Alternative Origins Chapter Thirty-One

by artrald

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*

The royal court reminds me of nothing so much as a chantry, although that said, I’ve never been in a chantry so grand. The nobles are sat down the sides where the choir should be; the throne takes the place of the lectern of the Chant front and centre and the regent takes the place of the chanter. And this is my first sight of the bastard since Ostagar. Memory has built him up into a sort of ogre: in the flesh he’s just another shem noble, big nose, hooded eyes, dark hair, black armour, red surcoat, gold trim. He’s not over tall; I’d forgotten that, if I ever knew it.

At the other side of the throne from him is sat the princess – I am not jealous of her, I’m not. I suppose you’d call her more than simply pretty: her dress is black taffeta and velvet, a red flower her only nod to her family’s colours, the diadem she wears almost lost among the white gold of her hair. There’s a templar sat beside her where you’d look for a lady-in-waiting, and there must be somewhere in Ferelden that chisels women out of granite rather than growing them the normal way: she has this look about her like she’s not just there for show.

Leliana’s in a habit all the colours of a flame, accompanying Wynne with the Chantry delegation; Oghren is here in his own right as the only foreign ambassador at court. Morrigan is playing servant: with all the different nobles and their retinues here, nobody’s noticing a cupbearer more or less. And I step into the room and this is probably the most shems I’ve ever had looking at me all together at once.

I suppose they’re not looking so much at me as at the costume. I don’t look human. The only colour about me is the red of my short hair and the green of my eyes. Flat black boots that finish high on my calf, grey tunic and hose, the grey armour, all my blades, and with the cloak I look more some kind of apparition of woe than a real person. I haven’t painted my face: I’m a knight, not a harlot, and Leliana was busy elsewhere.

Suppose they’re also sparing a glance or two for the man at my shoulder, the man I daren’t rest my eye on more than a moment. Cream and gold he’s in, the Theirin colours, his armour pointedly plain steel, his cloak stormcloud grey. The dark gold of his hair kept in place by a braided cord that stops just short of being a coronet. Maker’s breath, I’m not doing the man justice. Don’t think words could. If all you needed to rule was to look the part, then my Alistair would be king of the world, and yes, I am aware how I sound. He looks good, is what I mean to say.

And we show our respect to the throne, and a blind man could see that our salute is to Anora and not to her father, and we take our seats, and the show, the show begins.

*

To call it a show is very much right. Everyone has a voice, everyone has a say, and by Andraste they’re going to make everyone hear it – you hear of the counsels of the high and the mighty and you imagine politeness and reason or at least a little order, and by and large that’s a pretty dream you had there. You see, the Landsmeet doesn’t have many rules. When good King Maric gave the Orlesians the boot, he also gave their rules the boot: he was a man of simple tastes whose friends called him robust and boisterous and whose enemies – those who weren’t dead of duelling him or his friends – called him loud and bullying. So the rule as to who speaks is simply that anyone may speak at any time, save that a mere knight may only speak if spoken to, a bann must give way to an arl or teyrn, and everyone must give way to the Chantry or the Crown, but the Chantry never speaks and today nobody’s really sure who the Crown is – so the upshot is that unless someone other than a bann wants to speak, it’s a little like sheer bloody chaos. If you’re nobody, you get shouted down or talked over. If you’re boring, you get booed. If you’re contentious, mostly, you start a shouting match. But the more powerful your friends, the more likely everyone is to let you have all your say, and as far as I can tell, the more real power it is that you have, the later you speak.

Think of the place as having five teams – Loghain’s, Eamon’s, Howe’s, Highever’s, and the rest – and yes, I know that Howe and Highever are dead; their teams seem mostly to be milling around trying to make sure they aren’t forgotten. The discussion’s officially about welcoming Eamon and inviting him to deliver his concerns to the Landsmeet, but Loghain’s people are first to speak, by weight at least, and they’re trying to get across that this isn’t about what anyone says it’s about, this is about Orlais wanting their rebellious province back by the back door. One man is incautious enough to actually put into words that the Chantry murdered Howe on the insistence of an Orlesian spy – Oghren meets my eyes and shakes his head as I’m thinking of standing – as the princess stands, quietly, and simply waits, and the room goes silent. And she recounts the name and family of each of the prisoners in Howe’s dungeon, and the state they were found in, her voice starting level and toneless and seeming to become stained and dirtied and outraged by every word she has to speak, and her eyes never move from that man, and when she’s done telling those dozen sad tales she sits without any further elaboration, and that’s the end of that discussion.

It’s my duty here to raise that the Blight is the threat, not human foreigners, but again it’s done for me. A minor bann of Eamon’s faction speaks the words, and when one of Howe’s people tries to shout him down, Eamon stands, waits politely for that bann’s silence, then turns to his own supporter and says simply “Pray continue”. And it’s so that I begin to see what is actually happening here. There might be petty matters being discussed and ground being made or lost on the side, there might be lesser powers here like me and Anora and the revered mother, but what is going on is that Eamon and Loghain are gauging the mood of the kingdom’s nobles, like a pair of duelists circling, exchanging the odd ringing blow but really just testing each other’s position and trying to do so without expending any of their own limited strength. And eventually the noise begins to subside and it’s Loghain who stands to invite Eamon to speak his concerns honestly and in the sight of all, and Eamon invites me to stand that I might tell the story better than he.

And so I do. Speak plain, Oghren said, but between my dignity and my costume I feel like I’m talking like someone out of somebody’s myth. I don’t try and dress it up, and I don’t tell what I don’t know. Ostagar fell to treachery. To the failure of the army’s commanders to close the trap. To an opened postern gate giving no room for retreat. A man from Loghain’s faction shoots to his feet to cry that it is all more foreign lies, and I turn to face him in a flicker and a swirl of the grey cape and with a hand on the hilt of my sword I ask him in my broadest Denerim accent to repeat himself, because I didn’t quite catch that the first time. And he colours and sits down.

An idea occurs. I turn to Ser Cauthrien, sat with Loghain’s faction, and I hope I’m right. And I incline my head to her, and I say that as I was not with the bulk of the royal army, I do not know what they were told, I do not know the reasons they were given for the retreat. Some are here who were: I call her to speak. And so she stands, unprepared to speak, but I’m betting she’s as honest as she claims: she gives the story as she saw it, with the scouts coming back injured reporting a second horde to the south, with a man reporting that he’d seen Cailien fall at the hands of the Warden-Commander – Alistair stands, at that, and I shake my head at him, and I hope that the expression on his face as he sits back down is feigned, because I don’t quite know what I’d do if that was ever pointed at me.

I ask Cauthrien if she saw the signal, the fire from the top of the tower, the beacon that I know Alistair lit. And she looks to Loghain before answering, and the whole of the Landsmeet sees that. She swallows. Yes, she saw it.

So I ask what she did about that, and she says she followed her orders.

Whose orders? The king’s?

No.

I thank her, and beg leave of Eamon to call my own knight to speak, for he witnessed the last moments of the battle, while I had been injured. And so Alistair takes the floor, and his eyes don’t leave Loghain’s as he describes the last stand of the Wardens, and of the man he calls his brother. The Wardens did not murder their king, he says, and the anger in his voice is a bright hard thing. They died, nearly to a man, shoulder to shoulder with him, abandoned, awaiting reinforcements that did not come.

He sits, and Eamon speaks. He tells of how his own life was nearly taken by a poisoner, an apostate offered a position as court mage by a mysterious woman in return for the death of the arl of Redcliffe.He tells of how his arling was nearly usurped by his treacherous brother, and he asks all those present if they might call to mind the circumstances of his brother’s last visit to the Landsmeet; did he have any conspicuous allies, perhaps, especially someone not known as an ally of Eamon’s, anyone whose position might be stronger by the arl’s death, someone who could offer a position as court mage? And I’m watching Cauthrien, because I don’t know most of the people here, and I’d have had to be blind to miss the way her shocked eyes dart to her lord before she regains her composure.

He tells of how his life was saved by the Wardens and a mage from the Circle, and he calls not Wynne but a templar to speak concerning certain letters recovered from insurgents in the Circle Tower itself, letters offering relaxations in the restrictions upon proscribed magics within Ferelden in return for magical assistance in some unspecified war. Letters from whom? He shrugs; anyone can put anyone’s name to a letter. Only he invites the banns to think, concerning whether there was a person who would have been in a position to make laws across the kingdom, perhaps a person who has been recently agitating for the Chantry to be reined in?

Finally he sums up once more the charges that I have repeated in the hearing of the Landsmeet, that the defeat at Ostagar was engineered, and regardless of any accusations I might have made in this regard, he asks the banns of the Landsmeet if perhaps a name came to mind, a faction that has perhaps benefited greatly from the tragic loss of so many good men and women – most especially those with real or perceived foreign contacts, who seemed to have volunteered with particular courage to hold the fort. And he sits.

And Loghain speaks, and I notice that he chooses to remain upon the dais of the throne as he does so. His words are short and clipped and dismissive. Whose testimony does the arl bring, here? Those of high and noble birth, perhaps? Those of impeccable character and breeding? The defenders of the realm, perhaps? He shakes his head. The arl, he says, has been lied to. Again, and again, and again, until what is he to do but begin to believe. Mud sticks, he says, even to the brightest of shields. What is a man to do, under the relentless assault of foreign lies, but to tell the truth, and to cleave to it, and to stand firm, and to outlast them? He has no intention of answering charges brought upon the testimony of a guttersnipe half-elf, a fatherless hedge-knight, a blood mage, a Chantry stooge, a pack of liars and traitors and murderers and foreigners.

The plan says that we are to remain above the insults, not to rise to them, to hear them and remain unmoved. The plan lasts about as long as it takes for Alistair to meet my eyes and see the cold white fury. The brass rail that I’m holding, it has the prints in it of my fingers as if it was made of little more than bread dough. He stands, and he takes the floor, and he walks towards Loghain with slow measured tread, not breaking eye contact with him. I can see Oghren across the room shaking his head. This didn’t need to happen, he’s thinking nearly loud enough to speak. The banns were already seeing Loghain as tainted. The very next thing Eamon would have said would have unseated the Regent. And the arl himself is unreadable.

And Alistair walks right up to the regent, and he looks him in the eye. “Sorry for the interruption, my lord,” he says in a cold deadly voice that sounds a great deal like he learned it from me. “I believe I did not quite hear some things that you said just now. A real man, if he was saying such things about me, he would say them to my face. Well, here is my face. And for what it’s worth, I agree with much of what you said. Someone here is a liar, a traitor and a murderer.” His voice drops menacingly quiet. “Is he a coward?”

The whole room hears the blow, but Loghain might as well have backhanded a statue; all Alistair does is nod his head. “I accept,” he says.

*

The tiles of the court are black and white. There is enough room between the two banks of seats that they don’t have to take this outside – what it reminds me of most is a dog-fight, with the audience high around the pit in which the two of them will fight. All it needs is someone taking bets. I’m sure that some of the shems here are thinking the same, only they’ll be entertained where I’m disgusted, now, won’t they. Anora has taken out a handkerchief and she’s twisting it and knotting it in her lap, barely daring to blink in case something happens while her eyes are closed. Surely she’s seen her father fight duels before, although admittedly she’s also seen what Alistair can do.

Swords, of course, for both of ’em, long ones, two-handed. Alistair is the larger man, a good four inches taller, a little broader in the shoulders and deeper in the chest, and his blade is just a little longer, but it’s just plain steel where Loghain’s blade is lightened and sharpened with runes very like those on his black armour. Both of them bare-headed, both of them have shed their cloaks. Through the whole time they are making ready they don’t take their eyes off one another for one moment. No words, they speak. Not one.

Loghain’s old enough to be Alistair’s father, and he’s been a knight for longer than the younger man has been alive, and he hasn’t been idle. Their blades clash the first time, each of them trying to get the other’s measure of speed and strength. Loghain is trying to see if Alistair’s the overconfident idiot he might be. Alistair’s trying to see if Loghain is as good as the stories say. The blades clash again, Alistair making a flick of a cut that’s got enough power behind it to test the man’s strength, and Loghain swaps a hand onto the pommel of his blade for a little more leverage. Again they meet, Loghain probing with a deceptively quick and accurate thrust and Alistair warding it just enough to try and get him to over-extend, and he doesn’t. They circle.

Alistair begins the fight in earnest and the two of them exchange five blows in as many heartbeats; sparks fly; Alistair tries to close and Loghain gives ground, reprises suddenly and Alistair sways aside from a thrust that was nearly close enough to shave with. Again they circle, eyes locked, and again their blades come together, a blurring exchange of ringing blows; one of them locks their blades and they come together in a bind that ends abruptly with Loghain literally thrown backwards through the air, rolling and coming to his feet in his weightless armour, Alistair following up with a lunge that exploits every inch of his reach.

And Loghain sees the lunge coming and sidesteps nimbly, unwinding into a cut at Alistair’s ribs with all his strength – he’s in full armour, surely all that’s going to do is nick the blade – sparks fly and Alistair makes no noise, but as Loghain follows through there’s a long scratch visible in the steel of Alistair’s breastplate and there’s a drop of bright blood on the Regent’s blade.

Not that that slows Alistair down for a second. He barely even seems to feel the impact of the blow that clove right through a steel plate and spent most of the older man’s strength to deal, and in the instant that Loghan’s blade is out of position he flows forward at a speed most of the audience won’t have even been able to follow and lunges for the gap between plates under Loghain’s left arm. No time to parry that with the sword, but the teyrn gets his front elbow-plate in the way, deflects the point just enough to set the deadly thrust skittering harmlessly off his pauldron, but Alistair never even meant for that thrust to strike home. The moment his point clashes against Loghain’s armour he takes his back hand off the hilt, lets the weapon come up to the half-sword as he grabs the blade with a gauntleted hand for leverage, punches Loghain in the gut with the crossguard and brings their foreheads together as hard as he physically can.

Bloody hellfire, I can almost feel that one from here. Certainly Loghain felt it: Alistair takes a slightly unsteady step backwards, but the blow hammered the Regent down into the ground like it was the Maker’s fist. And Alistair levels his blade one-handed at Loghain’s face and says “Yield.”

The older man chuckles. “This isn’t a training exhibition, boy, something you win because you scored a point-” And on that word he surges up from the ground, knocks the blade aside with one armoured fist, carries the motion on into a spin that hits Alistair in the chest with all of his weight, and follows up with a flurry of quick savage blows that Alistair barely gets his blade to. And the next time Alistair tries to close, Loghain’s ready for it, ducks and twists and throws the big guy over his shoulder; there’s an intake of breath from the whole room as Alistair twists in mid-air with a cat’s grace and lands on his feet, responds with a blow that’s little more than a shove and the two of them circle once more. I make myself let go of the rail I’m holding, because I’ll only snap it.

Alistair’s bleeding. There’s a little runnel of blood down from the scratch in his armour. But – I don’t know if Alistair can see it, but I can – Loghain is moving a little slower, a little less steady than he was. Another exchange of blows and what Alistair  took for a feint is a thrust and he’s not going to –

He missed. Loghain committed to that, all his weight behind it, his opponent’s blade was out of line and he simply missed. And Alistair doesn’t waste time in shock as the blade flashes a good three inches from the side of his head – he hits Loghain in the chest with his pommel to unbalance him and then brings his blade up in a shining back-handed arc and connects under Loghain’s arm and the Regent staggers backward. You can’t see blood easy against the black of his armour, but there’s red on Alistair’s blade, and once again he takes a couple of steps away. “Ser, you fight well. You’re the best I’ve ever seen outside my order. You’re also beaten. In the name of peace -”

Loghain snarls and goes for Alistair again, a blind charge, caution to the wind, and sadly Alistair steps to one side, brings his blade down for a simple trip.

And Loghain steps neatly around it, slams his elbow into Alistair’s chest and as he reels backwards delivers an arcing two-handed blow that dents the younger man’s breastplate and takes him completely off his feet. Follows up straight, dropping a knee into Alistair’s gut, all his weight behind it, brings his weapon down at the half-sword and Alistair has to drop his own blade to catch it with both hands or lose his head.

Loghain has his whole weight on his hands, and that of his armour, weightless for him but very real for Alistair. And they look into one another’s eyes, and the Regent bares his teeth as the sword bears inexorably downward. “Fight, don’t talk,” he hisses. Anora looks away –

“Okay,” Alistair says. And he snaps his arms out straight, throwing the teyrn physically off him to one side with a crash, and there’s not even a question that it’s he who retains hold of the sword. He takes a look at the weapon, whirls it once in the air, raises an impressed eyebrow as he walks towards Loghain; the man’s struggling to push himself up off his back. What I hadn’t seen before and Alistair clearly has, there’s blood running out of Loghain’s right ear. And my knight closes the distance between them, puts his foot on the Regent’s chest, and presses him firmly back down to the ground. Lies the black blade’s point under Loghain’s chin. “For the third time, mac Tir. Yield.”

“In hell,” he spits.

Alistair shakes his head. “Look. You’re losing blood, you’re getting weaker every moment, I’ve got my foot on your breastplate and this is your sword I’m holding. For Andraste’s sake, man, honour is satisfied. You think I like taking life?” His eyes flick up to Anora, who’s got her hand over her mouth, doesn’t want to see, can’t look away –

The instant Alistair’s eyes leave his, Loghain twists violently to one side. Whether he hoped that was going to trip Alistair over or not, it doesn’t – but he has a knife, a thin sharp needle-like bodkin, drew it as fast as I might, going for the vulnerable knee joint – reflexes kick in, Alistair brings the black blade across in an arc –

I will remember the noise that that made for the rest of my life. It’s a little like the sound of a forge hammer without the ring of the anvil, a little like an axe chopping a tree without the splintering of the wood, a little like the sound of a cleaver through meat, if the cleaver raised sparks. The enchanted blade, driven by the full force of Alistair’s arms, meets the black steel of Loghain’s armour. And the edges of the armour are red with heat where it’s parted, and Loghain gives a hoarse ragged shout and Anora crams her fist into her mouth to stop herself screaming as Alistair takes her father’s right arm off a little bit below the elbow.

Blood. So much of it. The stinking blood of the man who killed Duncan. It’s right there, Loghain’s face going grey, his expression glassy, and his blood – The girl I used to be, she’d wash her hands in it and laugh. I just look at it and all I can see is Anora, and how I felt when it was my father weak and hurting and his life in the hands of someone who didn’t mean him well. The rest of the Landsmeet, they’re pretty much on the edge of their seats like the crowd at a dogfight, it’s disgusting –

Glad one of us still has his head on his shoulders, really. Alistair  looks up towards the Chantry seats. “Wynne!” he cries.

The enchanter surges to her feet and reaches out like she’s casting a net, and as Loghain falls limp on his side the flow of bright blood from the stump of his arm ceases as if it had never been.

And every single templar in the room comes to their feet at once.

“Hold.” Their commander raises his hand coldly and looks down his nose at Alistair. “Warden. I do not recall giving permission for this.”

Alistair turns to face him.  “Unless and until the Landsmeet says otherwise, ser, this man is the Lord Regent.”

He narrows his eyes. “His rank didn’t bother you a moment ago.”

“Philosophical differences. A matter of honour.” A few smiles from knights around the hall as if Alistair’s told a joke – according to Leliana, those words are the time-honoured excuse for a duel you don’t want to explain. “You’re saying I should leave him bleeding on the floor? When it’s in my gift to save his life?”

“It is not.” The templar takes a long deep breath. “The Chantry has shown great forbearance, Warden, in our tolerance of the… liberties… you have taken with the service of its people. The Accords of Ostagar state that the Circles of Magi must provide you with support against the Blight, Warden. Where are the darkspawn in this room? Is that the archdemon at your feet, perhaps? Then why-”

“No! Exactly!” Alistair’s voice suddenly fills the hall entire. “Exactly.” He turns to the rest of the hall. Realises he’s still holding Loghain’s sword; puts it away in his own scabbard. “Look at you.” He spreads his hands to both sides of the hall. “The Queen’s faction. The King’s faction. Sat like the audience at a Tevinter pit-fight to watch your champion fight their champion, to watch the first blood spilled between you, so you can go and tell your friends it’s on.” He bends down, dips the fingertips of his right hand in Loghain’s blood, wets the fingertips of his left hand with his own, almost but not quite making a hand-puppet on either side. “There, you see? Blood. Between us. My blood, his blood. He had first blood, and if Wynne hadn’t acted when I asked, I’d have had last blood. My lords and ladies, has there not been enough blood?”

Alistair shakes his head. Drops his hands and turns back to the templar. “Knight-commander, I don’t want this man dead. I don’t want to gloat, or crow, I don’t want people calling me Alistair the Merciful or whatever. There’s just precisely one thing I want. I want this man to stop hurting my people.” He looks down at Loghain’s hopefully unconscious body under the gossamer net of Wynne’s spell. “Looks like he’s stopped, from here.”

“You leave the decision in our hands, then?” The knight-commander frowns like a thundercloud. “Force us to take a side? You know we are sworn to favour none of the Maker’s children over another.”

“No.” Anora stands, shakes off the hand her templar puts on her elbow, comes forward to stand beside Alistair. Straight back, regal bearing. Definitely as much of the queen in her as the princess. “Wherever his zeal has led him, ser, my father is a hero. Without him, there would not be a kingdom. And you, all of you, owe him better than -” she gestures around – “This. Is this truly to be his legacy? An ignominious death on the floor of his own exchequer, a war that rips the kingdom in half when the wolf is at the very door? I will not have it.”

“You won’t have it.” One of the banns stands up, one of the King’s faction. “And who are you, to speak like that and see us dance to your tune?”

Predictably, one of the other bastards stands up, and by Oghren’s smug look, it’s not an accident – “Silence for the Crown, you arrogant-”

“ENOUGH!” I’m probably the only one in the room who’s not surprised that Alistair can make a noise that loud. “I have had it with you bloody people and your stupid bloody squabbling over a crown that will mean nothing unless we all pull together right now.” He turns to Anora, moderates his voice some. Still audible at the back of the room. “My lady, let me just get this straight. I’m a simple man at heart, I want to make sure that I’m not missing something. The Crown. It’s either yours, by right of marriage, or it’s mine, by right of birth. And about a third of this room say you’re not fit to be queen, and about a third of this room say I’m not fit to be king, and about a third are with you and me and just want to bloody get on with it.”

She nods. “And those who say that you’re not fit, they point to your mother; and those who say that I’m not fit, they point to my father.”

“For crying out loud. Am I the only one who sees the obvious solution?” He glances at the rest of the room, aware of all the eyes on him. “Anora, I will never be able to replace my brother. I know that. And I don’t expect I have your father’s consent. But he isn’t the queen. You are. Will you consent to our alliance?”

The shrewd expression that crosses her face is missed by none of her supporters, exactly as planned. “I’ll not give up the throne,” she says with a warning tone that’s absolutely feigned. This was her idea.

Alistair smiles. “Then neither will I. We shall schedule the marriage for after the Blight?”

“Not too long.” She looks him up and down appreciatively and that’s got to have been done for her audience. “I’m not sure I believe in long engagements.” She offers him her hand with a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes.

“Done.” He takes her hand, goes to his knee to kiss it.

And he stands, and faces the room. “All right. You heard the lady. And you can all tell your friends who couldn’t make it. Those of you who wanted a queen? You have one. Those of you who wanted a king? You have one. Those of you who don’t want a king? Those of you who don’t want a queen? Those of you who still want to fight anybody who isn’t a darkspawn?” He draws Loghain’s blade with a ring of steel, flourishes it in the air like he’s testing the balance. “I’ll hear your complaints right here and now. Form an orderly queue; I’ve got a kingdom to save.”

Ser Cauthrien shoots to her feet and her sword is in her hand in the same moment, and there’s this instant where Alistair looks her in the eye as if to say, really? And she raises her voice. “Two queues, my lords and ladies, if you please. We wouldn’t want the king to be delayed.”

And I stand, and I draw. “Three,” I say.

And Eamon comes to his feet. And then the rest. And I’m sure that half of them are going to go back and tell their friends how Alistair seduced the queen and stole the kingdom. But honestly? I don’t think we give a damn.

*

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