Kingsway, 9:33 Dragon, Drake's Fell
"Maker's breath," Alaric muttered. "If I had known there was an eluvian here two years ago, I could have saved us all a great deal of time and effort."
"Not to mention a varterral." Ariane shook her head. "It didn't feel right, killing such a creature."
"It was it or us," said Finn, "and I don't know about you, but I'd rather not us."
Alaric stood with Ariane and Finn in the vast underground chamber that had once been the Mother's nest, projecting a large globe of mage-light up above his head, and looking around wearily. The others were more curious, seeing the place for the first time. There was no sign of life, nothing but a vast field of scattered bones and trash.
"Don't linger," Alaric warned them. "This was once a darkspawn nest. The taint will certainly be in these bones. It might be in the stones themselves all around us."
Finn twitched, his natural fastidiousness making him uneasy with everything in that place.
Slowly, they worked their way toward the back of the cavern, pushing aside the bones of dead childer, avoiding patches of stone that looked suspicious. A stone pillar rose before them, thirty feet or more across, stretching from floor to ceiling. Behind that, they found a slope spiraling upward . . .
There, at the far end of the slope, they saw a tall, free-standing glass that glowed with magical energies. The glass was framed by two large statues, elven work in the style of ancient Arlathan. One could walk up a short flight of stairs to gaze into the mirror, or step through it.
Someone was already there, pacing back and forth before the mirror.
Finn trotted up, all weariness forgotten. "An eluvian, and it's glowing. We should . . ." Then he stopped, as Ariane put a hand on his chest and gave him a look of silent warning. Then they both turned to watch Alaric.
The Grey Warden stood still, seemingly unable to move.
She looked much the same as in his memory. Still slender, wild and elegant, with midnight hair pinned up on her head, moonlight-pale skin, and bright golden eyes like nothing he had ever seen in any other woman's face. Even so, for all the familiarity, the sight of her struck him like a hammer. Perhaps it was that she had finally reached full maturity, or perhaps becoming a mother had worked its own subtle magic on her. Whatever it was, it had rendered her natural beauty even more compelling, more intense than he remembered.
All he could feel was the clamoring of his heart. He didn't seem to be able to get enough air.
The witch turned away from him, still not looking at him, as if unaware of his presence. She stepped up to the mirror and reached out, fingertips brushing across its surface. This caused the energy that shimmered there to ripple, giving off a sound like distant music.
There came a glance over her shoulder, golden eyes meeting his for just an instant. Then she turned away again.
"I think she's expecting you," Ariane whispered.
Alaric nodded, and stepped forward. Cautiously, as if approaching a wild animal that he feared would bolt.
Garm had no such inhibitions. As soon as he saw his master step forward, he rushed past, running up the steps to stand before Morrigan and bark and cavort like a puppy. The witch smiled, kneeling to embrace the hound for a moment. Alaric could hardly believe his eyes at first. Then he began to hope that he might get a similar welcome.
No such good fortune. He reached the bottom of the short flight of steps, while Morrigan rose to her full height once more and folded her arms. "No further, please," she said, and her voice was the same velvet contralto that he remembered. "One more step and I leave. For good, this time."
"No need to run, Morrigan," he said. "I'm only here to see you once more, and to talk."
"I assume you know what this is." Morrigan indicated the eluvian behind her, one very short step away. "I have gone to great lengths to find and activate this portal. Give me reason, and I use it, and you will not be able to follow."
Are you quite certain about that, Morrigan?
"Then why haven't you already left, if that's true?" he asked quietly.
"I . . . I remained to see if 'twas truly you that approached." She looked down, her expression suddenly not quite so certain. "I had to know. Tell me, why did you come, over months of time, across hundreds of weary miles, past considerable dangers?"
"Because I couldn't forget you, Morrigan," he said, his voice rough with emotion. "Not that I tried very hard. I couldn't let what we were together end the way we left it."
She smiled sadly at him. "And you once argued with me that love is not a weakness. Alaric, I sometimes think that I shall never understand you. 'Tis certain that you shall never understand me."
"Isn't that true of every man and woman in the world?" Alaric carefully didn't take another step, much as he wished to, but he raised one hand in entreaty. "I want to understand. Help me."
"I . . ." She hesitated, and for a moment her heart was visible in her face. Only for a moment. "I would hardly know where to begin explaining."
"Then tell me about Kieran."
Not a flicker of surprise. She must guess that I've heard of him from Ariane.
"He is safe, and beyond your reach. As soon as we are done here, I will return to him. I have been away from him too long." Something quite unprecedented crept into Morrigan's face. He was tempted to call it tenderness. "All you need know is that he is an innocent. He knows nothing of the destiny that lies before him."
"Morrigan, that isn't enough."
"Because he is your son as well. I understand." She shook her head sadly. "I will not share my plan with you. I dare not. If your trust is insufficient, then your anger will have to do."
"A new prophet?" he murmured. "Like Andraste?"
That earned him a startled glance. "'Tis most interesting, that you have made that connection. I myself did not discover it until recently. Although I might have expected such wit, from a lore-master of your skill. You are near the mark, though not in the gold."
Alaric waited patiently.
"Kieran is to be the harbinger of the new age," Morrigan told him. "Change is coming to the world. Many will fear it, many will fight it with every fiber of their being. Yet sometimes, change is what we most need. Sometimes, change is what will set us free. Kieran has a role to play in that. More than that I dare not say, even to you."
Alaric nodded slowly. "I think I do understand."
"Do you? Then allow me to provide you with a warning. 'Tis Flemeth you should beware of, not me. Hunt her, if you must hunt anyone." Morrigan stepped down, away from the eluvian, and Alaric permitted himself to feel a moment of hope. "I thought I understood what my mother planned. I thought what she craved was immortality. I was wrong. So very wrong. She is no mere blood mage, no mere abomination. She is not even truly human. I fear she wants a consummation that will shake the very heavens."
"And what do you want?" he asked, looking down into her eyes from two steps away. Almost close enough to touch her.
"What I want . . . is unimportant now."
Morrigan turned away, climbing back up the steps. Only on the final threshold did she hesitate. Prompted by some instinct, Alaric followed her, so that when she stopped and turned back, he was still very close.
"I cannot tarry longer," she told him. "The time has come for me to go."
"Then I'm coming with you," he said softly.
Her eyes went wide, and he could see the gleam of unshed tears in them. "You cannot know what you ask. 'Twould be better if you stayed. For you. For us both."
"I know exactly what I ask." Still wary, Alaric reached out with one hand, to give her cheek a feather-light caress. "I want to be with you, and with our son. I want to help you. Because I love you, Morrigan, and I will until the day I die."
She leaned into his touch, just a little. "What about your king? Your Grey Wardens?"
"Who knows what the future holds?" he murmured. "For now, I've done all I can for them. Alistair, Anora, Nathaniel, Eamon, Irving, and all the others. They don't need me any longer. I think you do. Maker knows that I need you."
She looked up into his eyes for a long minute, caution and yearning at war in her face, and he wasn't sure what she would say. Wasn't sure what he would do, if she tried to step away from him, into the mirror.
Then she smiled, and a single tear rolled down her cheek, and her hand came up to hold his. "Impossible man. Very well. Come, my love, and we will face the future together."
Alaric held her hand gently, and turned back to the elf and the mage where they waited below. "Goodbye, both of you."
Ariane nodded solemnly. Even Finn seemed to have run out of things to say.
"Ariane," Morrigan called, pointing off to one side. "Look over there, where I last set my camp. The book I stole from your clan is there. Take it, with my apologies, and my best wishes for your people."
Then they turned to face the eluvian. Alaric reached out to caress the surface of the mirror with one hand, eliciting the same rippling effect and the same eerie music that Morrigan's touch had produced. He glanced at Morrigan, who gave him a small smile.
Then, without hesitation, she stepped through the mirror. An instant later, he and his mabari followed her.
Mist. Strange, flickering light that seemed to come from the very air. Distant sounds, soft and somehow distorted, that failed to disturb the quiet. Standing stones. Bizarre objects that resembled trees, oddly regular in shape and without leaves.
Alaric stepped down onto a low stone dais, an identical copy of the Drake's Fell eluvian behind him.
"What is this place?" he murmured, one hand coming to the side of his head to relieve a sudden stab of pain. His voice echoed oddly in the stillness.
"If it once had a name, it has long been lost," said Morrigan. She, too, had a sudden look of confusion and discomfort. "You and I may be the first to stand here since the fall of Arlathan."
Alaric blinked hard, and then some instinct prompted him to call up the dirth'ena enasalin. He wrapped himself in the energies of the Fade, not enough to move out of step with physicality, but enough to shield himself from harm. This had a profound effect. The pain and confusion vanished, and much of the mist and distortion in the air faded away.
All around them, he could now see other mirrors, arranged in a loose pattern that stretched off into the distance. All of them were dark and still.
Morrigan saw when he stood up straight, no longer suffering any discomfort. She guessed at once what he had done, and imitated him. At once, her eyes flew wide with appreciation for the beauty around them.
"It's as if this place is out of tune for the human mind," Alaric said. "Call upon the ancient elven disciplines, though, and it snaps into focus."
"Good," she said. "I suspected that might be possible, but until I came here, there was no way to be sure. Do you find it a strain?"
"Not at all. Not unless we actually find ourselves fighting." He looked around again, and decided that seemed unlikely. "This is a very peaceful place."
"Yes. The place where all the eluvians join, wherever they might be. 'Tis where the ancient elves came, when they wished to travel across their vast empire. Walking from one mirror to the next, as easily as taking an afternoon stroll."
"Like a crossroads," he suggested. "A place where all the traffic of the world passes through."
"Indeed," she said, and she smiled at the notion. "All the eluvians were long ago locked, as the ancient elves lost their empire to Tevinter. From the other side, unlocking one of them is all but impossible. I had to travel and search all over southern Thedas to find even one that I could open."
"But now that you're here . . ."
"From this side, a few of them might be opened more easily," she said, with satisfaction. "Come. We have some distance to travel."
She took his hand and they set out, walking at an easy pace in a very specific direction that Alaric could not identify. The mabari followed behind them, looking around and sniffing the air attentively. Alaric glanced more closely at the war-dog, saw no sign of distress, and decided not to worry about it.
"So, you hope to use this place as . . . what? A means of fast travel, to places you couldn't otherwise reach?"
"That is one of its potential uses, to be sure." Morrigan looked pensive. "For now, I wish to use it as a sanctuary. A place where I – where both of us, now – may hide away from those who might wish to hunt for us."
"Your mother?" he suggested.
"Yes. Also the Chantry, Tevinter, the Qun, renegade apostates, anyone who would wish to harm us. Or who would wish to make use of Kieran before he is ready to stand on his own."
He nodded, suddenly understanding much more than she had explicitly said. "That's why you didn't want to stay with me, in Ferelden. Because you were afraid that half the world would eventually come hunting for you and our son."
"That is one reason." She sighed. "Another is that I believed you would be happier at the heart of things, a power among men. Sooner or later you would find another woman to love. Someone less difficult than I."
He laughed, and then stopped for a moment, realizing how strange it sounded. He hadn't had much time for laughter in the last few years. "You may have been right, at the time. I was an arrogant bastard, no two ways about it. So very convinced that the world just wouldn't run right, unless I was right there to steer it."
She glanced up at him, a speculative look in her eyes. "And now?"
"Now . . ." He thought about it for a minute. "Now I have other priorities. It helps that Ferelden is in good hands. They can get along without me for a while. A few years, or a lifetime." He smiled at her. "As for my lovely witch, as difficult as she may be, I still would not trade her for all the world."
They walked on in silence for what might have been a mile, then two.
Finally, Alaric said, "I'm eager to meet Kieran."
"He is a fine boy." Morrigan sighed. "There was a time when I had no idea what I would do with a child. I needed Kieran to exist to carry out my plans, but caring for the mite? I hardly knew where to begin. Then my time came, and I began the labor of bearing him . . ."
"I know," he said quietly. "I could sense it."
She nodded soberly. "I was distracted, as you may imagine. Yet I think I knew you were there. Doing your best to aid me."
"Then you took off the ring, and I lost track of you," he said, trying not to sound accusing.
"Yes. I realized that you had found a way to follow me through that connection. I could not allow that."
Suddenly, she stopped walking, as if a sudden thought had come to her. She reached up to her throat, where Alaric saw she wore a small leather pouch on a thong. With a quick jerk, she snapped the thing from around her neck, and reached inside. With a look of defiance, she produced her rose-wood ring, and placed it back on her finger once more.
He smiled, and bent close to kiss her for the first time since Denerim. The kiss ended up a little more ardent than he had planned. In the end, she pushed him away gently, but with a smile. "None of that, my love. Else we shall never reach our son."
He chuckled, and permitted her to draw away. "That's a very good argument."
"As I was saying," Morrigan mused, "at one time I had no idea what it meant to care for a child. Then there he was in my arms, tiny, helpless, but perfect. I could not help but love him, because he was mine, because he was ours. At that moment, all the months of turmoil, all the danger and fear, all the sorrow of leaving you, all the pain of bearing him . . . 'twas all worth it. Not for the power that Kieran might bring me, or that he might one day wield. Simply for his sake."
He nodded, and walked along in silence.
For perhaps an hour they walked, catching up on everything that had happened since the Battle of Denerim, their voices reverberating slightly in the eternal silence. Morrigan seemed at ease, as if a deep conflict within her heart had finally been resolved. For his part, Alaric feasted his eyes upon her, and listened to her voice, and was content.
The mirror of the soul, in which each saw the other's image, had at last been repaired.
Eventually Morrigan began to slow her pace, carefully examining each dark mirror they passed. She seemed to be looking for something very specific, rejecting most of the eluvians. Once she stopped and stared at one of the mirrors for a full minute, before shaking her head and moving on.
Finally, she seemed to find what she sought. She led Alaric and Garm up to another darkened eluvian, seeming little different from the dozens of others they had passed in their journey. She then spent several minutes moving around all sides of the mirror, examining it closely, both with her eyes and with her other senses. At last she seemed to be satisfied. She took a deep breath, raised her arms, and then made an emphatic gesture. Alaric could sense a sudden flow of mana, powerful yet finely controlled.
The eluvian sprang to life, suddenly shining with deep blue light.
"You have got to teach me that," he told her admiringly.
"Gladly. 'Twill be useful, if more than one of us can navigate this place."
"Where does this one lead?"
She gave him a knowing smile, full of secrets. "Come and see."
With no further ado, she stepped through the mirror. Alaric and Garm followed.
It was dark on the other side, a space dimly lit by the eldritch glow of the eluvian, the air cool and musty. Morrigan produced mage-light, and Alaric saw an enclosed chamber, with the eluvian at one end. The walls were not virgin stone, but courses of masonry, with a vaulted ceiling above. Alaric thought he recognized Tevinter workmanship.
"Look there," said Morrigan, pointing to one wall.
Alaric saw an elaborate symbol, painted onto the wall in crimson and black. It was clearly much more recent than the wall itself. "I see it. A trail-sign?"
"Yes. I placed it there to mark this specific eluvian. I had hoped to discover that this one would open from the other side."
"How many eluvians have you found?" he asked.
"Seven thus far, still intact enough that I think they may be opened. Five of them are in Orlais, and two in Ferelden. There are doubtless many more, scattered all over Thedas. You saw how many still stood in that other place, the Crossroads."
"Why this one, in particular?"
She flashed a quick smile at him. "Because this one is near to where I left Kieran, in the hands of trusted friends. Be patient a little while longer, my love."
She led him through doorways and dark corridors, to a place where a fall of stone blocked their path. There she exerted her will and the stones moved aside, to return to their places once the mages and the hound had passed. They walked together down a gentle slope, out through a hidden cave entrance, and into the open air.
Alaric found himself standing in a high place, looking out across a stunning vista of hills and vividly colored valleys, much of it wild and forested. The air was cool, rich with the scents of autumn. Off in the distance to the south, he saw a broad white line snaking across the landscape, unmistakably a stretch of the Imperial Highway. Beyond that, tiny in the distance, he could see a walled city gleaming in the sunlight, all white and golden stone.
"We have crossed many hundreds of miles in the space of an hour or so," Morrigan murmured. "We are now in eastern Orlais. That city is Halamshiral, the winter residence of the Empress."
They walked down the long slope, hand in hand, passing under the brightly painted leaves of the trees. At the bottom of the hill, close to a fast-moving stream, they found a small cottage, with stone walls and a thatched roof. The place looked snug and warm, but it was tucked away in a hollow of the land, almost impossible to see unless one knew exactly where to look. As they approached, a Dalish man rose from his seat by the door, picking up his bow from where it rested by his side.
"Be not afraid, Athanrel," Morrigan called. "'Tis only I, returned at last."
"Lady Morrigan!" the elf called, a smile creasing his face and making his vallaslin writhe. "Who is that with you?"
Morrigan glanced up at Alaric. "This is my Warden," she said simply.
"Hah!" If anything, Athanrel's smile grew even broader. "I had a wager with Carian that you might bring him with you, when you returned. I didn't see the point of going all the way to Ferelden otherwise."
She scoffed in derision, but Alaric could see that she was pleased. "Alaric, this is Athanrel of the Taranae clan. I have often thought that he should meet Zevran one day. Athanrel and I began our acquaintance when he made a very credible attempt to kill me."
"Good thing I didn't succeed," said the elf, his voice light with a trace of Orlesian accent. "Not sure which would be worse to have on my track, Asha'bellanar or the Hero of Ferelden."
Alaric laughed. "I'm sure, and it certainly isn't me."
"Where is Kieran?" Morrigan asked.
"Here!" came another voice. An elf-woman emerged from the cottage, small and pretty, no vallaslin on her face. She carried a small child in her arms.
Time seemed to stop for a moment. Alaric could hardly see anything but the boy. He waited, stock-still, as Morrigan went over, introduced herself to her son once more, and took him from his nanny. Then she walked back over to where her Warden stood.
The boy was small and rounded, like any toddler. Hair a messy thatch of raven black. Eyes a bright blue, and far wiser than any small child's eyes should ever be. So still, hands and feet not fidgeting, just watching the world with that solemn regard. Watching him with that solemn regard.
"Kieran," said Morrigan calmly, "this is your father."
"Hello, papa," said Kieran, his voice clear as a small bell. He raised his arms.
Alaric took his son into his embrace, and knew nothing else for a long while.
It was a small cottage, and the weather was very fine. Alaric offered to sleep outside, that first night, only to receive a fierce golden-eyed glare from the witch. She made it very clear that the only bed he would be sleeping in was hers, "you fool."
Once Kieran was fast asleep, and the elves had settled in for the night, Morrigan came to him. He was very quickly surprised – not to mention pleased – at her fierce hunger. If he was any judge, the witch had missed him just as much as the reverse.
One thing had changed, though. He watched her face in astonishment as she rode his hips to what was clearly a powerful climax. Eyes tight shut, face slack, lower lip bitten hard, fingers clawing at his shoulders, the muscles of her legs and torso all a-quiver, all the signs were there. Yet the whole thing happened in an eerie silence, not a sound escaping from her throat. Entirely out of character.
"What was that?" he murmured after she fell, boneless, into his embrace.
She gave him a languid stare, then smiled. "Clearly, you have never made love to a woman with a small child a few feet away. Now is not a good time for Kieran to wake, 'tis all."
"Well," he said. "It seems we've both done some growing up, these past few years."
"Caring for another will do that, I imagine." Morrigan kissed him, a warm and unhurried thing, with a hint of spice in it. "I've had my pleasure, and 'twas very fine," she murmured. "Is it not time for you to have yours?"
He looked up into her face, and realized he was doomed. Again.
"Better if we share," he told her.
So they did.
Afterward, he lay with the witch in his arms, and settled into a warm contentment that seemed entirely new to him.
Tomorrow they would pack up the cottage. Six of them, the witch, her Warden, their son, and the elves who helped them, they all would walk up the mountain to the hidden eluvian, and vanish out of the world entirely for a while. Perhaps they would live in the Crossroads, or perhaps they would find their way to some other realm, far off in the between-spaces of the Fade. A safe place, where they could simply let the years pass, love one another, and watch their son begin his journey toward manhood. Someday they might return, when they needed the world once again, or when the world needed them.
For now, nothing in the world mattered outside the circle of Alaric's arms, or beyond the child's bed a few feet away.
Home, the Warden knew, and permitted himself at last to go to sleep.