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Dragon Age Origins: Cousland & Amell

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Looming over the dark waters of Lake Calenhad was the tower of the Circle of Magi. This was where mage apprentices went to learn how to become proper mages. It was here that the magically gifted of Ferelden learned various spells, as well as how to deal with demons- creatures notorious for infecting such places and morphing their victims into abominations. Alistair marveled at the mammoth size of the stronghold, its amplitude only accentuated by the sunset. How many mages could a place like that hold? He had never befriended a mage of The Circle before, even while training as a templar. The former Chantry servant was frustrated that Duncan had left him standing on the docks. He had waited an entire day for his Grey Warden superior to return with news of the Circle's additions to King Cailan's army, which was fighting the darkspawn south at Ostagar.

He had passed most of the day eating cheese and sipping ale in The Spoiled Princess -the only inn for miles around. It was a small establishment with more than a few shady characters lurking in comber candlelight behind tables or amidst thin clouds of smoke from pipe weed. The fresh air and the panoramic view out on the docks proved to be a baffling contrast from that tavern. The ferryman, Kester, he was something else.

"Since it is best known as the Tower of the Circle of Magi these days, many people forget that the great tower sitting in the middle of Lake Calenhad existed long before the Circle", he narrated folding his arms over his weathered plaid shirt. The man was good for a laugh, which Alistair found far more favorable than the shadows of the nearby inn. The vinegary old man referred to elves often in conversation as "knife-ears" without even realizing it.

"Kinloch Hold" Kester had called the tower though he seemed to want to say little more about The Circle and more about his boat, Lizzie.

Named after his Grandmum, it was.

As the sun was beginning to set low on the horizon, Kester had begun rowing the ferry back across the lake at the request of the templars. Alistair stared out at the timeworn crumbling remnants of what was once a durable bridge from Kinloch Hold to the shoreline. The once lively afternoon sky had just transformed into a massive, flowing orange ceiling as the ferry began making its way back toward the dock where Alistair stood waiting patiently for Duncan. The tower appeared menacing- a formidable blood red foe- juxtaposed by the Ferelden skyline. And the ferry drew ever closer. From dockside he could make out three figures standing on the transport; one person, whom he assumed was Duncan, was wearing armor.

Who was this third person?

Could it be a mage of The Circle?

Perhaps a new Grey Warden recruit?

As the excitement rose inside him the natural light around him dimmed more by the minute. It was fully dusk by the time the ferryman and his two passengers reached the docks. The ferry drifted back and forth as Duncan steadily stepped onto the docks and looked over toward Alistair.

"I trust things went well with The Circle?" Alistair rejoiced strolling over to his fellow Grey Warden.

"The Knight Commander and First Enchanter refused to send additional mages to aid the army of the King. But I wouldn't say our trip was unsuccessful," Duncan held out his hand to the ferry's second passenger. They could be described through no detail beyond a hooded cloak and an intricate mage's staff placed with a timid thunk onto the docks; it was a walking stick of unthinkable power. As the unknown party stepped off the boat a pale hand emerged from beneath the regal purple cloth and found Duncan's grip. The stranger stepped forward and pulled back the hood of their mantle. She was a human mage with snow white skin and a blanket of mesmerizingly luminous blond hair. She bore a grim expression as she looked up at Alistair with eyes as brilliant as sapphires.

"A pleasure to meet you, I'm Alistair" he blurted, sounding more cheerful than intended. He extended his hand in front of him as a gesture of greeting and assumed it would be well received by the mysterious beauty. With an uncertain gaze she looked down at his hand, then back up. Alistair lowered his hand slowly and looked to Duncan inquisitively.

"Alistair, I would like for you to meet our newest Grey Warden recruit, Solona Amell, formerly of the Circle of Magi," Duncan stated as he waved his hand casually before the mage, a thoughtful gesture. She inhaled deeply, and in greeting managed a shallow bow and a brief smile. As Solona arched Alistair noticed orange mage robes beneath her cloak.

"This is her first time outside of the tower since she arrived as a young child. Many things you and I take for granted will be strange to her, but I'm sure you'll be able to teach her enough about the Blight by journey's end at Ostagar". Alistair clasped his hands together and grinned from ear to ear, "I'm sure we're all anxious to head south and exterminate some darkspawn".

Duncan stepped forward with one arm gently nudging Solona away from the ferry, "I won't be joining you in Ostagar for at least a month. I'm going to make my way north from Redcliffe through The Bannorn toward Highever. I must receive word from Arl Eamon and Teryn Cousland for King Cailan." Alistair was just about to open his mouth and argue his case to continue traveling with Duncan but before the breath had left his lips the sharp tone of the Warden Commander cut him off. "Every new Grey Warden recruit will be vital in the battles to come. I entrust you with the passage of our new friend," he stated firmly. Alistair nodded compliantly and fixed his eyes on his new cohort. Solona’s attention was captivated by the water's surface which now reflected the dangerously red hue of the setting sun.

"Solona?" inquired Duncan. She slowly turned her head upward and met his gaze. "Alistair is a new Grey Warden but you can trust him, we'll meet again before you know it. Ostagar is only a few weeks of uneventful travel to the south," the Warden Commander attempted to convince the mage in her tentative emotional state. Solona nodded and managed a quiet, timid thank you. Her voice was no louder than a single drop of water hitting the infinite lake and the sweet, pure tone filled her company with ease.

"How could you possibly call The Hinterlands uneventful, Duncan?" Alistair questioned, raising an eyebrow emphatically.

Duncan’s smile bent his onyx beard as he addressed the Grey Warden's latest addition, "Solona is a very capable woman, I'm sure a little danger won't be the death of the two of you."

Alistair also turned to Solona, "You know, I've never seen a mage in action outside of The Circle of Magi. I'm curious to see what you can do."

Duncan stepped briskly along the creaking dock toward the shore. He grabbed Alistair mildly by his forearm, "Might I have a word alone before I depart?"

Alistair subtly turned around and followed, listening to the Warden Commander. "I realize this is a rare opportunity to learn but you mustn't bombard her constantly with questions...”, his voice trailed off and Solona's attention was grabbed by the ferryman standing on the raft behind her.

"I imagine you have something to do with the ongoing maleficarum hunt," Kester inquired curiously and leaned his aching bones on the pole he used to push his beloved Lizzie.

Solona studied the ferryman for a moment then leaned on her staff to mimic the positioning she had observed in him and rebutted, "Kester, my friend was not maleficar. And don’t be vindictive, she had a name: Neria Surana. No matter how badly I wish I could go back and do things differently I just cannot. I understand it was a mistake to attempt duplicates of her escape for others. Regretfully it was too late for Lily and Jowan and by then I was simply serving my First Enchanter and my Circle”.

Kester laughed and inclined on the pole even more. "I know you can take care of yourself, my lady, but do you really think running off to fight darkspawn is your best option? Is it going to be a better alternative than Aeonar?"

Solona scoffed at his last question as she too leaned more on her staff. She smiled sweetly at the ferryman but her glance shot upward when her named was called from the shore. Alistair was standing at the end of the dock. Duncan was nowhere to be found. Solona stood up straight and took a steady, calming deep breath in; she needed the moment to tame her nerves.

"May the Maker watch over you, m'lady," Kester bestowed with a genuine smile.

She looked down at the ferryman one last time, "May He watch over us all"; her reply carried an air of composure as she started toward the shoreline.

"Where is Duncan?" Solona inquired.

"He has started across the lake to Redcliffe, but no matter- he'll be back in our graces before you know it," stipulated Alistair; the orange-red flush of the setting sun reflected off his splintmail as he turned his back on The Circle Tower. "How is it exactly that you haven't been outside the tower since before you came to join The Circle?" he questioned raising an eyebrow. Solona also turned her back on the tower but found herself doing so without the confidence she had come to expect from herself in tense situations.

"Mage apprentices are not permitted to leave the tower," was all she could bring herself to state.

"So you're an apprentice?"

"No, I am a fully declared mage."

"How long have you been a fully declared mage for?"

Solona paused and lowered her head slightly in shame. "Not very long."

Alistair chuckled and crossed his arms as he probed further.

"What did you do to catch Duncan's attention so effectively?"

Solona faced the surface of Lake Calenhad as the sun sunk farther from sight. She now saw faint stars dancing above the horizon. The mage pulled her hood back up as the cold of the world outside The Tower chilled her.

"You sure ask a lot of questions," an exasperated sigh slipped from her lips but her eyes remained fixed on the lagoon. Alistair turned and stepped next to magical charge, the gesture accentuated him being just over one head taller than her.

 "I can do a lot more than that, I actually used to be a templar but I am a fully declared Grey Warden as of five months ago."

Solona winced slightly at the mention of templar but otherwise her attention belonged entirely to the lake.

Silence ensued.

The Grey Warden, however, refused to remain in the discomfort of silence. He took a deep breath before continuing his brief monologue, "You see there was a tourney and I fought my very hardest but I didn't win. Duncan was still impressed and I was so eager to take up sword and shield for the Grey Wardens. We were fighting the most ferocious evil Thedas has seen since the last Blight and..."

At last Solona tore her gaze from the distance and looked up at Alistair, her eyes again twinkling with a sapphire shine. "You are happy with the path you have chosen to take, then?" she questioned, with spark of desire lighting her tone. He nodded and beamed with pride, "Oh, most definitely; Duncan saved me."

Solona bit her lip uneasily and with a final breath beheld the monumental Circle Tower one last time, "Me too."

 

Chapter Text

Scores of soldiers under the banner of House Cousland stood ready to march in the courtyard of Castle Cousland in Highever. Forty men outfitted in pristine chain or splint mail carried swords and shields bearing the sigil of the house: crossed green branches. For generations the Couslands had stood as stewards of Highever earning the loyalty of the people with justice and temperance. The Teryn, Bryce Cousland, was the head of one of the most powerful noble houses in Ferelden. His only equal was publicized as Teryn Loghain Mac Tir of Gwaren. Today was the day the Teryn intended to march to the aid of the King of Ferelden with his eldest son, Fergus Cousland. Their service to The Crown resided in the south where the bestial darkspawn were uprising.

Stone arches lined the daunting walls of the castle's main hall. Hand crafted wooden beams framed the arches and reached up to form a sturdy ceiling. An emerald carpet, the colour of the Provence's crest, stretched from wall to wall. Its grandeur mirrored the warmth and welcome of a spring meadow on a pleasant, sunny day. Such an effect was appreciated in a place where snow was the main guest. At the far end of the hall stood a mammoth fireplace which blazed ferociously, heating the cavernous space with ease. The Teryn stood before the fireplace. The soothing red-amber glow framed the man and suited his comforting disposition. But this day was not a day for comfort. With hands clasped firmly behind his back, the Teryn met the arrival of his long awaited comrade- the Arl of Amaranthine.

An icy blast of bitter wind entered with the guest. It was a challenge to keep the cold out of the castle rooms and corridors when the estate and the surrounding countryside were sprinkled generously with snow. Although an unsettling chill crept into the manor's main room, the Teryn stood assertively surrounded by his best and brightest; this especially included Arl Rendon Howe.

Bryce Cousland turned away from the consoling blaze and faced his old friend with a smile.

"The appearance of darkspawn in the south has us all scrambling, doesn't it? I only received the call from The King a few days ago." As he spoke, a look of unease distorted Bryce's usually kind face. He paced toward the Arl and his hands fell stiffly by his sides. "I'll send my eldest off with my men. You and I will ride tomorrow just like the old days."

In a drafty hall adjacent to the grand chamber of the castle stood the budding juvenile of the Cousland legacy, slouching against a frosty outer wall and listening to the sweet twitting of a little brown songbird. Young Aedan had recently reached his nineteenth year but still remained the recipient of the nickname pup from every member of the clan. He leaned on the glacial windowsill and placed his forehead in his hand as he traced circles in the snow with the fingertip of his leather glove. He longed for a life of adventure and glory alongside his kin, but he would leave them behind if he had to in order to pursue a meaningful life as a champion of Highever.

Why can't I go into battle with you and Fergus?

Two words: Eleanor Cousland. Aedan’s mother would figuratively kill both him and his father if he was permitted to go south with the Highever troops. The loving matron was already twisted into knots about Fergus and Bryce going. Young Cousland aggressively slammed both of his palms down on the ledge in frustration and ground them into the snow for a moment. He strode off toward the ground level of the castle with an air of drama, his noble blue cloak flowing in the chilled air like an arctic sea tide.

His path through the halls of Castle Cousland took him past the main chamber and he paused for a moment in the majestically arched doorway. There he saw his father chatting quietly but firmly with Redon Howe next to the luxurious fireplace. Aedan paused for a moment to recall the Arl’s daughter, Delilah Howe, one of many noble women asking after him. He was unable to recollect her entirely on the spot except that she had stark black hair and looked nothing at all like her rat-faced father.

In a single moment both men turned from the roaring fire toward a chestnut dining table flaunting spiced wine and a lukewarm loaf of bread. As their heads bowed anxiously toward their refreshments they caught sight of Aedan standing in the doorway. Their minimal nods surprised the youth even more than their blatant intent to continue their conversation without including him. As the Teryn steadily lifted a polished goblet to his lips Aedan was reminded of his father's condescending response to his plea to ride with the Cousland’s figureheads to serve the king. The blood rushing to his face made it difficult for Aedan to bow respectfully to his elders, but did so out of obligation. He turned away feeling like the least important man in the room, or not even a man, he doubted that his father viewed him as anything more than a boy.

The perimeter corridors of the Castle ground level were open to the sky; it was a pillared courtyard linked by passageways. Weak flecks of snow tumbled down around Aedan as he retreated from the great hall. He took a moment to collect himself. The snowflakes provided relief as they landed on his rosy cheeks flushed with a flurry of embarrassment, disappointment, and anger.

After a moment he took a full inhale and the crisp air drove him forward.

Young Cousland continued to stroll through the manor and was now in search of a suitable servant girl he would seduce and use for amusement once his father had left. Highever would be chockfull of lonely women once the armies marched south, some noble and some not. Aedan had always taken a liking to elven women but he was entirely convinced that he would marry a mage. She could use her magic to cook, clean, and in addition guard the estate with an enchanted defence. Aedan was practically salivating at the thought of a busty magical temptress as he dappled in daydreams down the hallways.

Aedan strolled without cause through the estate feeling the wind in his hair. The brown locks brushing his finely crafted pauldrons. There was no rush to be anywhere, it's not as though the noble had to rush off to any battles of real importance.

Passage through passage passed uneventfully until he came upon an occupied guest room. It was quite common for several visitors to be present within the castle’s walls. This was especially true during times of war – or in their current situation – a monarch calling for military forces and aid. The young Cousland’s curiosity about the clan’s guest sprouted as he approached the arched doorway with assurance. The space was humbly furnished with oak furniture and a cozy bed that had been turned down by the elf servants that morning. Aedan stood in the doorway of the room determined not to speak a word until his presence was noticed.

A moment passed.

And then another.

And finally one more before the young man gave in and let out a small cough.

A Rivaini man wearing the most inspiring steel armour young Cousland had ever laid eyes on turned away from the guestroom’s only window. Such fine armour seemed suited to the man who stood at such heights all others in the room were dwarfed. He bore a pristine steel longsword and dagger combination on his back and greeted the nobleman as if he were someone of his stature.

"Greetings and hail to you Aedan Cousland. I am Warden Commander Duncan of the Fereldan Order. To what honor do I owe this visit?" Duncan inquired as the Teryn’s son stepping into the center of the cozy room.

Aedan confidently scanned the room, spying some dust atop the boudoir. The mirror reflects the filth and makes the room look twice as dusty. I shall have to mention it to the servants. “How are you finding your accommodations here at Castle Cousland?”

"Very well," Duncan reaffirmed as he raised his bushy onyx eyebrows in a friendly manner. “Highever’s climate speaks volumes of her people’s disposition. Getting a sense for the land and its culture is a skill one comes to hone masterfully as a Grey Warden”. Aedan walked tactfully into the guest room, but only a few steps. He knew he was in an important presence to this Grey Warden and intended on treading carefully as to not come off as over-eager.

Aedan paused for a moment to recall his childhood teacher and tutor, Brother Aldous.

The Chantry servant was a historian who specialized in Ferelden history and the legacy of the Cousland family. He was also fond of mocking his students. Aldous would always say, "I'm glad some of my lessons don't disappear into that yawning chasm between your ears, young man." He taught Aedan and his brother Fergus that the Grey Wardens were the victors in a great battle against the darkspawn long ago.

Aedan courteously solicited Duncan for information and fine details surrounding his intentions in Highever. He was disappointed to find that the man hasd his eye on Ser Gilmore.

The red-haired squire that my family made a knight is to be a Grey Warden? He’s been my lifelong friend and equal in almost every way, and the Wardens want him instead of me?

Duncan sensed Aedan’s discontentment and shifted his feet uneasily beneath him, his stature stirring the air around him. "If I might be so bold, I would suggest that you are also an excellent candidate." Aedan's face exploded with pride and excitement almost immediately. He disguised his eager impatience with a heavy sigh. Duncan's dark beard shifted as he smiled. The connotation of the smile was lost on Aedan because he was ignorant to Duncan's adoration and feelings of duty toward his Grey Warden recruits.

A brief but pleasant chat followed Duncan’s proposal and Aedan retired from the dusty, homely guestroom with the sensation of good coalition. It was rare considering Arl Howe’s visits often left him with a bitter taste in his mouth. His heroic daze was dashed by the approach of an insistent red haired knight.

"There you are!" Aedan smiled at his old friend. The Bannorn squire, Ser Roland Gilmore, had grown up with him since childhood and was as much a brother to him as Fergus. "Hello to you, Ser Gilmore."

"I fear your hound has the kitchens in uproar once again. Nan is threatening to leave." Roland laughed and gestured over his right shoulder. Nan earned her name by surviving the position of Cousland nanny before becoming the castle cook. She always nurtured the mabari warhound that had imprinted to Aedan, but in her eyes the mischievous mutt was the bane of her very existence.

Aedan briefly imagined his dog biting off Nan's arm and urgently looked to Ser Gilmore, "Just follow the yelling.”

***

Young Cousland turned downward at his boisterous barrel-chested mabari. She was wagging her tiny tail happily up high in the air. Dogs were an essential part of Ferelden culture, and no breed was more esteemed than the mabari. The lineage was as old as myth, proposed to have been bred from the wolves who served the legendary hero Dane.

"Felly, my girl!" Aedan shouted the name of his hound with enthusiasm and she looked up at him with ecstatic brown eyes and a delicate strand of drool sparkling on her muzzle. She turned her charcoal colored maw upward and began barking persistently. Felly huffed at her master eagerly with her soggy pink tongue dangling from the side of her massive mouth with a satisfied glisten. Aedan folded his arms and adoringly stared down; Felly’s furry chest rose and fell dramatically as she panted.

Ser Gilmore approached Aedan and his hound in the castle’s snowy training yard but stopped dead in his tracks when Felly’s beady dark eyes became fixated on him.

"I really wish the Warden would recruit me," Cousland's face began to tint a subtle crimson hue," but it's unlikely that the Wardens would risk my father's wrath…"

Ser Gilmore ran a gauntleted hand through his fiery hair and confided, "I hear they only recruit the most skilled. It'd be disappointing if that weren't true."

As the knight's words trailed off Aedan started to walk with him. Snowfall crunched underfoot and Felly followed leaving behind twice as many footprints.  The trio wandered across the snow, heavy with moisture. They trudged over frozen heaps of collaborating footprints and small mounds of mud to a humble three walled shelter made of bleached, soaked wood. It housed the Highever army’s sparring armoury and the vigilant warriors of the north had trained here. Men in frozen mail had tested their mettle in this wintry countryside between shared dreams of grandeur and generously poured wineskins. This was where converse and instruction had spawned sword sparrings in hopes of journeying south to greener battlefields – if there truly was such a thing. The troops were primed to take their leave of the castle and trek south with the elder Cousland son.

Aedan took in the emptiness of the courtyard like a stallion observing a barren tundra pasture. He grasped a longsword atop the weaponry bench and the wood moaned its departure. Images of splitting melons and sawing apart butter filled his head as he swung it gingery in practice.
Surely someday I will tear a bestial darkspawn in half in defense of my homeland.

He spun toward Ser Gilmore, sword in hand. His breath rising in anxious vapors as the knight ran his fingers along a steel mace’s head.

"Have you ever seen darkspawn?" Young Cousland petitioned his friend before quickly glanced down at Felly. She was happily licking rat blood from the toe of his leather boot.

"Never, you hear about darkspawn attacking homesteads and travelers, but… I thought they were just stories." Ser Gilmore's ignorance about his possible future left Aedan's curiosity frustratingly unsatisfied.

He puffed chilly vapour dramatically and challenged the knight to arm himself. Ser Gilmore’s demeanour hardened as he seized the mace he’d been eyeing and strode toward the downtrodden center of the wintery training yard.

Sunlight reflected off the polished hilt and blade of Aedan’s sword as he raised it in challenge toward his old friend. He felt a stiff rage bubble up inside of him despite his powerful connection to his opponent. Snowflakes fluttered down around the duel as Ser Gilmore struck first. He swung slow and heavy, easily parried by Young Cousland’s swift blade. But the knight knelt low, switching hands and whirlwinding his weapon in several consecutive right swings. He caught the apex of Aedan’s blade and the sword shook in the frost air, splitting at its center severing its top half. The large broken steel shard hit the muddy snow with a prevailing thunk as Aedan’s expression widened with revelation and disappointment. His disposition quickly shifted to frustration as he threw the remainder of his ineffective weapon into the compact snow pile between them.

How can I expect to defeat a terrorizing darkspawn fiend when my equal in battle disarms me with a fault in my weapon the size of a hair?

***

Aedan stormed through the castle without pause to acknowledge any guards or servants that passed his way. Ser Gilmore was sure to become a Grey Warden, maybe even a legend of the Blight. Young Cousland was Highever's wet nurse. The idea of sitting out the southern battles inspired a slow bubbling rage deep within his chest. He had one more person to discuss the day’s events with: his mother.

Aedan hiked up the levels toward the living quarters. The young Lord held his breath as he rounded a corner and spotted his mother, Teryna Eleanor, in the midst of a discussion with three others. As Aedan approached his mother, her voice grew louder and his rage grew softer.

The Teryna immediately acknowledged her youngest son with beaming pride. She flattened the front of her violet gown with aged hands adorned with gold rings. She inquired about her son’s current state behind several stylish strands of grey hair.

"I’ve been sharpening my battle tactics”. Aedan scratched his mabari’s bulky neck, “Felly’s too, there were giant rats in the larder."

The Teryna's cheeks blushed slightly,

"Ah, marvelous conversation Aedan, kitchen vermin are just the thing for my guests to hear about right before dinner." She indicated with hospitable grace towards a lady robed in rose finery at her left side. "Darling, you remember Lady Landra, Bann Loren's wife?"

Aedan remembered the noble Lady Landra and her copper headed son, Dairren. Landra was drunk for virtually the entire salon that graced Highever a few months past.  It was an unfortunate first impression as she had been there as an attempt to marry her son off to any noble woman or lady in the hall. Aedan recalled her motives and manners as trying and bothersome that evening. Dairren, on the other hand, was little more than light swordplay competition. The two of them had never been close. Bann Loren's son bore no love for the blade and it baffled Aedan.

Lady Landra raised an eyebrow apprehensively, unsure if her past actions would be lightly dismissed or shamefully condemned. Aedan was speechless as he watched her forehead wrinkle. She continued desperately in attempt to make light of her deeds.

"You remember my son, Dairren? I believe you two sparred in the last tourney."

Aedan briefly recollected his easy victory over Dairren, a smug smile crept unknowingly across his lips. Aedan complimented Dairren and the young men shook hands firmly.

"This is my lady in waiting, Iona." The Bann's wife introduced a stunning, slender blonde elf with eyes that sparkled like a deep tropical sea. Iona’s skin was as fine as silk and her delicate lips rivaled a bleeding heart.

Aedan stared, his mouth fell open slightly. He was entranced, he was gazing upon the riches of many lands. She met his gaze with a stare that mirrored his perfectly.

A moment passed.

And then another.

"Do say something, dear," Lady Landra urged fervently, though it seemed her words fell on deaf ears as the gaze continued for several more seconds.

"It is a great honor, my Lord," Iona's voice was low pitch. It was delicate and rung sweetly off the stone walls. The jeweled gown she wore cascaded elegantly off her slight shoulders. Its white silk exaggerated the curve of her modest, yet shapely bosom, and hugged the gentle curve of her hips before falling to the floor. If there was one thing Aedan Cousland loved more than honor and glory it was elven women. The man was instantly enamoured and it was no longer battle intoxicating his mind.

“The girl has a crush on your lad." Her keen statement shattered the enchanting moment the young strangers were lost in. Immediately Iona's gaze fell to the floor, or possibly Felly as she blushed coyly in the presence of young Cousland. Aedan reveled in every minute of her infatuated esteem.

"Perhaps we should speak alone sometime, Iona?" Aedan politely propositioned.

"As it pleases you, my Lord," cooed the elven lady through blissfully curled lips. Before the couple could get lost again in lustful looks, Lady Landra released an exhausted sighed.

Lady Landra then swiftly excused herself like a hare pursued through thin underbrush. She claimed lethargy while her son and servant made a fragile argument to retire the library just as hurriedly.

The Lady hastens to excuse herself in the face of young competition. Her breasts must drag loyally behind her.

Aedan crossed his arms in trivial defiance of his mother. "Why can't I go with father and Fergus?" Disappointed, Aedan lowered his hands down to his sides, "I have a bad feeling about all this."

The Teryna swept a strand of silver hair from her cheek, it was an exasperated gesture. "I know it's difficult to stay in the castle and watch others ride off, but we must see to our duties first. You understand that, don't you? Fergus and your father have their duty and we have ours." The zestful tone in the Teryna's voice faded as she spoke and her hollow words mimicked the turmoil she felt towards the matter.

Aedan suddenly found himself wishing more than anything that the Maker had blessed the Couslands with a woman-child so that the task of satisfying Eleanor's maternal impulses would not infinitely fall upon him.

He murmured begrudgingly, no longer caring to conceal his displeasure with the current circumstances. His mother was sure she spoke to endear her son, though he saw it as patronizing.

I suddenly feel as though I am losing my family all at once.

It was beginning to seem that being left to care for the castle was a thinly veiled excuse for ensuring that the legacy was all that was cared for.

"As you wish it, mother," he managed through a clenched jaw. Eleanor cupped her son's face in her hands and squeezed his cheeks gently as another affectionate gesture that made the man feel like a pup.

Young Cousland turned and, with heartfelt haste, headed toward the library; following close behind was his stable mabari.

Iona and Dairren were tucked away in a subtle side chamber of the library and were buried amidst the private collection of the Teryn. Aedan eagerly approached the meek elf maiden. Before his presence was made known, Felly bounded towards Iona and in a playful manner and fell onto her front haunches, successfully creating a solid nine stone beast barrier. Aedan grinned at the lady-in-waiting and his mind raced in elaborate plots of wooing the young woman. As if his companion was reading his thoughts, Felly anxiously nudged the girl with her massive canine snout, and suddenly another thought filled Aedan's mind: skip ahead to the good stuff! Landra will depart in a matter of days.

She addressed his skillful advances managing to do without the conspicuous crimson blush she exhibited the last time they spoke. To Aedan this was a clear sign that Iona felt at ease in his presence and accordingly he leaned toward her placing his hand on the wall behind her conveniently creating a very... very intimate space. Aedan raised an eyebrow emphasizing his suggestive intention. Iona seemed intrigued by the magnetically charismatic Lord. She teased and coyly rested her head on Aedan's arm. Her golden locks framed her face which only further likened the maiden to her fabled fairy ancestry.

Aedan caught the intoxicating aroma of her perfume and couldn't resist a more direct approach. Something more intimate, later on in my room. He urged even though there was no doubt in his mind that she would accept his invitation. Iona inched closer to the human before her; if the space was merely intimate before it was down-right passionate now. Though he smelt of dogs and hay she found the scent oddly appealing and her breath began to quicken.  Young Cousland smoothly slid his hand from the wall and placed it on the nape of Iona's scrumptious neck.

"Until tonight, then." Iona winked one of her angelic blue eyes provocatively.

Without another word, or a single glance back Aedan was off. After all, always leave them wanting more.

Felly was barely able to keep pace with her master as he flew up flights of stairs and around corners toward the living quarters. He couldn't wait to tell his older brother Fergus about Iona. Elder Cousland had always encouraged Aedan’s pursuits...as long as the old buck’s wife Oriana was not around, that is.

***

The tang of glazed ham, apple cakes, and potatoes seasoned with sage pulsated within the dining hall. Candles and silver mounts flickered atop the grand oak dining table. Cousland hospitality beamed across the curvature of the emerald velvet seat cushions. Silvery platters rang in clear, short bursts. Grilled squash and buttery carrots in autumn colours were served last. Steam rose from the vegetables with a welcoming trance of warmth and flavour.

A scrawny elf servant tossed firewood in the family’s peripheral. He wiped blackened hands on his apron after feeding the cinders. The Couslands sat arranged in pleasant harmony for their last family dinner. Crossed branches of the crest perched above a cozy fireplace mantle as Aedan rapped his fingernails on table.

He thought long and hard about what to say but arrived at a nonentity. Young Cousland hastily refilled his polished goblet with more red wine; so dark in the candlelight that it almost seemed black. The family pup inhaled noisily as he drained the vessel and the drink left his tongue in a twist of tart flavour. War was a guest at the Highever dining table tonight and no one had addressed its presence. Wine suppressed Aedan’s denial of the impending march to the south. His empty goblet returned to the table and he broke the silence with a soft throat clearing. An abrupt question from his nephew Oren, Fergus and Oriana’s only son, quieted him.

"Will you bring me back a sword?" Oren queried looking up at Fergus through an exceptionally innocent gaze that only a child's eyes can carry.  The lad brushed aside an arched cascade of his brown hair. Apprehension hung in the air. Aedan light-heartedly laid a hand on Oren's shoulder and his nephew peered up at him.

"A good shield would be more useful,” he chuckled. Hearty laughter erupted from the table as well as the orchestra of silverware scraping up the last food bits from plates. Aedan bowed into his dinner serving for an enormous mouthful of flavourful ham. It filled his young crowing jaws with salt and grease.

Felly nudged Aedan’s thigh with her cold charcoal snout and place a charred stocking in his lap. She proudly panted, displaying her cropped tail high in pride on her way out of the room. Aedan grasped the cool and soggy stocking for a few moments before wringing it due to impulse, despite his disgust.

Alongside Fergus sat his pale, redheaded wife, Oriana. Her dark, layered robes did little to hide her thin frame. Sunken cheeks and contoured temples were as obvious as a birch tree rooted in a flooded bog. Pursed lips emptied her goblet and clenched fingers placed the cup back against the tabletop with an uncharacteristically forceful thunk. Her other hand urgently emerged clutching her green linen napkin.

"He is as mortal as anyone despite his refusal to believe-", she started with an obvious tone of panic in her voice. Oriana impeded herself and laced her elegant fingers together nervously. Ferus, the elder Cousland, furrowed his brow. His features flickered in the luminous firelight as he wrapped his gloved hands gingerly around Oriana's worries.

"If it's any consolation, I will freeze solid as a statue writing to you every day from the Wilds.” He lovingly watched Oriana for a moment, trying to absorb his wife's essence as much he could before his departure. She nodded somberly and caressed the back of his neck though the gesture was a poorly disguised effort to hold on to her husband, even just a few moments more. A foul feeling sat heavily at the bottom of her stomach. She had never before conceded a goodbye to her husband for such a grim reason.

Something simply does not feel right.

Aedan briefly imagined his family, its entirety and not just the Cousland legacy, as a dinner experience. He would sink his teeth into his memories, those present as well as the ones that went beyond sight.

Fergus looked back towards his younger, shaggier brother for a moment and felt a strong pang of nostalgia. His body pulled away from his wife, looking into a mirror that reflected a youthful version of him. Fergus stood and reached across the table to firmly plant a hand on Aedan’s shoulder and squeeze.

"You will be missed, brother."

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

For a time Alistair, a Grey Warden of five months, and Solona travelled south through The Hinterlands to the ruins of Ostagar on the edge of the Kocari Wilds. The pair passed a dozen lively settlements unnoticed. He was unsuccessful in detecting any sign of the encroaching darkspawn horde. They passed their time trekking purposefully through the rich underbrush of the Ferelden wilderness.

Dew and pollen flew from branches as Alistair pushed them aside. The Wardens tread through splintered deadfall and stepped over mossy logs. They sprinted through tiny streams of cold, murky water; it was enough to distract Solona most days.  

The crisp open air and cruel weather of the Fereldan countryside was a whole new world for her. The lie she had been fed about the country being little more than farms furrowed her brow -templars had not only denied her exit from the tower, they had also lied to her about what wonders existed beyond its dreary stone walls. A pain in her chest returned when her thoughts dwelled on memories of the Circle she had left behind, but distractions were easy enough to come by.

The encampment at Ostagar was mere days away when they made a humble camp on the side of the Imperial Highway, just south of Lothering. The village had promised safety with smoke rising from every residence, and the sounds of sheep with cattle roving and grazing the pastures in herds. But secure travel was never guaranteed when a mage was in your midst.

At least, Solona assumed that was Alistair’s reasoning for passing by the cozy abodes that dotted Lothering.

Dusk fell with a light frost and the pair settled down with the embers of the cozy fire. The mage wrapped tightly in her plum robe before the cold could inhabit her thin cotton robes. A rabbit sizzled on a spit, the smell of an impending warm and well-seasoned meal comforted Alistair. He always pressed Solona for details about the life of a mage when they made camp. Alistair's passionate curiosity for the arcane was insatiable; it made Solona uneasy.

It seemed like he made nightly attempts to uncover the story behind her suspicious recruitment into the Grey Wardens. On days when Alistair wasn't confiding in her about his lyrium trade conspiracies, he was revering the contents of her leather-bound spellbook. One night she caught him rummaging through a velvet satchel of hers that contained lyrium in its powdered state. Upon confrontation about his snooping, he stirred in surprised and rained red powder down the front of his armour.

Solona reached into her cotton-lined leather mage's satchel and withdrew her brilliantly bound grimoire. She briefly regarded Alistair and batted her large eyelashes a few times before turning to its centerfold page to reveal a miniature mural of the fouled throne of The Maker. Amusement flooded the campsite as Solona turned the tome's sepia pages to reveal frightening Fereldan history; the monstrous origins of the Blight. She grinned at the warden, but slammed the grimoire shut with a brash thud as Alistair leaned in close enough to cast a shadow over it.

“How is one ejected from the Circle of Magi without being a bloodmage?” Alistair pried, sitting heavily on a fallen log next to Solona. She smirked, maybe she had been a newly declared mage at the time of her recruitment, but she had completed her Harrowing with outstanding haste and success; a mage of her talent had no need for blood magic.

“It’s a long story, quite boring in fact. The blood magic doesn’t even happen until the very end”. He turned his gaze toward the crispy coney and absently motioned for her to continue. She nervously fingered several glass vials filled with blue liquid that were attached to her belt.

The story will satisfy for sure. And while he might find it bothersome, I cannot tell him the whole thing. Not tonight.

Solona breathed deeply and prepared herself to relive the whole ordeal again. Tears filled her gem-like eyes, and she opened her robe a sliver to clutch her grimoire tight against her chest.

Her closest friend, Neria Surana, had met her death at the hands of a templar and Solona had lacked the foresight to spare her that fate. For it had not been just any templar, he and Surana had been lovers.
Solona could recall leaning into a solid bookcase, hands pressed firmly into the oak as she watch the two intimately chatting by candlelight in the library. His gauntlet caressed the nape of her neck as he leaned over her shoulder at the books she had crowded onto the tabletop. One in particular, a red tome drew a heavy sigh from her as she held it up for him to behold. Mage and templar were almost never seen together but Neria spared no detail when recalling their romantic trysts: heated kissing in a sheltered alcove of the tower’s Chantry, and sometimes a frenzied, passionate tumble in a secret meeting place she had declined to share with Solona.

What a fool I was, to not see where it would lead us.

She didn’t hesitate to follow Surana’s example. After a long night casting primal ice spells she retired to a well-deserved, soothing bath in the apprentice quarters. The red tome was Neria’s gift to Solona for use with her future lover: Verus amor eroctica. The positions and scenarios pictured within the fresh pages stimulated Solona as she leaned back in the temperate water. The mage deeply breathed in the steam and lavender rising from the ripples. From the top of her field of view she noticed movement over the brim of the book on the other side of the door. Solona shot up in surprise, but settled her chest against the cool edge of the bathtub, her arm dangling the red book as she gazed at the templar watching her. There was no need to be coy, she was well acquainted with Cullen and she had seen him look at her with vague romantic interest shielded by Chantry rationale. He did now what he did almost every time Solona acknowledged his hazy desire: he stared at her with his eyebrows raised and mouth slightly ajar.

Despite obvious infatuation, Solona was never able to convince Cullen to come around the apprentice quarters during the later hours again, nor was he committed to affection on the level and intensity of Surana and her templar.

I should never have shown him that confounded book.

The ladies imagined themselves, after a daring escape from the Circle, in Montsimmard attending Orlesian masked balls with their templar lovers and liberators. Velvet dresses with golden tassels and spiced wine from jeweled goblets. But Surana’s escape from the Circle was not glamorous, nor was it what Solona considered a success.
The poor mage had approached Solona in the dining hall while it was at its most crowded. Robes on all sides clamoring for a bench to sit on, and there stood her elf friend with tears in her eyes begging her friend to meet her in the Chantry.

They would not be missed at dinner. Silently the pair shuffled through the tower hallways, across pea green carpets to the grand chamber that housed the Circle’s Chantry. Surana led her friend behind the altar draped in sunburst finery to an open crate.

She was pregnant and desperate to smuggle herself outside the tower.

The plan was to slip past the templars hidden away in a shipment of lyrium-infused lantern shipments bound for a noble house in Amaranthine.

Neria Surana had been gone for less than a month before her lover was compelled by the Templar Order to hunt her down as a malificar using her mage’s phylactery. Solona was brought to view her battered corpse upon his return to the tower.

The catacombs of the tower were home to little more than the smell of decay and dust floating past what little stream of light was let in. There lay Surana, her best and dearest friend without a sign of childbearing showing on her waist. Her fingers outstretch at unnatural angels as she spent her last moments likely casting a spell or pleading with her lover... begging for mercy. Solona swallowed hard as the templar shoved her closer to the stone slab. Her fraternization was getting out of hand, she has been observed attempting to corrupt a templar recruit and this was to be her final warning.

A moment of silence ensued, the crackling of the fire tossed glimmering sparks upward into the cool night air. A gentle breeze bent the long, dry grass.
“You couldn’t have known that’s how it would end”, Alistair spoke up in an attempt to comfort her, “don’t be so terribly hard on yourself. You’re here now, after all.” Solona lowered her grimoire into her lap and sighed deeply, bending forward slightly like the meadow grass behind her.
“I was a young mage in The Circle, I didn’t know anything”, she paused, “they came for me later that night to put me through my Harrowing. Things only got worse after that”. Solona trailed off but sought the gaze of the ex-templar with a look of sorrow. He lifted his head to stare thoughtfully at the stars for a moment while adjusting his seat on the log, the uneasy sound of leather and armour plate rubbing.

“It’s dreadful that you lost your friend and all, but we’ve got the darkspawn to contend with now. We will encounter the bulk of the horde when we reach the King’s army.” True, they were nearing the beginning of their quest as Grey Wardens. But Solona still had more of her story to tell and her troubles with templars began long before her arrival in Ferelden.

He gripped the edge of the spit and hoisted the roasting meat from the fire with a look of anticipation, “Now then, Sol, let’s see if a tasty cookout can turn this all around”.

Solona leaned forward, hands on her knees, “Sol... is that to be your name for me? I didn’t realize Solona was such a burden to say”. She grinned at Alistair’s gleeful enthusiasm over a skillfully charred hare.

“That’s what the normal and boring folk call the sun, outside of that Tower, of course”.  Roasted thighs were broken off as Alistair cracked a smile at his own comment. His astute attitude reflected itself in the mage as she received a generous portion of seared meat from him.

She was to be akin to the sun. The dawn, daylight, and dusk, as well as the chilly starlight; the world would cool in her absence. To be someone’s soul source of warmth was a lot to take in, but she had to admit, she did like the sound of it.

Sol.

Chapter Text

One month after her recruitment, Solona stood in awe of the size of the Tower of Ishal. It was impossible to notice anything else; she had dreamt of one day seeing a tower that outsized Kinloch with her own eyes. She had found solace in the tomes and scrolls within the library of the Circle Tower. As a result, Solona's knowledge of the Tevinter Imperium and its history within Ferelden was very comprehensive. The nearby colossal tower, named after the Archon that ordered its construction, was abandoned along with Ostagar after Tevinter's collapse during the First Blight. It was successfully sacked by the Chasind Wilders and then, as the Chasind threat dwindled following the creation of the modern nation of Ferelden, it fell to ruin completely. This was the fate of most other Imperial holdings in the south. The Tevinter creations remained solitary for centuries, though most of the walls still stood. Ostagar remained a testament to the magical power of the Tevinter Imperium that created it. Solona revelled in the nobility of it all as she and Alistair began crossing over the bridge toward the western side of the ruins where the Grey Warden recruits had made camp.

Her companion bore a hefty burlap sack of potatoes over his shoulder and Solona clutched a woven basket of carrots and pea pods coated in earth. She sighed tiresomely as the grand tower left her field of vision. Tonight would be no different than any other spent waiting for Duncan to arrive.

Some nights she aided Senior Enchanter Wynne in brewing and bottling refined lyrium potions.

Some nights she visited the army's kennels and cooed over the soldiers' mabari warhounds.

Some nights she sat wordlessly by the fire, watching Alistair and the other recruits shovel beans or stew into their mouths.

Every night since she had arrived she felt like an outsider, even amidst the strong presence of The Circle of Magi at Ostagar.

You can't swing a dead cat without hitting somebody important, the soldier chimed as Alistair and Solona passed by. The Warden chuckled and entered the camp with a bright disposition. He led the mage into the site and veered north, as he did every time the pair was sent on an errand. They approached a set of bold and colorful tents that reminded Solona of a carnival she had seen in a book about Rivain.  Alistair readjusted his grip on the load as he beseeched the templar; he had to know what the mages were up to tonight.

Solona pleaded with him, "Let's head back to our camp, this templar smells like dog shit." He glanced over his shoulder opposite the burdening sack and retorted,

"Now Sol, you've gone and hurt this good fellow's feelings". She noticed the cavalier's weight shift noticeably, but his templar helm bore no visor and thus his reaction to her statement remained a mystery. What did it matter to her what he thought of her now, as a Grey Warden recruit outside of the Circle? It didn't matter, and here was Alistair practically drooling for any bone the Chantry could spare to toss him.

The winged tips of the templar's helm shimmered in the sunlight as he turned his head, remaining silent. Never did they have anything to say; they only watched. Solona had met one or two exceptionally social templars in her life, but she wasn't sharing the details of her Circle fraternization with anyone.

"Have I hurt this chump's feelings? I care not! Quips and insults can hurt!" She paused and inhaled acutely, "If you keep sticking your nose into templar affairs, then you'll discover that what really hurts is to be struck in the teeth by a steel gauntlet".

The mage stormed off infuriated. The Chantry and Circle of Magi were present at Ostagar merely to play the roles of two stark different factions against the darkspawn. Surely it was the intention of King Cailan to call upon the nation's immense and inspiring Chantry along with its Templar Order simply to have them fuss over the Circle mages.

Back at the Grey Warden camp, Alistair caught up with the fuming mage. They found the recruits Ser Jory and Daveth sitting by the fire. The Knight of Redcliffe was honing his blade and the rogue from Denerim was de-feathering two wild pheasants for the insipid stew the assemblage had planned for that evening. Solona approached the knight with his greatsword and dropped the basket of peas and carrots at his feet. A trivial eruption of orange stalks and green leaves drew his eyes to the ground, but he soon returned his attention to his whetstone. On the night they had met at Ostagar, Solona listened to the knight's tale of tournament victory and leaving his pregnant wife, Helena. Since then she often did her best to resolve Jory's worries about the encroaching Joining ritual whenever possible.

"Word from Teyrn Loghain," he stated without looking up. "We're to expect Duncan and his recruit from Highever today".

She had seen little of the Teyrn at camp, and she knew even less about him. He was a man apart from King Cailan, indeed. At first glance it was impossible not to revel in the master craftsmanship of his silverite armour. The leader of Ferelden's army was black of hair and had a stern look. The combination of his cold exterior, oversized pointed nose, and pungent odor of dog yielded a villainous expression that was comical to Solona.

Tomes in the Circle’s library portrayed little of Loghain Mac Tir as Teyrn of Gwaren. He was a lowborn commoner that fought in the name of King Maric Theirin at the battle of River Dane. The fair daughter of the Teyrn, Anora Mac Tir, rose to the rank of Queen of Ferelden by marrying Cailan Theirin five years past. Solona was unable to put a face to her graceful name, she instead recalled a few soldiers saying that the king was drinking with the Grey Wardens in their camp because him and the Teyrn had been fighting for days.

Daveth laid the fresh bird breasts and thighs inside a cast iron pot of boiling water that hung from the fire's spit. As Alistair placed the sack of potatoes atop a nearby tree stump, he remarked on the impending return of the Warden Commander. “Duncan was to visit Redcliffe Castle before continuing to his destination in the north. I hope he queried the Arl's court to send a score of knights; even soldiers would suitably aid our cause. Redcliffe forces could be here in less than a week."

Solona had never met Arl Eamon, but she knew him as the younger brother of Rowan Guerrin; the wife of King Maric, mother to Cailan, and Queen of Ferelden before Anora Mac Tir. Redcliff knights would certainly drive back the horde in a truthful and monumental style.

Solona seated herself on a crude pine fireside bench between Daveth and Alistair. She removed a single potato from the burlap rucksack and rolled it pensively in her hands. She inquired of the former templar, "What should we expect to happen at the return of our Warden Commander?" Alistair gently threw open the sack and stabbed an earthen tuber with his dagger. He mulled over the question briefly as he effortlessly diced the potato into quarters.

"He'll have his newest recruit with him; a knight, most likely. Then we'll begin preparation for the Joining ritual, and once it's done we'll assign all our new Wardens within the ranks of the Fereldan army."

Solona nodded in response, but kept her darker thoughts locked away. A grim expression crept across her pale face as she imagined yet another travelling companion who was a bloke in armour. She was to be surrounded by men scraping at the Chantry's feet and unremittingly inquiring about the affairs of the Circle of Magi.

So you're an apprentice? How long have you been a fully declared mage for? What did you do to catch Duncan's attention so effectively?

Solona shuddered at the thought of revealing Duncan's veiled motivation behind recruiting her from the Circle; her treachery delved deeper than destroying a few phylacteries.

Maker, I never wanted things to end the way they did, but the death of Surana forced my hand.

She mutely observed Jory begin to prepare the carrots for the stew as Alistair continued his chain of potato butchery. She handed him the earthen root she had been holding and he received it from her with a smile. Daveth sighed, taking a bite from the tip of a dirty carrot. The man from Denerim smirked at Solona, and his face became ever more snakingly scoundrel-like as he did so.

A Revered Mother of the Chantry swiftly approached the fireside party from across the camp’s muddy and trodden center where a gallows had been converted to a preacher’s altar. Her dawn-colored robes and forcefully tight braids were a familiar sight for Solona, as well as Alistair. Demurely she beckoned Alistair for a moment alone to speak of Chantry matters that required Grey Warden resolutions, and he obliged. Kinloch Hold's chapel had shaped Solona to believe that faith in The Maker, true faith and not just convenient pleas for aid, was a luxury for the upper class. She had spent enough time around Chantry initiates and priests to know that they disapproved of mages as well as those who had their own gods, like the elven pantheon. Let them disapprove, if an elf like Surana and a human templar were capable of bringing a child into this world then the two of them had the same Maker.

It matters not, everyone fears the darkspawn.

“The Warden Commander has arrived, my lady", a slightly familiar scout issued in passing. Solona raised her gaze from her basket of peas and carrots to send the scout a smile in fleeting interest as she bolted from the campsite, spellbook in hand, without a word to Daveth or Ser Jory.

As three new travelers neared the entrance to the king's camp she cowardly crouched behind an abundant juniper shrub. Duncan was just as much a stranger to her as the new recruit from Highever; the reality of it was that she met the Warden Commander once. The only feature she vaguely recalled about the man was his striking steel armour. She stifled a self-pitying sob as the trio passed by the fir branches. Duncan and the knight greeted Daveth and Ser Jory alongside their boiling stew.

Solona was able to hear the rudimentary plan that Duncan was laying out from her blue-berried haven. The Warden Commander instructed the knight to leave his mabari with him and go seek out the Grey Warden named Alistair. Solona sighed and mulled over the thought of introducing herself to the knight.

I'll bet Alistair's not hiding in a juniper bush.

The mage shielded her face with her spellbook as she climbed out of the fir bush, but she could not bring herself to approach Duncan. Solona hadn't seen him in a month. She kept walking.

Scaling a slate incline to the north led Solona to an engaging ruin occupied by the aroma of soil and greenery rather than the stench of warfare. A mossy trail lead her passed a long wooden table being fussed over by elf servants, and up another grassy slope. The mage breathed in the mountain air deeply and topped the plateau to catch sight of soldiers in shimmering chainmail. She ascended a nearby limestone ramp. The area that opened before her enclosed decorative red and yellow canvas tents as well as makeshift cots for resting soldiers. The fleeting sights were soon overcome by the reek of gangrene and excrement; she found the infirmary area of the king's camp.

Among the soldiers stood a burly brunette dwarf woman covered in kaddis paint, and tattoos. She unfolded her broad arms, bound in rough leathers and looked down at her faithful warhound. Solona found herself helplessly surrendering to her desire to approach the mabari and excitedly pet it. The mage knelt before the bulky canine, and she turned her sapphire eyes upward to latch onto the pensive gaze of the dwarf. The warrior said nothing as Solona tussled her mabari's fur.

"He such an amazing creature", she batted her lengthy eyelashes and beamed in a front of illusive innocence, in case the dwarf belted her across her glass jaw for handling the beast.

"To an Ash Warrior, a hound is as much a weapon as a blade", responded the tattooed dame in a delighted tone. She eyed the blond beauty grinning as the warhound pawed at her orange mage robes.

"Oh, how I wish I could imprint a mabari warhound of my own!" Solona clasped her hands together joyfully at the thought of a furry, smelly, troublesome companion. She continued to smile with her platinum hair blowing gently in the frosty air.

The Ash Warrior and Solona conversed courteously about Ostagar and the need for king's men as well as mercenaries. She was Natia Brosca, formerly of the casteless status in the grand underground dwarf city of Orzammar. She spoke little of the background story leading up to her exile to the surface and recruitment into the Ash Warriors, but she confided in the mage about her facial tattoo marking her as worthless. Casteless dwarves were branded with a tattoo at birth to mark what they were: dusters to be considered non-people with no rights because they were rejected by The Ancestors.

Solona told Brosca about her life as a Grey Warden recruit.

Dwarves understand the Wardens best. They respect that when one becomes a Grey Warden, one's old life ends.

The Ashe Warrior had seen the horrors within the king's camp; she had been here since the start of the campaign. A lot of men had been tainted by the darkspawn blood. Scouts found them in the Wilds and brought their madness back to the encampment as a weak and dejected method of inspiring morale. Some of the tortured soldiers they brought back weren't even tainted; they were just terrified.

"I've been around since the beginning so listen here, lass. The darkspawn, they taint the land by turning it black and sick. When the men and their hounds become tainted they can feel it inside. They'll come out of that forest and spread their ruin".

Solona looked around. She cringed and hastily treaded backward until she bounced off a nearby spruce tree.

"I'd really rather talk about the Circle", she blurted without thinking.

Brosca paused, but soon probed the mage's knowledge of lyrium because she had found the color of lyrium to be rather inconsistent outside of the dwarven kingdom. Solona hastily hoisted her leather grimoire up between her and the Ash Warrior; its pages fell open to reveal knowledge of the substance's power in potions, enchantments and explosives.

Its raw ore, found in the Deep Roads or the Fade, was cyan or greenish blue, whereas Lyrium Dust was red and Lyrium Sand was purple. The dwarven items Lyrium Nugget and Smuggled Lyrium were also purple, but were described by mages of the Circle as unprocessed lyrium artifacts, which contradicted the depiction of raw lyrium as greenish.

Brosca whistled as Solona thoughtfully turned the book's most worn pages. The dwarf was very intrigued by the concept of enchantment. Reeling from the terrifyingly high cost of runes, the dwarven warrior folded her arms pensively.

Unexpectedly, Duncan's Highever recruit advanced on the two mabari enthusiasts and they both gaped at his boldness. The Ash Warrior scowled behind her pasty face paint,

"What do you need? You haven't brought more instructions from the Teyrn, I hope." The fledgling knight stole a quick glance at the mage, and then he countered the dwarf's question in a snappy uncooperative tone.

"Do you talk to everyone like that? I'm a Grey Warden and I have business with this here mage. Now, get out of my face. Your kaddis paint smells like rotten fish!"

There was an awkward pause between the three of them before Brosca spoke, "I suppose our war party should begin scouting." With narrowed eyes she made her way past the knight locking stares with him. She nodded pleasantly at Solona and signalled for her mellow mabari to follow.

The recruit from the north was now standing before Solona. He was of average size and bore dark facial hair on his chin in a groomed fashion. His luxurious dark hair flowed atop his shoulder pauldrons.

He smelled nothing of dog droppings; which she had noticed was uncommon for Fereldans that spend time training or traveling with mabari.

"A moment ago I bid a Tranquil mage a good day, I've since considered getting my Cousland sword and shield enchanted; could have employed the magic while bravely battling back in Highever. Can't you just imagine what my flaming sword would look like? Surely I would not spend Tranquil skills to install enchantments to just any article or item". He rubbed his muddy hands together anxiously, "I will enchant the Cousland blade and ram it right through Arl Howe's traitorous heart".

Solona took a moment and beheld the formidable combination of the Cousland family sword and shield. Both were forged and crafted from fine steel. Aedan bore his family's arms with great pride. As she peered over at his arms he graced her with a brief, but high spirited summary.

With brave, precise striking he and Ser Gilmore had fought back to back and cut down all Howe enemies that came before them. The last he saw of his old friend he was rushing to help hold the main hall doors. The iron bolts and hinges were trembling under the enemy’s force like leaves shaking in a strong wind, threatening to concede at any moment.

Solona leaned marginally backward to catch a better glance at the shield Aedan bore on his back. Its face still bore the scars of many Orlesian blades. The mage found it quite fetching.

"What's your name?" He solicited her, at last. The knight spoke and admired her features; as he did the first time he met any woman, most likely. The young fellow crossed his arms in preparation for her bitter verbal distaste of him, but Solona remained silent. She merely folded her arms in mirrored response.

He unfolded his arms and she did the same.

The knight paused and then introduced himself with a polite bow; once again she mimicked him. Solona discovered that this exquisiteness' name was Aedan Cousland, youngest son of the northern Teyrn. As he recited the terrible tale of his recruitment in Highever Solona felt empathy rising within her.

She confided in Aedan that this was her first time outside of the tower in which Ferelden's Circle of Magi was housed and she could never again go home; just like him. Solona briefly explained that she had come to be recruited from the Circle by Duncan about a month ago, and that she believed that the Grey Wardens were going to be a new family for her.

He’s surprised I’m also a Grey Warden recruit. Did he approach me, I wonder, to ask me to enchant his belongings? I must get out of these Circle robes!

"To defeat the darkspawn we all have to work together. It's not an idea everyone seems able to grasp", Solona continued to copy Aedan's various movements as she detailed her subjective view of the crowds congregating at Ostagar. She indicated her fears indirectly, "At least the upcoming Joining ritual has given us something to ponder".

He nodding with friendly tact, Solona had made an impression on him.

"Yes, occasionally it's wise to contemplate one's actions", he chuckled. She shot a quick glance toward the templars on the north end of the camp.

"I'm sure Duncan has more for you to do than talk to me", the mage smiled and strode past Aedan in the direction of the Grey Warden's haunt within the king's camp.

Solona mused, how many of us Grey Warden recruits were enlisted by Duncan through conscription?

Chapter Text

Terrifying nightmares plagued Aedan’s mind with images of blood furiously coursing through a mountain valley. The frightening river washed away the Warden remains of Ser Jory, Daveth with Duncan, and the golden corpse of their king. Evergreen trees cast in torchlight along a rocky slope with the bestial darkspawn marching all the way through the Kocari Wilds with a colossal dragon leading the host – the archdemon.

He bolted upright as the resonating howl of the archdemon woke him. His surroundings took on a comfortable amber glow, however, the world blurred with the roar that lingered on for a few moments. Aedan began to focus and a certainty rushed over him. He was no longer at Ostagar.

A crackling fire warmly greeted him as he turned his head; still coming to terms with sitting up much too quickly. With his stomach lurching upward slightly he steadied his vision and discerned that he was indoors, and yet this place had an earthen smell. Cleared line of site brought Alistair into view, standing over him and worrying.

“Where are we now I-”, Aedan blinked hard and stumbled with a more pressing question. “Where are your clothes?”

“Maker’s breath, I have no idea!” Alistair exclaimed struggling to whisper. He seemed overwhelmed by their current state as he clutched a red fox pelt against himself. Aedan noticed he was naked too, half covered in a dark brown hide and a wool blanket by the fireside. He scanned the room with an uneasy feeling.

My senses have changed during my brief time as a Grey Warden; the world I knew seems sharper, louder. It pierces me in comparison.

Around him elaborately woven baskets and bewitching talismans made of twigs and feathers decorated the hut’s shelves. Bundles of white and yellow wildflowers embraced under loops of twine. Succulent, ripe apples and dark rye loaves dotted a rustic oak table. Everything bathed in the parched glow of the hearth. This place, wherever it was, had a rural charm.

Aedan got to his feet and noticed an empty birdcage hanging ominously from a sturdy rafter. Layers of warmth fell to his feet and he stretched out, naked as the Maker had made him. His upper back radiated with jagged pain, localizing in his shoulder joints. The weighty use of his arms in the battle against the darkspawn had been a necessary burden. Nevertheless, it had occurred far too soon following the fight at Castle Cousland. While bending into a sore spot Aedan noticed that Alistair bore bruises on his shield arm and bandaged jagged bites on his sword arm. Darkspawn had attacked them, had taken Ostagar with diminutive resistance.

This Blight’s threat is greater than they realize, the old woman had told him before the battle. Her warning had rung hollow until the archdemon showed up surrounded by the bulk of the horde. The behemoth and its progeny claimed the lives of their brothers-in-arms. In this habitation was all that was left of the Ferelden Grey Wardens.

We never would have made it as far as we did without-

 “Where is my family sword? And my shield? They’re my legacy I cannot lose them!” Aedan hopped slightly, his bare self becoming more sentient for his fellow Warden. Alistair awkwardly averted his eyes to the ceiling and gave an exasperated sigh. He proclaimed that it was more pressing for them to locate Solona.

The mage girl, I remember her going down first.

Aedan recalled Solona taking a darkspawn crossbow bolt to the chest. Or maybe it was her shoulder. Their last moments atop the Tower of Ishal eluded him just as much as the details of their escape.

He scanned the home. It wasn’t hard to determine that the missing Warden was not in the main room with them. If she was nearby, she dwelt behind one of the two doors in the shack. Hands at his sides, Aedan walked over to the door on the outer wall and held the back of his hand against the timber frame. A cool breeze stirred the dark hairs on his appendage. Best conclusion was that it led to the outside, wherever that might be.

“Perhaps we should find what remains of our gear before heading out?” Alistair inquired peering around, still gripping the pelt against himself. Aedan scoffed quietly and continued to stride around naked, contrasting his fellow Warden’s awkward nature.

I wasn’t wearing much more than this when Howe’s men kicked down my door and murdered Iona.

Despite his current state of healthy pride he couldn’t deny the need to cover his progressively cooling feet. A hoard of round logs and two pairs of men’s leather boots were placed charitably in front of the fire. Aedan put on his boots and strode over to the door he had not examined. His soft leather boot met solid oak with a detrimental thunk. It flew open as if it had been moved by the hand of The Maker himself.

A clay pot shattered as the door swung passed its frame and hit the hut’s bearing wall. Beyond the door was a single bedroom. An unfortunate cot and a steel chest bound with wooden panels greeted the men.

Solona lay motionless atop the homely linens. Her face was as ashen as the thin cloth that veiled over her body.

Cousland approached and pulled back the airy linen. A fair-haired wreck lay before the pair in her underclothes. Aedan gazed down solemnly. Alistair took silent barefooted steps to the other side of the bed and could only stare; there was no air in his lungs and no thoughts in his head.  The mage’s delicate hands folded over her belly. Her chest was bound in bandage wrappings stained with crimson. It looked grim but her eyelashes fluttered slightly while her bosom rose and fell with breath.

A figure seemed to glide suddenly into the doorway. “Are we all to stand around and gawk at the unwilling?” She was pale with jet black hair. Her clothing was curved at the top and formed jagged crests at the bottom. The details of the stranger were harmonious with the hut. Feathers, pelts, leather, and magic formed around thin limbs. Her complexion was youthful and arched eyebrows fiercely recoiled from her yellow eyes.

“Some clothes would be nice,” Aedan retorted gesturing to his impressively naked figure.

The Cousland sword and shield as well, naturally.

“Your belongings as well as your Grey Warden treaties are in that trunk. Dress and leave or stay and wait for her to awaken. I care not”.

***

Outside the hut lay leagues of marshland at dawn. Mist gathered apart from the abode and dared not creep an inch further. Shallow murky water lay still with scattered patches of reeds. Insects were bellowing above the water’s surface as birds whistled in anticipation of a meal. The wilds smelled of natural decay. Alistair turned his head and sandy hair pointed as sure as his sharp nose. These apostates, witches of the wild, made the former templar uneasy.

Felly lay stretched out, relaxed in the reeking air. Her nine stone body taking in the rising sun and the festive sounds of the area. The mabari bore no major wound from the battle but one of her ears had been cut short and a scratch atop her muzzle was healing nicely. She seemed comfortable enough in the witches’ company.

The enchantresses were secure in the swamp. Although Aedan found it hard to believe anyone could be at home in such clothing. The texture of their garments varied... awkwardly. The closest layers were darkened cotton and over them finely crafted lace. The next bore bright textured plaid patterns, like a Fereldan farmer. The top skin was grey or faded black linen and humble in texture. Their company hummed soft in the mire with the croaking wildlife. The woman introduced herself as Flemeth. She spoke at length with unclear motives and was abundant in mystery.

The old hag talks too much, it must be in her nature.

Flemeth’s hair was grey and her sharp features resembled her daughter’s to a great degree. Intelligent yellow eyes, in that respect the women were identical. The younger witch’s name was Morrigan. She had seen them from the wilds before the Joining ritual. Her raven facade made Aedan’s heart skip with wonder. Her slender arm waved during the explanation of their rescue from Ostagar. Copper wristlets dangled with a dull chime. Flemeth had taken the form of a great bird and carried them to safety from atop the toppling Tower of Ishal. Alistair eagerly inquired after Solona’s state.

“It was nothing mother could not heal”, mused the young apostate. The converse grew dark as the witches revealed their true desire: the end of the blight.

Flemeth went on to tell the foundation of the blight as she knew it. The Wardens dwelt on the lighter side of the spectrum. Animals could be tainted, although wolves, spiders and bears were the most commonly corrupted.

Ghoul beings were created by the darkspawn taint and the true breed were born of broodmothers.

Men are lucky to be killed and eaten when they are captured.

The darkspawn had genus. Genlock, Hurlock, Sharlock, and ogre, but don’t forget about the greatest darkspawn of all: the corrupted dragon. The Archdemon was the superior. They follow their tainted god. Once known as the Tevinter idol Urthemiel. A foreboding wind caressed the marsh and with an elder sign. Flemeth returned Morrigan to the hut to retrieve the Grey Warden treaties. The black-haired beauty returned with more than ancient manuscript.

Solona emerged from the dwelling still pale but more determined than ever. Alistair’s grim mouth formed an inspired smirk at the sight of the revived mage.  She wore indigo Chasind robes with a darker leather mantle under her royal purple cloak. Her rejuvenated smile and rosy cheeks were ornamented by the white wolf pelt she nuzzled around her neck. The mages walked the stone path down from the hut. Solona was anxious to get going.

Morrigan happily extended her arms outwards, heavy with papyrus.

“You are going with them”. The statement flew past the young witch and a number of moments passed before she withdrew her arms, still embracing the scrolls. She continued to stare with empty ochre eyes but agreed to help stop the blight at whatever the cost. Aedan accepted the treaties from Morrigan and sighed. This was all happening at a fast pace he was getting used to.

Let’s hope we can achieve more than four shallow graves.

 

***

 

The West Road was heavy with mist as the Wardens found their second wind for their quest. The ground was heavy from fallen leaves in mud and their path emitted a pale red from the dead pine needles that littered the forest floor. Tree roots fought to emerge from the black soil and undergrowth. The taint lingered in the earth and trees as well as long grass. Everything struggled to emerge in natural growth after the darkspawn had trampled the land.

The traveling party slowed to a stop. Felly dashed ahead kicking up dried leaves and rolling over fallen branches. Her paw impressions lead the way for the witch.

“Your Grey Warden treaties tell of a compound the Fereldan Order has established in the capital. T’is of the greatest benefit for you, I’m sure. We should make for Denerim with haste.” The scrolls she had keenly studied bounded along with her in a leather satchel as she followed the dog. The senior Warden quipped, “You seem anxious for a city you have no concept of. With the benefit of hindsight you would be quick to change your mind.”

The witch halted and stared down the former templar with an aggravated, threatening gaze. Her yellow eyes pulsated and it was suddenly easy to visualize her as an owl. True, Morrigan would be an awkward sight on the highborn streets of Denerim in her human form. However, slipping between condemned buildings and creeping along back alleys would be second nature to her as a polymorphed creature.

Alistair pressed his fellow Wardens to journey to Lothering, and from there to Redcliff along the Imperial Highway. The treaties did not command Arl Eamon to pledge his soldiers to the Grey Wardens; nevertheless, his was the closest Arling and their best option. Alistair was willing to vouch for the noble character of the Arl as well as the swift cruelty of the Teryn’s men that would await them in Denerim.

Morrigan was the persistent tide grabbing for power, and Alistair the solid wall of stable purpose. Aedan felt destiny’s course calling; he had to disagree with one of them. He felt a pull towards Alistair simply because of the sheer drop in Grey Warden numbers since Ostagar.

Solona hopefully inferred, “It would be best to bolster our allied forces before rushing to meet our enemies, darkspawn or otherwise”. Aedan peered over at Lady Amell. She was radiant in her new robes, or perhaps it was the afterglow of Flemeth’s healing magic. His eyes lingered on her blond hair in the midday mist while Morrigan and Alistair continued butting heads.

“How can we be a force without force? It’s more than ridiculous, it’s folly.” Morrigan reinforced the tension between them. When she raised her tone of voice, Felly came trotting back toward the group. A decision awaited the party among the forest’s harmonious songbirds and the rushing of tiny streams. While the hedge witch and Warden disagreed on what was worth going after their target was the same: the archdemon.  

Are we just following the horde and hoping for the best?

Alistair settled his armoured weight against a blighted tree and reiterated their Order’s purpose, “we’re Grey Wardens and it’s our duty to eradicate darkspawn when and wherever possible. If you feel our presence is required elsewhere against the blight I will not press for Redcliff any further.” The weak wood held his weight, surprisingly.

“We have to cut off the head of the snake, it was the only way”, Aedan sanctioned as he finally tore his eyes from Solona’s locks. His gaze turned upward into the Frostback Mountains. His mabari spun on her heel to face him, tail wagging high in the air.

“What form of head does our snake have?” Morrigan posed. Her desire of blight’s end channeled through the end of Teryn Loghain. She valued power over many things and was not averse to using any means necessary to gain what she desired. More Wardens were needed to defeat the blight. Beholding the rotten, murky western trail before him Aedan announced, “I will make for the border and draw Orlesian Wardens to our cause. That is the best path I can see laid before us”.

“I will make for the capital,” Solona stepped forward. She pledged to find the Warden compound, but also to help any refugees along the way. The mage was better suited than any to fight to blighted creatures that plagued travelers on the road. Alistair enthusiastically undertook the ongoing task of being her travel companion. She was looking forward to having him along: a loyal and inspiring comrade.

A rare smile curved Morrigan’s lips and she vigilantly passed the Grey Warden treaties to Solona. If recruitment of fellow Wardens was what Aedan sought, he would not require them. The scrolls would suit Solona’s needs better even if all they granted her was insight. Roads to Denerim were long in every direction; she would have plenty of time to read the paper’s contents. Aedan’s swordarm settled atop Felly’s panting head, wary of avoiding her injured ear. His whole body was on edge as Alistair and Solona disappeared down the trampled mud of the West Road.

***

Sol admired the sun as it soared just past its midday mark. The mist cleared where the road curved out of the forest. Trees now dotted the rolling, green landscape. Leaves they left behind now rustled in an urgent wind that gust the foul odours north from Ostagar. The road softened with frequent use, in spite of visible travelers. She and Alistair spoke on end of Ostagar and the Joining. He had passed her the chalice of darkspawn blood. Resentment emerged in Alistair after learning her ritual had followed closely behind her Harrowing.

It matters little after the massacre in the Wilds, I survived, and he’s watching out for me now.

The mage breathed in deeply and looked up to the cool, fresh ceiling of the world. She was ecstatic about leaving the Circle but felt like she’d been fighting Chantry types since. Solona felt tired whenever she envisioned the sunburst decal, and now glanced upward at the proper sun.

The world truly would cool in its absence.

The pair arrived at a crossroads affront a farm with a humble fence weaved to apex at a finely crafted wooden gate. Acrid smoke rose from the homestead chimney but the wind drove the fumes into the forest. Two farmers led a bulky chestnut ox across the yard to a wooden cart bleach by the sun. The bed of the wagon supported a dozen sacks filled to the brim with grain.

Unexpectedly, a nobleman with an onyx mabari emerged from the house and began quarrelling with them. He was increasing the grain tax to feed Teryn Loghain’s soldiers marching off to defend Fereldan against the darkspawn. But the homesteaders required the food for themselves as well as their animals.

Solona and Alistair stopped in their tracks. Moments passed and the three men exchanged threatening words and heated glances. Eventually, the noble threateningly unsheathed his dagger and his mabari’s aggression reflected his frustration. The black dog’s snapping jaws spooked the ox and the animal reared up on its back legs, yolk crashing to the ground.

The mage rushed toward them, both hands grasping the timber gate. She was too late and flinched in horror as the nobleman hit the ground underneath the bovine, forcing dirt up into the air. His plaid soaked up the blood from a shattered jaw and a hoofprint. She barely had time to curl her nails into the wood of the fence before the farmers turned on his snarling mabari warhound. A machete was drawn from the back of the cart; they meant to butcher the dog.

She came to its aid with an arcane barrier. A sonic rip in the air abruptly leveled the fence and sprung a smooth bubble around the dog. Both countrymen froze and one dropped his machete with a loud clank.  The shimmering light of the magic and her borrowed robes scared them beyond what Solona considered reasonable. Dust kicked up as they fled passed the cottage and into the woods, leaving the fresh corpse and protected hound.

“They think you’re a Chasind witch,” Alistair divulged as he laughed, stepping into the yard over the remains of the fence.

He thinks this is hilarious.

Solona was flattered. And the dog, he was grateful. The mage dispelled her barrier and knelt before the dark, panting beast petting the white spear of fur across his chest. She hoped more than anything that he could be imprinted on her. A raven protector soon to be adorned by stark white kaddis paint.

As she continued to coo over the hound, searching her mind for the perfect name Alistair strode over to the mortally wounded man. He recounted events, looking down at the grave wound. “His corpse isn’t even cold and you want to take the dog from him”.

Solona stood clutching her staff and peering down at the dog akin to the way her fellow Warden was looking at the dead man. “One never really owns a mabari. He’s a dog, not a pair of pants.” Their new companion panted happily in their company. The death of his master didn’t seem a grave loss to him. It was common for Fereldan nobles to own a mabari simply as a status symbol. As Solona recalled Aedan’s distinctive affection for his hound, Felly, Alistair turned his attention to the road.

Midday passed over the foothills, and with the cooler afternoon arrived two travelers. A tattooed Chasind warrior in studded armour and a red haired Chantry sister wearing a sunburst robe beneath a modest leather chest piece. They approached the solitary farm, eyeing the levelled fenceline apprehensively, equipped with longbows.

The Wardens did their best to greet these unidentified acquaintances warmly but fell short in the company of the dog’s boundless hospitality. Crickets sung in the afternoon ambience as the dark canine leapt over the ruins of the fallen fence. He panted excitedly in a play bow and drooled at their feet. Bird chirping and other sounds of the countryside continued as the travelers greeted the strangers and eyed the stiff, bloody noble. Fortunately, the man’s face bore a large hoof print and the chestnut ox still stood in the shade nearby, free of its yolk and cart.

The Chantry sister kept her bow arm at her side and closed the gap between them as she stepped over the fenceline. The redhead assured them she had seen the farmer’s argument with the noble from afar. This wasn’t wild territory, but during these dark times of blight the pair had been hesitant to approach. Her travel companion, Tuomas, was afraid of witches.

The barbarian remained on the road, an island to the friendly group, but introduced himself. He was Tuomas Ironspear. The Chasind had retreated from his home as well as his kin gathering as camps in the Kocari Wilds. He feared that Flemeth’s distress, caused by the invading darkspawn, would drive her to ensure her legacy. The hedge witch would hunt down and breed prized males of the local tribes; an encounter he is convinced he would not survive.

“Hold there, travelers. I’ve left my Chasind tribe and want no part in their chosen misery. They wish to remain in the blighted wilds,” the warrior lowered his bow alongside his companion, “I’ve chosen to leave for Jader.”

The travelers conversed in the bright sunlight of the new morning and Tuomas hinted through cautious dialogue that Solona may be a witch that aided Flemeth’s aggressive tactics against the darkspawn.

Alistair was now buckled over in laughter. He caught his breath and proudly introduced the two of them as Grey Wardens. Tuomas stared blankly at the leveled fence and perished noble then glanced back at the Wardens before him. Cool arctic air called to him toward the Frostback Mountains. He announced that he was going to continue with his original plan of fleeing his homeland. The red haired sister, however,  wanted to stay in Ferelden and fight the darkspawn.

To end the blight is her calling.

She strode toward Solona and Alistair with low hanging portions of her leather armour blowing in the breeze. She has heard there was a drove of tainted monsters just up the West Road. The monsters were set to attack the Arling of South Reach. The wardens looked at each other in heightened curiosity at the inkling of recruiting a skilled adventurer into their ranks. She would be a sojourn along the far-reaching road to Denerim.

Tuomas withdrew his bow entirely and bid his farewell to the Chantry Sister, saying little else to the Wardens. He eyed the black mabari one last time before walking west toward Jader. His silhouette faded down the country lane with the tainted pollen carried by the breeze.

The Chantry sister Leliana strode forward and casually laid a gloved hand atop an unleveled portion of the fence. She introduced herself and said something that resounded with the pair of unseasoned Wardens.

She had witnessed a miracle and now no one could shake her determination to stop the evil darkspawn and bring hope to the world.

 

 

Chapter Text

"A settlement like this is called an Arling" stated Alistair halting his steps on an escarpment overlooking South Reach. His peaked dark blonde hair glistened in the afternoon sun as sounds of civilian chatter, applause, and the eerie ringing of wind chimes rose up on the breeze.

The Arl was Leonas Bryland, a man who served under King Maric during the rebellion against the Orlesian empire even though he was half Orlesian himself. The battle of white River, the most catastrophic defeat in the entire occupation had ran true for him; he now felt his true home was Ferelden. Alistair mused that The Arl had fought alongside Aedan's father, Teryn Bryce Cousland, in that particular battle. It was likely that they could rely on this man's loyalty despite the death of King Cailan at Ostagar. The warden chuckled as he recalled that the Arl's young daughter Habren was rumored to get a new puppy every week. No one knew what happened to the old ones.

The the village neighboured the enchanting Brecilian Forest. Many battles had ravished the trees along the Arling's eastern skyline. Spilled blood of Dalish elf and Tevinter mage alike had supposedly damaged the Veil. The barrier which separated the dream realm of the Fade and the real world had torn. The woods possessed a sinister air and harboured eerie flora within its ancient groves.

They arrived in the early morning while mist hung heavy over the Drakon River that lay in the nearby valley like a mystical serpentine beast. Alistair sensed the foul presence of the darkspawn taint. It crawled through the underbrush like a somber vapour. Genlock, Hurlock, Sharlock, and tainted beasts overcast the forest.

Spiders. He detected the blight oozing from the arachnid chitin as their hairy digits pulsed the ground with every encroaching step.

The wardens and their newest companions, an affable Chantry lay sister and a black mabari, strode into town expressing their amusement for the harmonious dwelling. Solona enveloped herself in her cloak and wolf pelt. This was her first visit to a Ferelden village and she dreaded making a lasting impression on the townsfolk as a Chasind witch. A crowd in the market split down the middle for the approaching newcomers. Two men who had been rolling a barrel of ale paused their labour to size up Alistair, the only man in the Arling wearing armour. His splintmail glittered radiantly against the sunrise like the waters of the Drakon River. Momentary suspicions passed and trade was bustling, however, the Arling seemed to be devoid of considerable, upper class merchants. Market stalls functioned by the hard work of farmers and their wives selling grain crops and root vegetables, alongside lambs and calves. In addition to the homesteaders, the market hosted reserved traders of modest leather and fur pelts.

South Reach Arling huts scattered along the forest border. The homes bellowed humble smoke from their hearth fires. A flock of sheep was being herded into the heart of commerce. The pulse of the city was its market. The townsfolk were dressed humbly in patched clothes, and those in the marketplace wandered inquisitively from one stall to another. Trade kiosks bent quietly with the wind, their colourful canvas roofs flapped in the breeze and the scent of trade spices spiraled up into the air.

A dirt road ran straight through the settlement where townsfolk tended to their families. Children in muddy clothes ran in circles around wagons and the youngest knelt in dry grass either catching insects or unearthing dry soil with their hands. On the edge of the bustling Arling stood a blacksmith and his fires glowed restfully. He crouched over a woodpile and chopped wood for fuel. A haystack exploded on the side of the road when an onyx dog leaped through it cheerfully. His barrel chest heaved and his muzzle shot high in the air as he wagged his cropped tail. The party watched the hound shuffle his paws tentatively around in the gravel and hay. A Dalish elf, slight of frame but proudly armed with keen daggers and an ironwood bow stepped into their field of vision. He was clad in tailored leather armour and magnificent tribal tattoos. He stared down the party of strangers for a moment, but was soon gone among the crowd like a fish beneath the flood of the river's current.

Promising smells tempted the mabari's snout but he fixated on the nearby hill. It was the apex of the town and the only high ground for miles: the South Reach Chantry. On the perimeter of the market where the daily bustle of villagers and animals was quieted, Leliana turned to the wardens and advised them to visit the house of prayer. The local revered mother was their best source for news on the darkspawn horde; patrons that had traveled to visit the chapel may have seen something.

"Good idea. I'd like to get out in front of this threat as best as we can", Alistair complied turning his gaze southward, "I'm not exactly sure where, but I sense darkspawn within the borders of the Brecilian. The woods give an ominous impression."

Solona tousled the dense fur on her mabari's stocky neck, pollen and grit leapt from the beast. She shook a clump of fluff free from between her fingers. Looking up from petting her with hound, Solona admitted that she was unable to sense darkspawn of any kind. She did not doubt her fellow warden's perception, however, it was difficult to relate when she could not sense the taint for herself. Alistair graciously nodded and disclosed that the darkspawn taint would become more... apparent in her as time passed. She would sense the horde, among other things. Naturally, the mage curiously pressed him for details.

"Only answer I got from Duncan was, you'll see", Alistair clarified with a ring of amusement in his tone.

"Don't even try that line on me", Solona reproved his response to her appeal.

"I have other lines for you. I'm a bad, bad man", he smile amiably. A full grin told of his delight. They had been together during all of their lulls and interludes at Ostagar. Alistair was athletic and had pleasant features. She mostly focused on the ground when she spoke with him. Seemed to her when their eyes met, he was staring at her. Solona found herself growing fonder of him. Especially his humour.

The ceiling of the world shed the grogginess of dawn to become a vast and regal blue. The hour was still early as the trio, followed by an energetic mabari, hiked toward the Chantry nestled high on the hill. Harsh angles of the canopy complemented the curvature of the stonework. Rounded stones and boulders collectively formed the foundation. The chapel was accompanied by a straw roofed barn and weathered Chantry board lurked by the door.

Ghostly wind chimes greeted the travelers as they approached the pinnacle of the Arling. A line of the village's poorer folk had jaggedly formed curving around the building all the way back to the barn. Ahead of the line was a bald male tranquil in Chantry robes. He slouched over a massive stew pot portioning out meals into weathered clay bowls. It was stew as best as Solona could tell. It had barley, chunks of carrot, turnip, and onion, as well as large and small bones with shreds of meat separating when turned over by the ladle. The aroma of the stew was choice yet heavy, acrid like smoked ham. Grease swam to the top, the mage was grateful for the light breakfast she had had just before dawn with the witches of the wilds. She recalled the appetizing boiled duck eggs, sliced apples, and rye bread slices topped with honey.

The Chantry board sat atop stairs in front of the parish's round stone doorframe marked "Where in days forgotten, voices there raised. Might be gift'd answer and those seeking find". A canticle from the Chantry's Chant of Light.

The Canticle of Andraste, if I'm not mistaken.

The board's papyrus flyers alerted the townsfolk that elf servants had deserted with some of the Arl's vault contents and a pair of prized mares from his stable after the events of Ostagar. Pinned to the board was also a few bounties for Dalish hunters seen in the area that did not appear to be endorsed by the Arl. Solona lifted her Chasind robe skirts and climbed the steps for a closer look at the poster pinned to the bottom corner. It was a Chantry bill for a dangerous maleficar escaped from the Circle Tower; it was Jowan. The sketched face was oddly elongated but it could be no one else. His sorry likeness was unmistakable. The mage tried not to draw attention to herself while she stared at it. Her hand dropped the fabric it had clutched and twitched as she stopped herself from tearing down the paper.

I can hate the templars for preying on Neria Surana, she never hurt a soul. But not Jowan. He… he was a blood mage.

Solona stressed generously over the matter for a moment but resolved to leave the flyer pinned up. She turned from his traitorous semblance, wondering how the Templar Order would hunt an apostate without a phylactery.

Two grand mahogany doors revealed the South Reach Chantry inner sanctum. Candelabra hung from the ceiling in pairs and enamoured by natural sunlight. The sustaining walls were made of the same rounded stone as the exterior, with arches that lead to cozy alcoves for silent prayer. The path to the revered mother was decorated by pews almost filled with the attending faithful and decorated scarlet rugs.

The dias had been repurposed into a makeshift altar for personal treasures. Candles and incense carred the prayers of the Arling's faithful to The Maker. Musky bouquets of frankincense wafted into the air reminding Solona of the Chantry chambers back at the Circle of Magi.

I feel sick trying to stay here, more than anything I want to press on. A darkness clutches me when I'm awake and claws me harshly when I try to find sleep.

In the mage's surroundings no templars or soldiers were present, only sister, scribes, tranquil, and a few elven servants. Solona covered herself once again in her purple cloak and stark white pelt - she had let it fall open when she was talking to Alistair. Her dread of meeting the Revered Mother of the Chantry grew, however, Leliana's presence soothed her worries.

There she was, the revered mother holding fast in the chapel, surrounded by awed children in patched clothing. Seated complacently in a wooden chair. Her grey hair bound in impossibly tight braids.

"We have forgotten, in ignorance stumbling. Only a light in this darken'd time breaks. Call to your children, teach us your greatness. What has been forgotten has no yet been lost". She soothed her audience with a low, almost gravel voice. The woman's accent more than her words sounded familiar to Solona. They resounded within her like the Chantry's wind chimes.

The revered mother is a Free Marcher like me.

Solona made her unease readable to Leliana, as did Alistair… in his own way. Solona recalled how easily the Mother at Ostagar had benefited from Alistair's eagerness to serve the Maker. He had been manipulated into harassing and wrangling Circle mages on her behalf. Their companion effortlessly spearheaded the conversation with the Revered Mother. The red-haired Sister conversed with and questioned the Chantry leader.

Leliana glossed over the Grey Warden's account of Ostagar which they has disclosed to the sister in great detail beforehand. The horde had spawned in the Kocari Wilds and would make their way across the countryside using the West Road. The mother rang her aged hands nervously and excused herself from the gathering of children. She lead the group to her personal chambers at the anterior of the Chantry. The newcomers followed her to where the scent of incense was even more potent. Sanguine rugs lead to a concave portion of the sanctuary. A single bed covered by modest cotton sheets had its headboard decorated with sunburst birch bark and a templar bastard sword. A lonely iron bound chest sat at the foot of the bed. The Mother was prepared to directly address her feelings on the darkspawn horde.

"No one believes the darkspawn to mimic the civilized traveling habits of resident Fereldens."

News of Ostagar had not yet traveled to South Reach. The revered mother knew nothing of the massacre on the Grey Wardens and King Cailan. Teryn Loghain was just a general in the king's army to her. Her doubt of the oncoming darkspawn horde was palpable. She compared the Warden's implied intelligence of the darkspawn to armed dogs.

Solona listened for a while but her rage of the slaughter of her Grey Warden brothers and sister swelled. Their loss outside of the Kocari Wilds had been too great. Comparing the merciless carnage to a dogfight was an outrage. She interrupted the mother to implicate the aptitude of mabari warhounds in Ferelden, and thus the erroneous nature of her statement. Dogs were the pride and joy of their country. She stepped up beside Leliana with her Chasind robes observable beneath her fur cloak.

"Don't undermine our dogs and don't underestimate the blight" the mage warned.

I too am a free marcher, and Ferelden is my home for better or worse.

As the traveling party left the chantry, doused of all hope, the pounding of approaching hooves drew their gaze. Men in chainmail atop chestnut warhorses halted on the edge of the town market closest to the Chantry. Their leader, adorned in steel full plate addressed the encroaching multitude on behalf of the Queen Regent and her father Teryn Loghain Mac Tir.

Solona energetically stood up on her tiptoes and craned her head for a good look from the back of the drawing crowd. The village crowded anxiously around the men that followed the Teryn, Hero of River Dane. They wiped their worked hands on aprons and stall curtains before bellowing into full applause. Alistair, full of judgement and loathing, started to push past citizens as the speaker commenced his false sympathies.

The Teryn's men left King Cailan to die with the Grey Wardens. Poor Alistair considers Teryn Loghain responsible for the Order's loss and Duncan's death.

The Warden fiercely questioned his surrounding countrymen, "Why is the Teryn a General under the Queen Regent so soon after the tragic loss of her husband, King Cailan Theirin?" Some of the present townsfolk claimed that the noble families in the Southron Hills denounced Queen Anora for retreating from the court out of grief.

Alistair at last cleared the last of bustling crowd. He passed a broad-shouldered man with dark braided hair. He was wearing a blacksmith apron standing fast next to a elf with grey tattoos across his face.

"He can't be the king's replacement in any regard. Ferelden's king would have his armies protect his people, not just those serving under Teryn Loghain's drake banner!" Alistair clenched his armoured fists but made no move for his weapon. His allies sighed with relief until he continued, "The Grey Wardens know what really happened".

Lelina urged Solona with a powerful elbow to make her way to the front and stop him, "Maker, say something!" She clasps her hands powerlessly. Solona mimicked the furrowed brow she observes in Leliana. She felt like she should be more worried than she was.

"The Queen Regent's army requires the recruitment of any and all men capable of combat", shouted the commander down from his formidable warhorse.

"The Queen already has the Teryn's army, and it's clear they have chosen to wait out the blight behind his castle walls in Denerim. Because of his fear of Orlais or of proving the Grey Wardens right about his treachery. It matters not!". Alistair looked at asides at his compatriots in South Reach. They stood around him eyeing the leader and his armed men atop their horses. "Even if settlements that survive darkspawn still stand, the creatures take prisoners during their raids. We are Grey Wardens against their monstrous dark tide and we have mastered our taint. Ferelden only has us."

Out of the rustled crowd push the tattooed Dalish hunter. He brushed his shoulder length hair aside as he seriously addressed the wardens.

"I propose a way to make the people of South Reach a little safer", he proposed

"What are you suggesting?" The commander inquired.

Solona observed Leliana freeing her right hand and placing it thoughtfully on her bow.

The Dalish elf shook his head in amusement, "what I have in mind is a darkspawn raid in the Brecilian Forest".

***

The Teryn's men left in a cloud of soaring dust and thundering hooves. There was a darkspawn Hurlock Alpha making camp in the Brecilian and they had refused to aid the Arling and their neighbouring Dalish clan. The sunlight was dulled by falling powdery earth.

Leliana conversed briefly at her companions before agreeing to a solitary stealth mission. Her faith in the quest against the blight was strong and she insisted that her Grey Warden friends continue to gather allies.

What's a few blighted spiders to a dedicated Chantry Sister?

Sister Leliana agreed to delve deep in the forest for the darkspawn camp to capture intel. Her aim was enemy intel, maps, and a detailed account of any prisoners.

The parley ended with an unofficial partnership. The Dalish elves would help defend the village while the Arl's men marched with the Wardens against the Blight. Not all the soldiers of South Reach would leave, some would stay so the Dalish were not overwhelmed.

Now we have to solidify the soldier's loyalty.

The Wardens hiked west toward the Drakon River bound for to the Arl's estate. It was a modest round stone and clay manor large enough for serving staff, but not as grand as the South Reach chantry. It's locale was practical along the flowing waters to serve as a prime spot for fishing.

Humble fire swelled in the belly of the home and rose from the stout chimney at the top of the sharp straw roof. The sturdy walls bore Ferelden carvings of dogs and the South Reach crest: a portcullis. Little more than matured barrels stood watch at the entrance.

They were acknowledged by a fat scullery maid with nervous hands and dark curly hair. She said little, but like the other residents, seemed not to know of the Fifth Blight rising in the south.

They swung open the heavy oak door and went forward inside the Arl's estate. As they entered the sounds of town fanfare, children playing, and the hammer of the Arling's blacksmith became muted. The residence was colder and emptier than the Chantry. Solona bid her mabari to remain on the threshold of the house as she followed Alistair through the manor's foyer and into a larger chamber. A glowing hearth greeted the pair of Grey Wardens in the main hall. A ladder leaned in the center of the room, promising to trail the central heat to the upper loft. A generous amount of basic armour and winter clothing was being pulled from storage. The estate was getting ready for something in the absence of if soldiers, which had all been sent to bolster the king's army at Ostagar.

They found the Arl of South Reach in an antechamber connected to the dining hall. He was adorned in steel pauldrons and greaves with iron chainmail. Armed with a decorated longsword and a humble linen tunic over his chainmail. Draped over his shoulder was the South Reach heraldry on a proud alabaster cloak.

Arl Bryland was a sturdy man in his late thirties with copper hair in a half braid and his fingers wrapped the tabletop. He gazed down at a map of Ferelden pensively. He turned to face the wardens and smiled, he was happy to have visitors.

Why was he not at Ostagar?

Leonas Bryland had fought for the Ferelden rebels at the Battle of White River. His closest allies had been Bryce Cousland and Rendon Howe. The battle had been considered a colossal failure in the eyes of the rebellion, leaving only fifty survivors following King Maric. Leonas Bryland was one of them. He had left his friend Rendon Howe in the care of his sister Eliane Bryland when the man's injuries proved to be too much for him to carry on. After the dissent of the Orlesian Empire in Ferelden, Rendon Howe married Eliane for her delectable dowry and Leonas had fell out of contact with them as they retreated to Amaranthine to start a sovereignty under the sigil of the Howe bear.

"Ho there, travelers. What brings you to the Arling of South Reach?" he inquired spinning on his heel and quieting his restless wrapping fingers. The wardens eyed one another before responding. Here was a man with all the comforts anyone could ever want, especially now that the blight was making its way north, and he was clearly preparing for something. Yet not a soldier was to be found in the marketplace, Chantry, nor his very own estate.

"Have you not heard of Ostagar? Where are all of your soldiers? Your people will need protection". Solona questioned trying her very best not to sound panicked. A look of bewilderment flash across the Arl's face. He reached a hand behind his head to either nervously scratch or adjust his tawny-coloured braid.

"If you don't know, you must listen. We've seen for ourselves what's to come," Alistair approached agreeably and Arl Bryland responded well to the warden's advice. "It won't be easy to hear".

Alistair and Solona did their best to retell the horrid advancement of the darkspawn. The horde fell on the armies of King Cailan in the valles at Ostagar's Tower of Ishal like a wicked tide. They flowed in from the south and out from the other side poured the blood of Ferelden.

He took it fairly well. Signalling for his uneasy and curly-haired servant to bring the Wardens food. She returned with a platter of smoked fish custards each topped with a single blackberry, as well as a modest clay bowl brimming with buttered, sliced beets.

He addressed the Wardens concerns at first, but soon his concerns drifted to memories and battles long passed. The Arl remembered Bryce Cousland very fondly. With mention of Grey Waren Aedan Cousland he was anxious to send his soldiers to march under their command. With limited details Solona was able to weave the tail about the fall of Higherver to Arl Howe, from Aedan's brief telling. The account left him laying his head into his hand and he sighed deeply. Solona fidgeted and resisted the urge to copy his body language as per her usual habit. Alistair stared at the Arl while chewing a delicious fish tart.

"I've sent left word that any soldiers returning to South Reach are to defend the Arling. But now I feel as though my men should regroup at the fortress of West Hill. It's our best chance against this horde you illustrate", countered Leonas Bryland within sudden conviction.

"It's likely any survivors will be scattered. A muster point in Redcliff might benefit them under the banner of Arl Eamon Guerrin", said Alistair.

The Arl was taken aback for a moment. "I will not send any of my soldiers or knights to Redcliffe. We've heard dark rumours of plague and death there. The Arling's soldiers will remain in South Reach until they are needed and when they leave…" he trailed off and nervously plucked at his sword's curved design.

"The neighbouring Dalish clan could be welcomed into the village as allies in arms against the darkspawn", the mage perked up. She was confident in the friendships Leliana was determined to forge.

Arl Bryland hesitated but continued, "It's a contingency plan that will need some work. Our relations with the Dalish aren't the best. However, I'm anxious for a fresh perspective on all this. Tell me Grey Wardens, how might the people of South Reach live out the blight?"

***

"It's a pity Aedan Silvertongue couldn't come with us," Alistair mused as he closed a sack of root vegetables and salted fish. He explained that nobles were the best at getting something from nothing, he likely could have gotten them thrice the score of men. Blood from a rock.

Solona agreed, when they rejoined their fellow Grey Warden they would let Aedan do all the talking. Their faith lay with his better success in diplomacy. The mage and former templar would let young Cousland navigate the nobility as the two of them did not have a knack for it.

"He's welcome to it," Solona expressed her agreement with Alistair. She fingered the vials at her belt in mimic of her companion's preparation of the sack of rations. Her hands made their way to the scrolls tubes gifted to her from Morrigan.

The Grey Warden treaties.

She exhumed the treaty scrolls and unfurled them one by one. They were regally adorned with the Grey Warden's griffon crest and addressed to: The Circle of Magi, The Kingdom of Orzammar, and resident Dalish Clans.

"Would the Wardens be welcomed in the Brecilian Forest by a resident clan?" Alistair inquired, headed toward the Arling stable to load up a pack mule with their supplies.

Not at this time, even if we can call these Dalish our friends. The Heart of the Forest is growing dark. It would be best to gather more allies, or at least regroup with those we have. We will need them.

The ringing of wind chimes and the blacksmithy in addition to the roasting meat in the marketplace once again saturated Solona's senses. She stared down into the bustling village and placed her hand flat at her side, moments later her ebony mabari forced his panting muzzle beneath her fingertips. Excited strings of drool glistened in the morning light as his muscular chest heaved with the effort of playfully chasing livestock and children. One last gaze upon the Arling told her little… but it was enough. The blight's savage taint had not yet come to South Reach, but it would. The barbaric darkspawn horde would descend on these people. It would do so savagely, with brutal, harsh, and unforeseen force.

"Shame we don't have a more capable voice for bargaining that Aedan's substantial claim in Highever", Solona sighed as she withdrew the treaty scrolls. Alistair grunted with contempt as he approached a mule and began securing their supplies to the beast's saddle panniers .

"That would be quite the scandal, don't you think?"

 

Chapter Text

After nearly three weeks of backtracking the West Road with soldiers beneath Arl Bryland’s portcullis banner, they reached the Arling of West Hills. The village’s houses and Chantry were situated just south of Redcliffe. It shared borders with the Frostback Mountains and their resident Avvar tribes, as well as the Kocari Wilds inhabited by Chasind barbarians. West Hills’ location was dangerous, but the Arl had a sterling reputation and was a man who took his duties seriously. He was said to be a giant with piercing eyes, and one of more powerful men in Ferelden.

Alongside the Grey Wardens marched the lay sister Leliana. Her time in the Brecilian forest influenced her to pray when the troops stopped to rest. She strictly allotted time at dawn and dusk for prayers. She invoked The Maker for numerous things: for Him to spare the innocent of Ferelden from the darkspawn, to help steel the Grey Wardens against the coming blight, and for forgiveness of her sins.

She wants to be loving as well as good, and truly does believe in the Maker.

The deep greenery of the forest outside of West Hills wafted the strong scent of pine. Solona wove between the marching folk until she reached the outer edge of the crowd. Here she was able to walk on the fresher side of the troops where the animals sounded unabridged and the Arling’s woods came alive. Rapid, high pitch birds were the easiest to hear. They fluttered diligently between the trees, some even flew so far as to disappear from sight in an encroaching mist.

The muddy lane was well worn. Frequent dwarven caravans from Orzammar were made obvious to travelers by the deep, permanent wheel ruts in the road. This bode well for the approaching army,  plentiful supply of dwarven goods awaited them in West Hills.

Arl Bryland’s men approached the Arling. He had sent soldiers, archers, knights,and mabari warhounds for the vanguard. They crossed the settlement’s threshold between two colossal stone pillars. Each was guarded by a mabari statue arching over its own flaming brazier.

The pair of Wardens reached the other side of the gateway. Immediate structures in the village were built from wood and canvas. Solona headed toward one of the wagons and opened a wooden cage housing carrier pigeons. She gingerly removed one of the birds and went over to Alistair. She wanted to send a carrier pigeon to Aedan in Jader disclosing their location at West Hills. He would need to be informed of her and Alistair leaving the Arling at the earliest convenience for Kinloch Hold. She felt her allies in the Circle of Magi would make good on upholding the pledge the mages had made in the ancient Grey Warden treaty.

Alistair agreed and pressed that they make for the winter home of the Arl; a manor resembling a stone fortress more than anything else. It would be on the edge of the Arling, and minimally staffed this time of year.

Leliana approached the pair thoughtfully as Solona released the bird into the air, they all watched it fly off into the misty forest. The lay sister recommended that they send a messenger to the Arl’s estate. Since he may have been at Ostagar, and still absent from his dwelling. They didn’t want to march into West Hills with the whole dang army and give him or any residing nobles the wrong impression.

Night fell on the Arling and still they had not heard from the Arl. Alistair paced pensively between the small camps of South Reach soldiers.He reconvened with Solona, who was now seated by a campfire with her full attention on her spell grimoire. He waited silently for a few moments before she looked up from her tome’s pages to acknowledge him with a smile. He suggested that she stay away from the villagers for now. She would be risking rejection by the meek folk of the countryside. They seldom had mages visit their home and he wasn’t sure how they would react to her presence. Solona glanced down at her Chasind robes and nodded solemnly in agreement. They were very close to the Kocari Wilds’ border and wilding raids were not uncommon.

How can I learn to love anything about this new world when it’s afraid of me.

Soldiers talked quietly late into the night as their fires released sparks up into the clear starlight. Solona snuck off from the camp with her cloak wrapped tightly to keep the cold at bay. She left behind idle chatter and the rich smell of rabbit stew to meet the encroaching border of the forest. She stopped suddenly. The mage spotted a faint blue glow in the woods outside the Arl’s manor. Surprised that no one stopped her from leaving, she pressed on toward the anomaly following a narrow path littered with fallen pine needles and cones.

With no templars I am free to wander.

The eerie light source lead her to a shallow cave surrounded by thick trees. She cautiously advanced toward the mouth of the cave and found a weathered crate laying open on its side. It housed enchanted blue lanterns like the ones they made in the tower. The humming glow reminded her of Neria Surana. Solona let memories of her dearest friend wash over her. Poor Neria had tried to smuggle herself out of Kinloch Hold in a crate akin to this one. It pulsined with magic. Lanterns hung from the mouth of a cave which Solona investigated further with cautious optimism. It was guarded by two Wil-o-Wisps and blocked by a fire barrier. The wisps took notice of Solona and fluttered anxiously, glowing vibrantly with unnatural light.

The mage raised her hand, calling forth her mana to freeze barrier with a cone of ice. The fiery forcefield disappeared, but one wisp had been too close to the cave’s mouth and was frozen as well. It fell to the forest floor, shattering into pieces. The other wisp fled upon seeing its twin destroyed by frost.

Solona sighed with regret as she stood over the sparkling icicle remains of the magical Wil-o-Wisp. She threw her cape open, and entered the cave. The dark dwelling contained a cache of monetary treasure and about a dozen or so assorted damaged magical wands. The prize of the horde was a broken gold automaton.

***

The next morning came enriched with the scores of songbirds and a swift sunrise over the marshlands to the east. Solona had worked through the night making repairs to the mechanical crab automaton with red lyrium dust. Her supply of lyrium had not been sufficient to revive the mechanical wonder. With reluctance, she eventually concluded her repairs using minor blood magic. She cut her hand and blood from a small incision wove into her magic as a dark red vapour. It’s power called the remaining wisp back to her and it happily inhabited the crab.

She had shown the golden wonder to Alistair as she failed to bring life into it. But she was certain he would be delighted by its lively, crawling form. Solona tried to trick him by showing him the creation afterward, stating that the lyrium dust had a chance to get working.

The crab struggled to find its feet, scuttling sideways in a panic. It focused its blue singularity on Alistair and growled as its heart of light hummed. The former templar eyed the creation with a dulled malice that Solona hoped would turn to intrigue in time. Birds chirped and a light wind bent forest branched overhead as Solona gazed down at her creation with compassion. Alistair grasped her hand, turning her lacerated palm upward. He had noticed the shallow cut and was baffled, even speechless when he realized she brought it to life using blood magic.

The First of the Arl approached the Wardens as they argued.

She introduced herself abruptly as Carmillina. She was the daughter of an accomplished fisherman in Redcliffe village. Carmillina had valiantly donned the title of Shieldmaiden to defend West Hills from the inevitable approach of the blight. After the death of her father she became convinced that Redcliffe was doomed to fall to the darkspawn and had  journeyed south seeking to serve the giant Arl Gallagher Wulff.

Solona and Alistair followed Carmillina through the waking camp. Soldiers stoked fires back to life and unloaded food reserves from wagons and horseback to provide their brothers in arms with a hearty meal to start the day in West Hills.

“You may call me Carmie if you wish, Grey Wardens. It’s nice to meet fellow Fereldans that dedicate themselves to ending the blight.” She proudly strode in the direction of a large war tent with her shield in her hand. The Wardens were pleasantly surprised to find the Arl residing in his war tent, and not his luxurious fortified manor. Carmie stated that Gallagher Wulff was housing the most vulnerable of his people in there.

“He fought at Ostagar and knows of the treachery of Teryn Loghain. Arl Wulff’s most concerned with the darkspawn taint. He witnessed its effects on soldiers and was nervous about it plaguing the villagers. He worries for the vitality of his Arling. Almost all of his soldiers fought for King Cailan and we mourn their loss, as well as that of the King. The Arl defends the soldiers’ families without them here to protect them from the blighted horde.”

Carmie threw open the canvas flap of the war tent to reveal the Arl leaning over a table draped heavily with canvas maps of the Ferelden countryside. She approached him and took her place proudly at his side as his First. Arl Gallagher Wulff was a bearded giant of  man, standing a full head taller than Alistair. He raised his gaze grievously and took in the sight of the Wardens, both tired from the road and their recent heated argument.

He shifted his weight, still leaning on the tabletop, and his furs fell across the dented breastplate that bore the heraldry of his Arling: a red horned beast with a prominent gold ring through its nose.

He inhaled and addressed his guests morosely, "All of southern Ferelden will soon be covered by black clouds, the ground rotting beneath our feet. Blight plagues and darkspawn raids prevail, even now. Until even the crows get sick of the smell of carrion."

Parley with the arrival of the Wardens was polite but seemingly fruitless. He would not march with the Grey Wardens, however he did intend to stand in defense of his lands, and for Ferelden. The darkspawn would not have the Arling, he assured them that he had made arrangements with the dwarves. The people of West Hills were to relocate into an isolated mountain pass just above their great city of Orzammar.
“They will not be granted entry, but the deshyrs and Dwarven Assembly have assured their surface contacts that the Orzammar Shaperate has recorded this treaty in the memories.The thaig guards will leave Orzammar and fight to defend the loyal surfacers and my people in the mountain’s valley should the darkspawn dare to tread that far north” Arl Wulff paused uneasily before continuing, “I’ve done what I can, and now must trust in the vigilance of the Assembly’s plans. We all have our parts to play.”

***

Solona trekked to the outskirts of the camp, kicking dry twigs as she carried a prize bundled loosely in linen cloth. She paused as she heard a halla bellowing in the distance, hoping for a rare glimpse of an alabaster steed. But all was quiet, except of course for the relentless chirping birds. West Hills was lively, but chilled in the shadow of the Frostback Mountains. The frosty environment seemed to intensify as she neared her fellow Warden. Alistair knelt by a slight fire and staring pensively into its flames.

As Solona stepped forward he couldn’t bring his eyes to meet hers. She smiled and pulled back the cloth to reveal a cheese and onion pie; an attempt to make peace. The mage set the meal down on a fallen log. After failing to elicit a response, she began explaining that she’d never needed blood magic before because she has had a seemingly bottomless well of mana within her. It’s why she was chosen to be the apprentice of First Enchanter Irving.

“I am something called a titanium”, she revealed dolefully.

She sat on the log next to the pie, wordless for a time.

“I know these magics interest you Alistair, pretend to ignore me if you wish, but you cannot deny your endearing curiosity. It’s part of what makes you such an effective Warden.”

Alistair’s jaw clenched and he stood, eyeing the pie and then the mage.
“You used a great evil for something frivolous. The Grey Wardens may abide by the use of blood magic in times of great need. But Sol… I just can’t

Solona adjusted herself on the log to look straight on at Alistair.
“I think you need to know more about me to understand all this. I haven’t been very forthcoming with my history and I wish to do so now. Please, have some cheese and onion pie. I’ll tell you about me, the Circle, the titanium.”

Alistair turned and slowly sat opposite Solona above the steaming pastry but did not speak, nor did he move to grab a slice of her peace offering. Solona shakily took a deep breath and began to weave her tale.


“Magic texts from long ago and from all over Thedas describe beings called titans, giants that lived underground. Their bodies were the land, and lyrium their blood. The first tribes of Ferelden believed that to use lyrium was to do a kind of blood magic. When one has a potential for spellcraft like me it was because they were blessed by the titans: a titanium. A titan’s chosen gifted with a wealth of mana”.

Alistair nodded absently furrowing his brow and Solona continued.

“Being talented certainly didn’t win me any popularity contests in the Circle. However, it gave me an appreciation for honest, hard work, and magics earned through practice. I can cast back to back spells or chain them together without becoming fatigued, at least not easily. I was pushed to my limit back in the Circle sometimes just for the sake of my mentor’s curiosity. Oh, the things I could do! I’d like to say none of that matters now, but the truth is that it matters now more than ever. I can use my gifts to kill darkspawn and stop the blight. I’ve never been more proud of what I am.”

Tension dwindled between the two Wardens as Solona’s tale transformed into an apology.

“I’m so sorry for trying to deceive you Alistair. I should have been more sensitive to your distaste for blood magic, and I promise it will not happen again.”

Alistair’s armoured frame relaxed at last and he spoke.
“You’re the best friend I’ve had in a good, long while Sol. I don’t want a misunderstanding like this to divide us, especially when we’ve come so far together already.” He paused, glancing up at Solona was honesty hazel eyes.
“I need you with me in this blight”, he breathed and folded his hands restlessly.

Solona laughed, “So eat some pie and forgive me you silly man. Because a few drops of blood added to my lyrium sand will make that automaton run forever, and it will run for the Wardens.”

Alistair grinned raising a slice of pie. He was delighted to find that the dish contained some black currants and basil. It’s was quite pleasant.

“I consented to giving my blood, only a few drops, and now we have a new ally. One we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

 “Are you really so desperate for allies?”, Carmie asked striding suddenly into the small, isolated camp, “I know Grey Wardens only recruit the best, but I’d appreciate the chance to accompany you on your travels.”
Solona and Alistair shot alarmed looks between them.

“What are your intentions?” Alistair demanded with a mouth full of food.

“You know I hail from Redcliffe. I left behind nothing but death, and I wish to make my mark on the horde. I want to fight for the safety of West Hills. I want more than anything to shield bash darkspawn into bloody stains on the ground”.

The Shieldmaiden of West Hills knelt before the Wardens in service of their noble cause and, with their blessing, snatched up a tasty slice of pie.

***

The Wardens left the soldiers of South Reach at West Hills under the command of the capable Arl Gallagher Wulff. They headed north with Leliana, Carmie, and the black mabari warhound they had recruited along the West Road. The party journeyed along the shores of lake Calenhad for their destination: Kinloch Hold. They anticipated that the mages would honour their ancient treaty with the Grey Wardens. It was a gamble. They believed that the Circle would take up arms against the darkspawn, in addition to their small traveling party staying clear of Redcliffe at the behest of Arl Leonas Bryland and now, Carmie. Arl Wulff had vowed to investigate the southern wilds with small patrols for signs of encroaching darkspawn.

Alistair admired the windmill outside of Redcliffe Village from an opening in the forest above the settlement. The sun hovered low on the horizon, casting a bloody reflection across the grand lake.The ceiling of the world beckoned them ever closer, back to Kinloch Hold.

Solona stood next to him and expressed her relief at their detour. She had found the decision to bypass Redcliffe agreeable, since folklore of larger towns in Ferelden didn’t favour the company of mages. And they once again found themselves at the mercy of an urgent mission.

“Sol, I’m just glad you’re really in it for the long run now. You were a Warden at Ostagar, but now…” he trailed off gazing into her sapphire eyes.

He had never known a sense of comfort like this before. He never had someone to call his own, he could only hope. Love had always left him alone, and he hadn’t seen any point in trying. Solona was the end worth trying for. She was his home on the road.

For a moment in that sanguine sunset, he regretted handing the Joining chalice to her, and then, he didn’t. Fate had brought Solona into the fold of the Warden Order, not him. They descended together through the slope’s rich underbrush toward the Circle Tower.

The sights along the way will be more breathtaking with her by my side.

Alistair vividly imagined experiencing Ferelden with Solona. Rolling fields and patchwork farmland. Delicate brooks alive with fish leaping upstream to escape the darkspawn taint. Birds whistling in trees overhead and swift footfalls of racing wolfpacks. Growling drakes awakening from long slumbers to to take flight. Their mighty scaled wings batting branches from the tallest trees in forests alive with roaming bears and glowing insects.

He felt weary, yet hopeful bound for the Circle of Magi with his special titan ally. She was a loyal Warden, with him until the end. And maybe one day, she would confess to the same thing he had been wondering since her met her at Ostagar. A romantic relationship.

If only I wasn’t fooling myself.

 

Chapter Text

A door slammed and Solona hurriedly looked up from her tome. Her hands graced the worn letters penned on the delicate page.

 The mighty stone walls of the First Enchanter’s office enclosed her. A toasty hearthfire crackled across the room as bright candles and oil lamps illuminated her surroundings. Daybreak beamed into the chamber and cast chalky dust onto Solona’s open pages. Footfalls echoed down the ancient hallway and approached with insistence. She looked up and observed a templar striding past the doorway. His presence faded with the same vigor it had approached with. Another door slammed.

I can’t focus when the templars are like this. They have such a vague sense of urgency.

 The apprentice got up from her desk advancing toward the apothecary, refraining from touching any scrolls, bottles, or exotic plants. Some jars were glossy and new, but almost all were foggy. They’d aged into mysteries that were begging to be solved. She inhaled the perfume of potted dahlia flowers, their violet petals were menacingly pointed. The alchemy apparatus in the corner called to her and she made her way across the room. Geometrically decorated rugs softened her steps, and the smell of fresh air drifted down to her as she passed beneath an open window. Lake Calenhad was just outside. Solona had only seen its sky blue waters a few times, but the brimming waves stuck in her memory like cobwebs of memories from another life.

Above a driftwood fire hung an iron pot, simmering the best and only local food: broth with seaweed and clam meat. Solona found the soup a little strong for her palate, but tolerated it when accompanied by buttered bread.

Nearby stood a six foot square slab of precious crystal that bore a map of Ferelden. It had been meticulously carved by a dwarf visitor to the tower a few years ago. The jagged peaks of the Frostback Mountains glittered in the firelight.

The far side of the office was littered with books. Tomes and grimoires of varying sizes lay collapsed on top on each other. Some were open, screaming to be read. Stacks of paper and scrolls, both papyrus and leather, littered the dining table restricting Irving’s meals to a bureau in the corner of the office. Colossal bookshelves encased the wall opposite the cooking fire. Candelabra lit the room on the ground level but their glow failed to reach the tower’s full height. The upper shelves were cloaked in darkness.

She approached the bustling alchemy station and carefully brushed her fingers against metal shavings on the desk. The alloy responded to her magical touch and rose slightly off of the tabletop.

Another door slammed.

Two templars roughly escorted a cheerless, disheveled human apprentice into the office. He carried fresh robes, folded and held loosely out in front of him.

“Where is Irving?” One of the knights demanded.

 He was at a Harrowing, left just before dawn with Knight Commander Greagoir.

Solona meekly explained the First Enchanter’s whereabouts to the the templar. He paused for a moment, sighed furiously, and turned on his heel. The two templars left the office but remained stationed at the door. They stood guard tactfully and wordlessly, with their armour glinting in the slanted sunlight. Their steel shone dully in comparison to the dwarven crystal map.

He looks hopeless, almost disturbed and his eyes are sad. Like he knows more than he wants to.

The mage’s glossy stare darted between the wonders around the room but settled on the ceiling, of all things. He had the look of a man in over his head. Outwardly he was filthy with round and friendly, almost endearing features. His hair was short, lacking any and all volume, and was a mousey brown colour. The deep set eyes below his unremarkable hairline were a lavish blue shade.

An afternoon storm is gathering outside.

“Are you new to the Circle?” Solona inquired, approaching the newcomer.

He was unable to hide his utter disappointment as he leveled his gaze at Solona. It was like watching a heavy steel portcullis drop down.

“I've been a discrete apprentice in The Circle for five years. Tore a piece off the veil back home was I was thirteen and got sent here.. you know what, I’m sure you can piece together the rest of the story just fine. Everyone mage seems to have suffered the same, more or less.” He sniped, clenching his hands into fists around the fabric bundle he held.

“I’m sorry.  I’m twelve… almost thirteen. Came here when I was two”, she confessed.

He shifted his footing as he opened his mouth to speak, but thoughtfully paused.

At last he spoke, “Everyone in this tower knows who you are, Solona. You’re the First Enchanter’s apprentice”.

 

Rain dotted the upper stained glass windows of the office’s spire. Sunlight faded and distant thunder rumbled like the compelled steps of templars.

 “Why are you even here?” Solona questioned.

The mage tossed the folded robes onto a table meant for dining but repurposed to hold books.

 “I misread people, in a major way. It’s this fun thing I do. That is how I got to be in this position”. As her guest shook out his arms purposefully grit fluttered off of his ragged clothing, along with a putrid smell.

 

She inquired further about him and his position in the Circle of Magi. He cocked an eyebrow, folding his arms. Solona rushed to copy him. As the mage took a moment to inspect her, Solona tried to read his friendly rounded face, which currently bore a tart expression.  He seemed to admire her blond locks since his own hair was quite dull. There was no indication that he had bathed for quite some time.

“Gosh, is that stew?” He set his sights on the pot of broth. Salty steam wafted toward the stranger and Solona grimaced at the all too familiar flavour; the fish and garlic were intense. She thought he was being dramatic, but he genuinely appeared to be starving. He rubbed the back of his neck nervously. Dirt flaked to the floor with every scratch. He spooned shucked clams and tender plant stems into a clay bowl.

Solona giggled as he burned his mouth on the steaming medley.

“Personally, I prefer rabbit stewed in ale with onions. However, I know that’s hard to come by in the middle of Lake Calenhad”, he teased and adjusted his grip on the serving.

“Why would the templars drag you into Irving’s office like this, and with new mage robes? What happened to you?”

He lowered his bowl and sighed with exasperation,

“I thought everyone knew”.

Silence hung between them as the fire crackled and the alchemical bottles bubble with froth.

“My name is Artie”, he confessed after a long pause.

 

Rain pounded the ground outside and the smell of fresh water flooded the First Enchanter's chamber. Thunder encroached on the growing friendliness of their meeting with pounding tides and sudden, cracking waves. Artie turned from the fire suddenly, accidentally bunting a clay urn as he did so, and it echoed across the floor in spirals. They watched the pot slow to a stop and the newcomer cleared his throat and desperately clutched his soup.

“Aw, beans I’m sorry about that”. He apologized then took on the task of explaining his current dilemma.

Another apprentice who despised the Circle, had used him as a pawn in a failed attempt to escape the tower. He had always called the templars his jailers. After being apprehended by the templars on his latest try for freedom, he had been sentenced to a year of solitary confinement. Artie was labelled an accomplice and sent to the dungeons for questioning. He stirred his soup pensively and stated that he had been down there for two weeks.

“Hachi machi, the energy down there is like nothing I could have ever imagined”.

Artie was from the Free Marches city of Tantervale across the Waking Sea, and he missed his family dearly.

“All that guy ever wanted was to see his mother and father one more time”, he stared down into the brownish liquid. He closed his eyes and took in the scent of the food. Even if it was too hot, he had to eat.
“Who?” asked Solona, as Artie shoveled spoonfuls into his mouth.

“The Ander”, he slurped.

 

First Enchanter Irving appeared in the doorway. He strode confidently passed the templars standing guard. Rain was pouring down now, and a loud blow of thunder hit, the countryside rang with a bellowing sound.

“Another successful Harrowing today, Solona.” The First Enchanter smiled as he passed her and leaned his mage’s staff against his desk. Pensively he pressed his hands on the tabletop, exhaling through his thick whiskers. He was an elderly bearded man with a stern demeanor, but a kind heart. The robes worn by him as head of the Circle of Magi were not adorned with medals of accomplishment, nor were they decorated by the high fashion allocated to other men who had held the title before Irving. The best status symbol  he possessed was a powerful staff. It was ironwood, harvest by Dalish journeymen from the heart of forest. The First Enchanter was unassuming about his own abilities, calling them mediocre. Solona had always thought it was due to a sense of false modesty.

Artie looked up from his meal at Irving and focused his gaze. The young mage soon turned to a table encumbered by books . His entire head seemed to flush with embarrassment. Tilting the bowl, he gulped down the last bits and set it aside. Irving sat at his desk and the young mage approached, imploring him for news of his sentence.

Awkward silence is a frequent guest in Irving’s office.

The First Enchanter settled into his chair and dislodged a few papers from the top of a large pile. He candidly stated that he didn’t consider the Ander to be any threat to the Circle; just a reckless apprentice.

The old man had a soft spot for troubled apprentices. Perhaps, it explained his personal stake in Solona’s training since her arrival at the Ferelden Circle at a young age. Irving had watched her with the aid of her templar handler, Knight Captain Hadley. He was a kind, red-haired man transferred out of the Gallows in Kirkwall with her. Their exodus to Ferelden was fueled by the death of two of her siblings.

“There’s no way that’s all there is to it! What about me? I mean, what’s-… there’s got to be more to my personal sodding imprisonment than just templars throwing blame around”. Artie wrang his hands desperately as thunder echoed through the farmland outside Kinloch Hold. Irving sighed irritably and began scribbling expeditiously on a blank piece of parchment. The First Enchanter revealed that Artie was to undergo his Harrowing within the hour. He would prove a loyal, uncorrupted member of the Circle, or he would fail. Irving insisted that Artie promptly change into the pressed robes.

Does Irving care about Artie? Could he see him as more than a prisoner? Yes, he does.

Artie gawked at Solona in a clumsy, but fervent pursuit of her favourable input. He was so anxious to make friends that he failed to catch the wine he knocked over. The bottle smashed, and bursts of maroon trickled down the legs of a nearby table. The First Enchanter continued to write, not even blinking as it shattered to pieces.

“Uh oh, oh no, whoops, oh no! Let me… let me get that”. Artie struggled to get his fingers wrapped around one of the larger glass fragments. His grip faltered under pressure and dark red wine hid the true extent to which he had cut himself. He cussed and shot up, clutching his hand frightfully.

Irving gave pause at last, leaning into the palm of his hand and staring right at Artie. Rain poured down outside as the First Enchanter’s gaze grew more sympathetic. Low flames within the hearth crackled, and one of the templars standing guard outside of the chamber coughed.

 

Artie slumped down in a chair adjacent the stew pot, rubbing his injured hand.

“It’s so sad that you lost your siblings in the Circle, Solona”. Artie managed, conveying worry for her solely with the expression of his eyes and mouth. Personally, she furrowed her brow at the first sign of trouble. But she still found his sentiments to be genuine. His face was completely still, with his eyes bearing all the signs of inward heartache.

“My mother cried in the streets when my eldest brother was taken by the templars, and then died at their hands. A supposed escape attempt. The next brother they took, died at his Harrowing. I still have one more out there, somewhere. He’s the youngest of the boys but still older than me”.

Artie winced, he had nervously pressed his thumb deep into his wound and blood poured down like channels of a river.

“What happened to the last one?” He requested.

“My father fled Kirkwall with him. Mother died soon after I left with Ser Hadley.” Solona paused, taking in the undeniable sight of blood. She drew nearer Artie, her hands outstretched toward his wound.

 

“Tell me about your family back in Tantervale”, Solona started, hoping the nervous mage would let her heal his laceration.

“I have brothers… I’m the baby brother. Taking me from them was not something I feel the Maker would have wanted. We were solid together, the best boys around”.

Solona placed her palms over his torn flesh, miraculously knitting together portions with a light that faintly pulsated. Artie stood up, pulling his hand from her grasp before the regeneration could be completed. He sauntered to his new mage robes, placing his bloody hand atop the fabric.

 Lightning struck outside the tower and a rolling applause of thunder followed.

 

“The feel the cotton and linen is warm, yet firm. The cloth is bluer than the fresh waters of the Waking Sea. And, Oh Maker, these robes don’t smell like a life lived freely ought to. Like open fields, streams, and a brisk wind on a green plain”. Artie’s disposition grew darker and he strenuously avoided Irving’s gaze.

“You know, I can see what these robes are. I can touch them, and know they aren’t like the shackles I’ve been wearing this past fortnight. I would know the difference…”

Artie gritted his teeth in frustration as a deafening strike of thunder echoed outside the tower.

He glanced upward at the bookshelves and then down, eventually centering his sight on the fire below the cooking pot. Clasping his hand together, he shook with the ire of someone who was victimized, and had seen countless like him come before.

“But they are chains nevertheless,” he never looked away from the fire.

 

He wouldn’t evoke pyromancy here in the First Enchanter’s office.

Artie focused energy fueled by his blood. The gore evaporated into red vapour and his hands erupted with flames that built without warning. The robes and tabletop caught fire as he turned slowly, angrily ablaze. Solona recoiled and tumbled back over a chair, grasping at its legs.

The templars violently rushed in with their weapons drawn.

An inferno born of blood magic combusted out from Artie. The templars defensively attempted to dispel his pyre and cleanse the area of magic. Irving stood formidable behind his desk, reaching for his staff. Solona alarmingly got up and retreated across the elaborate carpet. She dreaded seeing the blood that would soon be creeping across its fibers 

Artie cried out as he uncontrollably threw flames at the templars, knocking them prone. They shook their armoured heads in surprise and grasp for their weapons, tossed into the corners of the room. One clutched his shield defensively, and the other charged. Hollering echoed through the chamber as he met the furious mage. The templar fell as they collided. Artie remained on the offensive, despite his apparent lack of control over the element engulfing him.

The remaining templar raised his shield, charging as he reflected explosive attacks. He cast back the mage’s fire into the floor. Artie raised his arms in fury, producing a string of pure arcane energy. He flung the strand backward and it cracked like a whip. The mage cast his spell around the templar’s ankles, tripping him. Before the templar knew it, he was on his back again.

Irving  grasped his ironwood staff and advanced on Artie. He wielded the weapon to sheath himself in a protective arcane orb and then fired a bolt of lightning. The spell built up in the ceiling before arcing down again at his foe.

Powerful white energy hit Artie. He was still completely engulfed in a blaze, that he appeared to have a hard time controlling. He reached with outrageous passion to forge his flames into a fireball. The templar summoned the last of his strength to shelter himself from Artie’s powerful attack. From the ground, he raised his shield, completely desperate.

Irving called lightning down on Artie once more and focused it with the staff. He blast the young mage savagely against the massive dwarven map. His body hit the crystal with a brutal crack that extinguished his wrathful fire instantly. Artie sank and sat, slumped against the carved map, clutching his chest with a smouldering hand. He let out a pained yell that faded into several long moans.

I can’t believe he’s still not an abomination, he’s human. That must have really hurt.

Knight Commander Greagoir hurried into the chamber, at last. The Andrastian sword crest on his breastplate was barely visible through the smoke. Upon surveying the scene he rushed to his injured templar, and sorrowfully looked down at his fallen knight. A blood mage had murdered one of his own. Greagoir was slow to his feet, but steadfast in facing the First Enchanter.

 

“You’ve done a great service for the Circle today, Irving. But it’s no kindness to keep him alive. The Chantry will want swift and severe justice for this atrocity”.

The Knight Enchanter hesitated to let go of his staff, even as his Knight Commander’s presence bid him to do so.

Greagoir demanded that the blood mage traitor be executed immediately. Lighting struck wildly outside as Irving held his staff firmly in defiance. He strongly disagreed with killing any apprentice, especially one that had been released from their prison in such harsh condition. Artie has been mistreated, and had acted like any person would.

The Knight Commander disagreed, the apprentice was not a person anymore. He was a blood mage! He’d killed a templar attempting to escape again, and would face justice. Or else the wrath of the Chantry will come down on Kinloch Hold. The Knight Commander yelled the creed of the Templar Order.

If the templars were indeed so powerful, one not need wail their tenants onto unwilling ears.

Greagoir and Irving argued in a perfectly rehearsed pattern that Solona had heard before. She had never been acquainted with any of the mages they feuded over. She muted them in her mind, only listening to the crackle of the flames still licking the floor from their centralized location... the hearth. Solona remembered Artie’s injured condition in a panic, but stopped herself from rushing to play the nurse again.

Artie recoiled from my healing spell. He’s not a blood mage, he wasn’t proud of his choice. Escape without magic betrayed him, and imprisonment scarred him. He had no more options and now they want to butcher him like a rabbit stewed in ale with onions.

She sprinted to Irving’s side and quickly seized his staff. She dove between him and Greagoir, winding her arms for the final blow.

 

Petrify.

Artie’s smoking, injured body encrusted toe to tip into a statue.

He looks furious.

Irving progressed toward Solona, calmly reclaiming his staff. Solona tugged back against his hold on it. She cursed, and finally handed it over.

He’s my First Enchanter, and my mentor. Can he ever be my friend? My family?

She retreated back to the alchemy lab in tears. More templars entered the room and started gathering the corpse of their fallen comrade. They hurled questions and accusations at First Enchanter Irving.

She begged Irving not to tell his brothers it was her that petrified Artie. She could find a way to live with it, but not if they knew. The First Enchanter’s apprentice wailed against the workbench. As her tears fell on the remaining metal shavings, the alloy responded to her energy and rose up from the tabletop.

Knight Commander Greagoir heard her pleas. He talked at her without approaching, stating that this wasn’t the first insurgence the Circle has ever seen and it wouldn’t be the last. Mages have always bore grudges against the templars. He and Irving would not be alerting Artie’s family of this treachery. They did not want to invite more attempts on the First Enchanter’s life. Greagoir stated his verdict gingerly, he had been startled by Solona’s abilities.

 

He warily grasped Irving’s arm, “How long will a petrify spell from your titanium last?”

The Grand Enchanter gently released Greagoir grip and replied,

“As long as you don’t give her the need to make that man her ally”.

Lighting cracked close to the tower as Solona felt her faith in the Knight Commander grow weak. She and Greagoir inspected the newly formed statue of Artie alongside one another. Regret furrowed her young brow. She had truly chained this poor man in ways the templars never could.

 

Chapter Text

*Ballard the Templar and Tuomas Ironspear are original characters created by me.

“I don’t owe you an explanation” sighed Aedan as he felt the tension between him and Morrigan growing.
“The townsfolk of Jader will stare, no doubt”. Morrigan waved her hand as she explained and her copper bangles chimed. Young Cousland didn’t care. She was wrong.
The kaddis paint didn’t smell like rotten fish, it was pleasant enough once the senses adjusted. Felly looked glorious and she was better protected from the slashing claws of their darkspawn enemies.

Aedan couldn’t recall exactly when they had crossed the border into Orlais. Weeks has passed since they branched off from the Imperial Highway south of Redcliffe. Humble farm dwellings along the road and cliffs blooming with red clay were long behind them.

The presence of the blight was evident in the landscape, the vitality of plant and animal life had decreased rapidly. Trees shriveled and dried, grass and ferns stagnated into a thin shadow of the luscious undergrowth that had once carpeted the forest floor. The only animal the trio had seen from the road was a bereskarn; a blighted bear. Spikes protruded from it’ patchy fur and had caused charred wounds to sprout on it’s hump and appendages. It was a creature with a terrifying appearance, however, content to merely hiss at the warden through blackened fangs. It pawed the dry meadow, several brambles tumbled off a vine. Aedan concluded that the bereskarn must be prodded into battle by darkspawn; it seemed uncompelled by the call of the archdemon.

He attempted to talk with Morrigan on the road. She continued to keep to herself, responding to his inquiries or comments with brief answers. Content in her own company around an appropriately distanced fire when they stopped to make camp at dusk. She would allow Felly into her camp some nights. Even in her true human form Morrigan bonded easily with his mabari warhound.

On the road they passed refugees fleeing the blight toward Orlais. Woeful people in torn clothes trudging through the muddy remnants of the highway. Aedan and Morrigan outpaced travelers easily since most folks weighed themselves down with treasures or personal belongings rather than traveling light only with the necessities. Young Cousland felt a pang of sentimentality when he saw nobles along the road, but he reminded himself that his old life was over. The trio journeyed with a purpose; a quickness to meet their allies and their foes.

Midday approached as Morrigan watched him pause to observe a nobleman from The Hinterlands struggle with loading clothing bundles onto an ox. She shook her head and strode passed himm with impatient urgency. Aedan rushed to match her pace. He passed peasants fixing broken wagon wheels and insistently pulling on the bridles of stubborn roan horses. The mud slowed everything down, but Aedan was able to trudge through the sorrowful noise of complaining people and animals.
“It is strange to pass by these folks unseen. Back in Highever their kind were always imploring for my good will. I grew accustomed to being in a position able to grant their pleading with the prize they sought in one form or another. But I was a diplomat until they pulled me too hard”, he stated, striding beside her through the panicked countryside. Blighted pollen rose from cracked trees as they bent in the wind.

“Don’t you mean push?” She held her fierce gaze on the stagnant landscape ahead of her.
“I am the sole survivor of the Cousland dynasty. Our heraldry is one of peace; crossed branches. Nobles don’t push me, they pull, for chance that evoking my name would inspire their forces. We are Teryns, second only to the royal family”. Aedan smirked, as he adjusted the strap of his Cousland shield on his shoulder.

“You’re a Grey Warden now. A pariah in Ferelden caught in the aftermath of Ostagar”, she tittered. Metals bracelets chimed together as she reached to brush dried spores from her hair.

The trio crossed a massive stone bridge over an echoing misty chasm. Guard tower braziers lit the way into the city of Jader, the Orlesian settlement closest to the Ferelden border. Aedan greeted the morose gate guard as a Grey Warden and the knight summoned his squire to fetch a pending Warden message from the rookery. Aedan fondly recalled his redheaded nephew, Oren, when the young lad returned clutching a fiesty bird.

They received a carrier pigeon from Solona stating that she and Alistair had secured Arl Leonas Bryland as an ally at South Reach. They were now at West Hills, awaiting an audience with Arl Gallagher Wulff.

I can’t help but feel jealous with their progress.

Head to Kinloch Hold now. Was all the letter closed with.

Aedan folded the letter and recalled his fondness for mages in addition to his desire to have a wife that commanded the forces of nature. Morrigan received the paper from him. Upon reading it she bitterly reminded him of the strength that the Circle Mages would bring. That is, if they could be convinced to become Grey Warden allies.

Aedan thoughtfully looked at the city unfolding around them. Squires hurriedly climbed stone staircases as a blacksmith hammered nearby and clamored orders to his accompanying farrier. A weathered woman lifted a horse’s hind leg to inspect its shoe. Not a single person had noticed Felly prancing around in her fresh coat of kaddis paint. Aedan breathed a sigh of relief.
“I want to continue into Jader to find sympathetic forces”, he said.
The hedge witch sniped that he best promptly finish whatever it was he had planned.

Does my plan begin and end with Orlesian Grey Wardens? How will their noble forces be swayed? Maybe local Chevaliers would know?

Aedan thoughtfully scanned the settlement. A bard delighted a group of muddy children on a piccolo. Pollen spores blew in from the countryside and settled on the people and animals that crowded the square. A man in full plate armour rolled his eyes in a casual conversation with the blacksmith.

He is wearing such fine armour! Maybe he is a Chevalier.

Aedan brazenly approached the armoured man hoping that this stranger might make pleasant conversation like Ser Gilmore had, back at Castle Cousland.
The foreigner was a sharp but shrewd man. Aedan was not astounded to find that he was a Fereldan. His name was Ballard. He was a templar with unwavering loyalty to the Fereldan Order as well as the Chantry. Aedan couldn't help but inquire about the visitor’s business here in Jader.
The templar had tanned skin, short black hair, and penetrating brown eyes. He stated that he was urgently tracking a treacherous and illusive malificar. His ruthless sense of piety and refusal to discuss Circle affairs acted as a social hindrance.
Aedan hastily excused himself and retreated to his apostate companion across the muddy town square. Morrigan turned and introduced the Warden to a young copper haired elf. Aedan was anxious to forget the templar hunter. He introduced himself to the young elf in unkempt Chantry robes.
She was Sicily Dy'Nesh. The lithe girl wasn’t reluctant to divulge details about her life, it seemed Morrigan could be friendly when she desired so. The alienage of Val Royeaux was but a distant memory for Sicily. It was rumored to be the most populated slum in Thedas, with over ten thousand elves. She was given to the Chantry’s Grand Cathedral at a young age to fill it’s monumental halls with her celestial voice. Sicily’s talents awarded her with annual trips to the Empress’ winter palace to grace its honoured guests. One day frightful fits began to plague her dreams and eventually spread to her daily life. Newly obtained behaviours and hearing the voice of the Maker, accompanied by fainting spells resulted in the thirteen year-old being transported to the Chantry in Jader to live out her days in peace.
Marketplace chatter and wind chimes muted as Aedan honed in on details of Sicily. She thoughtfully clutched a porcelain Orlesian mask encrusted with rare emeralds. Morrigan pulled Aedan aside and told him that she sensed the mask was impractically lined with a lyrium concoction. She further commented that Sicily wearing this mask was likely what made her hear the Maker’s voice in the first place. Aedan paused, eyeing the valuable artifact.
Aedan summoned Felly and the painted mabari bounded toward their corner of the the town square, her pink tongue glistening in the dull midday sun. Sicily dropped her guard and tucked her mask into the back of her belt as she leaned toward the joyful dog. Young Cousland smiled down on his furry companion as he carefully lifted the mask from the elf’s possession and leaned back. He backed away into an alcove of the square opposite from the musical bard’s crowd of children.
Morrigan shot a curious glance at Aedan and excused herself from Sicily. She inquired about the stolen mask with a cool demeanor.
“I will never own lands again or have anything so fanciful. This is my chance. Maybe we can use it to bribe some Chevaliers. Or at the very least, sell it to hire some Chasind” Aedan explained to the witch.
“Are you serious?” Morrigan’s yellow stare punctured him beneath her raven hair.
Aedan struggled to respond, “wh-what Morrigan? The Avaar are too proud, and you know that. Chasind barbarians are an easy mark. I can only pray their fear can be outdone by their greed”.
“Don’t say that word”.
“Greed?”
“No… pray”.
Morrigan returned to converse further with Sicily as she cooed over the fawn coloured mabari. The hedge witch pried for details regarding travelers passing through the Jader Chantry. Aedan scoured the town with renewed vigor. Middle class merchant huts lined the inner walls of Jader, decorated with two toned flags of various Orlesian trade guilds. Between the entry gate and the stables, journeyman tradesmen bartered their services. This was a nexus and resources were either frivolous or necessary and grossly overpriced.
Aedan Cousland, you fight a battle against the Tevinter dragon god of beauty.
He spun around looking for the deep raspy voice. How close was its source? The words almost seemed to come from within his body.
You must guard your body against its corrupted contempt for free living life. Guard your sight… for lo, behold the Architect has no eyes.
Aedan shook his head. It became clear to him that there were no Chevaliers currently in Jader. The only soldier he thought was a Chevalier turned out to be a templar. Ballard was a pious prick and the Warden wanted to keep him far away from his precious hedge witch.
Urthemiel. I hope you can achieve more against her than a shallow grave.
A vibrating sound stung his left ear and migrated across the back of his head. The hum tickled the hair at the nape of his neck.
Aedan weaved between manured covered peasants and stressed travelers for a better view of the marketplace. Felly burst out of a haystack in front of him! She circled before lowering herself into a playful bow; cropped tail wagging high in the air. Young Cousland whirled, his arc placing him in the path of a tall man with grey facial tattoos dressed in embellished studded armour. As he recoiled from the warden, the longbow strapped to his back swayed. The two men locked stares for a moment as blighted spores floated down around them in time with the nearby bard’s piccolo melody.
“Excuse me, sir,” Aedan uttered. The man decorated with tattoos muttered to himself before chugging from a rugged wineskin.
“I am Chasind…. N-not a sir”, he stammered lowering his drink.
“You’re what?” inquired Aedan, stepping to the side and eyeing the man’s symmetrical tattoos and ironwood bow.
“Tuomas Ironspear of Ferelden. Chasind…. Uh, how do you say it in the common tongue? Hero-heoror-herr.. Ahh, yes heroic, I do not say this word very often. Heroic mess, at your service”.
Aedan stepped back. A half drunk Chasind giant stood before him struggling to return his drink to his belt. Morrigan suddenly appeared at his side, intrigued.
Aedan…
The warden tried to force the unwelcome voice from his mind.
It’s coming your way, pup. It’ coming your way. It comes.
Morrigan lectured that his tattoos represented the shamanic traditions of his tribe. He was a man with great respect for magic. It was obvious to the witch that he was a shaman guardian; a tribal bodyguard. She also noted that the Ferelden opinion of the Chasind as a primitive culture, however popular, was undeserved. Chasind Wilders bore labyrinthine tattoos as a sign of preservation of their shamans from the templar’s grasp. He would make a choice traveling companion for a Grey Warden and a Witch of the Wilds.
Aedan didn’t want to waste the lyrium mask on a single man, he wanted to use to purchase a score of Chasind warriors.
“Sir… Tuomas. I am also Fereldan. A Grey Warden formally a Cousland of Highever. Might you be inspired to fight for your homeland against the encroaching darkspawn horde?”
He confidently tried to win over the Chasind with his outstanding reputation; Tuomas seemed on the fence. His studded armour gleamed as he shrugged and strolled away from Aedan toward a sparse pasture behind Jader’s stables. He navigated the snowy ruts in the earth with ease. Chasind weren’t comfortable inside civilized settlements. Aedan rushed after Tuomas, abandoning all composure. He begged the towering man to join his quest, and once again he refused. The Chasind, however reluctant, divulged the truth. He had been denied further passage into Orlais beyond Jader. The warden stumbled across the frozen mounds to get ahead of Tuomas, trying to convince him to take up arms in defense of his homeland instead of fleeing. The barbarian was still as he refused a third time. Aedan shrunk back and vowed in silent rage to never again make himself appear vulnerable to an asset.
Aedan stood strong and firm in in the awkward shapes of the mud. His exhaled breath rose in calm vapours but he was furious.

Ballard the templar, the dismissive pious nomad, rushed to his side and breathed urgent frosty breath as he spoke. Darkspawn were charging the bridge into Jader and the town needed every able bodied man to defend the gate.

Perfect that you find me here, templar. This will be exactly what I need.

Young Cousland whistled for his mabari and together they headed back to the bridge over the foggy chasm that was the only avenue from Ferelden. Aedan leaned on the base of a trebuchet and directed his gaze across the bridge. He could not deny the sounds of slaughter that awaited them.

Urthemiel’s commands drives her servants ever onwards. Her sinful veil of beauty is as effective as a master’s whip.

"You don't need to tell me twice!" Aedan shouted at the forthright voice in his head.

They navigated undisturbed through newborn piles of rubble and stacks of shattered barrels that were once filled with fish and ale, these comforts now seemed like distant memories. Small blazes scattered about at the entryway into Jader, lit by shattered lanterns pummeled by batches of darkspawn arrows. The broadhead projectiles secreted a pungent and noxiously foul air that drove Aedan to hate the darkspawn even more.

An arrow sailed smoothly from beyond the veil of fog. It was silent until it glided over Felly. Before the hound could react the bolt sunk into the redheaded squire’s chest. Silence was broken by the sound of bodkin piercing bone, and a gentle gasp escaped the boy's throat as his body crumpled to the ground. Soon a stream of blood spurted from the wound and it was clear his death had been immediate.

The world turned over for Aedan as his rage shone out of him like the sun. His perception spun from the fallen boy, underneath the grand stone bridge, and upward again to the darkspawn coming across the bridge. He could sense the hive mind and wild ferocity of charging Genlocks. Their armour was unsightly but sturdy and the craftsmanship akin to light Ferelden infantry. He suspected they had looted corpses back at Ostagar.

Aedan sprinted to the middle of the bridge and easily parried an attacked from the first Genlock. Felly followed and ferociously bombarded a Hurlock archer with a flurry of tooth and claw. Aedan carried a calm demeanor, a disposition invaluable to warriors, and his quick footwork saved him from being mercilessly hacked to pieces. It required precise striking, iron determination and maybe a hint of luck but Aedan and Felly were able to annihilate the first two intruders.
Tuomas sauntered up the gate, waved to the Warden, and drew back his bowstring. Behind him half a dozen men had gathered, Ballard was not among them and neither was Morrigan.
Aedan carefully walked back across the bridge, hesitant to return. He did not want to clearly see the young squire’s fatal wounds. The boy lay flattened with his arms clutching his chest. Aedan once again experienced the soulless glare from dead eyes he had witnessed when Howe’s soldiers murdered his nephew, Oren.

A Sharlock accompanied by three Genlocks charged headlong into the improvised vanguard. Aedan met the lithe, shrieking enemy with Felly baring her teeth. The two warriors fought side by side just as they had practiced on straw dummies and giant rats many times before. The Shriek blinked in and out of existence as it advanced. Aedan parried claw attacks dealt by his well-armoured enemy and drew his dagger with his left hand. He sought to puncture his foe's leg at the first opportunity.

All it took was a longsword laceration across it’s ankle accompanied by a dagger piercing it’s thigh and the prevailing darkspawn leader fell prone onto its back. It’s visage shimmered but failed to blink away as it was overwhelmed by the ferocious mabari warhound. Aedan cleaved into the second vermin’s neck, and the Genlock fell to the ground writhing. The remaining two darkspawn were fatally struck by the wrath of the Tuomas’ arrows. Aedan made his way back into Jader, briefly searching the gateway and portcullis for the still absent Morrigan.

The Chasind gasped, lowering his ironwood bow, “I think I will stay in Ferelden. I want to safeguard my homeland, if I can”. The mysterious archer raised his eyebrows, curving his facial tattoos. Aedan sheathed his dagger and wiped the bubbling darkspawn taint from his face. Tuomas reached out, and the warden sealed their handshake gladly with a bloodied hand.

Across the cobblestone bridge plateau arose a force of frightened, fleeing peasants. Aedan reached across the canyon with his is honed senses. Genlocks were slaying travelers on the road in the woods. Their enemies were hot on their trail; servants of the blight.
Ballard will be able to win over villagers’ hearts and minds.
Tuomas was angered when they entered the city outskirts to find the templar soothing the crowd. Aedan could understand how he felt... it was he that assisted the Grey Warden in slaying encroaching darkspawn. He had earned the young warden’s trust. Aedan assured him that his abilities to protect Ferelden were more valuable now because they were seasoned against actual darkspawn; Ballard was too green. He bid the Chasind to look around them. Further, beyond Jader. Tuomas cocked an eyebrow and looked upward to the sky.
“Not so high, Chasind, your beating heart lives in this country. Look to the mountains. You see the evergreen trees?”
“Yes, of course”.
“Your resolve is like the pine tree. Need I explain further?”
“You really needn’t”, Tuomas rolled his eyes and shouldered the longbow before sullenly crossing his arms.
***
“I assure you, my good warden, Solona Amell and I are good friends.” Ballard handed the folded missive from South Reach back to Aedan. The pair sat before a radiant campfire across from Tuomas. The warm scent and crackle of charcoal soothed Aedan as he returned the paper to his pack. He took a moment to stroke his crested shield in the firelight.
I wish I had more to remember them by.
Tuomas thoughtfully stripped and bound the Sharlock’s pale skull to one of his studded leather pauldrons. He had been silent since the templar had joined them at their camp.
Shortly before dusk Aedan was privy to a dialogue with the Chasind as together they fruitlessly searched for Morrigan. Tuomas had seen firsthand the importance of standing his ground against the horde. He was, after all, Fereldan and not entitled to the convenience of caution any longer. The warden smiled as the shaman bodyguard worried over Morrigan. He surmised that she may have been captured by another templar, or perhaps, a new unseen enemy. Aedan insisted otherwise since a hedge witch that can skinchange is rarely caught off her guard.
“It’s such a fortunate coincidence that you would know Solona,” Aedan looked from the Cousland shield to Ballard. The templar’s smile seemed honest to him.
“I don’t believe this one”, Tuomas spat as he tightened the final fastening around the skull.
The templar glared across the camp at the Chasind wilder, “Kinloch Hold is hardly the largest Circle of Magi in Thedas.”
“Is it the only Circle in Ferelden?” asked Tuomas, his tattoos pulsating with the ebbing glow of the central flames. Silence ensued except for a owl hooting and the crackle of the firewood. Ballard’s plate armour calmly reflected the glow of the campfire as he responded,
“Lady Amell is quite a memorable mage as apprentice of the First Enchanter. She is both remarkable and acclaimed”.
Tuomas shook his head and took a generous chug from his wineskin.
“I find myself curious about the woman you were with earlier. The one with black hair and peculiar wilder clothing? Where did your companion make off to?” Ballard inquired, shifting his weight uneasily on the frigid ground.
“She always makes camp secluded from me. I’m confident she will return on the morrow”, Aedan dismissed the templar’s questioning with a wave of his hand.
Barking echoed in an archway nearby and Felly returned to her master. She happily tilted back her cropped ears and wagged her short tail as she entered the camp. Aedan placed a calming hand atop her head; the bite on her ear from Ostagar had healed completely. Young Cousland surmised that his beloved warhound has been exposed to the darkspawn taint during the battle. Fortunately, she was showing no signs of the blight. Aedan recalled the horrible bereskarn he had spotted on the road into Jader and felt relief wash over him as he beheld Felly’s healthy wet nose and alert beady eyes. It would be such a shame for her to come all this way from Highever just to fall victim to a Genlock’s bite.

***
Aedan couldn’t recall exactly when he had arrived back in Highever. A roaring fire greeted him and Felly with the lingering scent of salt and copper. The cupboards had been looted. All of the tables and barrels were overturned in the chaos that was Arl Howe's treachery.
On the floor right before the entrance to the larder was Old Nan, just where Aedan and Ser Gilmore had left her standing earlier that day. It was hard to believe but there she was, body broken and bloodied among the corpses of her useless elf servants. Young Cousland and his hound stopped to take in the sight of the kitchens but Teyrna Eleanor desperately headed directly for the larder in hopes of finding her husband alive.

***
Aedan was shaken awake by raven hair under a burgundy hood looming over him as his eyes blinked open. He groggily sat up and saw Morrigan, Tuomas, and Felly all getting to their feet. Smoke rose from an extinguished fire. Ballard was nowhere in sight.

Around the fire was a half-finished breakfast of porridge topped with honey and ripe blueberries. Tuomas offered Aedan a clay mug and he accepted. He was surprised to find it filled with goat’s milk. The thick, chilled drink soothed his parched throat.

“I heard the horde has finally crossed the border into Orlais”, the hedge witch mused.

“I have a plan, Morrigan,” Aedan explained, “we need to convince Chevaliers to go further west and alert the Grey Warden order in the Orlesian Empire.”

Young Cousland got to his feet, throwing his backpack and shield over one shoulder. Morrigan scowled at him. She was silent but her body language screamed, How, you insufferable man, are you going to attempt this foolish errand?

“With the help of our new Chasind companion here,” he gestured at Tuomas. The tall wilder squeezed his wineskin gently to gage its fullness. “We will journey south, staggering only slightly from our true path, and knab a darkspawn so they believe us. Just a Genlock”
Morrigan sighed heavily, exasperated. She pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger.

“What’s this true path you speak of?” Inquired Tuomas. Aedan shot a sideward glance at Morrigan’s frustration before responding.

“Kinloch Hold”, he stated firmly.

“After no small effort on our part... the Chevaliers perchance help us if we hunt down a single Genlock. But why? Because of their chivalrous pride? They conceivably might measure our threatening foe as worth their effort?”. The irritated witch continued, “I assume you have a sequel to this first part of your plan?”

***
Aedan lead his pursuing party of Morrigan, Tuomas, and Felly through the winding arctic foothills of the Frostback Mountains. The humans trekked single file through the snow just south of Jader bound tightly in their cloaks as the biting wind whipped against this bodies. No sounds accompanied them, safe for the occasional echo of rocks tumbling far in the distance. Aedan looked up at the cloudless sky, blue and clear as the waves of the Amaranthine Sea. He wondered if the still waters of Lake Calenhad could compare, enclosing around the the infamous Circle of Magi.

The quartet entered a narrow gulley and Felly took the lead, her Kaddis paint trailing a foul scent behind her. The warhound’s tracks were easy to follow in the snow, but young Cousland inhaled sharply with anxiety as she disappeared ahead of them between the folds of vertical stone.

“Aedan this is a prime spot for a lurking pitfall, or the like”, warned Morrigan, tightly bound in her maroon cloak and black fur pelts. She continued, “The aid of the Chevaliers hardly seems worth this risk… in fact, the trial of deviating from the main road during a blight hardly seems worth anything”. She sighed heavily releasing vapours from beneath her raven hair.

“Those proud fucks”, chimed Tuomas with exasperation. Another howling echo of falling rocks rang throughout the gulley.

Suddenly, growls and roaring snarls could be heard from Felly ahead. Aedan’s senses reeled and his sight shot forward through the trees. Between parched cedar trunks and over glacial boulders his mind zoomed until it stopped frozen, focusing on a dark hulking figure. The edges of his vision blurred, but the warden sensed the Ogre.

He shook his head clear and shouted, “Ambush!” Aedan lunged forward with his shield and darted between the rocks until he was unprohibited enough to draw his longsword. His feet pounded unlevel ground as he raced to his mabari.

She’s surely met her doom, your dog. ‘Tis an ogre she faces with only her teeth and a hide covered in spellbinding mud. Lead your party to safer paths while you still can.

They emerged from between the crags one after another. At last, Tuomas was able to draw his bow, and Morrigan flicked her wrists to ignite her hands with blue flames. They had stumbled into a ravine hunting a Genlock and had unintentionally laid bare to a colossal Ogre.

“I don’t expect either of you to lay down your lives for Felly”, Aedan cautioned with frosty breath. His chest heaved with panic and his right hand gripped his sword tighter.
Tuomas knocked an arrow, “That mabari fought darkspawn with me, for no reward. I will fight”. He pulled back his bowstring and Morrigan nodded in agreement. Her cerulean fires pulsated and erupted as she charged forward. She highlighted the mounds of snow with light as she raced over unsure terrain.
The Ogre burst through the edge of the wood and tossed a lodgepole pine into the sturdy mountain wall. It roared and sprayed tainted mucous as it rolled its horns into another nearby tree. The ravine rang with the reverberation of the tearing trunk. Woodland debris flew and Tuomas winced, but soon steadied his drawn bow to fire an arrow that struck the beast’s eye.
It shrank to coddle its devastating injury and Aedan froze to behold the shuddering giant before him. Felly was nowhere in sight.
As the warden searched, Morrigan raced passed him, erupting azure flames from her hands. The surrounding trees caught fire and exploded into a massed attack of wooden splinters, piercing the darkspawn and shaking the landscape past its breaking point.

A landslide shook free from atop the gulley snowballed toward them. Tuomas grabbed Aedan’s arm and pulled him back toward the narrow rock crevice.
“Morrigan!” Aedan pleaded, still retreated backward. The witch extinguished her spell with wondrous speed and looked upward at the landslide coming her way. She winced and covered her ears, halting a moment to collect herself. Aedan exclaimed one more time before she muttered a spell and burst into a shadowy cloud of mist, from which emerged a huge blackbird. The raven swooped back to Aedan and Tuomas before soaring high into the cloudless sky.
Aedan and Tuomas leapted to avoid the falling rocks but missed their mark. They fell short and tumbled down the hard, icy slope gliding more than they rolled, ever gaining speed. Tuomas wrapped a massive arm around Aedan as the two approached the apex of the slope and then pushed away from him as the men flew into the air.

Aedan’s thoughts focused on falling until he remembered Felly. He pictured her tail wagging and her ears rising briskly in the air. Just as he was able to recall her shining eyes he hit the freezing waters below with breakneck speed alongside Tuomas. An riverbed had caught them and the warden fought against being swallowed by the frigid current.

***

Morrigan’s voice was muffled and panicked as Aedan rose shakily to his feet, stung and shocked by the freezing water that rose to his waist. He faltered and Felly’s maw gripped his cape and drug him ashore. His hound lead him as he crawled across the riverbed with numb fingertips. Aedan struggled to grasp small sliding rocks for what seemed like an eternity until the party crossed the boundary into a cave and he collapsed.

They emerged in an underground grotto with dripping stalactites. Razor sharp landscape barely penetrated his blurred vision. He shook uncontrollably as a mighty blackbear laid out Tuomas. The lengthy Chasind was motionless alongside him. The bear huffed a breathe of black mist and shrunk into a shapeless cloud for a moment, then returned to its original mage form. Morrigan fell to her knees, urgently placing one hand on Aedan’s chest and the other on Tuomas’. White light glowed as she attempted to revive the two men.
Aedan gasped loudly and struggled with double vision before his breathing finally slowed to a normal pace. Felly rushed to lick his face with her bright pink tongue.

“We cannot stay here! We must flee!” Morrigan exclaimed, sweat pouring down her pale face.
“Sound the retreat…” Aedan rolled onto his side, clutching his head with one hand. He pressed against the cave floor and tried to take in his surroundings. His sight spun and zoomed toward the mouth of the cavern with renewed vigour.
Darkspawn were pouring into the dark sanctuary with unbridled savagery. They climbed over one another to reach the Grey Warden still reeling on the ground.

Aedan stood uneasily and the decorated Orlesian mask tumbled from his pack. The artifact hit the ground and rose to pivot on the point of the nose. It suddenly erupted in a burst of celestial light. The treasure’s lining shone brightly and flooded the warden’s head with shouting voices.
A square frame suddenly illuminated in the corner of the grotto. Aedan’s head rose hypnotically to meet the blinding brightness. He turned back at his companions. Morrigan leaned over Tuomas, who was finally awake. The Chasind’s lengthy body shivered and he tried to raise his arms to cross them in front of his chest.
“I feel a-l-l-l-live. G-good d-day to be alive, Sir Highev-ver” he struggled to speak as he convulsed. Aedan smiled at his comrade and eyed the approaching darkspawn battalion. Their shrieking echoed in the abyssal cavern as his numb fingers cradled the lyrium mask. He stumbled toward the light, feeling the encroaching horde scraping at his heels. The warden forced his heels against the sliding ground beneath him. He weakly lifted the glowing keepsake toward the radiance of the doorway. It’s brilliance responded and erupted into a pool of rippling silver.
The darkspawn recoiled from the spreading illuminance and Morrigan wasted no time. She grabbed Tuomas’ wrists and fervently dragged the Chasind toward radiant door.

“Eluvian!” Morrigan elated, in a raspy breath.
Aedan clutched the iridescent mask in one hand and scruffed Felly with the other. He leaned forward until he stumbled through the quicksilver with his hound. Morrigan paused to stare in awe for a moment, the elaborate border of the eluvian mirror glowed. It was embellished with perched dragons and frightening wolves. Strands of sweaty hair slapped her cheek as she stepped into the doorway, hoisting Tuomas’ shivering body in after her.

***

Ballard stepped over a score of charred darkspawn at the mouth of the cave. He tread lightly but the echoes of his full plate armour rang rather loudly in the cavern. The Grey Warden had come this way.
He followed a trail of drag marks and paw prints through the cavern until he came to their end, where a mirror calmly rippled.
The templar gingerly touched the liquid doorway with his index finger and it responded to his touch with echoing ripples. He pulled his hand back and drew his sword.
Panic wracked his body, but eventually subside in the cavern’s silence. Water dripped as his breath quickened, and pebbles shuffled beneath his armoured boots.
Moments passed before Ballard was finally able to strengthen himself.
“So they’ve found the key to this one… how fantastic”.

His grip tightened around the sunburst hilt of his longsword as he stepped through the eluvian.

Chapter Text

What can one do about pain that stays with them when they try to run away?

Ballard felt foul on the inside, like a wickedness seeded amidst his duty and prayers. He needed Neria to hold him until the evil slept.

***

The templar fell into a dream in which Neria was bound to be burned at the stake like Andraste. Arms fixed tightly behind her back and head hanging lifelessly. She raised her head but her swollen eyes remained closed. Branches sprouted menacingly from the wooden post and weaved around her as dried oak boughs. A golden snake slithered on the tethered mage and coiled tightly around her neck. Metal scales settled against skin and her bright green eyes shot open.

The withered branch nearest to her wavering body began to bear fruit, slowly at first, then rapidly one glistening red apple after the next. They shriveled into rotten clumps at Ballard’s touch and fell from the tree. Neria begged him, wordless, as airy gasps escaped her lips.

Gusting wind blew dried leaves and dust around the two of them. He raised his hand to shield his eyes from the stinging grit storm. A flash of lightning sliced through the gale revealing a figure standing behind him.

You witness evil in yourself and thus choose to see it in others when it is not there.

Ballard turned around and beheld Solona Amell, Neria’s the best friend and constant companion in the Circle.

What have you done, Ballard? I hate you!

The woeful templar struggled to explain himself, but the words he spoke were not the phrases swarming in his mind; not closely resembling what he wanted to say at all. He was trying to tell her how he had begged for Neria’s life but the Templar Order had forced him to hunt her down. He wanted to echo the Knight Commander’s threats… but all he said to Solona was how disastrous and terrible she was. She was a wicked temptress deserving of the same fate as her treacherous friend.

She hated him? She had no idea what real hate was. Rage unconsciously clenched his fists. A rushing feeling that called him to action when he had seen Solona’s seductive undertaking of his fellow templar recruit. He was not going to let Cullen fall prey to the mage’s trap. He was deserving of so much more than just forbidden fruit; and so was Ballard.

It’s alright, I’m in love with the king now.

 

She glided passed him, her robes wafting a foul scent as she went. Ballard’s gaze follow her… Neria had vanished and a golden throne was in the place where she had stood. Solona turned and placed one hand atop the glimmering vessel, and as she did, she too turned to gold.

***

Ballard sat up in his bed. He was drenched with sweat but his cotton sheets were parched. Nightmares had plagued him fiercely every night since Neria had fled Kinloch Hold. He grew more anxious with every passing sunrise and now the day had finally arrived. Weakly rising from bed, he made his way across the sleeping chambers of the templar recruits. The stone floor chilled his feet. He walked briskly passed sleeping men, snoring and tossing in their beds, and approached a washing station. A small standing mirror and a stack of clean folded linens accompanied the vessel. Ballard splashed cool, refreshing water onto his face and sighed heavily as his eyes rose to meet his reflection.

The day had come… at dawn he would depart on his hunt for Neria Surana, the dangerous maleficar. He shut his eyes and thought of his elven lover. Soon his cock was hard and pressing against the seams of his smallclothes. Taking a deep breath, he reached for a cloth and dabbed it against his drenched face. Water dripped down his square chin and he inhaled deeply. He looked at the mirror, watching his large round nose fill with the stench unique to a men’s sleeping quarters. The odour furrowed his thick eyebrows over his sunken brown eyes.

I wish this night could last forever.

 

But it wouldn’t. He would be marched out the grand front doors of the tower as an example of templar resolve against the rising tide of mercy for mages. Knight Commander Greagoir had told him, those touched by magic could not be treated equal to the ungifted children of The Maker.

He fought back tears while his heart pumped blood from his nethers up to his head. He would hunt his lover and bring either her or her corpse back to the tower.
He would.
He would, or the Knight Commander would send someone far more cruel to do the deed.

He never wanted anyone else to feel this tormenting agony. He glanced over his shoulder at his sleeping comrades. His eyes searched in the dark, gliding from one recruit to another until his gaze fell on the man he sought; the hapless curly haired Cullen. Ballard had seen him wandering down the path of temptation. A blonde sojourn would gladly be his guide to doom. Solona Amell desired Cullen, and she would no doubt get what she wanted in time. Neria had taught her well.

Ballard vividly remembered a night in the library as he turned back to the mirror.

***

He was retrieving a satchel of dry white beans from a storage alcove when he spotted Cullen.
He guarded Solona familiarly in the library. She peered up from her tome and spoke,
“There may be trouble ahead for us, but I know you care. It’s something about your eyes… amber eyes. I’ll make you mine if you’ll have me”.

They had met after dark on many occasions to talk alone among the towering shelves of books. Half a dozen candles perched around the two of them. It allowed the perfect atmosphere for dreaming of a better tomorrow. Solona settled comfortably at a study desk resting her chin in her hand over a red book. The tome lay spread open to a center page.

“There’ll be nothing but suffering for us”, the templar stood over her and responded, placing an armoured hand gently on the desk alongside her. The mage dropped her arms and clasped his gauntlet, turning his palm up to cup her rosy cheek.
Ballard leaned on a mahogany bookcase listening to his fellow swallow hard in the dim candlelight. He knew Solona dreamed how things between them ought to have been. Cullen, however, held a more pragmatic point of view; realistic and difficult to accept.

Ballard and Neria were a severe truth that existed within The Circle. He knew this more than he would care to admit at the time.

The two of them had an undeniable spark, like a Fire Emblem flower bloomed, or rather it shriveled and lasted when dried. Preserved flowers from outside the tower had made a frequent appearance between the pages of Solona’s spellbook. Dried flowers had been pressed within her grimoire as gifts from Cullen.
Perhaps Solona had misread the gesture? She spared no time in showing Cullen the beckoning contents of the Verus armor erotica.
“I know you care”, she pleaded. Her hands released him and dropped to unfold the pages. This secret book, unlike her others, lacked vibrant orange petals among its crevices.
“I think we could be closer. I would give anything to have you do this to me”, she pointed to a drawing. Cullen leaned forward to behold the lover’s diagram and beheld the image for a moment before withdrawing from the table.

***

Ballard made a point to pass Cullen as he returned to his bed. One look at the young man’s face planted a seed in his mind. He would tell the Knight Commander everything he had seen to spare Cullen a fate wrought with torture and heartbreak.

I don’t want to. I don’t. No.

He wouldn’t.

Ballard’s resolved faltered as he returned to his bed. He opened the lid of the seasoned trunk that held his templar gear.
Neria’s smile and curved cheeks flashed into his mind one last time.
An early glimmer of sunrise danced through the stained glass windows of the sleeping quarters.
The day beckoned Ballard.
He glimpsed the lustrous beauty of the high window frame and imagined Neria’s hair curling around her pointed ears.

Ballard turned back to Cullen and felt like his heart was bleeding into his chest. If the young recruit was spared the same sorrowful departure that awaited him, it would be worth it.

He would.