“And that,” Blackwall said, reaching down to scratch Fang behind the ears, “is when foxes stopped playing tricks on mabari.”
Kieran laughed. “That’s a good story!”
The dogs barked in unison, their tongues hanging out as they looked from Kieran back to Blackwall. “I’m glad you all liked it.”
“Can you tell another one?” Kieran asked.
Blackwall wanted to, but at best, every interaction he had felt like a temporary distraction from what he needed to think about. Namely, the presence of Ferelden’s Warden Commander in Skyhold. Zaire had said that she’d be coming to check on the dogs, and had sent food for them both in the event it happened. It felt like waiting for someone to deliver his judgement all over again. The waiting, his blood pounding in his ears. The tension. Someone had to have told her, and he didn’t convince himself that if she walked through that door that it would be solely to see dogs.
He drew a slow breath as he realized that he should send Kieran off before the confrontation happened. “I think that’s all for tonight. Perhaps tomorrow.”
“No need to stop on my account,” a voice said from the entrance, and Blackwall froze, a sinking feeling in his stomach. Too soon, he wasn’t ready.
Kieran grinned when he saw her. “Blackwall has been telling the dogs stories!”
Audra looked over the three empty bowls that the dogs had eaten from, and Blackwall watched her eyes shift to focus on him. “It sounds like quite the story.”
“He’s good at stories.”
Blackwall tried to suppress a wince and failed. It sunk in that the last person he wanted to see after what had happened the day before was Ferelden’s Warden Commander, but here she stood. He had planned less on avoiding her so much as he’d hoped he’d have a chance to process that she had arrived. It was not obvious that she was a Warden if he didn’t already know. She wore no Grey Warden armor, no symbols, instead dressing in mostly brown.
She leaned against a post. “Thanks for helping keep an eye on them, Kieran. I’ll take it from here, go ahead and get back to your mother.”
Kieran dropped down to his knees and put his arms around Akeva. “Can I see the mabari again tomorrow?”
“You can see them as much as you want while we’re here.” Audra smiled at him, watching him as he left. She looked to the dogs. “Are you having a good time?”
A chorus of barks greeted her, and Blackwall got to his feet, feeling his face go red. There would be nothing for it. This would be one of many hard conversations he would have in the wake of his lie, and it would be better for him to face it head on. It’s what the man he wanted to be would do.
He wondered if Zaire had perhaps tried to make this happen, to try to get this resolved as much as possible. “Warden Commander.” He stood at attention.
“Please. Sit.” She waved a hand at him, and Diablo lumbered to his feet, coming to her side and waiting for her.
“No, I’d rather you sit, actually.” He turned from her and walked to the table, picking up the two plates of food. It took him a moment to turn around and face her. He drew himself up to his full height and tried to push down the feeling that he’d lose the precious few contents of his stomach. “Zaire made sure there was something waiting for you here.”
“I appreciate that. Thank you.” She took the spot that Kieran had vacated, Diablo staying close to her.
He handed her one plate of food and set the other beside him as he sat. His stomach churned. “There’s more if you need it.”
She lifted the top off the tray. “This is plenty. I don’t eat much. The Taint does that you to you sometimes.” She looked up at him. “But you wouldn’t know that, would you?”
Her green eyes held a piercing accusation. “No. I would not.”
“You wear his name, but you are not him.” She picked up a piece of cheese, regarding. She took a bite, chewed, and swallowed, never taking her eyes off of him. “Then let’s get this over with. What happened to Warden Blackwall?”
Wastes no time getting to the point, this one. He felt like curling up on himself but at this point, he needed to be honest. It was another step on the long road ahead of him. “He… died. Fighting Darkspawn.”
“As most of us do, if we beat the Calling.” She picked up a spoon and scooped up some stew. “How about this. I’m going to eat, and you’re going to tell me why you’re carrying his name. And his beard. You have to know how bad this looks from where I stand. Ah, sit.” She made a face. “Enlighten me.”
He sighed, but appreciated her mild humor. He was starting to understand why Ferelden’s Wardens so willingly followed her. “I have no excuse.” He explained how he was recruited by Warden Blackwall, and how he had planned on becoming a Warden. She listened as she ate, nodding, letting him speak.
It felt surprisingly good to tell the whole story, as if telling it helped lift the burden from his heart. At least, most of the story; he didn’t get into the details of how he ended up on the run in the first place. His days as a cocky bastard, hiding his flaws behind bravado and a sword. Slowly learning humility as he found himself fighting darkspawn, in helping people who needed it. In finding a strength in himself that he hadn’t known he’d been capable of, a pride not in what he could do but in who he could be. A chance at a future where his life could mean something.
When Warden Blackwall died, he had been crushed. He’d thought about going to the Wardens, to tell them what had happened. He’d started the journey, but with every step he took, the sense of dread grew in him. He believed in you, but will they? What reason do they have to believe in you? His own voice threw his misdeeds and mistakes back at him at every turn. He wanted to be better, and Thom Rainier of the past warred with the Thom Rainier of that present.
He could live out his days trying to be that better man, on his own. Stepping into Warden Blackwall’s boots. “I didn’t know what else to do. I was young, afraid, and I… was running away from my past.”
“Warden Blackwall accepted you as Warden potential, why didn’t you continue on?”
“I thought they’d think I killed him,” he admitted.
She snorted. “While I suspect you’re more than competent fighter, no would have jumped to the conclusion that you could beat Blackwall.” She smiled slightly. “But that’s to say nothing of your ability now, mind you. You could have gone anywhere, done anything. But you choose to become him. Why?”
“I didn’t know where else to go. I’d… done bad things. I made bad decisions, and in turn gave bad orders. It was politics and we got caught in the middle, but I’d still be found guilty for…” He couldn’t say it. Part of him wanted to, and he knew that she’d probably find out, but he couldn’t bring himself to bring the words out. “They would have hung me had they found me.” He hung his head, shame filling him. Pain. The little lives lost because of my orders. I can’t undo that. He closed his eyes. “I became him because I had to believe that I could be someone better. I didn’t know how to be that myself, so I took his identity.”
“To hide.” It was not unkind.
“Yes.” He rubbed at his face. “There was good I could do. Find people that had nowhere else to go, train them. If they showed promise, send them onto the Wardens.”
“You’ve certainly explained one thing that’s been confusing some of the Wardens, which is that recruits have been received from Warden Blackwall, even though the man himself has long been out of communication and presumed dead. From everything I’ve heard, every one of them turned into a solid Warden. None of them succumbed to what happened at Adamant.”
He looked up her and suddenly felt guilty that he hadn’t even talked to her about Adamant. “So you know what happened, then?”
“I do.” She looked at him. “I was also told that a Warden traveling with the Inquisitor gave a rousing speech. One that mattered to many of those Wardens, that reminded them what it was like to be a Warden.”
He stared into the fire, wondering if he’d ever shake the feeling of walking through a fire every time he remembered it all. “Sometimes you need someone else to remind you what you should be.”
“That much is true.” She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “Can I presume then that it’s now known that you are not Warden Blackwall?”
He nodded, wishing she’d pull her hand back. Wishing she’d be more angry.
“Impersonating a Warden is a serious charge. We do more than just fight, we hold the line against the Darkspawn, against the Blights. Being a Warden is an honor, and a terrible burden. You give up family. You become isolated.”
“It would have suited me. It… sounds like my life. Before Zaire found me. Before the Inquisition.” Before he lifted that shield to protect her, before he’d determined that he’d not allow her to be hurt. Before he hurt her anyway.
“What happened after they found out?”
“There was a trial. It was yesterday.” He flinched, and picked up a stick off the ground, holding it in his hands. “The Inquisitor did not deny my guilt, for pretending to be a Warden or for the crimes of my past, but she gave me my freedom. Which I do not deserve. She should have sent me to the Wardens.”
“That isn’t her call to make.” She picked up a piece of bread. “You choose to become a Warden, or we conscript you. I was conscripted. It was likely that or be made Tranquil.”
He used the stick to push at the fire. “I would have chosen the Wardens.”
“That’s still a choice you have.” Her ink stained fingers pushed the bread into a ball. “Do you want to become a Warden?”
He thought about the answer, and perhaps he was silent too long because she chuckled. She set down her bread ball and picked up a piece of cheese. “Do you know who else likes cheese?”
His lips curled up into a smile despite it all. Her affection for him showed clearly on her face, but her sad smile made his heart ache for her. “Your husband.”
“You met him, then? Because my bet is that he saw right through you.”
Blackwall winced, dropping the stick and instead reaching out to scratch Akeva on the head. “We were out with Hawke and he stopped and said, ‘do you feel that? There’s Darkspawn nearby’.”
Audra bust out laughing. “Oh no, Alistair…” She put her head in her hands. “He didn’t. Oh Maker.”
“He absolutely did.” His face burned red at the memory. “And I paused for a long moment. I listened. And I said, ‘how many, do you think?’ He said it seemed like a lot, and I told him that we should be ready. He said that we had other things we needed to deal with right now. When we got back later, he called me out. There were no Darkspawn.” He shrugged. “I appreciated that he didn’t say it in front of the others. We had agreed to discuss it after Adamant.” Alistair, too, had been more kind than he had deserved. Blackwall sighed, looking up at Audra. “It’s the one conversation I never wanted to have, and I’ve never wanted so much to have had it because it means that Warden Alistair was here.”
“Alistair is a softy. He wouldn’t have made it that hard on you.” She frowned. “I have to admit we’ve never come across this situation before. You never answered my question. Do you want to become a Warden?”
“I do,” he affirmed. “But my hesitation comes from something else. There is someone here I am reluctant to leave.” He looked down, shame causing his cheeks to warm. “That’s a selfish answer.”
“It’s an honest answer.” She finished the last piece of cheese on the plate and set it to the side. She nibbled at the balled up bread as Diablo rested his head in her lap. She scratched him behind his ears. “If you’d asked me five years ago, I might have had a different answer. Now, though… Well, there’s someone I need to be with, too. And the Calling has slowly tugging at us, and it’s a matter of time before we go to the Deep Roads and die together. One of us will die first. And it’s going to be terrible.” She looked over at him. “I’ve been searching for a cure for the Taint. There are many of us who were forced into being a Warden, and it’s been something I wouldn’t have traded for anything. I wouldn’t have met Alistair, or anyone, really. We wouldn’t have defeated the Blight.”
“You’ve paid your dues, no one would blame you if you wanted a life back,” he pointed out. His fingers reached down and plucked at a piece of straw, and he held it in his fingers. He had never thought of being a Warden so much of a burden, but now that she explained it… A part of him felt relieved that he didn’t go. A part of him felt that it would have been what he deserved.
“Well, some would. And, if I succeed, will blame me. It could be the end of the Wardens.” She sighed. “If you want my advice, hold onto that thing that keeps you here. You’ve been given a second chance as is. I won’t counter the Inquisitor’s judgement that freed you.”
He lifted his chin. “But you do not approve.”
“Actually, that’s not entirely true. It’s a second chance that the Wardens have been in the business of giving. People are terrible at giving second chances, and I wish that were different. If she felt you need that chance, I’m not one to judge. I have no authority here beyond my role in the Wardens. Such as they are at this point.” She shook her head. “I’d be interested in taking a different approach on this, one that might spare us both a bit of pain.”
“Oh?” Blackwall looked over at her, tossing the piece of straw into the fire. “And what is that?”
“I’m going to take the stance that, while it’s deceptive that you pretended to be Warden Blackwall, that you were still acting in the stead of a Grey Warden. You were recruited, and I believe that you would have served us well had you made it to us. Is this true?”
“Absolutely, without hesitation.” That much he was certain of.
“That means you held the rank of Warden Recruit. Perhaps the longest we’ve had on record, but that’s your rank to hold. It does not expire.”
Blackwall was not sure what she was getting at. “Does that mean I am still a Warden Recruit?”
“It does. It also means that we can release you of your service at any point. Which I am choosing to do now. You are welcome back if you decide differently, but your life is your own now. With my blessing.” She reached out and put a hand on his. “Take care of her, Ser Blackwall.”
“I… should stop calling myself by that name.”
She shrugged. “I’m not holding you to any name. Nor should you. You left behind your old one for a reason, but you might find some day that you’ll want to step back into the light and take back your name.”
“My name is attached to treachery and shame.” He put his other hand over hers and at that moment he resolved to uplift those that needed it. As Zaire did. As Audra was doing right now.
“But it is yours. I have known men who have left their name behind and lost it forever. You should be certain that is what you want before you decide that.” She pulled her hand away. “Use this second chance wisely. Fight hard for the Inquisition. And for her. We all like to think we can fight alone, but we need others more than any of us like to admit.”
“I… appreciate that.” He looked down. “I don’t deserve how you’ve treated me.”
“I can’t say what you deserve or not. But if you are part of the force that defeats Corypheus, you will deserve every bit of it.” She stood. “Fight well, Ser Blackwall.”
“You are going to try to rescue Alistair.” He stood. “Can I help?”
“I think… the help I may need from you the most is not your sword. It’s the support Zaire needs.”
Blackwall did not recall mentioning that it was Zaire that kept him here. “How did you know it was her?”
“It’s the look in your eyes when you talk about her.” She smiled kindly. “You also mentioned the Grey Warden treaties? I’ll point out that Warden Recruits, being of a rank within the Wardens, have that authority. You may have misrepresented your level of authority, but if anyone has a qualm with it, I am happy to address it. In fact, I’m pretty sure we specifically authorized recruits of Blackwall’s. So, I will ensure that goes on record with the Inquisition.” She hesitated. “After what happened at Adamant, I feel like the Wardens are in for dark days. It’s best that the Inquisition got something from that.”
“You seem…” He hesitated, not sure how to put it.
“Like I don’t care? Oh, I do. Perhaps too much. But I think right now there are much larger problems, and those are the ones I’d like to see solved.” She chuckled. “Plus, after you’ve killed an Archdemon, this seems really minor in comparison.”
“I would love to buy you a drink and hear about it after Alistair is back.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence.” She nodded. “I am off to see Solas.” She looked down at the dogs. “Find Hawke, go get some sleep.”
Diablo and Fang stood, stretching, but Akeva wagged her tail and barked. Audra looked surprised. “Well, it appears Akeva wants to stay here, for now. Are you fine with that? She’s probably tired of me. Or maybe she likes stories.”
“I imagine it’s the latter. I wouldn’t mind the company, to be honest. Dogs make good company.”
Her smile showed that she understood. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Warden Commander.”
“Audra.” She ran her hand over her forehead. “Please”
“Audra.” He nodded. “Thank you.”
She left, heading out into the darkness, leaving Blackwall with Akeva. He couldn’t shake the thought that he’d dodged an arrow. By all rights, that should have gone much worse, but at least it was over. One less burden to carry, although he felt only marginally lighter for it.
He looked down at the dog that waited patiently, her tail gently wagging. “So, do you want to hear a story about how I met the Inquisitor?”
Akeva barked, and Blackwall told her another story.