My embellishment of the encounter with Goldanna and Alistair's hardening, as well as some profound talk and not quite so rose look at the Couslands.
Also, since the ff.n found the title offensive (after more than a year since publishing) and deleted the story, the DA wiki is the only site where it will be posted.
Of Shrews and Bitches
The door bangs behind them, shutting off the yelled stream of obscenities. They stand on the pavement and blink in the bright sunlight.
"Well, this was… that… I…." It happens only rarely that Alistair cannot find words, and this is such an occasion. Despite the fresh breeze, he feels like choking.
“Sister. I have a sister,” he said here, on this spot, not even half an hour ago. I had a sister. Or maybe I didn't.
Ned pats his shoulder, and with a firm hand, steers him into a small tavern in a nearby alley.
It is only when they are seated, with a generous portion of lamb stew, fresh bread and a mug of ale in front of them, that Alistair's tongue finally starts functioning. "I can't believe that this, this shrew is my sister! All I ever dreamed of…" He smacks his forehead with his palm. "You recall that illusion in the Fade? She even looked similar, but… Why did I ever expect her to accept me? I did, you know – expect her to actually acknowledge me as her brother." He shakes his head desperately. "I – thank you for coming with me. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been there."
Ned, somewhat too intent on methodically devastating the content of his bowl, pushes the other portion closer to Alistair. "Eat. Drink. Relax."
Alistair glowers at him: "And what else? 'Here, take a wooden horse to toy with'? Though, you're probably right, I'm a fool, and childish on top of it."
"I didn't mean it that way and you know it." The tone leaves no place for objections and Alistair drops his head.
Great. Now I'm taking it all on the single person I trusted enough to take along. "I'm sorry."
"Never mind." Ned is looking at him with that expression which makes the counterpart feel as if a sole and only object of its focus, unique and special. Cared for. "I know what it would have meant for you, but… since it turned out the way it did, the best advice I can give is not to dwell on it too much. Distract yourself to get over it. She's not worth it."
"I guess it's not a bad idea," Alistair mutters, "but still…Maker, was it really too much to expect at least some… interest?"
Ned twists his lip. "Probably it was? You know, what you do not realize that everyone is out for themselves. Goldanna simply learned the lesson long before you."
Not a particularly appealing idea. "Everyone? Do you really believe so?"
Ned clears his throat and downcasts his eyes. "No. That was a gross exaggeration. Sorry." He takes a deep breath. "However, such people are simply too many to fret over . I – I know that this will be difficult but the best think you can do is to carry on as if that thrifty bitch never existed – you don't mind me calling her bitch, do you?"
"You killed mother… your father forced himself on her…"
Alistair looks aside: even in his disappointment, it doesn't feel right, and Ned's untypical despect makes him uneasy. He swallows hard. The fault is only and solely with him; the stupid day-dreamer, he is.
"I don't know you, boy. Except for your money, you are less than no use for me!"
"Let's stick with 'shrew'," he mutters, picks his spoon and starts toying with the content of his bowl.
Ned produces yet another twisted smile. "See? The lamb stew is a profound cure. And if you stop to think of it, the outcome wasn't so bad, after all." Seeing Alistair's flabbergasted look, he explains: "Luckily, the shrew is too stupid to conceal her true nature, even if it were for her own benefit. Discovering what she is like only after you'd become attached to her would hurt you much more."
Would I prefer if she pretended, if only just at the beginning?
"Do believe me," Ned says soberly as if reading his mind, "you wouldn't like being deceived like that."
"It seems I have been deceiving myself all along." The sympathizing look in Ned's eyes makes the lump in his throat bigger, and so he resorts to his usual means of dealing with uncomfortable situations: "But why that grave face, all of a sudden? Do I sense a story here?"
"What, you would nurse your self-confidence at my expense?" Ned chuckles into his ale. He ponders for a moment, then nods. "Alright, then; I did insist that you should have a distraction, so I will provide one. Listen to the gruesome tale of my youth, and hopefully, take some enlightenment from it, like I did."
The smirk and wink that follow do not seem particularly reassuring, especially as Ned adds: "And don't blame me if you blush yourself to death, you've asked for it."
"Who, me? Never!" Alistair mumbles half-heartedly, already feeling the familiar hated heat originate somewhere deep in his chest, forebodingly.
Grinning at him, Ned sits back in his chair and starts his tale: "So, you recall what I told you of Caitlin, my first? She was a good soul, and when our little affair was over, I was well versed in the matters of physical love. I even became more than just a little overconfident with my freshly acquired skills. I started looking around and dallied with quite a few. Most were eager, and those who were not, didn't resist for long. All in all, I was developing a reputation."
The blush creeps up the neck and cheeks, and Alistair knows that in a moment, he will start perspiring. Backing out, though, is not an option: I did ask for that, didn't I? He concentrates on chewing the bread as Ned continues:
"The sucker I was, however, I was under a silly impression that all girls were like Caitlin: kind, honest, generous. In other words, I was really asking for what came next.
Mother took in a new maid, a relation to one of the old servants of ours. Her name was Saria, and she was a beauty. Copper locks, sky-blue eyes, a shy smile, all blushing whenever I just looked her way, and you bet I did, a dozen times a minute. As I said, she was very beautiful, and she wasn't an easy prey. 'I was a Lord so high above her, she wasn't worthy, Maker forbid, my Lord this and my Lord that…' Within a couple of weeks, I was totally doting on her, and when she finally succumbed to my charms, I stopped using my brain at all." With a smirk, Ned sips from his mug. "It went on for about a month, and after that Saria announced that she was with my child. I had no reason to mistrust her, since Caitlin did tell me that the precautions may not always work, and so I suspected nothing. Marriage, of course, was not an option, but I promised Saria that I would provide for her and the child – that the Couslands would, in fact. Meaning, I had to tell mother and father."
"Ah… I see." Alistair makes a sympathetic face, trying his best to ignore his burning cheeks. He takes a hasty swig of his ale, to blame the blush on it, and makes a mental note to find out later what these precautions exactly are.
Ned snorts. "Yeah, I suppose I have told you enough about my mother to give you an idea how she reacted upon learning that instead of getting married like a dutiful son and siring little Couslands, I was sowing wild oats just under her nose, with her maid. You can imagine the tongue-lashing I received, and not just once. Father was more sympathetic, but only when mother wasn't around, and Fergus…"
For a while, Ned's gaze becomes absent, the way Alistair recalls whenever the discussion comes down to the Cousland family. More acutely than ever, Alistair realizes what it means: He is also alone. Even worse, because he didn't use to.
Ned masks the silence with taking a drink, and picks up the story. "My brother topped it all, jesting all the time about left and right sheets and what not, which always infallibly provoked mother to yet another lecture on Cousland honour. – The fact that I had already been adamant whenever the matter of marriage was raised, didn't help in the least, you know.
Anyway. I was slowly getting used to the idea of becoming a father, albeit of a bastard, and arrangements were being made for Saria to move away from the castle and have a decent living, when it all took an unexpected twist. Saria slipped on the stairs and had a bad fall. She miscarried, and nearly bled to death." Ned lowers his eyes to his cup. "Naturally, a healer was called to attend to her – and found out that she had been with the child well over three months."
Aww… awkward. Alistair sucks his breath in between his teeth, grasping the inexorable mathematics.
Ned gives him a sour smile. "Right. You see, the Teyrn's stupid son would have made a way better father than the elven gardener she had dallied with before she came to Highever."
Alistair is not aware of gaping or making a face, but Ned still snorts. "Yes, you've heard correctly. Not only that the child wasn't by me, it was half-elven. – You see, when mother found out that we were to be fooled, she was livid. In such a state, she was a natural phenomenon, nothing could have stopped her from digging out the whole truth. Saria did not stand a chance."
"So, uhm – but I suppose your lady mother was sort of relieved in the end to find about the cuckoo?"
"Quite the contrary, I'm afraid. I always felt that for all her admonishing me for fathering a bastard, her grandmotherly instincts secretly revelled at having one more babe to cuddle. – You should have seen her with Oren when he was little and when she thought no-one was looking." He closes his eyes for a moment, a grimace of pain fleeting across his face. He has to clear his throat before he continues: "She went on admonishing, just switched the focus. She made abundantly clear that I was apparently too simple-minded to see past a pretty face, and had an unworthy tart pulling me by the nose. An even worse offence than thinning the bloodline."
Sensing an ominous end to the story, Alistair finds it in himself to ask uneasily: "What did you – what happened to the girl?"
Ned's face sinks into an unfathomable expression. "When she recovered, father had her flogged and driven from Highever." He meets Alistair's eyes, unflinchingly. "And I stood by, and watched."
Alistair swallows hard and lowers his eyes, feeling as if the air suddenly chilled. The conclusion of the story reminds him of Redcliffe; the cold, merciless edge that surfaces from time to time in the otherwise kind, easy-going Ned.
Where does it stem from, that ruthlessness to act when the need arises? Do I even want to know?
Shouldn't I want to know?
To cover his chaotic thoughts, he returns to the light tone. "So, the morale of your story is that I should be careful with young ladies, who might covet me as a father of their offspring?"
He is quite proud that he managed to produce the uncharacteristically bold joke without stammering, but Ned keeps a serious expression. "Actually, you should. Given who you are, it would be… prudent."
Oh, Maker. Does this really have to surface all the time?
Ned puts down his spoon and leans forward. "Alistair," he says softly, "I am aware how much you resent what you are, but he fact that you are the only living Theirin may still shape your future whether you want it or not. Even though being a Warden limits your chances to sire an heir, the option cannot be entirely ruled out."
Annoyed, Alistair shifts in his chair. "Pity that Goldanna isn't also Maric's offspring, the matter of lineage would have been secured."
"Maker preserve Ferelden," Ned gasps in horror. "If those bastards of hers have taken after her, they would be worse for the land than the Blight itself."
This makes Alistair return in his thoughts to the final part of that disastrous exchange with Goldanna.
"I have five mouths to feed – "
"Well, those children certainly have some fathers, don't they?" Ned interferes in that seemingly leisured tone which, as Alistair has seen on a number of occasions, cuts deeper than a blade. "If they are unwilling to perform their duties, you should be more careful who you lay with next time, or charge them more to cover your expenses."
Goldanna's pale face flusters with an ugly beet red. Her eyes swerve, and her hands clasp over her belly for an instant. When she finally finds her voice, it is even shriller and higher than before. "You – you – who are you to insult me in my own house, you –"
"Well, I'm certainly not a prospective father of your sixth, or an idiot who would waste good coin on the likes of you." Taking Alistair by the arm, he turns and they leave that grudge-soaked place.
Seeing the woman's jaw drop the way it did was somewhat satisfactory, but the ease with which Ned is able to hit the core is somewhat disturbing.
"How did you know? I mean, that she – uhm, that her children – "
" – are out of wedlock? I didn't, in fact, it was just a guess. It was still obvious that she used to be very pretty not so long ago, and whoring is always a simple way of helping oneself to handsome coin. And since coin is all she cares for, it made for an easy deduction." Ned frowns. "Don't get me wrong. I don't object to whores, as long as they are honest and keep their end of the transaction – as long as they don't pretend to be what they are not, be it a loving doe or a hard-working laundress. What I can't stand are those who see others only as means for their own gain."
Oh. And this comes from one who spends quite some time with a bitch-witch who is a very embodiment of the principle. Alistair nearly chokes on his ale and hastily averts his eyes, realizing that this was a mistake.
He receives a hard look. "Oh, do go ahead, do ask why I'm currently dallying with yet another woman who may not be entirely honest."
"May not? Maker, what an understatement," Alistair blurts, and bites his tongue a moment too late.
The tense silence lingers, but then Ned sighs and says softly: "You know, Alistair, as I see it, there is one big difference. Morrigan is almost brutally open in what she desires. She does not claim to love me to get me under her control, quite the contrary. As to what she might expect to gain – " A smirk. "Though she certainly has some plans of her own, I can't possibly imagine what she might expect to gain from lying with me since a child from me would poise absolutely no advantage these days. An outlaw without lands or titles, penniless most of the time – not a particularly desirable father; wouldn't you agree? Besides, Morrigan is not exactly a motherly type."
The idea of Morrigan with a babe in her arms is, of course, entirely ridiculous. "But even so – I can't understand why you – uh – I mean – " This time, the stammering is irrepressible.
Ned laughs, good-humouredly. "Alistair," he says, shaking his head, "you really should find yourself a girl or two, so that you stopped wondering why I spend so much time in the company of a beautiful, passionate and willing woman."
Alistair has an acute feeling that with the heat his face radiates, he will soon start illuminating the dark corner they sit in. Now that he has gone so far, though, he is able to press on: "So, you're saying that this is it? The bodily, er, desire, you know – no feelings at all?"
A moment of hesitation before Ned replies: "I can't deny that I am… intrigued. Being with Morrigan is like playing with fire. I suppose it's a consequence of that life we lead, facing danger night and day – one gets accustomed to it, and can't do without it." He hesitates again and looks aside, and Alistair can almost see the usual guarded expression crawl back in its place. Ned takes a long drink of his ale, then unexpectedly raises his eyes. "Besides, I also sometimes crave for an illusion that I'm not alone, be it just in an embrace of that moment."
"But you're not alone," Alistair protests vehemently. "We all care for you."
A pause. "I could claim the same about yourself – and you do realize that you are not content with that, either," Ned says slowly.
Should I be?
Staring at the half-empty bowl, Alistair finds himself out of words once more. "I sure win the popularity contest with some," he mutters in the end.
Ned groans. "Well, if you're waiting for a sign of affection from Sten or Morrigan, that's certainly hopeless. How about one Wynne, or Leliana, huh? – Or myself?" Ned suddenly pauses, and continues in a more serious tone. "I've just realized that I probably never made it clear, so I'd better say it now: were I to choose which Warden to take along, I wouldn't have anyone else."
I didn't know that. Didn't even hope.
Yet, there is still something that does not fit. "So," Alistair says slowly, "what you're saying is that I shouldn't chase an illusion of family if there are other people around who care for me?"
"Then why are you not content with what you have?"
"You see – " Ned bites his lip, in an unusual display of uncertainty. "With me, it's different," he replies at the long last. "People generally like me, but… do they like me because of what I am, or because I know my way with them? I mean – " he shakes his head, irritated. "It's not like I do everything only to impress people, I just – most of the time, I do things as I feel compelled to, but I can't help to be aware at the same time how people will respond, if you take my meaning?"
Alistair slowly nods: after all, this is no more than he has already concluded himself. "It's not just what you do," he observes, "but what you are. As if you had some sort of a charm – wherever you turn up, people are drawn to you, even when you don't do a thing. As if you were…. radiating something. I understand you're not doing it on purpose, it just… is."
Ned tiredly rubs his eyes. "You're probably right, at least partially. You know, father had it, too – that 'charm', as you call it. It runs in the family, I suppose. He has always been well-liked, until – until – " his voice breaks and he buries his face in his hands, raking through his hair. When he raises his head again, his eyes bore into Alistair. "In another respect, you are wrong. I am doing it on purpose. Our companions like me and follow me, because ever since they joined us, I've been consciously building on what I have learned about them, to bind them to myself as their leader." He takes a deep breath. "Not that I don't return the affection, but I am aware that it is not so much deserved as induced."
The obvious question hovers in the air, and Alistair feels his tongue stick to his palate, while the warmth from his face recedes.
Ned furiously shakes his head, alarmed. "No, not you. I never… manipulated you like that."
Relief washes over him, immediately followed by a pang of mistrust, painful in its sudden occurrence. "Why not?"
Ned is also pale. "There was no need to. When we met, I was maintaining distance, trying to keep everyone out. Whereas you… I wasn't interested, but you still offered… trust. Friendship. Loyalty. Practically from the very beginning, when you couldn't have gained anything. Unbidden, unasked. I cannot even remotely tell you what it means to me, since I never expected this outside – outside my family. I never expected to be able to trust anyone like that again after – after that night –" His voice breaks. He swallows hard, breathing raggedly.
Alistair feels his throat tighten. "I'd never betray you," he says hoarsely.
The dark eyes rise to him, wild and pained. "Nor I you."
On an impulse, their hands meet over the table in a firm grip – a warriors' clasp of the wrists, like a bond.
They finish their meal in silence, yet in a much better mood than they started.
As they leave the tavern, Alistair turns to look back at the shabby house which became the tomb of his hopes.
No more illusions. Take what you have.
Feeling Ned's eyes on him, he produces a smile, forced only a little. "Shall we go… brother?"
"Sure." Smiling and touching Alistair's shoulder casually, Ned heads among the sunlit market stalls, and Alistair follows, feeling a silly grin form on his lips.
Not such a bad outcome of a seemingly lost day, after all. A brother instead of a sister. A good deal.