong, but unable to hide the wobble in her voice.

Isolde suddenly felt so very sorry for this girl. She looked so young, so lost in that moment.

But she pushed those thoughts away. Eamon surely saw that, too. He will have a plan, a way for us to repay these Wardens for this, as well as everything else.

“I would not propose such a thing if we had an alternative. But the unthinkable has occurred,” Eamon explained. “Teagan and I have a claim through marriage, but we would seem opportunists, no better than Loghain. Alistair’s claim is by blood.”

“And what about me? ” Alistair interjected, sounding heated, grasping Solona’s hand tightly enough that his knuckles bled white. “Does anyone care what I want?”

“You have a responsibility, Alistair. Without you, Loghain wins. I would have to support him for the sake of Ferelden.” Eamon used the same tone that he used when scolding Connor. “Is that what you want?”

“I…” Alistair stammered, then sighed. “No, my lord.”

“I see only one way to proceed. I will call a Landsmeet, a gathering of all Ferelden’s nobility in Denerim. There, Ferelden can decide who shall rule, one way or another. Then the business of fighting our true foe can begin.”

There was a long pause. Alistair was staring at Solona, half-broken. Solona, for her part, was staring down at their held hands, her expression blank--almost like a Tranquil mage, devoid of everything.

“It seems we have little choice,” Solona said, her voice hardly more than a whisper. “How much time would it take to gather a Landsmeet?”

“Generally speaking? About a month. Considering the circumstances, I would say closer to two, perhaps even three months,” Eamon replied.

“Orzammar is only a few weeks’ travel from here. I suggest we make use of the downtime to settle this last treaty, so that, once the Landsmeet is over, everything is ready to defeat the darkspawn.”

“Sensible,” Eamon said, pleased. “However, I must ask another favor of you, Warden Amell.”

Solona nodded, but did not reply.

“Alistair must remain here, where he will be safe until the Landsmeet. The journey to Orzammar is not easy, and you said yourself that there may be trouble.”

No, ” Alistair cut in sharply.

Another pause. Isolde knew Eamon was giving Solona a chance to stand with them against the interruption--but she didn’t. Of course she wouldn’t. Eamon cleared his throat.

“Alistair, Isolde, why don’t you let Warden Amell and I have a few minutes’ conversation in private?” he asked.

It really was an order, rather than a request. Isolde silently rose, her legs still stiff from sitting so long. Alistair ran a hand through his hair, obviously frustrated, then leaned down to whisper in his companion’s ear.

“Whatever comes, we face it together.”

Then he left the room, as did Isolde. He went on, angry, headed elsewhere--perhaps to find their other companions or Teagan.

Isolde, however, rested her sore legs by leaning against the wall outside the bedroom door. 

She trusted her husband. He would have a plan that wouldn’t involve breaking anyone’s heart. He was a great believer in love. He would come up with something. So she stayed, waiting to hear the moment when she’d be proven right and they could repay the Warden who’d done so much for them. 

And then Isolde wouldn’t feel so very indebted to her.

“Warden.” Eamon’s voice came through the closed door. “I want to say again how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for my family, for me, and for Ferelden. But I’m afraid I have to ask you to do more still.”

Solona did not reply.

“I’m given to understand that you and Alistair have… some kind of romantic relationship. Is that correct?” he asked.

“It is,” Solona replied, without even a heartbeat’s pause. 

There was little sense in denying it, Isolde supposed. They were obviously enamored with each other. And Isolde had to commend the young woman for being so willing to bare her heart, even if it was for Alistair’s sake.

“I thank you for your honesty. And I apologize for this. It gives me no joy to bring pain to either of you,” Eamon said. 

Isolde’s breath caught. Surely, Eamon wasn’t going to ask this of her.

“You must end it, for Ferelden’s sake.”

What? Isolde could only imagine the look on the soft-hearted mage’s face in this moment. How could Eamon ask this? Perhaps they were soulmates. Perhaps they were destined to end it themselves. Either way, it was no one else’s place to interfere.

“As king, he will need to marry a woman of birth, a woman who would win the approval of the Landsmeet.”

“A woman who is not a mage,” Solona said. Her voice was sharp with hurt. “I understand, my lord.”

“You know Alistair, as do I. He will not pledge his faith when his heart is already bound.”

Eamon was willing to defy the world for my sake. He asks them to give up the world for his.

A little shard of doubt crept its way into her mind: was he the same man who stood before a kingdom and declared that he loved no one but Isolde, and no one but Isolde would he have?

“I need you to give me your word, Warden, that you will do what is right for Ferelden. However much it may pain you now, isn’t it better than having to watch as he promises to love someone else for the rest of his days?” he asked softly. “End this, before it hurts you both more.”

A long pause followed that question. Isolde wanted to rage at her husband for asking it.

“You have my word,” Solona said, almost too soft to hear.

And Isolde’s heart shattered.

She had to do something. She had no love for Alistair, but she owed him and Solona too much--Connor’s life, Eamon’s life, not to mention everyone they saved in the village --to let this be the way they were repaid. 

She would not owe this debt for the rest of her life.

 


 

A short while later, Isolde found the Warden walking alone through the castle halls. She looked like she’d aged ten years since before her talk with Eamon. Her eyes were bright with tears and her steps heavy with heartbreak.

Isolde swallowed. She couldn’t defy Eamon--she couldn’t make their marriage look weak, not even to this one Grey Warden (who could say what influence Solona Amell would have on politics in the future, especially if Alistair were made king?), but she could do this much.

“Warden, I would like to have a word with you,” Isolde said, trying, trying to sound kind. It wasn’t a strong suit of hers--The Game had little room for genuine kindness, and, honestly, Fereldan politics weren’t much better on that score.

“Of course, my lady,” she replied. “What do you need?”

“I wished to return something to Alistair, but I cannot find him,” Isolde lied. She couldn’t find him if she didn’t look for him. “Would you be willing to deliver it on my behalf?”

She held out an amulet to Solona. It had belonged to Alistair’s mother, she’d been told. He’d broken it when he heard he was being sent away to the Chantry--childish, but Eamon had found the pieces and repaired them, always intending to give it back someday.

Solona’s eyes widened as she obviously recognized it. Almost reverently, she took the amulet in both hands and held it to her chest.

“He… he’ll be pleased to have this back,” Solona said. “Thank you.”

The Warden couldn’t tear her eyes away from the amulet. And Isolde couldn’t help the maternal instinct rising inside of her, telling her to brush the poor girl’s hair back, hold her close and advise her to follow her heart where it led, consequences be damned.

It’s what Isolde would want someone to do if a girl like this loved Connor.

She pushed it all down--The Game had no room for softness, and neither did Fereldan politics. Isolde would do what she could, but her affection was neither asked for nor safe for anyone involved.

“When do you leave for Orzammar?” Isolde asked instead.

“I haven’t spoken with the others yet, but first thing in the morning, in all likelihood.”

“I wish you all the best, ” Isolde said, putting as much weighty emphasis on those words as she could. This was a girl who picked up on the subtleties; hopefully she would understand this was a gesture of support.

But all the Warden did was nod, thank Isolde again, and walk away.

Maker, she didn’t think she’d done enough. She wished she dared to do more.

No debts have been rendered unpayable yet.

No one’s heart is broken yet.

Even now, there was such a promise of hope and despair in that one word.

Yet.

Chapter Text

As king, he will need to marry a woman of birth, a woman who would win the approval of the Landsmeet. 

He’s standing in front of a Revered Mother, in Denerim’s Chantry, looking heart-rendingly handsome in richly-embroidered robes and a crown, beside a beautiful woman in a gorgeous dress too good for the likes of some little Circle mage. 

He speaks: I swear unto the Maker and the Holy Andraste to love this woman for the rest of my days.

Do what is right for Ferelden.

Her head is adorned with a crown that matches his.

Their smiles match too.

You must end it.

Her body grows big with the children the Chantry would take from you.

What he always wanted, and what you could never have given him: one big happy family, at long last.

Give me your word, Warden.

You’re in the crowd, alone, watching them parade by. He doesn’t look at you.

Give me your word.

He’s forgotten you.

Give me your word.

You were just some nobody too lucky to die with the rest of the Grey Wardens.

“Solona! There you are.” Alistair’s voice cut through her thoughts.

She blinked and found herself sitting on the floor outside by the entrance to the castle, her knees pulled up to her chest, her chin resting on top, the amulet clutched tightly in her fist. Her face was wet, and her breathing was hard and irregular, like she’d just been through a battle. 

Alistair was looking down at her with obvious concern.

“Sorry, just thinking,” she said, trying to hide her shiver.

He slid down the wall, taking a seat next to her. 

“I’d ask what about, but this one is obvious enough, even for me, ” Alistair said, trying to sound light, but unable to hide the tell-tale wobble in his voice. He mimicked her pose.

She thought she knew what desperation meant, what heartbreak felt like, when she’d lost him in the Fade the first time. That was nothing to this--spying on Alistair’s dreams was nothing to knowing and loving him in reality.

She wished she’d turned Duncan down, when he’d recruited her. Taken the punishment that she’d deserved at the hands of Knight-Commander Greagoir, and stayed in the Circle. After Uldred’s rebellion, she’d have been just one more dead body for some other Warden to find. Alistair would never have known the difference--there was only one heart to break, until she decided to be greedy and selfish and try to win his without thinking it through.

I should have listened to Irving, all those years ago. I should have stayed away.

How wrong and stupid could she be?

This fairy tale she’d hoped to have, some romantic claptrap that ended with the words “happily ever after”... it was futile now, the fond and foolish ideas of a naive little girl who should have known better.

Her lower lip began to tremble. She bit it to keep Alistair from seeing. Stop. Stop it, now. Solona tried to breathe steadily, trying to regain some sort of calm.

“Did I ever tell you about the first time I saw you in the Fade?” she whispered.

Alistair shook his head, but turned to meet her gaze.

“I… think it was probably the day you were told that you were going to be sent away. To become a Templar. I heard you, and I followed your voice, and I found you crying alone in the stables. I asked you why you were crying--I didn’t know you couldn’t hear me.” She took a deep breath, and his face softened. “You said that they were sending you away without asking if that was what you wanted. You didn’t want to be a Templar, you just wanted to be you.

She met his eyes--unsurprised to see tears pooling there, matching her own.

“I saw an amulet on the floor that night, broken--I think it was your mother’s? I told you that whoever was sending you away should fix it. That they should make it right, make it up to you.” She opened her fist and held out the amulet to him. His eyes widened. He half-reached for it, then stopped, stunned.

“Where did you get this?” he breathed.

“Lady Isolde, if you can believe it. She said she couldn’t find you, so she asked me to give it to you.”

“She hates me. There’s no way she repaired it,” Alistair argued.

“No, probably not,” she agreed. “But she wanted me to make sure you got it back.”

Solona took the chain in both hands. Alistair leaned his head down and she clipped the amulet around his neck. He sat back up, tracing along the cracks in its design with his fingers.

Wow. I…  thought I’d lost this to my own stupidity. I wish I’d had it along time ago.”

“I haven’t been able to find you in dreams since you joined the Wardens, but I’m pretty sure if I could, I’d find you right back in that stable tonight,” she whispered, her voice wobbling. Solona joined one hand with his over the amulet, and she brought the other to cup his cheek. She leaned her forehead in, resting it against his, closing her eyes. 

“Whatever happens, whatever you become, it doesn’t have to change who you are on the inside if you don’t want it to.” She nudged his nose with hers. “You’re always you.

He kissed her then, sweet and soft--she felt his tears against her cheeks.

“You started seeing me in the Fade when you were nine, ” he said, staying close to her. “You remembered that all this time?

“You’re tough to forget, sweetheart.”

You’re going to be impossible to forget.

Give me your word, Warden, echoed in her head again and she shivered, pulling away and clearing her throat. Do what is right for Ferelden.

“I’m taking Barkspawn, Sten, Morrigan, and Zevran with me to Orzammar first thing tomorrow,” she whispered. “I thought you might want to keep Leliana and Wynne around to talk to.”

“But… I thought--” His voice caught, and he cleared his throat. “We were supposed to face it together.

“We were.”

“You promised.” He sounded desperate. She could feel his eyes on her, though she couldn’t meet his gaze.

“I did--and I meant it,” she said. “But Arl Eamon is the one with the power here.”

“But--”

“Alistair, if we don’t follow this plan, Loghain gets away with what he did to Duncan.

He ran a hand through his hair with a soft, broken sound. He seemed to know there was no use fighting about it.

“You’re taking all of the people who are going to have something to say about… about all of this.”

“Better they say it to me than to you,” she said with a shrug.

His eyes shut for a moment, pained. For Solona’s part, she was hopeless, hollow. It didn’t matter if everyone in Thedas talked about them. There wasn’t going to be anything left to talk about.

“Try to stay behind Sten, as much as you can,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Actually, keep yourself between Sten and Zevran--tell Barkspawn to stay to your left and freeze anything that comes to your right. They won’t let anything happen to you. You’ll… you’ll be all right.”

He sounded more like he was trying to convince himself than comfort her.

“I’ll live.” 

It was all she was prepared to promise: this isn’t my Calling. I’ll see this Blight through to its end.

“You’d better,” he teased, but his voice was pinched. “You know how much I hate being in charge.”

Solona shut her eyes tight-- Maker, hearing him try to joke was worse than dancing around what was happening here.

“You are going to need to start getting used to that,” she whispered.

Her words caught in her throat and she cut off with a strangled sound, but it was enough of an opening for Alistair to wiggle through.

“I never, ever wanted this, not in my wildest dreams. But I won’t refuse it if it’s in the best interest of the nation, either,” he said, fervent and desperate. He reached out for her, holding her hands in his. The touch burned with the flame of every moment they weren’t going to have. “I love you. You know that, right? But I have no idea what being king will mean for us. I’ll have to think about that.”

She shook her head, hating how his face crumpled as she pulled her hands back. That wasn’t her place, not anymore--or, really, it never had been. Voice or not, soulmate or not, breaking-both-of-their-hearts or not, she couldn’t hold him back. She couldn’t stand in the way. She couldn’t make this harder for him than it already was.

“There isn’t anything to think about,” Solona whispered. “If… if this is the plan, and if you… if you’re going to be king, there will be expectations you’ll have to live up to.”

“I know,” he groaned. “That’s part of why I never wanted this. I like being a Warden. There’s real evil in the world, and it’s something we can fight. Making laws? Settling disputes? That’s not me. I wouldn’t know the first thing about it.”

“Those… weren’t the expectations I was talking about, Alistair.”

He stilled beside her. Solona stared straight ahead, trying to… to steel herself for this part.

Give me your word, Warden.

“I meant that you’ll need to think carefully about… about the woman who’ll be beside you. And… it’s not fair to any of us--you, me, or whoever she ends up being--if we’re together, soul-bonded or not.”

“She...?” Alistair asked. Then his eyes widened, and Solona could see the exact moment his heart shattered. “No, no , Solona--”

She,” Solona insisted. “Your future queen deserves a chance, doesn’t she? Without… without anyone else getting in the way?”

Alistair was breathing hard, pained. His hands opened and closed into fists, over and over, as if he wanted to reach out for her, but was holding himself back.

“And… what about us?”

“This is bigger than us. It’s important, Alistair.”

So are you. You’re more important to me than anything. I don’t want anyone else.”

“I know, I know, I hate this as much as you do, please believe me,” she said, her own heart breaking in turn. She could almost hear it snap as she tore herself away. “It’s just--people are willing to accept whatever help I’m willing to give them, but this is Ferelden, not Tevinter, and ‘magic exists to serve man and never to rule over him.’ I can’t… I can’t be. .. Even if I weren’t a Grey Warden, I will always be a mage first and a woman second.”

You just got it the wrong way around.

Damn it, damn it, the tears were falling hard and fast onto her dress. Alistair raked his hands through his hair, staring down at the floor, eyes blown wide. Solona choked back an honest-to-Andraste sob, resting her chin on her knees--but she had to do this. She gave her word.

“You’re going to need to marry someone the Landsmeet will approve. That’s not going to be me, not ever. You know that. I know that. So… it’s probably for the best that we… leave this where it is, because it’s either now or later, ” she whispered. “If this is the world you’re going to belong to, I… I can’t come with you. I don’t belong there. I won’t ever belong there.”

“And you think I do?” Alistair sounded shocked, hurt, broken --and oh, Maker, she bit back the impulse to comfort him, even though every inch of her was screaming with it.

“You’ll be great at it,” Solona replied, her eyes shut tight to the truth, even as she spoke it. “You’re a good man, and you’re more intelligent than you give yourself credit for. All the things you’re worried about--the politicking and ruling and all that--are skills . When you learn, and you get a little more confidence in yourself, you’ll do well.”

He let out a soft huff of breath, deflating. “Really wishing you believed in me a little less right now,” he said.

She gave a watery chuckle. “Sorry.”

They sat there in silence, the night closing in around them, suffocating her. The frost was starting to curl up the stonework of the castle and around Solona’s hands, a cold reminder of what she was . What she would always be. The smooth, still winter air reminded her of glass--if she let out the heartbroken scream building inside of her, would it shatter? 

Would she?

Alistair stared out into the darkness, hardly blinking, refusing to look at her.

“So… this is it, then,” he said.  

“You’ll be a good king,” she whispered.

“But I’d gladly trade that for what I really want.” His breathing was irregular, shuddering--he was struggling to keep himself under control. “ Maker, I would give anything in bloody Thedas to be your bonded Voice.”

I know you would,” Solona confessed. “But I don’t think you’d ever forgive me for it. Duty is important. Honor matters.”

She wanted to reach out, to hold him close, to kiss him one last time , but she swallowed it down, climbed to her feet, and started to walk inside.

“I can’t let you throw away your chance of bringing Duncan’s murderer to justice. Not for me,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry, Alistair.”

I was just the girl of your dreams after all.

Wait,” he called to her--and Maker help her, she wasn’t strong enough not to stop in the doorway and turn back to him. He stood, walked to her, and rested a hand on her arm, pulling her close against him in a way that made her breath catch in spite of herself.

“If… if there’s another way,” he said, and she felt his tears against her cheeks again, for a different reason this time, “when you come back, if we figure something out, and I don’t… I don’t have to do this, then…”

She was trying so hard to be strong, for his sake and for Ferelden, but she just wasn’t strong enough not to give them even the barest glimmer of hope.

“If there’s another way, we’ll take it,” she promised.

“We’ll take it,” he agreed, pulling her in for the kiss she hadn’t let herself reach for. Lips against lips in the cold night air, feverish with desperate longing-- needing to be together, but unable. She closed her eyes, trying to memorize how she felt in his arms, trying to hold on and make this moment last.

But it couldn’t. 

She blinked open her eyes, pulled away, and walked inside.

The next morning, she left Redcliffe castle for good.

Chapter Text

Every step away from Redcliffe cracked Solona’s heart open a little more--and they weren’t even a full day out of the castle. They were still in the Hinterlands. Everything still looked like Redcliffe, which just made it all the worse. 

It was like Ostagar or the Circle Tower: something about her had changed, some piece of her had snapped, and she knew she’d never be able to go back to the way things were before. It’s just that Ostagar hadn’t been her fault. And the Circle was shared blame: she wasn’t responsible for Uldred’s actions, as much as she felt she was at fault for what happened to Cullen and Irving.

This? Was all on Solona. If she’d stayed away from Alistair in the first place, no one would be hurting this way right now. The dull ache of what might have been couldn’t be worse than the throbbing pain of what she almost had.

Barkspawn rested his head in her lap at dinner, either glad there was space for him again, trying to comfort her, or both. Zevran was oddly considerate, not propositioning her as much as he would have done ordinarily, instead trying to make her laugh with jokes, saucy stories, and wordplay. Morrigan, bless her, seemed to be leaving Solona alone to process things, at least for now. She tried to avoid them all, honestly, just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, on not breaking down , breaking apart, or breaking away .

So it shocked her out of the fog she was floating in when she heard Sten’s voice calling to her from the other side of the fire.

“You are rash.” 

She nodded. No sense in arguing about the truth.

“You were wounded when the darkspawn attacked our camp. You have been wounded on several occasions, or so you and the other Warden have told me.”

“Wounds happen,” Solona replied with a shrug.

“They should not happen as often as they happen to you.

“Fair enough.” Solona was starting to get testy, but that was hardly Sten’s fault.

He beckoned her over to his side of the fire. The shadows it cast over his face made him look almost menacing as he held out a spare greatsword they’d found on a corpse.

“What are you giving me this for?” Solona asked, looking him defiantly in the eye.

“You are a Grey Warden. You must be able to defend the land against the Blight.”

“And I need a sword to defend it? I have magic.”

Sten snorted. “I have seen your magic. I am unimpressed.”

“I’m not here to impress you.” Solona folded her arms, trying to take a calming breath and failing.

“Evidently not. It remains to be seen what you are here for,” he said. “How are you going to face an Archdemon if you cannot face three darkspawn?

“What is it that you want me to do, Sten? Pick up that sword and hack away at them?” Solona replied, heated. Now she was angry at him, along with the Archdemon, the Chantry, the Circle, Eamon, Loghain, Maric, Uldred, Cullen, Jowan-- everyone and everything who had brought her to this point… herself, most of all . “I thought women weren’t supposed to fight. I thought mages were unchecked wildfires that could hurt anyone at anytime--as if warriors can’t do the same fucking thing--and needed to be collared and bound, with their mouths sewn shut.

“Your Chantry believes similarly.”

“And you trust the wisdom of people who believe there’s only one god, and we should all worship him always, who then went and set his wife on fire?”

Solona knew Sten well enough by now to know that the slight softening of his expression was meant to be a smile. 

Parshaara ,” he said. “You are a Grey Warden. You must defend the land against the Blight.” He half-tossed the spare greatsword into her hands, then drew his own. “I’ll try not to injure you permanently.”

“Sten… all right, this isn’t as heavy as I thought, but I don’t know how --”

“Learn.” That was all the warning she had before he swung at her left, making her go ass-over-teakettle, flat on her back on the ground.

Sten, what are you doing--”

His blade clashed against hers as she swung up wildly to defend herself, scrabbling to her feet, rushing back for any amount of distance between her and her Qunari friend who seemed to want to beat the tar out of her. He followed, striking at her with small cuts from the front edge. There was a porcelain stoicism in his face and bearing as he rushed at her--no heat, no malice.

Learn. You’re supposed to be a good student, damn you, learn.

The blades are long. Distance isn’t going to be my friend. I need to get close.

Solona ran toward him, knocking his blade out of the way with her own, clumsily mimicking the small cuts he’d made a moment ago. Almost smiling again, Sten grabbed the hilt of her sword and jerked her toward him, hard , forcing her to buckle at the waist. She felt the cold steel on the back of her neck--then he let her go.

He stood apart from her, giving her half a moment to stand and look at him--but not enough time to ask questions.

“Again.” 

Shit. Shit. She forced her mana inward, into her muscles, trying to give herself some semblance of strength--she was no warrior, but perhaps she could pretend to be one and Sten would be satisfied.

It was easier now to hold her sword high, blade parallel to the ground and on level with her line of sight, guarding up by her face and neck--she’d seen some of the Templars use this stance while training, and she did not want to be caught the same way twice. Sten’s smile broadened ever-so-slightly as he charged toward her, blade out as if to stab her in the middle. She caught the edge of his sword on her own and thrust forward , driving his sword up and away from her, landing a hit on his chest. 

He nodded but left her no time for exultation. “ Again.

They continued like this for what felt like hours. Mostly it consisted of Sten showing Solona all of the various ways he could absolutely take her out if he wanted to, but Solona had the benefit of learning from her mistakes--she landed a few more hits on Sten, but not many. He didn’t seem to want to make this too easy for her.

Solona had been in physical fights before, and she’d scraped her mana dry before, but she had never done both at once. She did not know it was possible to be this bloody tired. Panting hard, she rested one arm on her thigh and brushed her hair out of her eyes. Her usually immaculate braid was barely together, and everything from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet felt uncomfortably damp.  

“Loss of the self is the source of suffering. Suffering is a choice, and we can refuse it,” he said as they finished. “We will resume when we camp tomorrow.”

Solona let out a soft groan as she stood slowly and painfully, hearing parts of her body crack that were normally silent. Sten raised an eyebrow at her, amused.

Asit tal-eb, kadan.

“I have no idea what that means!” she called after Sten as he walked away. She thought she heard a soft chuckle in response.

Maker, all she wanted was a bath, and there was a tributary to Lake Calenhad nearby, but she was so tired she could barely see straight. Maybe she could rest now and take a quick dip in the morning before they broke camp. (This would never happen, and Solona knew it; she was not a morning person.)

She crawled into her tent, sloppily tossing her Warden dress aside-- Maker’s breath, she’d been swordfighting in a dress, what would anyone in the bloody Circle have said if they’d seen that? --and throwing on a nightgown she’d stolen from the castle.

She blew out the candle, stumbled forward into her bedroll, and pulled her cloak up in lieu of a blanket. Barkspawn ambled in not long later and curled up beside her with a soft, contented huff.

“You start barking, I am kicking you out of the tent. I’m tired .”

The dog made an indignant whine and rested his head on her stomach.

Solona quickly fell asleep as well, too worn out even to cry, wondering if that was the real reason Sten had sparred with her.

 


 

The next night was much the same, with the added “bonus” of having to fight while wearing a full set of veridium mail that Bodahn had found for her. Every night between Redcliffe and Orzammar, Sten would spar with Solona, adding more tricks, twists, and complications. One night he insisted on fighting just beside the river, trying to edge her into it, and she had to keep her balance and not fall in.

She was relying more and more on her mana to keep herself upright while fighting, though she was landing a few more hits on Sten each night. All in all, it wasn’t an awful way to keep herself occupied and focused on something that wasn’t her own heartbreak, but she was exhausted all the time now.

Still, she probably wouldn’t have been any better if she’d been crying herself to sleep at night. She had to give Sten that much.

And Barkspawn was not helping. He’d become a snuggle bug, climbing into her lap whenever she sat and resting his big, drooly head on her chest, or using her as a pillow at bedtime, heedless of the fact that he was supposed to be a war dog, not a puppy. And, Maker, he was heavy and he didn’t even care.

A day out from Orzammar, though, after sparring with Sten and returning to the tent bruised and beaten, she was awoken by Barkspawn’s delighted whining noises as Morrigan traipsed into the tent.

“You do realize that you have not even offered to take watch this evening? ‘Tis most ungracious of you.”

“I’m sorry, Morrigan. I hadn’t realized,” she said, her voice hoarse. She sat up--she didn’t want to be rude. “Was there something you wanted to talk about?”

Please don’t ask about Alistair, please don’t ask about Alistair.

“I had a wonder, yes. Why is it that you left Alistair behind in Redcliffe, with Leliana and the old crone? I had thought the two of you were soulmates.”

Solona sighed. Of course Morrigan would pick up on the one thing she didn’t want to talk about.

“We… yes, we are.” She started giving Barkspawn a thoroughly distracted belly rub. “But not every pair of soulmates is meant to be.”

“‘Tis precisely the definition of ‘soulmate’, is it not? ‘Meant to be’?”

“Fine,” Solona said, getting testy. “Not every pair of soulmates is allowed to be.”

“Then you came to your senses? I cannot imagine even Alistair being fool enough to refuse you.”

“You could say that, yes,” Solona replied, her gaze going soft, wanting to just let the fog she’d had before starting to spar with Sten pull her under again so she didn’t have to have feelings right now.

Morrigan scoffed. “Somehow I imagine your definition of ‘coming to your senses’ is as incorrect as your definition of ‘soulmate.’”

“Probably.”

Maybe if I’m really boring, Morrigan won’t want to talk about this anymore.

“Am I to understand that the two of you have ended your relationship?” she asked.

Solona figured the flat, broken look she shot at Morrigan was enough of a reply.

“Unwillingly, I see? On what grounds did he have to end things? Did he realize he was completely undeserving of you?”

Solona shook her head. Morrigan had it exactly backwards. “Arl Eamon wants to make him king.”

“And?”

“When that happens, I can’t go with him.”

“Why not?”

“Chantry bullshit,” she said flatly, startling a genuine laugh out of Morrigan. “They’d never accept a mage as queen.”

“Remaining lovers is not an option, then?”

“I… I can’t. I know some people can have relationships where everyone is… with multiple people,” Solona explained. “I… can’t. It’s just… not for me. That’s one of the reasons I couldn’t be with anyone in the Circle. If he’s with me, then we’re together, just the two of us. If he were king, he’d have to… to marry and be with and have children with someone else, Morrigan,” she stared into the distance. 

Morrigan blinked, her face neutral, her usual poise undisturbed. “This bothers you, I take it.”

“He’d have a family, a whole life that I could never share. Things I’d never be permitted to give him because of nobility and rules and the fucking Chantry, ” Solona whispered, pulling her arms in, holding tight to herself because there was nothing else left to hold onto. “If he has to have that, then he should be able to have it freely, without someone whispering in the back of his mind for the rest of his life.”

“You… are not bonded, then?”

“No.”

“I… you-- what? ” Morrigan actually stammered. “How is that possible?”

“He… wasn’t ready?”

Morrigan gave a derisive snort. “And that matters when your protection from demons is on the line? I had thought him reliable enough for that much.”

“Wait, what are you talking about?”

“Did your Circle teach you nothing?” Morrigan was starting to get red in the face.

“The talk I got about Voices amounted to ‘don’t bother thinking about it.’ What little I do know is a whisper of a whisper of a half-remembered rumor from somebody, somewhere.”

“You are telling me that Alistair does not know that a bonded mage is safe from possession, forever,” Morrigan said, angrily dropping to the ground beside Solona. 

“Whether he knew that or not, I don’t think it would have changed anything. He wasn’t ready to… to have sex, anyway, so…”

Morrigan stared at her, then took a deep breath.

“First of all, who told you that sex was necessary to bond? Second, you mean to tell me you tolerated that idiot and he was not even pleasing you in bed?

“Um,” Solona flushed. “First: some other apprentice. Anders, maybe? It doesn’t matter. Someone told someone told someone. Second: Soul. Mates.

Morrigan let out a long-suffering sigh. “Bonding requires proximity, yes. But above all, it requires intent and trust, ” she explained. “‘Tis what makes bonding so dangerous. Trust is not to be given lightly.”

Solona sat stock-still, Alistair’s words from a week ago haunting her: I would give anything in bloody Thedas to be your bonded Voice. He could’ve been, without… She was wrong about everything, all the time, always.

“‘Tis a supposedly noble thing, to give up your own desires, your own safety, for the sake of something greater than yourself,” Morrigan mused. “And yet, everywhere we have gone, we have seen nothing but people acting entirely for their own benefit. Are you and Alistair the only ones to make sacrifices to end this Blight? That hardly seems fair.”

“You think I should say, ‘to the Void with Ferelden so that I can be happy’? Isn’t that selfish?”

“Perhaps,” Morrigan said, sounding entirely unconcerned, “but which is worse: to know that you worked and gave and bled for this country in ways that others never would, only to lose everything that you desire and have them reject you in the end, or to work and give and bleed but keep the one thing you want most?”

“What happens to Ferelden’s throne, then? It just sits there? Or does Loghain keep it? The man who killed the previous king and the rest of the Wardens and who very much wants me dead stays in power.” 

“Are the Grey Wardens not supposed to be an apolitical enterprise?” Morrigan argued. “Ferelden’s throne is Ferelden’s problem, not Alistair’s and not yours. If this is such a dilemma, then perhaps the previous king should have had an heir. Perhaps the crown should pass to another bloodline. Perhaps Eamon should take the throne for himself--or perhaps he should have prepared Alistair for this instead of sending him off to become a templar.”

Solona was caught somewhere between cautious hope and furious despair. She buried her head in her hands.

“Eamon tries to pressure you into accepting this as the only option, but even he gains by it. He earns the gratitude--and implicit control --of a king by putting Alistair forward. What power he could wield, without the blame if things went awry,” Morrigan said, “but were Alistair to refuse, some other solution would be found. Of this I can assure you.”

“Alistair won’t refuse. He sees it as his duty.”

“Does he not also see it as his duty to protect you? I assumed so, considering that he followed you more closely than your own shadow--and the few times he did not , you were hurt,” Morrigan said.

Everything Morrigan was saying made so much sense and should have consoled her, but it was too late, much too late now. For all their talk of finding another way , she and Alistair both knew it was the end.

Still, she had never loved Morrigan more than in this very moment.

“You know, you’re the best friend I’ve ever had,” Solona said with a soft, sad laugh, tangling her fingers in her own hair. “I don’t know that I feel any better, since things are already over, but… thank you. For trying, if nothing else.”

Morrigan was quiet for a moment, and she reached out to take hold of Solona’s wrists, causing Solona to meet her gaze. When she spoke again, it was in a soft tone that Solona hadn’t heard since that night the shrieks attacked the camp.

“I am aware that I have… little talent for forming friendships. To put it lightly,” Morrigan said. “Of all the things I could have imagined would have resulted when Flemeth told me to go with you, the very last would have been that I would find in you a friend. Perhaps even a sister.”

She took a deep breath, as if to steady herself.

“I want you to know that while I may not always… prove worthy of your friendship, I will always value it.”

Solona felt a lump rise in her throat as Morrigan let go of her wrists.

“You’re going to make me cry, ” she said with a lopsided smile.

Morrigan scoffed--though her eyes were bright and her voice was wobbly, too. “I have yet to find something that does not make you cry.”

Solona laughed outright. “Ouch,” she said, placing a hand over her heart. “But you’re not wrong. Credit where it’s due.”

“So, what do you intend? Will you continue wallowing in needless despair? Or do you find there may be better things to do with your time?”

Solona blinked, looking away. “I can’t go marching back to Redcliffe just to tell Arl Eamon to shove it. We really need the dwarves’ aid for the Blight, and I think Sten might actually stab me if I delay us any more.”

“You need not go marching back to Redcliffe. Simply recognize that there is a choice to be made, and let it be done,” Morrigan said, standing and walking to the tent flap, as if that ended the conversation.

Overcome, Solona rushed upward and impulsively threw her arms around her friend (her best friend , after everything she’d lost and everything she’d stupidly thrown away, someone else cared about her, too).

And this time, for the first time , Morrigan hugged her back.

Chapter Text

Zevran:

“I thought we left Redcliffe to get away from politics,” Solona groaned, leaning her head against the stone wall of one of the rooms they’d rented in Tapster’s Tavern. Morrigan and Sten were in their own rooms; Solona had decided to splurge on getting them each their own, for which Zevran was grateful. The Qunari snored, Morrigan would have fried him with lightning for breathing wrong, and Alistair would have been quite upset if Zevran had shared a room with Solona.

Still, though, something was not right with their fearless leader. Something had been not-right since they’d left Redcliffe, and while it was easy enough to see Solona’s heartbreak, Zevran had to wonder at the source of it. Alistair had all but confirmed that the pair were soulmates. Where was the room for heartbreak in that?

Zevran just gave a laugh, hiding his concern for now. “Your bad luck follows you wherever we go, it seems.”

Solona just sighed in response. Something in Zevran understood. This was supposed to be simple: come to Orzammar, get the dwarves’ aid for the Blight, go back to Redcliffe. But no. Apparently neither Ferelden nor Orzammar could keep their own rulers straight.

It made Zevran miss Antiva all the more; one or two quick assassinations would have solved this problem swiftly and decisively .

“Let’s go over the options again,” Solona said, leaning her head in her hands, her fingers pulling sharply at her hair. “There’s Harrowmont and Bhelen, and the people who live here seem evenly split as to which they’d like better, so now here comes the outsider to tell them all how to live their lives.”

“Come now , do not look so worried,” Zevran replied, chiding.

“Oh, of course, let’s not worry about the lives I’m changing forever just to get my army.”

“This army will save many thousands of lives across Ferelden.” Zevran hooked one finger under her chin, tilting her face up to look at him. “I know you have a thing for self-flagellation, but now appears to be neither the time nor the place.”

Solona sighed, but shot Zevran a thin smile as he sat next to her on the bed. 

“Harrowmont, by report, is kind and fair as a person, but he wants to keep the status quo in Orzammar: isolationist policies, casteless without any real place to go… Bhelen, on the other hand, is said to be less discriminating in the measures he takes, but wants to reform Orzammar completely: opening up the surface trade and letting the casteless fight in the army, among other things,” she said. “A compromise, with Harrowmont’s sense of justice and Bhelen’s politics would be what I’d choose, but I don’t have to live here to deal with the results, so I don’t think that my opinion matters.” 

“I don’t know how different Orzammar is from Antiva, but I tend to find that when royal houses are specifically courting someone for their support…”

“Promising to eventually give me the army they are obliged to send while they make me into their errand girl is hardly a courtship, ” Solona scoffed. “I mean, that’s basically the equivalent of using me for my body.”

“True enough,” Zevran said with an outright laugh. “And how dare they? What kind of girl do they think you are?”

“A stupid one, probably,” she replied with a half-broken glance at Zevran. “Easily manipulated. Naive. Take your pick.”

Zevran hurt to hear that. Not because it wasn’t true, necessarily. Solona was… idealistic, but that she was so clearly pained by it…

He had a cold heart, but not that cold.  He forced a smile. “ Pobrecita, what did I say about the self-flagellation, hmm?”

Solona nudged him with her shoulder by way of a caress. Zevran took this for encouragement.

“Come, come, that is enough politics for one night, yes? I think we both could use a break. And if you are so interested in causing yourself pain, then perhaps we should revisit our discussion on tattoos. Then, at least, you will become even more of a work of art than you already are.”

“Smooth, Zev,” Solona replied with a tiny smile. “Very smooth.”

“Let us talk about designs, ” Zevran said, overplaying his excitement just a bit , chasing that smile a bit farther. “Oh! And placement. Placement is very important, my dear Warden.”

“Placement,” Solona repeated flatly. And now Zevran felt like he was on familiar ground, so to speak.

“Yes, where would you like your tattoo to be? For you, I would say somewhere unexpected , hidden to the eye, and thus a pleasant surprise for any bed partner you may have. And what design would you like? Something strong and proud? Or something lovely and feminine? Or both! Both is an option, as well.”

“Zev.”

Her voice was small and broken, and braska, he thought he’d been doing so well for a moment there.

“So a ‘no’ on the tattoo. Perhaps another time,” Zevran said. “Come, then, I have just the thing.”

He stood and offered her a hand, enjoying the raised eyebrow she gave him in return.

“I believe there is music downstairs. Dance with me.”

“Zev...”

He kept his hand out, and his eyes locked on hers. “The political situation will still be there in the morning. Or afternoon. Or… whatever time it will be once you rest. But you will not find a solution by beating your head against a wall--or perhaps you will! I would prefer a dance, personally, but if you’d like, I’ll try anything once. Shall we?”

She gave a small half-chuckle but didn’t move. Zevran sighed dramatically.

“You are a cruel, cruel woman to leave me on the hook, waiting for your answer.”

“And you would just make fun of me for admitting I don’t know how to dance. They don’t exactly have parties in the Circle.”

Zevran let out a full laugh, but not an unkind one, he hoped. “Now that is a tragedy and a crime ! I will teach you.”

She shrank back, and Zevran almost rescinded his offer, but he was out of ideas to help take her mind off things… or, at least, out of ideas she’d potentially agree to.

“We do not have to go downstairs if you feel embarrassed. I can hear the music perfectly well from here,” he offered, with an ironic, courtly bow. 

She slipped her hand into his. Her hands had not yet become calloused from the swordplay Sten was pushing her to do--they were the soft, gentle hands of a Circle mage. There was no heat between them, but there was warmth as she gave his fingers a gentle squeeze.

“All right, Zev. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

“Excellent!” He laughed loudly, pulling her up into an absurd twirl and watching her stumble over her own feet.

“Hey, I’m trusting you with my dignity, here,” Solona chided.

Zevran blinked at her words: I ’m trusting you. I t must have been a figure of speech, but her gaze was open. He hid his confusion, however. It was not needed here. He took a place beside her and tapped out the waltzing step of a common Antivan dance-- one , two, three, repeated endlessly--waiting for her to imitate.

Solona was no slouch, and picked up on the step with a little clumsiness, but good faith. He added fluid arm movements and a twisting of the wrists, which, again, to her credit, she tried her best to copy. The posture was not perfect, and there were some faults in the formation of the steps, but this was supposed to be relaxing, giving them something else to focus on other than politics and heartbreak.

He turned to face opposite her, continuing the steps as partners, as the dance was intended. With the same step, he showed her how pass by him, switching their places, and how to turn. This was a hands-off sort of dance, which was good. It would be rude to encroach upon another man’s territory ( especially Alistair’s), and Solona was not interested in Zevran in that way. But braska, he could see a great deal to admire in the lines of her body from this close. He was not dead , after all. He showed her another few steps, waiting as she internalized the rhythm, then pulled her to sit beside him again.

“Now, was that not more entertaining than banging your head against the wall?”

“It was. I’ll give you that one.” Her eyes sparkled deviously. “I wasn’t too lousy a partner, I hope? Even though it was my first time?”

Zevran gave a full, rich laugh. A sex joke! He was so proud. “You did fine. I will tell you though, that you will get better with practice.”

Solona laughed in return, their foreheads touching slightly as they doubled over giggling. Zevran wrapped an arm around her back to stabilize her. 

He was not expecting the feel of her head softly resting on his shoulder as he did so.

“Thank you, Zev,” she whispered. “I almost feel like a person .”

Zevran was… very not good with feelings. He did not know how to give someone comfort like Solona seemed to need. He was not even certain what he was comforting her for. But she seemed unwilling to move, and so he was content to let her remain where she was.

“So tell me about your adventures,” she said softly, almost a plea.

“My adventures? I am hardly an old man just returned from across the sea, am I? Shall I shake my fist at nearby children while I talk about the good old days?”

“You certainly talk like you’ve had adventures,” Solona said, teasing.

“Falling down a flight of stairs is an adventure. Falling into someone’s bed? Also an adventure,” Zevran replied, teasing back. “I assume what you are looking for are professional anecdotes.”

Solona made a thoughtful humming noise in reply. Well, apparently it was going to be story time. (But the tale of how he’d killed a Circle mage for meddling in politics was probably not the best one to tell right now, all things considered.)

“How about the largest battle I ever took part in? That would be the slaughter of Prince Azrin. Did you hear of that down in these parts?”

“You killed a prince?”

“Me? Not personally. But I did take part in the attack,” Zevran said. “Prince Azrin was fourth in line for the throne, you see. He started out as eleventh, but he worked his way up with the old-fashioned method: by inheriting control of an entire Crow cell from his grandfather.”

He ignored Solona’s laugh at “the old-fashioned method,” though he was glad to hear it.

“After assassinating his way through the royal family, the king hired three other Crow cells to take down Prince Azrin once and for all. I was in one of those cells.”

“Is that sort of situation common in Antiva?”

“Antivan royalty is very much bound up in the Crows. You wouldn’t want it run by a bunch of commoners, after all, would you? And this means they get involved in politics quite often,” Zevran replied. “This particular fight almost bankrupted the nation, I understand. It almost ended up putting a Crow on the throne, a commoner… but that’s a whole different story. I played a very small part.”

“What role did you play?”

“My part in the entire battle was taken up by trying to reach Princess Ferenna, who had thrown in with her brother. I killed about eleven of her guards personally, before I got knocked out of a window. I fell into the river and nearly drowned.”

Solona sat up, shock on her face.

“I was fished out by some urchins who robbed me blind. Made off with my boots, too. At least they didn’t cut my throat,” Zevran said with a shrug. “And that was my part in history.”

 She smiled softly. “You’re very lucky, aren’t you?”

“It’s true. I live a charmed life. One of the prostitutes that raised me was a fortune teller. Said I wouldn’t die young. She was rather startled by that.”

“Well, I’ll do my best to make sure that fortune comes true, Zev,” Solona said, nudging him with her shoulder again. “You’re my friend and I’d like to keep you around for a while.”

“That honesty is going to get you in trouble one day,” Zevran replied with a laugh. He was more touched than he wanted to let on. He’d had a lot of relationships, but he couldn’t call any of them friends. Not really. Not anymore.

He squeezed her shoulder once, then let go. “Perhaps it is time to rest now, pobrecita.

“Would I be a terrible person for choosing Bhelen?” she asked as Zevran started to get up.

“I do not think you could be a terrible person if you tried, ” Zevran teased. 

“I’m serious. Truth be told, I don’t know how long Orzammar could survive with Harrowmont. Given their reliance on the surface trade for food, closing the borders strikes me as a terrible idea,” Solona admitted.

“And, you see? The choice came to you without you continuing to obsess over it.” He tapped her nose once, playfully. “It is all right to take your time every once in a while, even with a Blight to stop. Everyone’s mind needs a moment sometimes.”

Solona smiled thinly, tired. “Thank you.”

“Rest,” he said, leaving the room.

You’re my friend and I’d like to keep you around for a while , she’d said .

She was his friend. Of all the odd things that had happened to him in his life, this was probably the oddest yet: that a mark he’d taken out of desperation would not only spare him, but care about him as a person. Or that he would care in return.

You know, Solona, I think I might like to keep you around for a while, as well.

 


Solona:

The decent mood Solona had woken up with had vanished as soon as they’d made contact with Bhelen and worked their way through the Carta in Dust Town.

“We’ve been working with him for two days, and now he’s sending us into the Deep Roads-- ” she started to complain--when a low, grumbly voice cut her off.

“Stranger! Have you seen a Grey Warden hereabouts? I’ve been privy to the rumor that she--I think it was she--you understand this was many mugs ago--was searching for the Paragon Branka.”

The voice belonged to a red-headed dwarf with a long, braided moustache in lieu of a beard who smelled like, as Leliana might put it, someone lit a brewery on fire.

“What does this Grey Warden look like?” Zevran cut in wickedly.

“Fair of face, with a strong jaw and bold nose, surrounded by a great glowing nimbus. Her eyes will shine with the light of purity and her large but chaste bosom will heave magnificently. I’ve been looking for hours, but I haven’t seen anyone who looks like that. Very frustrating,” the dwarf said.

“I’m the Grey Warden. Sorry to disappoint,” Solona replied, offering a cracked smile.

“That’s not terribly far off.” Zevran shot Solona a teasing look, his eyes sparkling. “You have the fair face, the shining eyes, and most assuredly a magnificent --and sadly chaste--bosom.”

“I hate you,” Solona said, not meaning a word of it. Zevran laughed.

“Hey, can I ask you a favor?” the dwarf interrupted.

“Why not? Everyone else does," Solona replied flatly.

“Name’s Oghren, and if you’ve ever heard of me before, it’s probably all about how I piss ale and kill little boys who look at me wrong,” the dwarf said with a laugh. “And that’s mostly true, but the part they never say is how I’m the only one still trying to save our only Paragon. If you’re looking for Branka, I’m the only one who knows what she was looking for, which might be pretty sodding helpful in finding her.”

“Well, you know how to get a girl’s attention, Oghren, I’ll give you that.” Solona said, blinking in surprise.

He barked out a short laugh before returning some semblance of seriousness to his face. “Where she was going, it’s a lost thaig. No one’s seen it in centuries. I searched as far as I could… but it would take teams of warriors weeks on end to cover enough ground to hope to find it. Which is, I assume, what all those Warrior Caste blighters sent by Bhelen have done. And he shared that knowledge with you.”

“Spot-on, so far,” Solona conceded.

“But they haven’t found Branka herself, and that means, whatever they’ve got, it’s not enough if you don’t know what she was looking for. If we pool our knowledge, we stand a chance of finding Branka. Otherwise, good sodding luck.”

Solona nodded, but was struck by something… complicated she saw in Oghren’s expression.

“I mean to get her back,” he said seriously. “And you wouldn’t be down here if you weren’t trying for the same thing.”

Their eyes truly met for the first time, and she spotted it instantly: kinship. Some piece of him was irretrievably lost, something irreparably broken far beneath the surface, some heartbreak he was trying to hide from the world. Something in his face was a red-headed, dwarven reflection of her own.

“Glad to have you with us,” she replied softly. 

Together, the team descended into the Deep Roads. Solona looked back, just once, as they walked through the doors that kept Orzammar safe from the darkspawn. A cold shiver went up her spine. 

Let me get back up to the surface. 

Let me see the sunlight again.

Let me see Alistair again.

Please.

The doors shut behind them.

Chapter Text

It was a minor miracle that they’d made it this far, though it had taken what felt like weeks. Solona knew from Anders’ time in solitary and her own reading that in the absence of light, the body’s natural rhythm was often slightly longer than a day, but, roughly speaking, she could keep general time by it: one week from Redcliffe to Orzammar, three days in Orzammar proper before entering the Deep Roads, and, roughly speaking, about five weeks camping in the darkness. The team was down to jerky, thoroughly stale bread, and the occasional magically-roasted nug or deepstalker. If they didn’t find Branka soon, they’d have to go back to Orzammar--or start a debate on the merits of eating deep mushrooms and if it was worth risking the hallucinogenic effects of some subspecies.

And, as much as Solona considered herself a scholar, and as much as she was vaguely interested in the history of the dwarves that could be recovered in the Deep Roads, she couldn’t help but hate them. To be fair, though, there were a lot of things to hate about the Deep Roads: the giant spiders, the claustrophobic feeling of the too-small tunnels, the near-impenetrable darkness in the places where the ancient dwarven lights went out, the giant spiders, the deepstalker swarms, the darkspawn, the giant spiders, the stench of death and decay that had never been aired out, the gaping chasms around every other corner, and the giant spiders. 

Goodwill toward each other was starting to wear thin, as well; petty arguments among the team were common, particularly toward Oghren as the newcomer and the worst-smelling, though none of them smelled particularly good anymore. Meeting a few of the Legion of the Dead had improved the mood somewhat, since there was someone else to fight beside and to talk to for an hour or two while they shared a meal after clearing the entrance to Bownammar, but that had been the better part of a day ago, and things were starting to sour again.

At least the caverns were widening again into actual Deep Roads with a floor and actual dwarven lights, as opposed to tunnels with flickering torches that the party had to light themselves. Oghren seemed convinced that they’d find Branka around every corner, and, while the hope was at first endearing and then sad, it was starting to grate on everyone’s nerves. Even Solona, who wasn’t usually a pessimist, was fairly convinced that Branka would be long dead before they got anywhere close to finding her.

And so it was in this mood and in this tunnel when a hushed whisper came over to Solona from afar: First day, they come and catch everyone.

She stopped walking forward, straining to hear, but no more whispers came through for a long moment. It wasn’t until she shrugged to herself and started to move on that she heard it: Second day, they beat us and eat some for meat.

“Did everyone else hear that, or are these tunnels just getting to me?” Solona whispered to the others.

“I heard it,” Oghren grumbled.

“It sounded like a woman’s voice,” Zevran agreed.

Third day, the men are all gnawed on again, the voice said.

They walked forward, more quickly now, as the voice started to get louder. They were getting close, she knew, to the mysterious poet.

 

Fourth day, we wait and fear for our fate.

Fifth day, they return and it’s another girl’s turn.

Sixth day, her screams we hear in our dreams.

Seventh day, she grew as in her mouth they spew.

Eighth day, we hated as she is violated.

Ninth day, she grins and devours her kin.

Now she does feast, as she’s become the beast.

 

As they came around a corner, they spotted a dwarven woman. She was hunched over something, limbs shaking as she picked apart whatever she was looking at. Her back was to them, but Solona could tell that the woman’s dress was horribly dirty, covered in blood and bits of gore that had long since dried. Her hair was once probably a dark blonde or a light brown, but had since gotten so much blood and dirt and grime in it that it was barely recognizable as any color at all. 

And Solona could feel her, sense her through the taint, like a darkspawn, like…

Maker, she thought she might be sick.

When they closed the distance between them and her, she turned to face them, looking at them with dull, broken eyes that stared without really seeing, reciting the sing-song words that described what she’d lived through. 

Nugshit, ” Oghren hissed, recognizing her. “ Hespith.

“Feeding time brings only kin and clan. I am cruel to myself. You are a dream of strangers’ faces and open doors.”

No, no, not again with people thinking Solona was a hallucination--she was here, she could help, and she had to convince this woman of that.

“Is this darkspawn corruption?” Oghren asked.

“Corruption! The men did that. Their wounds festered and their minds left. They are like dogs, marched ahead, the first to die,” the dwarven woman said. “Not me. Not Laryn. We are not cut. We are fed. Friends and flesh and blood and bile and… and…”

“Hespith,” Solona started, but she was cut off.

“All I could do was wish Laryn went first. I wished it upon her so that I would be spared,” Hespith said, then her voice took a dark turn. “But I had to watch. I had to see the change. How do you endure that? How did Branka endure?”

“Hespith, listen. I’m a Grey Warden. I can help you, but I need your help first, please,” Solona said, kneeling to meet Hespith’s unseeing eyes. “Can you tell me where Branka went?”

“D-do not talk of Branka. Of what she did. Ancestors preserve us, forgive me. I was her captain and I didn’t stop her. Her lover, and I could not turn her. Forgive her…” Hespith shook her head so hard Solona was afraid her neck might snap. “But no. She cannot be forgiven. Not for what she did. Not for what she has become.

“How long has it been since you’ve seen her?”

“No more than a few breaths, but longer than an eon. It was… long enough… long enough to miss her… to love her again… to hate her more than ever.”

“Can you please tell me which way she went, Hespith? I know this is painful for you, and I’m so sorry. You don’t know me, but I promise I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important.

“No… I swore not to speak of it, not to think of it.” She covered her ears and sang in a haunted voice that Solona knew she’d hear in her nightmares. “I will not hear any more about Branka.”

Shit. Shit.  

Tread carefully, Solona.

Gently, softly, without force, Solona placed her hands on Hespith’s arms, guiding her to take her hands away from her ears.

“Do… do you want to come with us? We can take you to her,” Solona offered. “You could see her again.”

Hespith sighed. “They spit bile and blood in my mouth. I would rather die than bring that with me, than have… her… see me like this.”

“Somehow I thought as much." Solona ran a hand through her hair. 

“I will not become what I have seen! Not Laryn! Not Branka!” Hespith shouted before running off.

“Hespith! Wait! It’s not safe!” 

And then the team gave chase, always a few steps behind Hespith. The cold stone floor slowly, by degrees, grew slick with blood and gore, bits of flesh and bone strewn about carelessly, as Hespith spoke to them in hushed whispers.

She became obsessed. That is the word, but it is not strong enough. Blessed Stone, there was nothing left in her but the Anvil.

The men, they kill. They’re merciful. But the women, they want. They want to touch, to mold, to change until you are filled with them…

They took Laryn. They made her eat the others, our friends. She tore off her husband’s face and drank his blood. And while she ate, she grew. She swelled and turned gray and she smelled like them. They remade her in their image. Then she made more of them.

Broodmother...

The slick, bloodied floor of the tunnel gave way to a cavern--and in the middle of that cavern was a monster. An enormous, gray, tentacled creature that roared as they approached.

That must have been Laryn, Solona thought, crestfallen. We need to make this quick. For her sake.

“You with me?” she asked her friends, softly.

Barkspawn growled, ready to attack. The others nodded.

They rushed into the cavern, charging at the creature that had once been Laryn. Tentacles popped out of the gore-covered floor, blocking their approach--until Sten, Oghren, and Solona sliced them open. 

The broodmother let out a blood-chilling screech.

Darkspawn--hurlocks, genlocks, and shrieks--rushed into the cavern like a waterfall, a collapsing tunnel, an earthquake. They were a force of nature and would not be defeated or denied.

And a cold fear crept its way up Solona’s spine.

“Barkspawn, stay by Morrigan! Don’t let anything get to her!” Solona shouted, cutting at another tentacle. “Zev, keep close!”

The tentacles drew back, protecting the waves of darkspawn--the broodmother’s children --and Solona pressed her advantage, running in , with Sten and Oghren close behind. She slashed forward, guarding low with her sword.

She was too new at this to realize she should have kept her guard high. A tentacle shot down and grabbed Solona by the braid, lifting her up into the air, face-to-face with the broodmother.

She was close enough to see the monster’s eyes now. There was no resemblance to any dwarf, any woman, any person that Solona had ever seen. Was there anything left of Laryn? Had her mind left her, the way Hespith said the men’s had? Or was there some piece of her that remained, staring out her own eyes, screaming on the inside at the actions that her body took--but powerless to stop herself?

Solona stayed stock-still, horrified . This… this monster in front of her? That was what happened to women who were tainted. That was the women who were taken at Ostagar. That was Solona , give or take about thirty years. This was her fate.

The broodmother reached out with her claws. It was a hesitant, uncertain motion, as if the woman inside was trying to reach out to her, to touch Solona’s face.

Or maybe that was wishful thinking.

With a sudden slash, the claws raked across Solona’s skin, leaving behind wide gashes across her cheek, spattering the gory floor with still more red-black blood. She cried out, dropped her sword, unable to move, unable to attack, shut down by the pain.

“Anaan esam Qun!” Sten cried, and then Solona dropped to the floor, catching herself badly on her hands and knees. She clapped a palm to her face, staring up at her braid, still caught in the tentacle. Sten had cut her free.

Stumbling to her feet, she grabbed her sword and charged back in . She slung the blade over her shoulder, guard high this time, running up the body of the creature to its back. In the space before conscious thought, the place where her magic lived, she brought her mana down into her sword strokes, letting off small bursts of light with every strike.

Force magic, she thought, outside of herself, ignoring the bleeding and the pain in her face, ignoring the tentacles whipping at her back and the claws trying to reach for her, ignoring the darkspawn shrieking at her and firing arrows from below, ignoring everything but the arc of her blade and the power behind it. She struck down one final time, severing the broodmother’s spine. It slumped over, not moving. 

The darkspawn fled the cavern, shrieking and screaming as they went. Sten and the others followed them halfway down the hall, trying to ensure that the party wouldn’t be followed, at least.

Solona slid clumsily down the body of the beast that lay dead before them, a giant, tentacled shell of the person it once was. The blood trickled down her face with an itchy feeling. A soft whisper called her attention to a landing just below the ceiling of the cavern.

Hespith. Solona wanted to call out to her to be careful, but she couldn’t seem to form words at the moment. Shock, she thought, still partially outside of herself.

“That’s where they come from. That’s why they hate us… that’s why they need us,” Hespith said. “That’s why they take us… that’s why they feed us.”

Solona’s eyes met Hespith’s. Even at this distance, she could see the pain that lay within. Her friends, her family, her lover... gone, all, all gone. And now she was lost, too.

“But the true abomination is not that it occurred, but that it was allowed. Branka… my love…” Hespith continued. “The Stone has punished me, dream-friend. I am dying of something worse than death. Betrayal.”

Hespith walked away, disappearing into the darkness behind them. Solona didn’t have the wherewithal to try to stop her, not this time. The wet, tickly feeling of the blood on her face and the lightheadedness from the pain were too distracting. Solona could tell without looking that the cuts on her cheek were deep enough to scar, and scar badly. She gave half a thought to a resolution to avoid mirrors when they got back to Orzammar, when she heard a gurgling noise behind her.

She whipped back around, looking at the dead broodmother with her braid still closed in its tentacle--snapping abruptly back into her own consciousness. The room swung wildly around her, and with the shock wearing off and the pain setting in, she couldn’t manage to keep her feet. She dropped to her knees, then fell forward onto the slick, bloodied floor.

The world went black.

Chapter Text

They’re surrounded, penned in by the darkspawn, but they’re giving it everything they’ve got: Alistair, letting instinct take over, keeping his shield up no matter what, his sword swinging with grace and precision; Solona, planning and calculating, casting glyphs and ice spells and flinging boulders, as the moment is appropriate.

It’s not an easy battle, but the challenge of it is almost fun. The last darkspawn falls with a howl. More are coming, but Alistair takes advantage of the momentary break in the fighting to grab Solona to him in a furious embrace.

Together.

The way they’re meant to be.

Solona jerks in his arms and he sees behind them the shriek, pulling its blade out of her back with a triumphant screech. Alistair looks down at her, frozen in place, shocked still, watching helplessly as the blood from her wound rushes down her back and out her mouth--the metaphorical sand in her hourglass gathering in an inky pool at their feet.

I love you, she manages to whisper as the light leaves her eyes. 

The darkspawn are closing in. The archdemon roars.

And he is alone.

 

Alistair’s eyes shot open. He was breathing hard and there was sweat on his brow. He sat up in bed and rested his head in his hands.

Maker, he was still in Redcliffe Castle (in a room that was nicer than he’d had when he actually lived here). Still stuck , by Arl Eamon’s demand. He owed the Arl for raising him--however much he’d hated his childhood, he felt some kind of gratitude there--but asking Solona to leave Alistair behind and saying he had to become king was just too damned much to ask.

That night, the night before Solona left, where they’d… ended things, was the second-worst thing he’d had to live through lately. The absolute worst was the following morning, when she was gone and he was still here, not knowing if she was alive or dead or happy or miserable or anything. The next few days were spent--well, it felt suspiciously like just after the battle at Ostagar. There really wasn’t any other word for it but grief.

She said she wouldn’t be gone long--a week’s travel each way, with a liberal estimate of a week to get the dwarves’ aid made three weeks gone in total--but he couldn’t imagine that he wouldn’t hear before that. They could send a runner with a letter from Orzammar, or maybe Morrigan could shapeshift into a raven and deliver a message (and it was the only way he could imagine ever being happy to see Morrigan ). Something. Anything.

But he’d heard nothing. 

At first, it was understandable. They were probably just underground.

“Give them a week,” Leliana said. “Then they should be on their way back.”

A week passed, and still nothing.

“The dwarves must be having difficulties, as well,” Wynne suggested. “Give it a few days before you start to worry.”

And so Alistair gave it a few days.

And then a few more

And a few more.

And even more, besides.

It had been a total of eight weeks, five days, and probably about nineteen hours, if the lightness of the sky was any indication. He didn’t even have it in him to make a who’s counting joke. Because it was him. He was counting.

He was counting on her coming back.  

He felt like he was going to crawl out of his skin. Whether they’d ended things or not, whether she’d left or not, angry as he was or not, his heart was walking around underground somewhere, and he had no idea what was going on. She would have written to him, right? Voice or otherwise, they were the only two Grey Wardens left in Ferelden. She needed to keep him informed.

And the fact that she hadn’t written or sent any word at all made something in him edge closer to snapping with each and every moment that passed.

He couldn’t enjoy the world awakening for spring: the green fuzz that had started appearing on the trees in the courtyard, preceding actual leaves; the earliest of the flowers beginning to poke through the gardens--none of it mattered. Whatever the season, being back here in Redcliffe just reminded him how empty his life had been before he’d met Duncan’s last recruit, the kind mage with the soft blue eyes and heart-stopping smile. No one had been happy to just sit with him in silence. No one had laughed at his jokes, let alone remembered them and made them back to him later.

Alistair sighed and started pulling on his day clothes, trying not to remember the look of comingled joy and want on Solona’s face when she’d taken his tunic off, that night the shrieks attacked. No one had ever looked at him like that before. No one had ever wanted him, not in any sense of the word. No one was happy to see him. No one thought he mattered--let alone that he mattered more than just about anything else, caring about him enough to put their comfort on the line even when they had to end things.

No one had loved him before.

No one but Solona.

It didn’t help that something about being stuck here made him feel like a child again, cast off and unwanted. He had lessons again, history and politics and all sorts of rubbish, a lot of which he’d already learned when he’d been sent to the Chantry. He tried to do his best, but with each correct answer, Solona’s words kept coming back to haunt him: You’ll be great at it. When you learn, and you gain a little more confidence in yourself, you’ll do well.

He didn’t want to be great at it. He was good at being a Grey Warden . That was what he wanted to be. 

Wynne and Leliana dined with the arl’s family as honored guests, which was usually fantastic because they could carry on conversations with Arl Eamon while Alistair tried to choke down some food and remain mostly unnoticed.

This morning, though, neither of them seemed to have anything to say. The silence was stifling, oppressive, like it had been back in the Chantry.

He thought he might scream.

“I heard from Wulff, of the Western Hills arling. He will be attending the Landsmeet,” Arl Eamon said.

Joy of joys.

Alistair nodded, resisting the urge to continue poking at his breakfast while the Arl talked. As much as he felt like it, he wasn’t a child anymore.

“We’ve heard from all the other noble houses in Ferelden. Wulff was the last holdout,” Arl Eamon explained. “The Western Hills have been overrun by darkspawn, I understand, which explains the delay.”

Alistair fought down a twinge of guilt. Whatever he would become, he was a Grey Warden now. That should have been his responsibility. His and Solona’s.

“With the nobility’s attendance secured, we are finally ready to move forward. We leave for Denerim in two days.”

What?” Alistair was shocked out of his own thoughts. “But Sol--the others aren’t back yet.”

“Realistically, Alistair, we can’t wait,” Arl Eamon said, the stern taskmaster Alistair remembered from his childhood. “And, moreover, we haven’t heard from them in two months. They may not be able to return in time… or at all.”

Alistair’s world shattered, as the man who should have been like a father to him coldly gave voice to everything Alistair feared and didn’t want to admit.

“So, she risks her life for your city, your family, and you personally, she leaves behind her best protector at your request, and now you’re just going to leave her hanging out to dry?” 

It was like Alistair’s mouth acted independently of his brain--he didn’t know what he said until after he’d said it, but he couldn’t regret it. He couldn’t even take it back--it was all true. And on top of that, he’d had eight weeks of constant dismissal and feeling like he wasn’t meeting the arl’s expectations, just like his childhood, and something inside of him had just had enough.

“I’m grateful for everything the Warden has done--”

“Her name is Solona,” he hissed. “And you don’t know half of what she’s done. For Ferelden. For you. For me.

Arl Eamon sighed. “Alistair, you are an adult. It’s time you acted like one and accepted that, however you may feel about her, this is what’s right for Ferelden. If she remained close to you, no one would be able to trust that your decisions are truly yours, or if she induced you to make them. Your reign would have been tainted by accusations of blood magic. I am trying to help you.”

There was a long pause. Alistair hated when he did that--it always felt like Arl Eamon was trying to force him to keep talking, to apologize even when he hadn’t done anything wrong. This time, however, he refused to speak first, clenching his shaking hands into fists and gritting his teeth.

“From your attitude, I gather she ended things before she left. I’m glad to hear she kept her word,” Arl Eamon said with a nod.

Alistair always thought that “seeing red” was just an expression. But he’d never been this angry in his life, and he swore he really did. He saw red. 

So Arl Eamon was the one who told her that Alistair would have to be with someone else because the Landsmeet would never accept her? How could he do that? He didn’t know for sure that they wouldn’t . If Solona succeeded in saving Ferelden like Alistair knew she would, maybe they would accept her. And even if they didn’t, that didn’t make the arl’s interference right. It was one thing if he and Solona ended things because they came to that decision, separately or together.

It was another thing entirely if someone manipulated them into it.

“So in addition to everything else, you…” Alistair started. He felt like he was choking, drowning on air. He shot up, slapping his palms against the table. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

“I’ve tried to help you--”

“You convinced my soulmate that she wasn’t worthy of me.

“Soulmate?” Arl Eamon scoffed. “ Honestly, Alistair.”

“I mean it, Eamon. I am her Voice.”

Not hiding it, not dealing in half-truths and inferences, but admitting it, out loud, saying the words, felt so Void-taken good , even through the anger. He took in Arl Eamon’s shocked face, Teagan’s poorly-hidden delight, and Isolde’s carefully neutral expression.

“She is the first person in my entire life who has ever cared what I want, who wants me around because of who I am , and who, for some reason, actually loves me, ” Alistair growled. “And you convinced her that I’d have to… I can’t believe I didn’t see this earlier.”

“Andraste’s flaming sword, Alistair, you sound exactly like your father,” Eamon sighed, pinching his brow.

Alistair pushed back his chair.

“Oh, I apologize, my lord . I thought that was what you wanted.”

And he stormed away from the table.

 


 

Two days later, they left for Denerim anyway.

He’d holed himself up in his room in the meantime, sitting at his desk and staring out his window at the gates, hoping, praying that Solona would come back before they left, half-imagining in every delivery person or visitor to the arl that he’d see a flash of blue-and-silver dress, a familiar black braid, and an “elaborately-carved walking stick.” Her eyes would rise to his window and she’d see him and she’d grin and wave. He’d bolt down the stairs and through the hall and out the front door and just kiss her senseless in front of everybody. And then she’d have a joke ready and he’d feel like his heart was going to burst with how much he loved her.

And they’d talk about things and he’d tell her what he should have told her the night before she left: that all he wanted was to be with her, and they would find a way to have everything from ending the Blight to getting justice for Duncan, because king or not, Warden or not, he was her Voice and it was time to stop bloody hiding from it. Wasn’t that his duty, too? To protect her?

Maker, he never should have let her leave like that. He should have argued better, done more, said something other than “if there’s any other way, let’s get back together.”

He felt hollow inside, scraped dry, spread thin. It was too late now.

“Er, Your Highness?” a servant called from the doorway behind him, timidly. “The… the arl says it’s time to leave.”

Your Highness.

Andraste’s mercy, Alistair couldn’t breathe. He gripped the edge of his desk, hearing Solona’s soft voice in his ear, choked back and trying not to cry: If this is the world you’re going to belong to, I can’t come with you.

The servant cleared her throat. “Your--”

No, he couldn’t bear to hear that again.

“I… apologize. I was… lost in thought. Thank you,” he interrupted, half-turning and flashing her a false, pained smile.

She nodded, not returning the smile. “Is there anything I can assist you with, Your Highness?”

You can stop calling me that, he thought but didn’t say.

He looked out the window again, seeing no Solonas striding through the gates.

“Is… is Bann Teagan here?” he asked.

“He is, Your--”

“Can you ask him to come up here, please? I… have to ask him for a favor.”

“Of course, Your Highness.”

She left. Alistair sat down at his desk and began to write. He wasn’t sure how long it had been when he heard a soft rap at the open doorway.

“Alistair,” Bann Teagan called. “I’m sure you’re aware that Eamon instructed us that you were to be called ‘Your Highness’ now.”

“Oh, please, don’t you start.” Alistair let out a soft groan, but he tried to pull himself together. This was important . “We’re leaving for Denerim immediately, if the arl’s messenger was correct… but Solona and the others still haven’t returned from Orzammar.”

“Yes, I… question the wisdom of that decision, though I do understand that Loghain must be stopped, and quickly.”

“I have a letter here for Solona, explaining everything that’s happened since she’s been away. Could I… entrust it to you? Would you be willing to give it to her, if-- when she returns?”

“Of course I will,” Bann Teagan said, without hesitation.

Alistair let out a sigh of relief. “I’d appreciate it. Thank you.”

He took a few steps toward the door as he folded the letter closed. But he was… reluctant to actually give it up. Handing it over meant he was really leaving and Solona really was still gone. She might not come back, ever.

Bann Teagan took the letter, his smile fading when he met Alistair’s flat, broken gaze. He drew Alistair close for a brief hug, speaking in a low voice.

“I will ensure she receives it, Alistair. You have my word,” he whispered, pulling back and resting a hand on Alistair’s shoulder. “It’s the least I can do for my nephew’s Voice.” 

“Thank you,” Alistair replied, nodding nonsensically.

As Bann Teagan left, Alistair found his eyes wandering to the window, still hoping to see Solona coming through the gates, even now.

Please, Solona. 

Just come back.

Chapter Text

They’d been in Denerim for about a week now, and the suffocating feeling in Alistair’s throat had only gotten worse. He’d managed to avoid Arl Eamon for the most part, either staying in his room or spending time in Wynne and Leliana’s. 

Mealtimes were still a struggle, however, and Alistair’s one-time benefactor had not gotten any kinder or more tactful as the day of the Landsmeet approached.

“I hope you’ve settled in well, Your Highness,” Arl Eamon said as Alistair sat down to breakfast.

“Very. Thank you,” he lied, because it was what he was supposed to say. He couldn’t tell the truth: Denerim is the last place in Thedas I want to be. Every time someone calls me ‘Your Highness’ I feel like I can’t breathe. Every time you talk about Solona I want to scream. Everything about this makes me want to scream.

“I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that the Landsmeet is in two days. Today also marks three months since the Warden went to Orzammar. It may be wisest to assume that the dwarves will not aid Ferelden against the Blight.”

Alistair bristled but said nothing, knowing that Arl Eamon was expecting a response.

“In all likelihood, whatever trouble was facing the dwarves proved to be too much for Warden Amell. It’s unfortunate, but our best course of action is to assume we are on our own.”

He didn’t trust Eamon, didn’t want to trust Eamon, didn’t want to believe this was real. And yet… The nightmares of losing her to the darkspawn were getting more realistic and more frequent. He didn’t know how much hope was left.

“It would have had to be formidable trouble indeed, my lord, since we haven’t heard from any of our other friends,” Leliana put in mildly.

“Perhaps. Or perhaps the others decided that, with the Warden gone, they should leave. Or they left her to her fate,” Eamon replied. “A Qunari, an assassin, and an apostate aren’t the most reliable of companions. And if something did kill the Warden, I assume her Mabari fell protecting her.”

If something killed her.

Alistair’s knife and fork clattered to the table; his hands started shaking too badly to hold them.

Maker’s breath, if something killed her.

He could almost see it, Barkspawn getting between her and some horde of darkspawn, taking a blade to the throat, then an ogre lifting Solona into the air, or a shriek stabbing her, or, or, or…

The sudden, painful truth of it all knocked the wind out of him.

She isn’t coming back.

“With respect, my lord, Solona is a formidable young woman and a talented mage, with two strong swords and a second impressive young mage at her back, in addition to a warhound,” Wynne said, running a hand up and down Alistair’s back, soft and soothing as any mother could be. “She may surprise us yet.”

Leliana, on Alistair’s other side, took his hand, tangling her fingers with his and squeezing hard, as if to say don’t allow his doubt to get to you.

Eamon was silent for a long moment, disapproval leaching into the air around him. Alistair hadn’t expected any further kindness from the arl, but he hadn’t expected downright cruelty . Not like this. 

“Alistair, would you mind doing me a small favor?” Leliana asked, squeezing his hand again and sounding every bit the innocent Chantry sister he’d once thought she was. “I’d like to offer my morning prayers, and I am not certain where the chapel is.”

“Of course, Leliana. I’d… I’d be glad to,” Alistair replied, voice raspy. He sounded almost like he’d been screaming for hours.

“I’ll accompany you, if you don’t mind,” Wynne put in darkly. “I find myself having a great deal to pray for, these days.”

The three of them got up from the table, leaving breakfast before they’d eaten, but preferring hunger to this. The two women led Alistair back to the bedroom where Wynne and Leliana slept, closing the door with a satisfying click.

“Ugh, how transparent can he be ?” Leliana hissed. “He does not approve of Solona, and so he tries to convince us that she will not return.”

“You think that’s all it is?” Alistair asked, his heart somewhere in his throat, wanting to hope, even as something whispered to him that there was nothing left to hope for.

“I believe so,” Wynne said, putting a hand on Alistair’s shoulder.

“He has his own designs on you,” Leliana added. “Solona would get in the way of his plans, so he wants to weaken your attachment to her.”

“But…” Alistair felt the question bubbling up inside him and he needed their reassurance. “What if he’s right? What if…”

What if she’s gone?

What if I really have lost her?

“She has been gone for… longer than we hoped, but don’t discount her just yet,” Wynne said, pulling Alistair close for a hug. He rested his head on her shoulder, drawing what comfort he could. “We have a saying in the Circle, when the apprentices discover the element they attune to: ‘like calls to like.’ Fire tends to appeal to the students who are passionate by nature, lightning to the chaotic and unpredictable, ice to the cold or lonely… but Solona’s element is earth.”

“What does that mean?” 

“She is spectacularly stubborn.”

Alistair huffed out a breath, almost a laugh.

“While she stands, she will do her best to return to us,” Leliana agreed. “And if she is lost to us, we know what she would want us to do.”

Alistair made a questioning noise, slightly muffled by his position against Wynne’s shoulder.

“Stop the Blight,” Wynne said softly. “And live well.”

“For her sake,” Leliana added.

“Before she left, she… she said that if this , with the whole king … thing… is going to be the world I belong to, she can’t come with me,” Alistair said, pulling back a bit to meet Wynne's eyes. “But mages aren’t forbidden to marry or anything, are they? It wasn’t such an outlandish idea.”

“Isn’t it? What sort of man would marry a mage, do you think?”

“Me.” His lip was trembling like a child’s, but he couldn’t help it--he would have, in a heartbeat. He’d loved her.

Wynne softened. “I know you would, Alistair. But she wasn’t wrong. Not only would the nobility never accept her, any child born to a Circle mage belongs to the Chantry. Ferelden would never have had an heir.”

Alistair closed his eyes, pained. He hadn’t thought... He knew Grey Wardens likely couldn’t… but he hadn’t known that.

“Would she have known that?”

Slowly, haltingly, Wynne nodded. 

Maker’s breath. Why didn’t the templars teach him anything?

“But… but if she did stop the Blight, and she did save Ferelden, couldn’t they have made an exception for her?” Alistair knew he sounded childish, but he had to know. 

“Perhaps they might. They might not,” Wynne said. “Either way, I believe the arl was incorrect in his advice. This is something good, for both of you. Being a Grey Warden isn’t easy, and he should have been glad you two found each other.”

“Thank you,” he whispered, finally pulling away from Wynne. She ruffled his hair and led him to sit down in a nearby chair. 

They let him stay in their room the rest of the day and well into the night, as Wynne teased him and told him about life in the Circle, and Leliana sang songs and told stories about heroes of ages past. This was why Solona had left them with him, he knew, and he was endlessly grateful. It made him feel almost like she was still here somehow, taking care of him and loving him, even though she was gone. 

She was right all along, he thought, as he fell asleep in the chair, feeling Wynne tenderly drape a blanket on top of him. You can make yourself a family.

 


 

The next day had started out fine. Or, well, as fine as a handmaiden marching into Arl Eamon’s estate and telling them all that the Queen was being held against her will by a man who very well might kill her could be. The short version was that Queen Anora had suspected Loghain of orchestrating Cailan's death and she'd gone to see the second most powerful noble in Ferelden and the man privy to all Loghain's secrets: Rendon Howe.

“A visit from the queen to the new arl of Denerim is only a matter of courtesy,” Erlina said. “And she demands answers.”

“That didn’t go so well, I take it?” Alistair raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms. He wasn’t sure whether to trust this story or not. It could be a trap, or it could be his saving grace. How could he know? What should he do?

“I… I think her life is in danger. I heard Howe say she would be a greater ally dead than alive. Especially if her death could be blamed on Arl Eamon.”

“You think Loghain would kill his own daughter just to frame Arl Eamon?” Alistair asked. He supposed nothing should have shocked him from Loghain at this point, but that seemed a little…  beyond the beyonds, even for him.

Eamon cleared his throat. “The queen is well-loved. And if Loghain succeeded in pinning her death on me… I’m not sure that’s a risk we can afford to take." He hesitated for a moment, then continued. “But Erlina, we don’t have anyone we can send at the moment. Given the circumstances, we can’t risk Alistair.”

“And the other Grey Warden?” Erlina asked. She looked around the room, as if she expected Solona to pop out of a potted plant or something.

“She is… unavailable at the moment.”

I guess leaving Redcliffe without Solona isn’t sounding like such a good idea right about now, is it? Alistair thought contemptuously.  

Still, the thought of Solona did more than just send a pang through Alistair's soul this time. She was gone, but… maybe he could do what she’d done. What would she do if she were here?

The answer was simple: she’d throw herself headfirst into danger, obeying the dictates of her conscience and worrying about what bridges she may have burnt when she got to them. 

“I’ll go,” Alistair said, mimicking her decisive, all business tone.

“I have some uniforms,” Erlina offered. “Arl Howe hires so many new guards every day, a few more will not cause much stir.” 

“Alistair, you cannot possibly--” Eamon tried to protest, but Alistair was having none of it.

I’ll go. I can take Wynne and Leliana with me, we’ll sneak into Arl Howe’s estate, break Queen Anora out, and be back in an hour or two. You won’t even have time to miss us at dinner.”

“I will show you to the servants’ entrance,” Erlina said. “We must slip in and out with my queen before anyone is the wiser.”

“Lead the way.”

Eamon, surprisingly, didn't follow or try to stop Alistair further. And so, with a quick stop for Alistair and the others to change into the stolen uniforms, the four of them went swiftly and silently to Howe’s estate. The servants’ entrance was guarded by two seasoned-looking men.

“I can distract the guards, but you must move quickly,” Erlina whispered. “My lady does not have much time.”

Alistair looked back at the others. At their supportive smiles, he nodded, leading them into the wonder and glory of… hiding in the bushes while an elven handmaiden made up a story about seeing a darkspawn in the courtyard.

Credit where it was due, she was pretty convincing. Got the guards out of the way, anyhow. And got them all out of the bushes. Once they were inside, though, Alistair wasn’t sure where to go. He waited, trying to look like he was just a lazy guard, hoping Erlina would come back.

Maker, he’d spent a lot of time recently hoping women would come back and tell him what to do.

“Ugh, it took me forever to be rid of those two!” Erlina groaned quietly behind them, before taking a breath and composing herself. “My lady is in a guest room off the main hall. Most of the guards are new; they will not know you for a stranger at a glance, but you must be careful.. It is best if you keep your distance and try to blend in.”

Right. Blending in. He was great at that.

Leliana nudged him with her elbow. When he looked at her, she straightened her back and squared her shoulders--a soldier’s posture. Alistair and Wynne copied her, though the latter looked a bit like she was going to fall over with all the armor on. Still, it was better than charging in with no plan.

“Andraste guide us,” Erlina whispered.

Alistair’s heart was in his throat; he was certain that every guard or servant was going to look at him and say, hey, you don’t work here! and then the stabbing would begin. But, honestly, no one gave them a second glance. It was almost easy, following silently behind Erlina as she guided them to Queen Anora’s room. 

“Warden Alistair is here, my lady.”

“Thank the Maker, ” the queen’s voice came through the door. “I would greet you properly, but I’m afraid we’ve had a setback.”

“Well, of course, why should anything be easy? ” Alistair muttered, before speaking loudly enough for the queen to hear him. “What sort of a setback?”

“My ‘host’ was not content with leaving me under heavy guard. He’s sealed the door by magic.”

“We must get her out of there!” Erlina cried, clearly frightened.

“Don’t panic, Erlina,” the queen replied sternly. “Find the mage who cast the spell. He’ll most likely be at Howe’s side.”

“Is this feeling like a trap to anyone else, or is it just me?” Alistair asked, looking back at Wynne and Leliana.

“Free me, Alistair, and I promise you my aid in the Landsmeet.”

Alistair’s heart sank . He closed his eyes tight for a moment. That had to be a serious offer, coming from Anora. This wasn't something he could just walk away from; it was real.

“Any idea where Howe might be?” he asked with a sigh he couldn’t bite back.

“He is probably in his rooms,” Erlina said.

“Right. Keep safe. We’ll be back shortly.”

End of the hall, on the left, Alistair’s memory supplied. Arl Eamon used to come visit the old arl of Denerim in the winter. (Alistair had to sleep with the hounds.)

In his room, Howe had such wonderful treasures as a chest full of Warden documents, including one on how to prepare the Joining.   And! A hidden door to the dungeons. Maker, what sort of a man was this?  Alistair pocketed the documents and led the others down. Opening the door at the bottom of the stairs, they found a guard standing next to a closed prison cell. The guard barely had time to ask who goes there before the prisoner inside the cell reached through the bars, snapped the guard’s neck and took his armor.

“I thank you for providing such a distraction, stranger. I have been waiting days for the opportunity,” the prisoner said. “Do you think you could-- Alistair? Is that you?”

The man’s voice sounded oddly… familiar. And he looked… thin, wasted, and injured, but Alistair knew him.

“You were at my Joining,” Alistair said wonderingly. “ Riordan, wasn’t it?”

“Exactly so. Senior Warden of Jader, but born and raised in Highever and glad to be home.”

Another Warden. Maker, there was more than just Alistair left. He wasn’t completely alone.

“I was sent when the Wardens of Orlais received no word from King Cailan as to the outcome at Ostagar. The king had invited all the Wardens of Orlais and their support troops to join him, then… nothing.”

“How large a force did you bring with you?” He had to ask. He needed to know the answer like he needed to breathe.

“We had two hundred Wardens and two dozen divisions of cavalry. The first we heard of Loghain’s edict was when everyone was turned back at the border,” Riordan said.

Two hundred Wardens. Two. Hundred. Wardens. If they’d been at Ostagar, Duncan would have lived. Cailan would have lived. So many people would have lived. If they hadn’t arrived until after the battle, none of the rest of this would have happened with an extra two hundred Wardens, let alone the cavalry. Good men and women, soldiers and civilians alike, wouldn’t have died if Loghain had just let the Wardens in to do. their. job.

Loghain was a fucking murderer.

Alistair took a deep breath, trying to steady himself from the anger at this sense of injustice.

“That was when the rumor reached us that Wardens were being blamed for the massacre,” he continued. “We finally decided it was safest to send someone alone, to learn how best to fight the Blight and this regime simultaneously. As a native Fereldan, I volunteered to make the crossing.”

“Couldn’t you ask them to come now? ” Alistair was begging, yet he felt no shame. He was alone, and more Wardens would make all the difference.

“They won’t risk their strength fighting Ferelden’s civil war. If they spend themselves against Loghain, there is truly no hope,” Riordan said sadly. “If Ferelden is too foolish to save itself, at least we’ll be ready when the archdemon leads its forces further.”

“Riordan…”

The senior Warden smirked. “Besides, I hear that you’re not doing so badly raising an army, yourself.”

“That wasn’t me.” Alistair was desperate now, needing Riordan to understand. “That was… that was Duncan’s last recruit. Solona Amell.”

“The Circle mage. I recall from the recruitment records. Is she not with you now?”

Alistair closed his eyes and took a breath. “No. She went to Orzammar on her own to get the aid of the dwarves… Riordan, fighting this civil war cost Ferelden its best hope--its only hope. She’s been gone three months and she hasn’t come back. I…”

Riordan softened. “I will send a message when we are gone from this place. Perhaps if the edict can be lifted…”

Thank you.”

If Eamon did make him king, lifting that edict would be the first bloody thing Alistair would do. (And if Solona wasn’t coming back, what did it matter whether he was a Warden or a king, or whatever?)

“Oh… these are yours, aren’t they?” Alistair asked, handing the records he’d found in the arl’s bedroom to Riordan.

“Thank you, ” Riordan replied with a small smile. “Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have a sudden desire to breathe free air.”

“We’re staying at Arl Eamon’s estate. I’m certain you’ll be welcome.”

“I’ll see you there, then. After I find a good healer.”

I used to know one, he thought, swallowing hard and pushing down the despair. He could let it take over later.

The clasp of Riordan’s hand was warm and firm and endlessly bloody comforting. Alistair thought he saw sympathy there in Riordan’s eyes, for half a moment. And then, with one general healing spell from Wynne, Riordan limped away.

The rest of the afternoon was one hard fight after another--with pauses for letting a young man off the rack, freeing a young elf lad so he could get back to his family, and having a moment’s conversation with a templar gone half-mad from lyrium withdrawal. Alistair had to swear to give a ring to the man’s sister, Bann Alfstanna, and he would , if only they could get Queen Anora out of this place.

All Alistair’s life, he’d fought to belong . He’d tried and failed with Eamon, with the templars… the Wardens were the one place he thought he had, then they were gone. And then Solona was better than anything he could have dreamed, and now she was gone. He’d had nothing but despair since the day before they’d gotten to Redcliffe.

But now… now he had some hope. Alistair was a fuck-up, a mistake from birth, an unwanted child who never knew what he was doing, but Riordan? Riordan was a proper Grey Warden, he could… he could fix this. He could be someone Alistair could follow. At least until Eamon got his way.

Alistair felt the tell-tale tingle of magic across his skin--a mage was nearby. Not Wynne, a mage who was casting something. Probably the mage keeping Anora prisoner.

“We’re close,” he whispered to the others.

There was one more door to check. Alistair opened it.

“Well, well. Maric’s bastard. You do look so very regal covered in the blood of my men. But I must say I’m surprised Eamon would condone you invading my castle,” Howe sneered. “Is he losing faith in the persuasive powers of his Landsmeet? Or just in you as a candidate?”

“I’m here for Anora,” Alistair said. Decisive. All business.

Howe laughed. “The traitorous bitch has you under her thumb, does she? I can’t say I’m surprised about that. Anora does love her games, and you are… just her type.”

Alistair gripped the hilt of his sword ever-so-slightly tighter, but he didn’t rise to the insult.

“The other Warden was smarter. At least she realized the truth: you should have left when you had the chance, slunk off to the Anderfels with the rest of your kind,” Howe growled. “This Landsmeet is a farce. Loghain will triumph, and you will die.”

Howe was fast, striking here, there, and everywhere almost before he was done speaking .   If it weren’t for Wynne and Leliana, Alistair would have been taken out immediately.

But they were there, as much as he felt alone, they were there, Wynne alternately healing him and striking at Howe and his men, Leliana seeming to disappear from view, just to reappear where the enemy least expected it.

They were there.

They could do this.

Howe died cursing him, and he didn’t care. He couldn’t. He was riding this tide of hope all the way to the shore--he had friends beside him, after all. He had another Warden, and the potential for even more. He’d lost so much this year, Duncan; Solona; his last, lingering delusions of autonomy… but maybe he could have this. Maybe, just this once, he could do something. He could avenge the people he cared about and help to end this Blight. 

For their sakes.

For his own.

They bolted back upstairs, their borrowed armor splattered with blood, and reached Anora’s room before anyone could see them. Erlina threw open the door, and Anora, in a uniform that matched theirs (though hers was clean) stepped out.

“My thanks,” she said.

“Aren’t you a little short for a guard?” Alistair joked. “Why are you dressed like that?”

“There are two types of people in this house: those loyal to Howe, and those loyal to me, ” Anora explained. “If Howe’s people find me, I’ll be killed. If my own people find me, they’ll insist on escorting me back to the palace… where my father may also have me killed.”

“So… disguises it is,” Alistair said.

Anora gave him a long-suffering smile, following as he marched in front of them to the exit.

Which was blocked by a dark-haired woman and about fifteen more soldiers. 

Ser Cauthrien, Alistair thought, Loghain’s second . He’d seen her at Ostagar.

“Warden Alistair! In the name of the regent, I am placing you under arrest for the murder of Rendon Howe and his men-at-arms.”

Alistair shot a hurt look over at Anora ( was this really a trap, after all that?) but she looked as shocked as he did. Unless she was a remarkably good actress--better than Leliana, even--it seemed she didn’t expect this, either.

“Surrender, and you may be shown mercy,” Cauthrien ordered.

Explain, explain. Talking before fighting. That’s what always worked before, with Solona.

“You don’t have all the facts. Would you consider listening?”

Stand down, Alistair.”

So, then. Talking wasn’t going to work. He couldn’t let Anora be caught. He couldn’t let himself be arrested.

Then… the only way out was through.

He gritted his teeth. “No.”

“Bring them down, men! Loghain wants them dead or alive.”

An arrow flew toward them, ready to hit the queen in the head in a shot that would have been lethal, but Alistair threw his shield in front of her just in time. 

Go,”   he hissed, pushing her hard in the direction of the far hallway. She and Erlina ran, probably making a break for the servants’ entrance.

Meanwhile, Cauthrien charged. Wynne threw up a barrier, but Cauthrien was a seasoned warrior with a really big sword. Magic wasn’t going to protect him forever.

They were outnumbered, outmatched, and completely flat-footed. They hadn’t expected this. The only thing to do was fight hard enough to distract Cauthrien from noticing Anora’s escape, and hope.

Hope to overcome the impossible odds, somehow.

Hope to stand at the end of this, bloodied and beaten, but victorious.

Alistair hissed, weary and wounded after the hard fights they’d had, suffering under Cauthrien’s attacks, but giving this everything he had left. For his friends, for the Wardens, for Ferelden, for Duncan, for Solona, for himself, he would fight this to the bitter end.

Behind him, he heard Wynne fall. Then Leliana.

Still, he kept his focus on Cauthrien. Maybe if he could just bring her down, the others wouldn’t want to fight him. Maybe they weren’t stubbornly loyal to Loghain.

He dropped to a knee as his legs gave out, unable to keep him upright anymore. He tried to bring himself back to his feet, tried to lift his sword, his shield, but his body wouldn’t obey. He pushed anyway, straining even through the abuse he’d taken--he couldn’t give up. He couldn’t, he had to keep fighting, had to...

“There is something of Maric in you, isn’t there?” he heard Cauthrien whisper.

This isn’t for Maric , he thought.

Then everything went dark.

 


 

Alistair’s body was positively screaming with the effort of sitting mostly upright. His head was swimming, and the damned room around him seemed to be rocking up and down like the Waking Sea. He leaned heavily against the stone wall behind him, trying to concentrate , but it was like trying to see through a table.

Were those bars on the door? He thought they might be, but he couldn’t really tell. His eyes wouldn’t focus and everything was blurry.

Maker. He’d just been trying to do the right thing--but he was no leader. He couldn’t handle this.

He swung his aching head guiltily over to the cell next to his, eyes finally landing on two unconscious bodies that looked like Wynne and Leliana. 

This was why he didn’t want to lead--people got the shit kicked out of them and woke up in prison. If they woke up at all. He couldn’t tell if they were breathing or not. He might have gotten them killed.

It would have gone differently if Solona had been there. She would have found a way to get Cauthrien to stand down, or she could have paralyzed the swordsmen, or she could have knocked the archers down--something would have been different . And whatever that something was, maybe it could have spared them this.

He leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes, trying to breathe and keep the room still.

This was all his fault.

At least I won’t have to be king when Loghain executes me. 

...And then I’ll get to be with Solona again.

A pang went through his heart at the thought. They could really be together-- forever-- in whatever afterlife they found themselves in. No Eamon, no Ferelden, no Blight, no crown--just eternity and each other. Maybe that was the only way for them. Maybe it had all been fate from the start. 

He heard someone burst in and have a hurried conversation with someone else. He wasn’t entirely sure he was conscious; he couldn’t understand what they were saying or why , but it didn’t matter. It was like hearing someone from underwater. He didn’t have the energy to care; he was barely awake, let alone well enough to plan an escape, even when he heard someone leaving.

Then, right in front of him, he heard a completely different voice: soft and flutelike, and oh, Maker, he thought he’d never hear it again

“Hang on, Alistair. I’ve got you.”

He felt a hand cupping his face and a thumb swiping across his cheek. Alistair’s eyes stayed shut and he sucked in an unsteady breath. It… it couldn’t be… but it felt and sounded so much like…

“Solona?” he whispered.

“Yes, sweetheart, I’m here.”

Maker. Then he was dead--or at least dying . But he couldn’t regret it. Riordan would handle the Blight somehow; Alistair could be with her.

“Forever, this time,” he insisted, trying to make his leaden limbs reach out to her and failing.

He heard her make a quiet, broken sound. “If that’s what you want.”

“’S all I want.” His words slurred together despite his best efforts to be clear. “I love you, I missed you, I’m so sorry I couldn’t…”

Shh, Alistair, it’s all right.” Softly, she pressed her fingers against his lips. He kissed them, happy to have her within reach, happy the illusion was palpable to the touch, whichever was true-- Maker, it felt so bloody real. “I love you, too. Can you look at me, please?”

He tried. He really tried. He needed to see her more than he needed to breathe. But it was so bright and his eyes were full of tears--he was going to get to be with her again--all he saw was a hazy grey blob in front of him, surrounded by a soft, white glow. He felt the tell-tale warmth of Solona’s healing light, and it sounded so stupid, but he’d missed that too, the gentle caress of her magic. 

Slowly, agonizingly slowly, the vision in front of him got clearer and more defined: they were in a jail cell, with the door flung open; Solona, his Solona, was sitting back on her heels in front of him, wearing a guard uniform. The helm hid most of her face, but her eyes were sparkling like polished lazurite, and the small, loving smile she wore made his heart feel like it was going to burst right out of his chest.

“Hi,” Solona whispered as he met her gaze.

It hit Alistair like a fist: Oh, sweet Maker, this is actually happening. Against all the odds, against everything they’d had to fight… 

She was here. 

She was alive. 

She had come back.  

He pulled her into a fierce kiss, heedless of anything but her, suddenly so fucking grateful that it made his chest hurt. She ran a hand gently through his hair and more healing light relaxed into his skin. The room stopped spinning and Alistair took a deep breath.  He brushed his hand reverently along the line of her jaw.

How?”  

“Jailbreak first. Full story later,” she replied, her smile gone wobbly against his lips. “I promise.”

He nodded, wanting answers, but now coherent enough to understand priorities. Solona shifted beside him, snaking an arm around his waist, supporting his weight against her shoulder, and pulling him to his feet. 

When did she get so strong? he wondered.

She left Alistair leaning against the wall as she unlocked the door to the other cell. Alistair couldn’t tear his eyes away from her, noticing a few changes already: an ease with the chainmail she was wearing; a measured, practiced confidence to her steps; a hint of new scars across her cheek, just barely visible under the helm. How much had he missed?

After a bit more fussing, their friends stood, healed, preparing to attack until they recognized her. Leliana quietly squealed and pulled Solona close in a sudden, desperate hug.

“Thank the Maker. How are we going to get out of here?” Wynne asked, sounding almost overcome.

“Out the front, of course.” Solona gave them all a lopsided grin and oh, Maker, Alistair’s heart couldn’t take this. She dashed over to the door and came back carrying a large nondescript wooden chest, gently laying it down in front of them. The three of them limped out of their cells, staring at her.

“I understand you’re already familiar with your costumes,” she teased, popping open the chest, where three sets of guard armor waited. 

Still here and still bloody perfect, Alistair thought. He had never counted on being this Void-taken lucky.

“Anyone need any more healing?”

“I believe we are well enough to walk,” Wynne answered with a nod.

“Then get dressed. I’ll stand watch,” Solona replied, smiling at them all. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

And nothing, nothing , sounded better to Alistair than that.