alexia

Aphreal's Dragon Age fanfic

The latest obsession

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Codex Alexia
alexia
aphreal42
This is my first serious Dragon Age fic, inspired by and set during Awakening. It's also the longest piece of fiction I've written in over a decade. Huge thanks to my beta reader and critique partner signcherie for encouraging me to follow through on this and for helping it be infinitely more readable and interesting. Thanks also to my husband Chris and my avatar Atan for helping find Alistair's voice and deepstalkers, among other things.


Excerpts from a journal found during the reconstruction of Vigil’s Keep. Attributed to Alexia Cousland, Queen-consort of Ferelden and Commander of the Grey at Vigil’s Keep.

*****
I miss you.
 
That’s a strange way to start a journal, but maybe it’s not so odd for a letter. I’ll just think of this book as a place to keep all the letters I can’t send you. They tell me the roads are bad, that caravans can’t get through to bring even the most basic supplies to Vigil’s Keep. How can I expect a courier to take on that risk, ask someone to put a life in danger just because a new bride misses her husband? So I’ll keep this book, fill it with all the things I want to say to you.

And maybe, for a few minutes each night I’ll write to you and I won’t feel so alone. Maybe I’ll pretend I can hear your laughter, feel your touch, taste your kiss. I’ll imagine you can hear me through this paper and know that I’m thinking of you.

This isn’t what I expected. A scream in the night, and my dull administrative posting turned into darkspawn slaughter. And it felt natural, like running through an unfamiliar place hacking apart monsters was what I was supposed to do.

The only thing missing was you. I kept expecting to turn around and see you looking at me during a break in the chaos, to catch a glimpse of your sword flashing through the mayhem. It’s strange to do this without you, love.

How can I miss you so much when you were here just a few hours ago? It was such a shock to see you walking across the courtyard. I almost didn’t believe it at first; I’d been seeing you in my mind so often since the fighting started. But I blinked and you didn’t vanish this time. I saw the relief on your face when our eyes met, and I knew why you’d come. I had to drop to my knees in a formal salute to stop myself from running to you like the lovesick girl I am.

I know you have responsibilities elsewhere, so perhaps I shouldn’t have pressed you to stay. But it was so wonderful to have you there, longings made manifest, that I didn’t want to see you go, to be alone again. A selfish part of me wanted to beg you to stay, to put our needs ahead of the kingdom’s, just this once. The larger part of me was raised to duty and honor, so I would never ask that of you, but oh how I wanted to.

The brief kiss wasn’t nearly enough, but anything more would have made it impossible to let you go. As it was, it took all my strength to keep my arm rigid and my jaw clenched, to resist reaching after you or calling you back. It would have been infinitely easier to repel another darkspawn raid than it was to let you walk away like that.

I don’t know quite what I’m getting into here, with talking darkspawn and rebel lords, but it would be much easier to face the unknown with you at my side. I’ll just have to slay the monsters and unravel the plots quickly so I can join you back in Denerim soon.

*****

I supervised my first Joining today and nearly doubled the ranks of Ferelden's Grey Wardens. I say nearly because they didn't all survive it.

Oghren's fine, of course. I'm fairly certain I've seen him drink worse. And that mage you suggested I conscript seems to have come through no worse for the wear. But we lost Mhairi. She would have been a good Warden: strong, dependable, willing to defend her beliefs and do what was right, in the face of any odds. I was looking forward to getting to know her, and it's hard to realize I won't have the chance.

It surprised me, losing her so suddenly. She admired me, wanted to be a hero like us. Am I responsible for cutting her life so short? Somehow I'd forgotten the Joining could be like that, could end a life of such promise in seconds.

Was it the same for you? Did you have hopes for Daveth and Jory? Or had you seen enough to know not to care about any of us until we survived it? I can't imagine how to balance wanting a person to be your brother in arms with knowing you may be about to kill him. I suppose it's easier with conscripts facing a death sentence anyway. Or people like me who've already lost every bit of the life they knew. I'll have to be more careful now, think about what I could be taking from future recruits.

It's strange having other Wardens around, after so long of it just being us. It's even stranger having them look to me for guidance. Who am I to teach them about being a Grey Warden? I am Thedas's only living expert on archdemon slaying, but that's hardly a skill I expect any of them will need in the near future.

I haven't had any real training. Maker, Alistair, what do I know about being a proper Warden? I can tell them it involves killing darkspawn, ignoring weird dreams, trusting each other, protecting those who need it, standing for what's right no matter the cost...

Maybe I know more about what it means to be a Grey Warden than I thought. I must have had an excellent teacher.
*****

I found a childhood acquaintance locked in my dungeons today, so I conscripted him into the Wardens. You may come to regret reminding me I have that authority, dear husband, because I fully intend to restore the ranks of Ferelden’s Grey Wardens single-handedly if I have to. The remnants of the darkspawn horde can’t be dealt with by you, me, and a crazy old man in a tower. You and I have too many other responsibilities to hunt them all down, so I plan to delegate the job. 

Which brings me back to our newest recruit: Nathaniel Howe, the late Arl’s second son. He freely admitted he’d broken into the Keep to kill me for his father’s death. For a moment, the sneer on his face looked so like Rendon’s that I wanted to save the hangman the trouble and kill him myself. 

But then I remembered your mercy towards Anora. We are not responsible for our fathers’ sins; you taught me that at the Landsmeet. And if you could bring yourself to forgive Anora for Loghain’s crimes, how can I do any less with Nathaniel? So rather than calling up the ghosts of murdered fathers, I gave Nathaniel back his life and challenged him to make it worth something. 

Maybe it’s best you can’t actually hear this; you’d probably be outraged at me for conscripting the assassin who tried to kill me. But it worked out last time, and really, love, he wasn’t do a very good job of it. Of all the things that have threatened my life recently, Nathaniel Howe is the one I’m least concerned about. Not that he wouldn’t be capable; he’s quite deadly when he wants to be. I just don’t think his heart was really in it. 

Blood feuds are a fine tradition in some noble houses, so he knows he should want to kill me to avenge his father. But all he actually did was break in to his childhood home and wander around. A trained assassin can hardly plead nostalgia when caught by guards in the dead of night, so of course he said he was here for revenge. 

I know what it is to lose your family and home, to have a life of certainty and duty ripped away and find yourself adrift and lost. Being a Grey Warden gave me a sense of purpose, a feeling of belonging to something greater than myself. I’m hoping it will do the same for Nathaniel. 

I’ve probably never mentioned that there was a point in my life when I thought I was going to marry him. Don’t get jealous, love. It wasn’t anything romantic; we were only children. But our fathers had spoken of a betrothal, binding second son to daughter to strengthen the ties between our houses. So I spent several years studying Nathaniel whenever our families were together. He never paid me any special attention, which makes me think now that the talks weren’t serious enough for his father to even mention it to him. But I thought I was going to marry him, so I tried to learn what I could by watching him. 

He was quick and agile, even as a boy; I’m not surprised he’s a skilled archer. He was also terribly clever, or at least good at outwitting his older brother, which was the same thing to me. Nathaniel could usually turn Thomas’s taunts and jibes back on him, a talent that I greatly admired. I’d held a bit of a grudge about Thomas getting me excluded from the boys’ practice sword fights. Once he realized I could beat him two out of three bouts, girls were no longer allowed. 

So I began planning my life with Nathaniel based on these small details, filling in the wide gaps with a girl’s hopes and fancies. But I forgot to include so many of the traits important in a husband: humor that makes me smile no matter how dire the situation, a passion for what’s right that inspires me to stand against injustice, eyes that look at me like I’m the most precious thing in Thedas. 

I had no idea then what I really needed, but I knew my place as a Cousland daughter: marry for the benefit of the family. I trusted that mother and father would allow me to choose a man I could respect, and I hoped that in time I might grow to have the sort of love my mother had for her arranged husband. I never dreamed of finding love before my wedding; it simply wasn’t done. 

But then suddenly there was no Cousland family, just me… and maybe Fergus lost in the Korcari Wilds. And there you were, with your shy smiles and your tongue-tied endearments. By the time it sunk in that I might, for the first time in my life, be free to choose to love someone, I realized I was far beyond the point of making a choice. When I saw the chance to marry a man I loved, how could I not take it?
 
I probably should have asked you first, before announcing our engagement to the assembled nobles of Ferelden. But it wasn’t exactly something I planned. I realized halfway through the Landsmeet that I was about to make you the most desirable catch in the kingdom, and from the sly smirk Anora sent my way, she’d realized it, too. She’d already suggested a compromise marriage, turning you into her new puppet to replace Cailan. I couldn’t stand the thought of that vicious little deepstalker getting her claws into you. And if she’d thought of it, I knew others doubtless would, as well. She’d make sure of that. All I could think of to stop her was making it clear you weren’t available. So I declared us engaged and hoped you’d go along with it until we had a chance to talk. 

I’m sure many of the lords assumed I was no better than Anora, making a play for power. I doubt most of them would believe even now that what I truly wanted was not the throne but the man. I’m content to rule alongside you because I believe in the good we can do, healing the kingdom in the wake of Blight and civil war. But I married you because I wanted to be the one at your side every day and in your bed every night. 

Duty has kept us apart far too many of those nights. There are times I wish we’d stayed as Wardens, free of any responsibilities but our Oath. Rough wool blankets with you under them would be far more comfortable than fine linen on an empty bed. At least when I’m in Denerim, the pillow has your scent. It’s hard to sleep here, in a bed I’ve never shared with you. 

I shouldn’t complain so much about being alone. I know where Fergus is and have you to go home to when this is done. All Nathaniel has is this new life in the shattered remnants of his old one. I hate that I’m going to be away from you for so long, but if I use the time to train the best Wardens I can, maybe next time Ferelden needs saving, it won’t just be up to you and me. We need someone else we can trust so I can pass on the title of Warden-Commander and just be your queen.
*****
 
Oghren came to me today asking about Warden dreams, although really I think he was more concerned by dreams that have little to do with being a Warden. I managed not to laugh at him, a fierce dwarven warrior so unnerved by his first experiences of the dreaming Fade. I hope I also managed to not sound wistful when I told him the Warden dreams are very mild without an archdemon to send them. What would he and the others think if they knew I miss those dreams? Not that I want the Blight back. Of course I don’t. I’m thankful every day that we put an end to it, you and I. 

But I wouldn’t mind having those dreams back right now. I wouldn’t mind waking in the night with my pulse racing and an almost-familiar echo in my head, knowing that wherever you are, in our bed in Denerim or out on the road, you’re doing the same thing. Most parted lovers have to just wish and wonder: Is he thinking of me? Does he feel the way I do right now? If we had Warden dreams, I wouldn’t have to wonder; I’d know. 

I shouldn’t be so hard on Oghren for his fears. Maker knows I was rattled by my first taste of Warden dreams. If you hadn’t been there to explain it, I’d have thought I was losing my mind. I remember staggering out of my tent, skin clammy with sweat, terrible images flickering in my head, seeking the cool night air because I felt like I couldn’t breathe. And there you were, sitting by the fire, looking over like you were expecting me, like this was normal and everything was all right. As you explained about the dreams, I started to believe that maybe it could be. 

You also told me about the unofficial tradition you’d encountered in Warden camps, gathering together for conversation or silent companionship after being woken up by darkspawn echoes. You sounded so lonely, and I could tell how much you missed that fellowship, the sense of belonging. 

You didn’t ask me to sit up with you by the fire for the rest of the night, but you didn’t have to ask for me to know it was what you needed. I saw the guarded hope in your eyes as you looked at me, wondering if I might be able to start filling the void left by everything you’d just lost. I had a sudden flash of childhood memory, running to my father and mother for comfort after a nightmare, and I began to wonder if you could start to fill the void left by everything I’d just lost, too. Neither of us realized it at the time, but I think that was the night our relationship began.

Then there was the night much later, once we’d quit bothering with the pretense of separate tents. I woke with Urthemiel buzzing uncomfortably in my ears and reached out to find you gone. I wasn’t terribly surprised to look out and see you brooding by the fire. I went to join you, following the expected ritual.

After a few minutes’ reflection, warm blankets began to seem like an improvement over a banked fire. “You didn’t actually need to come out here, you know,” I mused. You looked confused, your thoughts clearly having been elsewhere. “The only other Warden in the camp was right next to you already. You didn’t need to come stir up the fire to find me.” Another thought occurred to me then. “And you didn’t need to leave to avoid waking me up, either. After all, the archdemon’s in my dreams, too. Of course, if you’re used to sleeping next to someone who’s not a Warden, I guess you might have forgotten.”

“No, I’m not used to sleeping with women who aren’t Wardens. Not that I’m used to sleeping with women who are Wardens either, I mean. Not that I wouldn’t have been interested, but there really weren’t many women around before. I don’t mean I would have just because they were… I don’t mean we are just because you’re here… I… Oh, Maker’s breath!”

Have I ever mentioned how adorable you are when you’re flustered? I ducked my head, hoping the flickering shadows from the fire would hide my smirk.

Then after a breath, you turned back, eyes dark and serious. “Only you, Lexia. Only ever you.” I challenge any woman with a heart to have resisted you in that moment.

Eventually, I returned to speaking. “I wasn’t meaning to pry, love. I was only suggesting that next time you have a dream that leaves your head echoing with darkspawn, you wake me up to help remind you that, despite the taint, you’re still a man.”

“You want to help remind me I’m a man, do you?” you asked in that growly, leering tone that usually makes me laugh.

“If that’s what you need,” I replied seriously, refusing to let you change the mood until I was finished. “Or talk in the dark. Or just hold you and be there. Whatever you need.”

I don’t know that you believed me then, but you did leave the fire to return to our tent. And over time we both came to trust the bond that we have, and you learned what it means to not be alone. I hate that I’ve had to leave you now, husband, and each day I’m doing everything I can to fulfill my duty here and return to your side.
*****

I have never come so close to drawing a blade on an unarmed civilian in my life, but I was so furious I could barely think! I wouldn’t have actually killed the woman, but Maker knows I wanted to frighten her, to shock her out of that selfish, complacent ignorance.

I’d gone to the inn expecting a grieving widow, and instead I found a whore. Her husband had died surrounded by unimaginable horrors, and she was laughing in the arms of a man she barely knew. How could she do that when he was clinging to thoughts of her love as his only light in the darkness?

I told her how he’d died, that he’d spoken of her, wanting her to know he hadn’t been alone, that he’d loved her so deeply, right to the end. And she complained that he’d spent too much time away? How dare she insult his honor by criticizing his devotion to his Oath as a Warden? How dare she question him giving his life so ignorant fools like her could be safe? How dare she complain to me about being lonely when duty separated her from her husband? How dare she!

Then she said she wanted to be alone and turned away like she was dismissing me. My teeth clenched and every muscle in my body tightened with fury. I wasn’t aware I’d reached over my shoulder to grab the hilt of my sword until I felt a cool hand on my wrist and heard Nathaniel softly say, “Commander?”

I turned my head slightly towards him. I don’t know what he saw in my face, but his eyes widened and he whispered, “Alexia?” the first time he’s used my name since we were children.

I released my grip on the sword and gave him a terse nod as he let go of my wrist. I turned and began walking rapidly out of the inn and towards the city gates. I hoped we would be attacked on the road to give me a chance to hack something apart with my sword, to get so covered in blood that no one would know if my cheeks were wet with tears.
*****
 
I made a joke today to one of the commanders at the Battle of Amaranthine. He looked at me like I’d lost my mind, and all I could think was, “Well, Alistair would have laughed.”
 
And you would have, love, I’m sure. Not that it was a terribly good joke, because it wasn’t. Just the first frivolous thought that came to mind. But you would have laughed, at the incongruity of it, if nothing else. I could almost hear you in my head, that barking unexpected, astonished laugh I first remember from when we were held in Fort Drakon. 

I remember waking up there, groggy and disoriented. Looking up at you next to me, with both of us out of our armor, I admit that imprisonment wasn’t the first thought that crossed my mind. 

Then I saw the fear in your eyes, and it all came back with a rush. Anora, Howe, Cauthrien. Getting locked up in Fort Drakon wasn’t quite how I’d planned for that to go, but I wasn’t really worried about it until I saw that you were. You’re my courage and strength, love. Have I ever told you that? Seeing you afraid paralyzed me, and I knew I had to jolt us both out of that if we were to have any hope of escaping.

So I said something ludicrous, refusing to take the situation seriously, hoping to get us past the initial shock. And you laughed.
It was the most wonderful sound I could have heard, and in that moment, watching the tension leave your face as your eyes sparkled, I knew that we would be fine. Beckoning you close, I whispered, “All right, here’s what we’re going to do…”
*****

I left them. Maker forgive me, I left my friends to the darkspawn. I knew I was doing it; the decision was cold and calculated. I chose to save a mass of nameless strangers instead of people I’ve lived and trained with, people who trust and respect me, who look to me for guidance. What kind of person does something like that?

Wait, I know the answer to that. I know exactly what sort of person makes a rational emotionless decision to put responsibility ahead of feelings: a Commander, an Arlessa, a Queen. Someone who understands that duty is more important than self. I hate what I did, but I would do it again.

The alternative was to condemn Amaranthine. The guard was panicking; they would have razed the city, destroying its citizens along with the darkspawn. I couldn’t let them do that. I couldn’t abandon those people, our people. If I had left Amaranthine to its fate, I don’t know how I could have ever looked you in the eye again.

So I stayed, organized the guard, repelled the invasion, and secured the city. I thought… no, I hoped we would be able to get back to the Keep once the city was safe. But there are just too many darkspawn; the roads are cut off. I think I could cut my way through them but maybe not, and probably not soon enough to do anyone any good.

And anyway, they’ll be fine. Oghren is unstoppable. He’s already killed more darkspawn than many Wardens see in their entire career. And Nathaniel has incredible control and focus. He’ll rally the guard and defend the Keep he was raised in. I’ve supplied, equipped, and trained them to the best of my ability. Surely that will be enough.

But if it isn’t, if the Vigil falls, they’ll understand. They’re Grey Wardens now, and our lives aren’t our own. They know that; it’s part of what we live by. In death, sacrifice.

Any Warden under my command would have willingly died to defend the citizens of Amaranthine from the darkspawn. If the Keep was overrun because I wasn’t there, then that’s exactly what they did. I hope they realized that. They must have. I have to think that Oghren understood my decision not to come back. That Nathaniel didn’t die hating me for abandoning him.

Alistair, I need you here so much right now. I desperately need you to hold me and tell me I was right. I need to know that you can still love me even though I left my friends to die. Please, love, tell me I’m not the monster I feel like I am.
*****

The Vigil stands. It withstood the darkspawn assault.

I don't have words for what I felt when we got close enough to see the walls were manned, the Griffon standard flying above them. My legs went weak with relief, and I stumbled, nearly falling. I expected some mocking from my companions, but Sigrun caught my arm to steady me and Anders was uncharacteristically silent. Maybe they'd been worrying, too.

I spent the rest of our approach staring at that Griffon banner. Wardens in residence. How many, which ones? Would it fly for a treasurer, or only actual Wardens? Were they alive?

When we reached the gate, we were greeted with astonishment and quickly admitted. Apparently we'd been presumed lost. Don’t they know surviving darkspawn hordes is what I do? Word of our return must have spread quickly. By the time I'd finished getting a summary of casualties and damages, my Warden sense had given me the most significant answer: it was recognizing two additional Wardens in the courtyard. Even so, it was good to see them standing there. I bent down to give Oghren a quick hug and tug on his braids to make him laugh. With Nathaniel, I exchanged only a solemn handclasp and few words: "It's good to see you're all right. I was worried." "Likewise, commander." But that was all that was needed. Will you believe it when I tell you my closest friend in this time apart has been a Howe?

In the end, both Vigil's Keep and the city of Amaranthine held, and I was spared the full consequences of my decision. I feel almost pitifully grateful, and I can't imagine I'll be this fortunate in the future.

I think I understand now why father was so particular about finding a wife for Fergus, why he wanted to see his heir married happily, not just well. It's an awful thing to rule alone. Father raised us with the strength to make terrible decisions but not the hardness to be unaffected by them. He knew Fergus would need a partner to love and support him so he could continue to serve the people of Highever well. I can't imagine how he's doing it now with Oriana gone. After just this short time away from you, I'm already starting to lose my confidence, to question my humanity now that I see what I'm capable of doing.

I thought the decisions we made during the Blight were the hardest choices I'd ever face. When I first came to Amaranthine, I scoffed at being called an honorary arlessa. I'm the queen of Ferelden, I killed an archdemon, and they expected me to be honored by making petty decisions about guard details and land ownership? Couldn't they see that was beneath me? Maker, Alistair, I was a fool. I'm not saying what we did to end the Blight was trivial, but most of the time I was only risking the lives of those who were in it by choice: myself, our companions, soldiers. People who knew and accepted the cost. Here, my decisions can determine the safety and livelihood of entire families, whole villages, people who want nothing more than a simple life with their loved ones. I had no idea what it felt like to live with that sort of responsibility. I have a whole new respect for my father now, ruling all those years as teyrn for so many people. I hope he'd be proud of what I've done here, the start I've made. I hope that what I’ve learned here will help me to be a better queen for our people.

I think I also understand why you didn't want to be king. This kind of responsibility is uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and the decisions aren't clear-cut. It's so much easier to hack through a mass of darkspawn and kill a loathsome broodmother than to sentence a deserter who wanted to protect her family. There are no simple answers, and the right path isn't always clear, even after you've taken it. On the battlefield, victory is simpler to define: your troops are alive and the enemy is defeated. It's generally obvious who won and what price was paid. It's so much murkier here; I can't predict the outcomes of my choices, even in hindsight. Would fewer innocent people have died if I'd stationed the guards differently? Did I stretch the troops needlessly thin and preserve civilians at their expense? Could I have talked the nobles out of their rebellion without bloodshed? I'll never know, and that haunts me.

The only thing worse than lying awake at night wondering if I made a wrong decision is doing it alone.
*****

Home. Maker be praised, I am finally going home.

I've fulfilled my duties here in Amaranthine. The arling is stable and secure; we've soundly defeated both rebellion and darkspawn. The Vigil has been strengthened and restored. Repairs will be needed, but it withstood the worst darkspawn activity it's likely to see outside of a Blight. We have a solid group of new Wardens. I've given them what training I could, and they've all proven themselves worthy and capable. The roads are clear for trade to resume, so for the first time since I've been here, I could send you a real letter. But there wouldn't be any point because I don't intend to let even a courier outpace me on my way back to Denerim and you.

I'm deputizing Nathaniel to run things here in my place. He's the perfect choice for the job. Not just the best of what I have available but actually the ideal candidate. For those who aren't happy with the changes in the arling, there's a Howe back in Vigil's Keep. For those who honor the Wardens, he's proven himself loyal and capable. He knows the Keep, the lands, and the people better than anyone could who wasn't raised here, and he'll defend them fiercely because this is his home and he loves it. It's probably good I'm not sending you a proper written report about this; as it is you'll likely think I've been possessed by a spirit of madness when I tell you I've given command of Amaranthine back to a Howe.

It's actually kind of strange to see how attached Nathaniel is to Amaranthine and the Vigil. For most of my life I felt that way about Highever, and it's rather startling to realize I don't any more. Highever stopped being my home when Rendon's men killed my family there. My parents, Oriana, Oren. I can't imagine wanting to live in a place so haunted with grief, so full of memories and loss. I don't know how Fergus does it. If I had to do what he does, spend that much time so close to the place where my spouse and child died, I think I'd go mad. Maybe it helps that he was spared seeing the bodies. I wasn't, and I don't know that I could walk the halls without having those images constantly in my mind. Highever can never be my home again.

I've found a new home for myself, and I'm returning after far too long away. I don't care about Denerim or even the palace, nice as it is. My home now is wherever you are, wherever I can hear you laugh and sleep in your arms.

This journal has been a good companion to me, but I don't want to spend any more time pretending to write to you. Instead, I should make sure everything's ready for me to leave at first light.

I love you, and I'll see you very soon.

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I loved this! It made the events of Awakenings so much more real.

Thank you so much :) Awakening felt disconnected to me, so this was my way of exploring it and giving it context for my character. I'm very glad you enjoyed it!

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