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The Woman With a Dragon's Heart

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Prologue: In the Heart of Ferelden

They were making love in the dark in their tent, trying to be absolutely quiet so as not to wake the others, when Zev stopped suddenly. “Shh, mi amor… I hear…”

It was hard to stay still when she was so close, her arms and legs wrapped around him, but she did her best, looking up at him in concern.

He nodded once. “I think we might be under attack.”

Her good mood left instantly; she was still aroused, but there was no way she would climax with news like that. “By whom? Shouldn’t Rain have said something by now?”

“She’ll hear them in a moment,” he said, rolling off her and grabbing his shirt. “It’s the Crows. They’ve found us.” He looked down to where he was still hard and sighed. “No time for this. Put something on and grab your sword.”

“I can’t believe you are still on,” Elizabeth rejoined, already mostly dressed. “Being under attack puts me immediately off the mood.”

After defeating enemies, it’s a different story for you,” he teased, with a wink she could hardly see in the dark. “But I’m an assassin, my darling.”

“I know,” she said, rather tartly, hefting her shield and holding open the door of the tent just as their friend on watch, Rain Tabris, let out a startled shout. “Let’s go.”

“Way ahead of you,” Zevran said, disappearing into the darkness of the forest around their camp.

Elizabeth ran to Rain’s side, charging the man attacking her with a deafening warcry that probably left no doubt in anyone’s mind that Elizabeth Cousland was on the battlefield. The assassin facing the elf rogue faltered and then shrieked as Elizabeth’s sword hacked his arm off. Behind her, she could hear scuffling, and then a flash of light as Sarah Amell cast a glowing Glyph of Paralysis on the ground ahead of Rain. There was a more hoarse warcry, and the shorter figure of Hanna Brosca charged forward on Rain’s other side, towards the dark figures visible in the light of the glyph.

“Don’t let them hit you!” Elizabeth cried, smacking an attacker in the face with her shield. “Their weapons may be poisoned!” She heard a scream from the darkness ahead of her and hoped that it was Zevran’s victim who screamed and not Zevran. “Sarah, whenever you’re ready!”

“O-one minute,” Sarah called, but only a couple seconds later, the ground erupted under the Glyph of Paralysis as the mage cast its polar opposite, the Glyph of Repulsion, on the same spot.

In the confusion, Elizabeth looked around to try to make sure no assassins were sneaking up on them from another side. They were, shadows flickering between the trees. “Hanna!”

“With you, Boss!” the dwarf woman cried, and the two ran in the other direction to fight the men sneaking through the darkness on the other side of their camp.

It was a little bit nerve-wracking, fighting what she knew to be Crow assassins without her armour, but it was only added security and it wouldn’t actually help her fight better, only to feel better. More confusing was when a woman in heavy armour appeared out of the farther darkness of the forest, falling on her opponant and stabbing him in the back. Elizabeth, seeing no one else to face, stepped towards the new woman, throwing her shield towards her to drive her back, put her off-balance.

“Wait! Stop! Please!” cried the woman, throwing up her shield, which had the emblem of Denerim on it, Elizabeth finally saw. “I am not your enemy!”

“I apologize,” Elizabeth said hastily, although she didn’t go to help her up. This might be a more devious assassin. “Who are you?”

“My name is Mhairi, and I have come to bring you word of the Grey Wardens in Amaranthine.”

“How did you find us?” Zevran asked, appearing out of the forest behind her. “I think we are clear for Crows, Liz.”

“I-I overheard these assassins talking about you in an inn nearby, and followed them. I know it sounds suspicious, but…”

“Come here,” Elizabeth said. “Let me see you. Sarah, a light?” If she could just see Mhairi’s face while she talked, she would know whether to trust her or not. “What word do you bring, Mhairi?”

“The Grey Wardens of Orlais say they have made all ready for you to assume your position as their leader, the Commander of the Grey in Ferelden, and they ask that you return as soon as you may. I have been several weeks in searching for you…”

“I see,” Elizabeth said. Mhairi’s eyes held no guile that she could see, and her demeanour looked relaxed and trusting. “I will trust you.” She turned to Zevran. “I suppose it is time for me to return to civilization… What’s wrong?”

Zevran’s forehead was wrinkled in the way it did when he was worried but didn’t want to say anything. She crossed her arms. “Out with it.”

He tried to cover up with a smirk. “Right now? In front of everyone?”

She skewered him with an unimpressed look complete with raised eyebrow, and he chuckled softly before his face fell back into serious lines. “I think I must leave you soon.”

She had known it was coming sooner or later. She bowed her head. “It feels too soon.”

“It is too soon,” he said softly, his forehead wrinkling again. “We’ve only had a year to live for ourselves.”

But it had been a glorious year, free from the heaviest of responsibilities, driven only by her decisions, none of which would have a bearing on the rest of the world as far as she knew, a year to love and bicker and even fight and then make up again, a year to truly get to know each other in the deepest way they could. …Which Zevran would turn into an innuendo, so she said none of it aloud. Instead, she said: “What will you do?”

His forehead wrinkled again. She wished she could smooth it out, rub his ears, something. “I wonder how the Crows found us. It could be a problem.” He looked at her, golden eyes serious. “I think it is time for us to part ways. For both our safety.”

She nodded regretfully. “I understand. Where will you go?”

He began to smile. “I think I will go back to Antiva. I think they have forgotten why I was the most insufferable Crow in the country once. Time to clean up and remind them of that.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Good luck, then. Don’t get killed or I will be very upset.”

He chuckled. “You too, Liz darling. Although you will be surrounded by strong, knightly Wardens, so you will probably be fine. But if you do get hurt…” He shook a finger at her, and she put her hands on her hips with an arch look.

“Says the man proclaiming his intention to take on the world’s most feared assassins… single-handedly.”

“Are you sure we don’t have time to finish what we started?” He waggled his eyebrows and she made a strangled noise. Now was not the time for that! Even though she was tempted.

Hanna cleared her throat. “If you two are almost done flirting, we’d like to make an announcement too.”

Rain nodded her white head. “We’ve enjoyed traveling with you, Elizabeth, but we’d like to keep traveling.”

“Very well,” Elizabeth said. “I will go with Mhairi.”

“And I will go with you at least as far as Denerim,” Zevran said.

“You will take care of Sarah, yes?” Elizabeth put her hands on Sarah’s shoulders. “Remember what First Enchanter Irving said.”

“Yes, my lady!” Sarah said enthusiastically. “They’ll take care of me. I’ll be just fine!”

“She’ll be fine with me,” Rain said, putting an arm around Sarah’s shoulders. “Us. Don’t worry about us. We’ll write to you sometimes. You can write, can’t you, Sarah?”

“I can write,” Sarah said, giggling. “I’ll teach you to read and write, Rain!”

Hanna shook her head expressively.

“Take care, then,” Elizabeth said. “I think we should set off immediately.”

“Have a good time,” Hanna grunted, already heading back to the tent she shared with the other two women. Zevran and Elizabeth went back to their own, retrieving their armour and packing the tent, and then they followed Mhairi into the night.

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

 

A week and a half later, and Elizabeth and Mhairi were walking steadily up a surprisingly small road in the middle of the Arling of Amaranthine, heading to the castle of Vigil’s Keep, where a small force of a dozen Grey Wardens from Orlais waited for her to assume her position as their leader. Zevran had left them in Denerim, taking ship to Antiva. Elizabeth had also taken some time to visit Fort Drakon, where Huan was proudly siring many puppies to try to rebuild the mabari population in Ferelden after so many of the noble beasts had sacrificed themselves in the Blight.

Evening was falling. “Tell me more,” Elizabeth said to Mhairi.

“The Grey Wardens have been here about six months,” Mhairi told her. “They’re… decent people, for Orlesians. I would be proud to work beside them.”

“You want to be a Grey Warden too, don’t you?” Elizabeth said. Mhairi’s eyes were full of admiration every time she said ‘Grey Warden’, and her voice hushed a little. She must be young, as young as Elizabeth, perhaps.

Mhairi smiled broadly. “I know it’s very obvious, ser. But I’ve heard so many tales of their bravery, their brotherhood, how they defend the weak, how they fight monsters… I’ve trained hard so that they might think me a worthy recruit.”

“I think they will,” Elizabeth said. “Have you been in Amaranthine long?”

“Almost since it was handed over to the Wardens a year ago, on Queen Anora’s orders.”

“Is Alistair still in Amaranthine?” It would be nice to see her good friend again.

“I-I’m afraid not. Ser Alistair visits sometimes, but he also goes about the country a lot. He laughs and calls it propaganda, but I think it’s a very serious job.”

“Of course,” Elizabeth said. Make that it would have been nice to see her good friend again… but he would be back sooner or later. “Did he show you his tattoo?” Zevran had finally talked Alistair into getting a Grey Warden griffon tattooed on his right shoulder, and he showed it off at every opportunity.

Mhairi blushed. “No, ser. I’m not sure he knew who I was or that I was there.”

“Ah, I suppose that’s… for the best?” Or a pity, depending on how much you appreciated Zevran’s skill. It was a nice griffon.

“Ser… if you don’t mind me asking…”

“What is it, Mhairi?”

“Why did you disappear for a year?”

“I didn’t disappear at first,” Elizabeth protested, laughing a little. “I went to Highever to help my brother rebuild there.” And very touchy he’d been about Zevran’s presence, too. But Elizabeth had been glad to see her home finally being restored. Of the people she had saved from Arl Howe’s attack, however, only John returned to Highever. Elra and Gemmet, and Gemmet’s now-wife Firiel, did not wish to go back to that place and stayed in Denerim; Elra told Elizabeth she would wait for her to arrive in Amaranthine and then come to serve her. “My loyalty is to you, my lady, not to Highever.” Which was very flattering, even if she didn’t understand it.

The others in her former group had all gone their separate ways, no longer joined by the quest of defeating the Blight: Sten to his own people, Leliana to Orlais, Oghren to his new girlfriend Felsi. No one had seen Morrigan since the final battle, and Elizabeth did not expect anyone to see her anytime soon. She missed them, sometimes, but her new companions had made up for their absence.

“Is it doing well?” Mhairi asked, bringing her back to the present.

“Yes, very well. My brother will be a good Teyrn. I’m sure he has behaved well over the last year. Do you know if he has married again?”

“I do not think so, ser. At least, I did not hear so.”

“Well, Amaranthine is next door, so we will be able to bother each other by letter frequently…”

“What did you do after that, ser?”

“I went south to the Brecilian Forest to live with Keeper Lanaya and her clan for a while, to hone my skills there. The elves of the forest have much to teach if we can only prove ourselves humble enough to respect them.”

“I see,” Mhairi said, eyes wide. “Your lover is an elf…”

“But not a Dalish elf,” Elizabeth pointed out. “He had to learn these things too. Of course, he picked it up much faster than I did… Anyway, then I went west because I wished to visit Orzammar. On my way, I acquired two new companions. I met Rain Tabris, an elf from Denerim, with the Dalish, and she asked to come with me as she wasn’t taking to the Dalish life as well as she had thought. Then when I came to the Circle Tower, First Enchanter Irving asked if I would take Sarah Amell along with me to see the world. He had to give me many warnings, of course, but seeing as I took good care of Wynne during the Blight…”

“So it’s true, the Templars will trust Wardens with mages,” Mhairi said.

“Many Wardens themselves have been mages, and they travel without Templars,” Elizabeth told her, and watched her eyes widen. “It… does not always end well, I am told, but I prefer to trust my companions. If they have been trained by the Circle, they know well enough how to guard against demons. And if it came to the worst, I have fought against many abominations on my travels. But I would be very upset if I had to kill one of my companions…”

“I understand,” Mhairi said.

“So I came to Orzammar,” Elizabeth said. “They remembered me, and let me in without much fuss, and I learned much from their military, both the generals and the soldiers. I think I won their respect in the Deep Roads, too. And Hanna Brosca joined me there.”

“So that’s why no one could find any trace of you,” Mhairi said to herself. “And what were you doing when I found you?”

“I was going about the Bannorn, learning from our own people as much as I could, helping them rebuild a little. The destruction caused by the Blight was truly horrifying… It is all very well and good to know as much about other races and other ways of doing things as possible, but I will be dealing with humans in Amaranthine and there were some things that were dull in my memory. And then I was coming here to see if you had need of me.”

“It’s quite the tale,” Mhairi said.

“Not quite as interesting as the year before,” Elizabeth said, smiling. “Thank the Maker for that, eh?”

Mhairi managed a smile. “Yes, ser. If you don’t mind one more question-”

“Hold a moment,” Elizabeth said, squinting forward into the darkness. Too much in the last year she had had to rely on Zevran’s keener eyes and ears to detect danger. “I think… yes, there are darkspawn up ahead.”

“Darkspawn!” cried Mhairi, startled and frightened and trying to keep her voice down so as not to alarm their enemies. “I mean, that was what my question was about, they’ve been spotted in this area befo- Ser, they’re blocking our path to the castle!”

“I think they might have come from the castle, the direction they are going,” Elizabeth said grimly. “How strong was the non-Warden garrison there?”

“It was… passable…”

“There aren’t many out here. Let’s take out this small group and see what things look like as we approach the castle.” Time to worry about what the darkspawn were doing here later. Time to worry about what she was going to do if the castle had fallen now.

“Just the two of us?” Mhairi asked nervously.

“I’ve seen you fight,” Elizabeth said. “You’re very good. We can take them.”

With that, Mhairi straightened, suddenly full of confidence. “Yes, ser!”

“Just follow my lead.”

She couldn’t roar out a warcry, not yet. Instead she charged at them in silence. They saw her and made their own garbled shrieking noises in challenge, but she kept her silence this time.

They were less fierce than she remembered; no less hideous, but ugly never made for better fighting ability. She, on the other hand, was even better than when she had fought during the Blight, and blood flew from her sword as she slashed into them.

 

I ran to the window of my ‘cell’ in the back of the storage hut as I heard the sudden swell of fighting from the courtyard of the castle. The darkspawn were milling around; on the southwest corner of the courtyard, a few guards still held out in a tower, but the fighting I heard came from the gate. It was dark in my cell, and my eyes were pretty good for a human, but it still took me a few moments to figure out what I was looking at.

Two warriors were assaulting the darkspawn. All alone? That was gutsy. After all, from what I could tell, the rest of the keep had fallen with little resistance to the monsters. How, I couldn’t tell.

The warriors shouted to each other, and I realized that they were both women. Interesting. One of them, the taller one, was particularly impressive, wielding a long sword that crackled with purple-blue lightning; darkspawn fell before her like grain before a scythe.

And then the light from her sword illuminated her shield. Those were the Cousland laurels. I gritted my teeth. Just my luck; the ‘Hero of Ferelden’ had shown up to claim what had once been my father’s property. What had once been my home.

I could probably take her on, but I was stuck in this prison with no weapons or armour or freedom. If she survived – and she probably would, from what I observed – the best I would probably get from her was a quick execution.

Disinterested in watching more, I dropped from the window and sullenly tried to get what sleep I could.

 

“There aren’t many guards here,” Elizabeth said to Mhairi. “The ones in the tower are injured, but I expected there to be more…”

“They-” Mhairi began.

“Yarrrrrr!” roared another voice, a dwarf voice, and with a cackle, a dwarf ran by, throwing something at a new cluster of darkspawn by the south wall. A colossal explosion went off, throwing darkspawn guts and chips of rock flying. Elizabeth ducked – it wouldn’t do to get one of those in her eye. The ground quaked under her feet, and she heard the castle walls groan. …At least the darkspawn appeared to be dead.

“Who was that?” she asked Mhairi.

“I don’t know. I didn’t know there were dwarves here. We must get inside, Captain Garevel will know what to do if we can find him.”

“Lead on, then,” Elizabeth said.

Mhairi led her to a side door and through several passages; they saw few darkspawn, but they began to see dead bodies of both humans and darkspawn, which was better than what they had seen outside. Elizabeth heard the sound of fighting to the right and headed in that direction – anyone they could save would help.

She burst into a room and stopped. A mage was channeling fire into a staggering body; around the room lay many corpses, human, darkspawn, and charred-beyond-recognition could-be-either.

The mage stopped, his hands still glowing with power, and looked at her innocently as the burning body toppled to the floor. “I didn’t do it!”

Elizabeth snorted, half-amused, half-suspicious. “These are Templars. You didn’t kill your escort, did you?”

“Absolutely not!” The mage used his staff to roll over the newest body with a look of distaste, then pried open its mouth. The sharp-toothed grin of a hurlock met her gaze. “At least, I hope Templars would have better dental hygiene than this!”

“Point taken,” Elizabeth said, amused. “Care to come with us and fight more darkspawn?”

The man sighed. “If I must. I don’t much care for fighting, but I certainly can’t leave two…” he peered at them, “lovely ladies to do all of it!” Oh no, Elizabeth thought, another Zevran.

“My name is Elizabeth,” Elizabeth said quickly. “This is Mhairi. Who are you?”

“My name is Anders; pleased to make your acquaintance,” Anders said, with a bow and a flourish.

“Let’s hurry, then,” Elizabeth said. “We’re looking for a Captain Garevel.”

“No idea where to find him,” Anders said cheerfully, taking up a position behind her. “I hope he’s still alive. I’m given to understand that the defences here were taken by surprise about an hour ago.”

“How?” Elizabeth interrupted his chatter.

“Not sure; I’m not a soldier or anything. I’m just a happy-go-lucky mage, that’s me…”

Elizabeth shushed him as she heard more fighting. And… a familiar voice, roaring with laughter?

“Oghren!” she cried, as she entered the next room.

“Ho there, Eliza! Watch this!” Oghren heaved his axe, even bigger than the last one she had seen him using, and smashed through the last hurlock’s defence and into its face. Anders winced.

Elizabeth stared. “What are you doing here?”

Oghren checked the rest of the room, then, satisfied there were no more monsters, holstered his axe and came to lean casually against a railing, grinning. “Oh, this n’ that. Thought maybe I’d like to be a Grey Warden, like you!”

“What about Felsi?” Elizabeth asked, brutally direct. “What happened with her?”

Oghren shrugged and grimaced expressively. “Stuff. Things. I’ll tell you later. What’s with the skirt and the warrior girl? What happened to your man, eh?”

“He’s gone to kill all the Crows, which is a noble cause, at least,” Elizabeth said with a little bit of exasperation. “Tell me, do you know a Captain Garevel?”

“Yes, he’s a bit of a pompous ass. Don’t know where he is. You need to find him?”

“I’d like to turn this into an organized defence, and possibly strike back against the darkspawn. I’m concerned that we haven’t seen very many so far. Has the attack already ended? Where are they all?”

“Dunno, I was sleeping when it started,” Oghren said, and grunted. “Good to have you back, though, Eliza. Let’s kick their asses!”

“You know this person?” Mhairi asked doubtfully.

Oghren laughed. “I was with Eliza since she came to Orzammar in the middle of the Blight. I’d say we know each other.”

Elizabeth could read Mhairi quite easily; she wondered how the Hero of Ferelden could be good friends with such an uncouth person. “Yes, we are friends, Mhairi. He is brave and loyal, although you will have to put up with some teasing and some… unsavory habits.”

“’Course, if you can get past those, I’ve got a lot to offer,” Oghren said suggestively. “A loooot.”

“Shush,” Elizabeth said, leading them to the far side of the room. Mhairi made an indignant noise and followed her. Anders sighed, and Oghren chuckled.

They hadn’t gone far before they saw more bodies, and in the middle of them, a man who still lived, though his breathing was rough and uneven. “Rowland!” Mhairi cried, rushing to his side. “Oh no, this is bad…”

“Hello, Mhairi,” breathed the warrior, wincing in pain. Elizabeth saw his stomach was covered in blood, most of it his own. “You were… successful?” His accent was Orlesian.

“Yes, I was,” Mhairi said. “What happened? Ser Anders, can you do anything for him?”

“It’s too late,” Rowland said, reaching to stop Mhairi with great effort. “Lady Elizabeth… Commander… This attack was led by a talking darkspawn.”

Elizabeth started with surprise. “Surely… that can’t…”

“He’s chased Varel and Garevel up to the roof. Please… save them.”

“I give you my word,” Elizabeth said. “But first-”

“I’m past the aid of magic,” said the man, his breath beginning to rattle. He coughed a little, and blood came out. “Just… save… Vigil’s Keep.” His head fell forward, and his breath stopped.

Elizabeth set her face determinedly. “We won’t let his death be in vain. Mhairi, get us to the roof!”

 

They burst out onto the roof – none of them were any good at surprise attacks – and saw a strange sight. On one side of the roof was a little huddle of guards, led by two men who looked like they knew what they were doing. On the other… a cluster of hurlocks that outnumbered the survivors two to one.

“Where is the Warden-Commander?” rasped the hurlock in the lead, an unusually large one, even for hurlocks, and Elizabeth’s eyes widened.

“I told you, she’s not here!” answered the older man in the group of survivors. “But we’ll fight you to the last, monster!”

“You think you know my kind, do you?” the hurlock said. “It is understandable. But things have changed. We do not seek your death, only the Warden-Commander.”

“Fine, then!” Elizabeth cried. “Here I am, and I saw plenty of death in the halls below us! If your kind have learned to talk it is only to be greater liars than you already were!”

“The Warden-Commander,” said the hurlock with satisfaction, turning to her. “You will come with us. I will take you to my master.”

“Commander! Flee!” cried the old man. “We’ll hold them off!”

“I only flee from battles I don’t have to win,” Elizabeth said, lightning blazing from her sword. “You’ll regret attacking my keep!”

She charged forward, and her sword met the hurlock’s shield. Darkspawn tried to surround her, but Oghren was at her side, roaring a challenge to them, and Anders flung a fireball into the back of their group.

The survivors were not doing so well. The older man in the group was knocked down, and while the other man struggled to remain at his side, they were getting pressed back into their corner, prompting a cry of “Captain! Seneschal!” from Mhairi.

“Go to them, Mhairi!” Elizabeth told her. “I’ll deal with this one!”

“Aye, ser!”

The one she was fighting was difficult indeed. Not only was it apparently intelligent enough to speak, and taller than most other hurlocks, but it was also stronger and faster than many of them as well, and she was hard pressed. Oghren was distracted keeping the other darkspawn away from her, as was Anders – not that the mage would cast a spell at her opponent for fear it would hit her instead.

Even as she fought the monster, she noticed that it had better armour than most darkspawn she had ever faced – and that it didn’t look stolen, as if it had been made for the creature itself. Very strange. She ducked a blow that would have connected hard with her head and lashed out with her shield, but it blocked with its own shield. She kicked, a move she had learned from Zevran, and connected with its knee, hearing a satisfying hiss of pain from it.

“You don’t have to kill me,” it said to her. “I don’t wish to kill you.”

“You seem to misunderstand me,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t care.”

“My master will be disappointed, but he will send others. Perhaps someday you will understand. In the meantime, my death will not be wasted, since you have heard my words.”

“I don’t care!” Elizabeth cried. “You killed many here, you threaten my allies, and you talk about understanding!? After darkspawn slaughtered King Cailan and his army at Ostagar, raped and pillaged their way through the Bannorn, and almost burned Denerim itself!? Understanding!? Understand me, I will not rest while you poison the lands given to me!”

“Ah… That is a pity.”

That was all the hurlock had time to say before Elizabeth cut off its sword arm at the wrist… and its head at the neck.

When she looked around, the other darkspawn also lay dead. Some of them were still smouldering or locked in ice. The humans gathered themselves, panting. Elizabeth herself went to the older man who had been knocked down, and offered him a hand up. “Seneschal Varel, I understand.”

He took her hand and let her pull him to his feet. “Indeed, I am Gideon Varel, Seneschal of Amaranthine. And you are Warden-Commander Elizabeth Cousland. It is good to meet you, and you got here not a moment too soon. Welcome to Vigil’s Keep… such as it is, at the moment.” Varel snorted, clearly disappointed that their new commander had had to rescue them instead of being welcomed properly.

“It’s fine,” Elizabeth told him. She liked him already. “Let’s secure the castle and make sure not one darkspawn remains. Do you know how they got in?”

“I believe… something about the tunnels under the castle. This way. Vigil’s Keep is built on the remains of much older fortifications, and they include such things as an Avvar burial crypt. I would not be surprised if the darkspawn found a way in from their deep nests.”

“We must block and guard that entrance into the castle then, even if we can’t stop up whatever hole they’ve found immediately,” Elizabeth said. “Oh, and I saw some dwarves. Who are they? I was only expecting Wardens.”

“You didn’t know? King Harrowmont sent them as a personal expression of gratitude and congratulations to aid you and the Wardens. I think we will need their help.”

“Ser!” called a female voice from above, and Varel and Elizabeth looked up to see a soldier leaning out of one of the higher towers. “A medium-sized group is approaching the castle! There are many soldiers, but also… I think it’s Queen Anora!”

“Thank you, Maverlies!” Varel called up to the tower. “We’re not set up to welcome the Queen. What should we do?” he asked Elizabeth, looking worried.

“We’ll greet her at the gate, explain the situation, and ask what she wishes,” Elizabeth said. “She’s a general’s daughter. She’ll understand.”

Varel nodded and turned to the other man. “Garevel, what’s the situation?”

Garevel and Elizabeth nodded to each other, and then Garevel said to them: “Rowland is dead. Of the other ten Wardens, nothing can be found. However, there appear to be no living darkspawn left within the castle. Did you tell her about the prisoner, Seneschal?”

“He slipped my mind, to be honest,” Varel said, and turned to Elizabeth. “Some… odd news for you, perhaps. Nathaniel Howe broke in a few days ago; we don’t know why. He didn’t kill anyone, though it took four Wardens to capture him. He’s locked up in a storage shed in the courtyard.”

Elizabeth considered, although she had frowned fiercely at the name of Howe. “I will deal with him later. For now, we must greet Anora.”

“Understood, my lady.”

Something else caught up to her mind. The situation was very, very different from what she had expected. “There were only ten- eleven Wardens here?”

“Twelve, with Kristoff, but he’s gone off on some assignment and hasn’t returned in two weeks. We were going to go looking for him tomorrow.”

“Strange,” she said to herself. “So many, and they were taken by surprise by darkspawn… But fewer than I was expecting, really.”

Varel chuckled. “Oh, it only took three Wardens to end a civil war and kill an archdemon. A dozen is extravagant.”

She had to smile at that. “Perhaps, but more back-up is better. That hurlock talked of prisoners. Perhaps they can yet be rescued. And I’ve spent the last year educating myself in matters of command, but I still know little of who the Grey Wardens actually are. Some more knowledge in that area would be nice, since I am supposed to be the Commander of the Grey…”

“They trusted me, and I know a few things; if you have any immediate questions, I can attempt to answer them,” Varel assured her. “Else we’ll wait for that rescue… or reinforcements.”

She answered with an affirmative hum as they arrived at the gate to welcome Anora.

Anora was in front, with quite a substantial guard around her, including a couple Templars. “Elizabeth! It is good to see you. Did something happen here?” She ignored Varel, Garevel, and Mhairi, who were all kneeling to her. Elizabeth did not kneel; this was no time for formalities, and Anora’s demeanour said as much to her.

“When I arrived an hour ago, the Keep was under assault from darkspawn,” Elizabeth said with a brief bow. “I’m afraid we cannot treat you with royal elegance right now. But as far as I know, you are welcome to stay with your retinue.”

“I see,” Anora said. “That is troubling, indeed. But that was one reason I told them to send Mhairi for you – the darkspawn have not yet gone from this part of Ferelden. Odd, when it is the part I gave to the Grey Wardens.”

“Strange indeed,” Elizabeth agreed. “What brings you here, Your Majesty?”

“I came to welcome you to your new home, and to make sure you were settling in well,” Anora said. “Mhairi sent me word while you were in Denerim. I was going to apologize for being late. I suppose I must still apologize for being late, since my soldiers might have been able to make a difference…”

“Do not trouble yourself, Your Majesty,” Varel said. “We have survived… although it seems the other Wardens were captured and abducted.”

Anora frowned. “I sense this is a larger mystery than I had previously thought. But… on a lighter note… I brought some people you might be glad to see.” She stepped aside with a wave of her hand, and with deep bowing, five people appeared behind her.

Elizabeth gasped. “Elra! Gemmet! …Firiel, yes?” She stepped forward and clasped Elra’s hands. “I am glad to see you. It will be a little more like home with you around.”

Elra blushed and bowed her head deeply. “Yes, my lady.”

“And… Herren, and Master Wade, correct?”

“Indeed,” said Herren, Wade’s business partner. “Queen Anora has graciously suggested that working directly for you could be beneficial to all parties. We should like to live and work in Vigil’s Keep, if your ladyship would grant it.”

“If I recall Master Wade’s work well, it shall,” Elizabeth said. “You are welcome to work here as long as you choose.”

“Yes, you give me proper projects!” Wade gushed. “Give me something worthy of the name of art to create, and it shall be yours!”

“Indeed,” Elizabeth said, a little awkwardly. “Well, then… Anor- Queen Anora-”

“I did have one other matter,” Anora said, with a wave that told Elizabeth that her little slip was not a problem. “Templar Rylock…”

“Is there a mage by the name of Anders in the Keep?” said the Templar who stood at Anora’s left hand. “We’re here to collect him and return him to the Circle Tower.”

“No!” Anders burst out, from somewhere behind Mhairi. “You can’t make me go back! I refuse!”

“You cannot refuse,” Rylock said sternly. “That is where all mages belong, especially apostates like you.”

“Commander Elizabeth,” Anders said earnestly, coming up to her and clutching his staff defensively, “I swear I mean no harm. I just want to be free. Please don’t let them take me back.”

Elizabeth thought of Wynne, of Sarah, of how Anders had helped them with the darkspawn.

“He’s escaped the Circle Tower seven times,” Rylock said angrily. “He’s a menace to everyone.”

“But not to me,” Elizabeth said calmly, and straightened. “Anders, I’m afraid that I do not have the authority to deny the Templars from doing their duty.”

“I am pleased that-” Rylock began, as Anders’ face crumpled.

“However,” Elizabeth went on more loudly, “the Templars have no authority to force a Grey Warden to abandon his or her duties.” Anders looked at her blankly, then hope began to blossom on his face as Rylock scowled. “Anora, I invoke the Right of Conscription on this mage, Anders. He assisted us in the retaking of Vigil’s Keep.”

“You can’t do this!” Rylock exclaimed, outraged. “You Grey Wardens think you can just do whatever you want-!”

“The Right of Conscription has been invoked,” Anora said to the Templar, with an approving smile at Elizabeth. “I’m afraid we shall have to return empty-handed this time.”

“So, I’ll have to be a Grey Warden… but I don’t have to go back to the Tower,” Anders said. “Sounds good! Thanks!”

“Don’t thank me yet,” Elizabeth said, remembering that he would have to go through the Joining ritual – and that he might not survive. Dying a free man might be poor comfort to him.

“In any case, I would indeed like to remain here for the night,” Anora said. “It is a bit far to go to Amaranthine from here. I understand that you have just been through an attack, and you do not have to go out of your way for me. I will make do.”

“Thank you for your understanding, Your Majesty,” Elizabeth said, bowing finally. “We are all very grateful for your consideration.”

“It is the least I could do,” Anora said, smiling. “Good luck, Elizabeth.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

 

As Anora and her retinue were directed to the master bedroom and its surrounding chambers, Elizabeth gestured to Elra, Gemmet, and Firiel. “Let’s get you installed here. Varel, Elra and Gemmet have served me since Highever, and Firiel is Gemmet’s wife.”

“I understand,” Varel said, with an almost-smile. “I will send Mistress Woolsey to you for assistance. Afterwards, please join us in the main hall. We have a few things to discuss before we retire to rest, and there is the matter of the Joining.”

“Understood,” Elizabeth said. “I will be there shortly.”

She led the three elves inside and up towards the living quarters, where she was met by an elderly lady who curtseyed to her. “Lady Elizabeth? I am Caroline Woolsey. Normally I am the treasurer for the arling by the order of the First Warden in Weisshaupt, but on this evening of disruption and confusion Varel has asked that I help you.”

“These elves are my…” Elizabeth stopped and looked at them. “Do you still wish to be my servants?”

“What else would we be, my lady?” Elra asked. “That is what we do, and we wish to do it for you.”

“I see.” Elizabeth turned back to Woolsey. “My servants, and my personal friends. Elra will be my attendant and maid.”

“Very well,” Woolsey said, and took them to the servants’ quarters. Elra couldn’t take up residence in the servant’s room off the master bedroom while Anora was in residence, but there was plenty of space in the rest of the rooms. A lot of servants had run away during the attack, and Woolsey feared many of them were dead. Which meant that Gemmet would probably be one of the chief servants, which pleased all of them.

Woolsey left them as soon as they had found a space for themselves, but Elizabeth lingered. “It’s been quite a night. I am glad to see all of you. Including you, although I don’t know you very well, yet,” she said to Firiel.

“My lady is very kind,” Firiel said blandly, and although Elizabeth was a little disappointed, she reminded herself that Firiel didn’t know her well either, yet, and was probably expecting her to be like other human nobles.

“My lady, you look rather… disheveled,” Elra said. “Shall I help you clean up before you go to your meeting?”

“That would be nice,” Elizabeth said. “But only quickly. We shall catch up another time. Soon. For now, I just want to make sure you’re all right. And to catch my breath a little. Since I got here it’s been one thing after another.”

“Indeed, my lady,” Elra said, dabbing at her face with a damp cloth. “How is your lover?”

“He’s fine,” Elizabeth said. “He’s gone to Antiva to fight his own battle.”

“You must miss him.”

“I do. But it’s for the best for both of us, apparently. Otherwise we would have Crow assassins showing up on a regular basis and no one wants that.”

“Surely not,” Elra said, and shuddered. “If you leave your armour here, and your dirty clothes when you retire, I’ll get them cleaned for you for tomorrow morning.”

“All right,” Elizabeth said, shedding her ironbark plates, her drakeskin boots and gloves, and most of the rest of her gear. She felt much lighter without it. “Careful of the sword – it’s still enchanted.”

“I won’t touch your sword,” Elra said. “You weren’t hurt in the attack, my lady?”

“No, I’m fine.” Elizabeth stood again, Elra still patting some stray hairs back into place. “Thank you, Elra. I’ll come see you all soon. For now… If you have any trouble with anyone, come see me. Even if you don’t think it’s important.” She hesitated, then nodded. “Just come talk to me.”

“We will,” Elra assured her. “Will you need me when your meeting is over?”

“No, go ahead and sleep,” Elizabeth said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

In the main hall of the Keep, Elizabeth met with Varel, Garevel, Woolsey, a dwarf, and her three companions – Mhairi, Anders, and Oghren.

“Ah, here you are, Lady Elizabeth,” Varel said to her. “Your friends are settled?”

“Yes, quite comfortably,” Elizabeth said. “Varel… I know I am the Commander of the Grey, and the… administrator of Amaranthine, from this time forward. However, I do not require you to call me ‘lady’. That goes for all of you.”

“How unconventional,” Garevel muttered, and Oghren laughed.

“You don’t know the half of it, lad,” he said to the Captain, who frowned.

“I will not be bothered if you choose to call me ‘lady’, but I will also not be bothered if you do not,” Elizabeth clarified. “I would wish you to be comfortable in talking to me. I don’t believe we’ve been introduced?” she said to the dwarf.

The dwarf bowed. “My name is Voldrik Glavonak, and I am an emissary from King Harrowmont to serve you as long as you require my services. I have a few companions with me, including engineers. Who we will need immediately, since my crazy brother Dworkin set off his explosives in the courtyard. I’m afraid the foundations of the walls have been cracked.”

“That sounds serious,” Elizabeth said. “Let me see… Let’s start with our immediate situation. How defensible is the Keep at this moment?”

“We’re low on soldiers,” Garevel said. “The walls stand, but if they’re cracked… a determined assault could bring down the gates easily, and we don’t have the manpower to defend against more than fifty men right now.”

“That’s pretty bad,” Elizabeth said.

“You did fight through fifty monsters with only Mhairi, and then the mage and the dwarf, to rescue us, my lady,” Varel said drily. “But we shouldn’t rely on you, I know.”

“We will need to recruit a bigger, better army,” Garevel said. “And rebuild the castle, if Master Glavonak is willing.”

“Willing and able,” Voldrik said. “I’ll need lots of workers, and better stone – the local stone here is all right for houses, but terrible for anything remotely resembling sturdy. It’s no wonder Dworkin’s bombs shook the castle. For a proper fortress you want granite.”

“Will the entire castle need to be rebuilt, or just the outer walls?” Elizabeth asked.

“We’ll start with the outer walls and make a better assessment of the rest of the castle later,” Voldrik said. “Don’t worry – if it needs doing, we’ll do it.”

“Thank you for your assistance,” Elizabeth said.

“And for this army, you’re going to need supplies,” Mistress Woolsey said. “There has not been much trade coming in from Denerim or Highever in the last few months. I had thought the politics had been stabilized with Highever since Teyrn Fergus ascended, but perhaps not. But the situation with Denerim is less clear and more worrying.”

“I’m sure my brother does not feel any animosity towards Amaranthine itself, certainly not while I’m here,” Elizabeth said. “I will send him a letter to make certain of it.”

“I suspect bandits, rather,” Garevel said. “I’ve received reports of bandits in the Wending Wood along the road to Denerim, although I have not seen too much evidence that they are the cause of the lack of trade. But Mistress Woolsey is right. We’ll need much more in the way of trade and supplies if we are to be properly self-sufficient.”

“Which sounds backwards to me, but what do I know?” Anders mumbled to himself.

“And then there are the hard questions,” Varel said. “Why has Kristoff not yet returned? Why are there talking darkspawn? How were the Wardens taken by surprise, and where are they now?”

“You said you were going to search for Kristoff tomorrow,” Elizabeth said.

“I did, but I fear we are too low on manpower to conduct any meaningful search,” Varel said.

“I could take a small group,” Elizabeth said. “I know there is much work to be done here as well, but perhaps if we find Kristoff, we’ll find the other Wardens. I am… capable of administrating, but at the moment it seems to me I am also one of your best fighters.”

“That does not sound like a bad plan,” Varel said. “We’ll start with that, then. Is there anything in particular you will need?”

“Companions,” Elizabeth said. “I imagine you and Captain Garevel will wish to remain here, at least for now, although you both seem like excellent fighters and you are welcome to join me whenever you wish. But I will take Mhairi, and Oghren, and Anders. It will have to be enough.”

“I can recommend a few of our better surviving soldiers, if you like,” Garevel said.

“I would appreciate it. But now I think, if there is nothing further to discuss right now, it is time for the Joining.”

“I’m off, then,” Garevel said. “It’s not my place to witness such things.”

“For me as well,” Woolsey said. “Good night, my lady.” Voldrik followed her after bowing to Elizabeth.

“I, however, may be of assistance,” Varel said. “The Wardens who came from Orlais came to trust me quite a bit, and I know the procedure of the Joining Ritual.”

“Oh, I’m glad,” Elizabeth cried, relieved. “I only have hazy memories of my own Joining, and I… was a bit nervous about conducting it.”

Varel smiled in a way that reminded her of her father. “Then I will prepare the necessary things.”

Mhairi’s face was glowing in anticipation. Oghren looked confident, although a little bored with all the talking that had just happened. Anders looked a little anxious. She gathered them by the hearth on one side of the hall.

“There are some things I must warn you of before you begin,” Elizabeth said. “This is all highly irregular by Warden tradition anyway, I’m given to understand; telling you more I don’t believe will hurt. I know the Grey Wardens need all the help they can get, and I don’t wish to discourage you, but there are many things that I was not told before my Joining that would have been nice to know. Like the fact that once the ritual has begun, you go through with it, or you must die.”

“Die?” Anders said in a small voice.

Elizabeth nodded regretfully. “And I’m most afraid for you, since you have little choice if you wish to be free of the Circle. But I think you have the strength to see it through. And Oghren…”

“Nah, I’m good,” Oghren said. “I’ve faced death a thousand other ways, you don’t have to talk me out of a little ritual just because we’re friends, Eliza.”

“Very well,” she said, although she was still worried for him. She’d known him for so long… if he died here, it would grieve her so deeply…

“What other things should we know?” Mhairi asked.

Elizabeth thought. “There will be nightmares. Your lifespan will be shorter than other humans. You will be infertile. You will not be able to tell anyone of your tribulations except your fellow Wardens – and apparently Varel.”

“So I can get with all the chicks I want?” Oghren leered. “Wait, no wonder you were going at it so hard with the elf!”

“Oghren, leave my private life out of your public conversation or I will thrash you to Orzammar and back,” Elizabeth said calmly as Anders and Mhairi stared. “Also, just as a general non-Warden related warning, if Oghren offers you anything to drink, don’t take it.”

“As if I would,” Anders muttered, and Mhairi nodded with a grimace. “So what’s the upside of being a Warden? I could use a word of encouragement right about now.”

Elizabeth had to pause for a moment. “The pride of being part of an ancient brotherhood dedicated solely to defending the weak and destroying monsters. My friend Alistair embraces it fully, more fully than I do. To him, the Wardens are family. Better family than blood family, even. You will also have the power to sense darkspawn.”

“Not that it helped the poor sods here tonight, but I’m sure ‘sometimes’ is better than ‘no times’,” Oghren said.

“I would agree,” Elizabeth said. “Although it takes some time to develop, after the nightmares start to fade. Also, you will have some respect from fellow citizens, although I understand the Wardens were not popular in Ferelden for many years after Warden-Commander Dryden… but I digress. The situation is getting better, and people will generally look up to you. After all, we are called to serve our fellow citizens, no matter our past, with our very lives if necessary. It’s not a bad life, truly. Ah, Varel, you are ready?”

“All is ready,” Varel said. “Would you like to say the words of Joining, or shall I?”

“I think I remember,” Elizabeth said. “One final word… Some of us are called to give our sacrifice sooner than others. That is why the Joining is so secret and must remain so. But even if it happens, remember that you are a Grey Warden.”

“I don’t like this,” Anders muttered.

“I will go first,” Mhairi said, stepping forward. “I am not afraid.”

Elizabeth smiled at her. “Then I will begin.”

She closed her eyes a moment to remember the words Duncan had said so long ago at her Joining, when Daveth and Jory had died – Daveth to the poison in the cup, and Jory to Duncan’s blade because he would not face the poison. “The Grey Wardens were founded during the first Blight, when humanity stood on the verge of annihilation. So it was that the first Grey Wardens drank of darkspawn blood and mastered its taint. As the first Grey Wardens did before us, and as we did before you. This is the source of our power and victory. Those who survive the Joining become immune to the taint. We use it to sense darkspawn and slay the Archdemon who leads them.” She lifted her head and looked them each in the eyes. “Join us, brothers and sisters. Join us in the shadows where we stand, vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten and we shall join you one day.”

She took the Joining chalice from Varel, with the dose of black darkspawn blood swirling at the bottom, and turned to Mhairi. “Mhairi, step forward.”

Mhairi smiled in eager anticipation and took the chalice.

“From this moment forth, you are a Grey Warden,” Elizabeth told her, and Mhairi drank.

Elizabeth knew she would have to catch the cup quickly, no matter whether the outcome was good or ill, and she was ready when it fell from Mhairi’s hands. But Mhairi was coughing, retching, in a horribly familiar way. “Mhairi!” She thrust the chalice at Varel and knelt beside her as the woman collapsed into her arms. “Mhairi, I’m so sorry…”

Mhairi’s eyes rolled back in her head and she fell motionless, her breath still, her pulse gone.

Gently Elizabeth laid her down. “And she was so excited to be a Warden…” She swallowed her sadness and disappointment. “I’m so sorry.”

Anders was shuffling, looking terrified, huddled a little into himself. “…didn’t ask for this,” she heard him mutter.

“Anders,” she said gently. “I’m sorry. There’s no way out now. I felt as you do, once. Please…” Don’t make me kill you, she wanted to say, and didn’t want to say.

“Well, I’ll go next, then,” Oghren said. “Where’s that cup? What is this, the sampler size?”

“Well then, Oghren, from this moment forth, you are a Grey Warden,” Elizabeth said, and Varel handed him the refilled chalice.

Oghren tipped it back, gulped the whole thing down, wiped his lips with the back of his glove, and belched without batting an eyelash. She had been ready to catch the chalice, possibly even Oghren, and was taken off guard when he handed it casually back to her. “That’s it? Pretty bitter, got an interesting nose to it, but… I was expecting something with a little more kick to it. Particularly since…” he shot a regretful glance at Mhairi’s body.

Elizabeth shook her head at him. “You drink too much.”

Oghren giggled. “And look how handy it’s come.”

Well. One new Warden was better than none, even if it was Oghren. She turned to Anders. “Deep breath. I can’t promise you’ll be fine, but there’s nothing to do but hope.”

Anders made a face at her. “Easy for you to say.” But when she approached him with the chalice, he took it, with one last grimace.

“From this moment forth, you are a Grey Warden,” she said to him, and with a nervous swallow beforehand, he raised the cup to his lips.

She caught the chalice, and Varel caught the convulsing Anders. But he was breathing, even as he collapsed onto the rug by the hearth, his eyes rolling wildly.

Varel looked up at her. “He’ll live.”

“Thank goodness,” Elizabeth said. “I would have felt awful if I saved him only to kill him. But poor Mhairi…”

“She will be buried with honour,” Varel said. “I will take care of her, and we will do it tomorrow. For now, my lady, you should rest.”

“I think I will do that,” she said. “Good night, Oghren. Good night, Varel.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

 

They buried Mhairi early the next morning; Queen Anora was present, and left to return to Denerim soon after, wishing Elizabeth good fortune one more time.

One of the first things she wished to do as soon as Anora was gone was to familiarize herself with the entire castle, from top to bottom, and Elra went with her, and another soldier, Mia – Garevel didn’t seem to want her to be on her own, even though the castle had been made secure. As far as she knew, Varel and Garevel had taken care of blocking up the path from which they believed the darkspawn had emerged, at least until it could be investigated further. It was a little worrying to be sitting upon such a thing, but there wasn’t anything more that could be done instantly.

So Elizabeth talked with Elra and Mia as they began in the highest towers, taking in the view of the surrounding countryside with the aid of maps. Elra only admired the view, but Elizabeth tried to see it from a strategic standpoint – from one direction, she had a clear view of the ocean. The back of the castle was set against a mountain. In the distance on the other side were rivers and fields and forests and hills, and right under the castle ran the road to Amaranthine.

They descended, and although Elizabeth asked about secret passages, Mia did not know of any, so she resolved to ask Varel later. There was no way Vigil’s Keep did not have secret passages, and she needed to know them.

When she arrived in the courtyard, she remembered. “Mia, I was told that Nathaniel Howe was a prisoner here.”

“Yes, my lady. The Captain threw him in a storage shed rather than the prison because no one had cleared out the prisons.”

“So the prisons were full of stores, and the storage shed became a prison?” Elizabeth asked, amused.

“That’s what I was told, my lady.”

“Hmm,” Elizabeth said. The way Mia said it meant she didn’t believe it, that there was another reason for it. “Ah, hello, Master Wade, Herren. How are you this morning?”

“We are well, thank you, my lady,” Herren said. “Just investigating the smithy here. I think it will be quite adequate for our needs.”

“For boring, regular swords and armour, perhaps,” Wade wailed. “But not for true art! I must have a bigger forge, a harder anvil!”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Elizabeth said with a smile. “Both in getting you better equipment, and for… special projects. But for now, can’t you start with regular swords and armour? I need to know where best to spend my resources and I might not be able to get them to you right away. And if made by you, Vigil’s Keep will be the best-equipped force in Ferelden.”

“Oh, all right,” Wade said, pouting. “If it’s for you, then I suppose I can put up with it.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said. “I’m counting on you.”

As she turned away, her eyes fell on the storage shed, and Anders nearby, playing with a kitten. “Elra, I’m going to go talk to Howe. You and Mia should go back inside. Perhaps inform Seneschal Varel of what I am about to do.”

Mia saluted. “Right away, ser!”

“I hope you’re all right, my lady,” Elra said anxiously.

“I’ll be fine,” Elizabeth said. “I… just hope I don’t get too angry. He is a Howe, after all.” Come to think of it, why did she not want to get too angry?

Because she knew nothing of Nathaniel Howe. She couldn’t even remember if she had met him. Perhaps once when she was a little girl. He had been in the Free Marches for many years, training in body and mind, Rendon had told her father before he had betrayed them.

And of Rendon’s other children, she knew little. Thomas, the youngest, even younger than she was, had died fighting the Blight. The middle child, Delilah, she knew nothing of either.

Rendon had been reasonably pleasant right up until the moment he had betrayed and murdered her family, after which he had proved himself utterly corrupt and egomaniacal, bitter, resentful, and poisonous. It was partly due to him, she was sure, that Loghain Mac Tyr had gone from being the noble Hero of River Dane to using underhanded tricks to control Ferelden, hunting down the last Grey Wardens, and almost plunging the nation into civil war on top of the Blight. Although, Loghain’s prejudices against Orlesians were all his own.

Were Rendon’s children as bitter and self-serving as their father?

Why had Nathaniel Howe come to Vigil’s Keep in the first place?

 

The door opened and she stepped in. Not in armour, although her sword was sheathed at her side. I glanced up at her briefly and then looked away again. There was no chance I would give her the satisfaction of staring at her, even in curiosity.

Although I was curious about her. I knew a little. On the eve of the Blight, my father had discovered that her father, Bryce Cousland, was a traitor planning to ally with the Orlesians they had fought together in their youth, and had killed him and sacked Highever in a surprise attack. Elizabeth Cousland, the younger child, had escaped somehow, became a Grey Warden, and had admittedly done splendidly in actually fighting the Blight, gathering an army, uniting the squabbling nobles and preventing a civil war – although she was also the executioner of Loghain Mac Tyr, the Hero of River Dane and Regent of Ferelden after King Cailan got his own silly self killed in the Battle of Ostagar at the beginning of the Blight… but then she put Loghain’s daughter, Anora, on the throne.

She was undoubtedly the woman who led Ferelden to victory over the Blight. It was even said that she had faced the Archdemon who led the Blight and killed it, and survived. An impressive record for a nineteen year old girl.

She had still broken in to the Arl of Denerim’s palace where my father had taken residence, and murdered him in retaliation for her father’s death.

On one hand, I couldn’t blame her. If her father had killed my father, I would have undoubtedly acted the same. On the other hand… I admired my father, and she was his killer.

“If it isn’t the great Hero, Conqueror of the Blight and vanquisher of all evil,” I said sarcastically, not looking at her, and heard her stiffen. “Aren’t you supposed to be ten feet tall with lightning shooting out of your eyes?”

“Whoever told you that was drunk,” she said. “It’s my sword that shoots lightning, not my eyes.”

Finally I looked – glared, more like – up at her. “Just thought my father’s murderer would be more impressive.”

“He murdered my father first,” she cried. “He betrayed him and slaughtered everyone in Castle Highever. Does getting my revenge make me a murderer on the same level as him!?”

“Your father was going to sell us out to the Orlesians!” I cried, getting to my feet angrily. “My father had cause!”

“Is that what he told you?” she snapped.

“Someone killed him before he could tell me anything,” I said bitterly.

She took a deep breath and let it out again. Her eyes were still flashing when she looked at me again, but her voice was a little more controlled. “Why did you come here?”

I laughed, still bitterly. “I wanted to kill you, at first. But… I changed my mind. It doesn’t matter anymore. The Howes are pariahs in Ferelden now and nothing I do will change that. …Revenge… seems empty now. I just wanted my things.”

She raised her chin a little as she regarded me. “I don’t know you, Nathaniel Howe. I don’t want to fight you like I fought your father. If I give you your things and let you go, what will you do?”

“I’d probably come back,” I said, low and threatening. “And you might not catch me next time. I heard all your Grey Wardens were killed in that attack, and they were the only ones who managed to capture me.”

“You’re not making a very good case for yourself,” she said coldly.

I snorted. “Like I care anymore.”

“And what if I make you a Warden?” she demanded.

I started in surprise. “You wouldn’t.”

“I can and I would,” she said.

“Hang me, first,” I cried, interrupting her.

“Did I say I was giving you a choice!?”

“You want a Grey Warden who wants you dead? I thought Wardens were supposed to be close as brothers.”

“Some of my best friends used to want me dead.”

“And I suppose my father is on the top of that list of friends,” I growled.

She grabbed the front of my shirt, yanking me into the wooden bars of my cage. I snarled at her and she snarled back. What a transformation, from a rather pretty girl to such an ugly demon. But… the way she stared at me… it was almost as if she was searching for something. Those pale blue eyes were disconcerting in their intensity, and so very serious behind her fury.

Whatever she found there, she let go of me and whirled, striding to the door swiftly and flinging it open. “Get me Varel!”

Varel, was it? I’d heard about him in my father’s letters. A competent seneschal, but not a terribly obedient one. My father had dismissed him a few years ago for being difficult, then thrown him in prison for being rebellious. So the Grey Wardens had reinstated him. While I wished no ill on the Wardens themselves, I felt a petty little satisfaction that Elizabeth Cousland had to deal with him.

Except, when Varel appeared, there appeared to be no difficulty on either side at all. “Varel! I’m invoking Conscription for Nathaniel Howe.”

Varel blinked, surprised at her proposal, though not her vehemence. “Very well, Commander. I will prepare. …Are you certain?”

“Yes,” she said shortly. “Bring him to a private room in the castle.”

So she would either gain my strength for her forces whether I willed it or no, or I would die in the attempt. …A reasonable revenge, and… very fair, actually. I wasn’t sure what to make of it yet. In truth, I was mostly resisting the idea because she was the one offering it to me. The idea that she would show me mercy when she showed none to my father was… humiliating to me.

Guards came, opening the door of my cell and chaining my hands in front of me. They led me into the castle, to a little chamber near the Great Hall. Varel was there, with a silver chalice in front of him, and Elizabeth was there, crossing her arms and glowering. She gestured sharply for the guards to leave and closed and locked the door herself, trusting that I would not attempt to attack her, apparently. “I wanted to do this for Loghain, back in the Blight, but someone wouldn’t let me,” she muttered to herself resentfully.

“Would you have done it for my father,” I spat back, and had the satisfaction of seeing her eyes flash and her fists clench. I almost thought she was going to fly at me, but she restrained herself and began to rattle off a rapid list of things.

“When you become a Grey Warden, you will have nightmares, you will have a shorter lifespan than normal humans, you will be infertile, you will be part of an ancient brotherhood devoted to protecting the weak and slaying monsters, you will be able to sense said monsters, you are not permitted to tell anyone about most of this, et cetera, et cetera.”

I blinked, trying to take in all the information she was flinging at me. “Sounds like fun,” I said sarcastically.

Varel gave her the silver chalice, and she presented it to me, a little bit abruptly, but clearly trying to return herself to some sense of decorum. This was the most important part, then. She took a deep breath, and her expression eased a little.

“Join us in the shadows where we stand, vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten and we shall join you one day.”

I reached out with my chained hands and took the chalice from her. There was no point in backing down here. The chalice was filled with what looked like black blood, thick and foul-smelling. “Moment of truth,” I murmured.

“From this moment on, you are a Grey Warden,” she said as I raised the cup and drank from it.

The instant it touched my tongue, it felt like my body was on fire. I felt myself convulse, and the cup fell from my hands. I heard it clang on the floor, and then strong hands caught me as I followed it.

I could hear and feel no more; all I felt was fire, and all I could hear was the rushing of a great wind and the howling of demonic voices.

I saw…

I saw a dragon.

 

“He will live,” Varel said to her as she crouched over Nathaniel’s unconscious body. She didn’t know why she had gone to catch him rather than the cup this time, but she had done it without thinking.

“That’s good,” she said softly. “I… do not think he is like his father. At least, not like his father in his middle age.”

“You think Rendon Howe was a better man in his youth?” Varel asked, cleaning the chalice.

“I’m quite certain of it,” she said. “My father was always good at telling when people wished to deceive him at the Landsmeet, but he never suspected Howe, which means… Howe was a devious, clever man, to be sure, but he also had my family’s trust. My father based that trust on something, on the friendship they had during the Rebellion, and so he didn’t notice when he changed slowly… None of us did. But Nathaniel… seems honourable. He didn’t kill anyone when he broke in here, as you said, and his eyes… He has pride, but not avarice or envy, that I can tell.”

“Well, we’ll see when he wakes up,” Varel said.

“Yes, put him in a proper room, and return his weapons and armour to him,” Elizabeth said. “I will show him trust, and he will return it that far, I know he will. I shall continue to explore the castle.”

“You are going into the cellars next, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Perhaps I’ll find the hole the darkspawn crawled out of.”

“Very good, Commander.”

 

Vigil’s Keep was one of the oldest places in Ferelden, older even than Denerim and its castle Fort Drakon. Long before the Tevinter Imperium came to Ferelden’s shores, the Avvar barbarians held it as a sacred place. And when the Tevinter did come, it became a stronghold, with a high tower with a beacon to see the ocean from and the Tevinter ships that came invading, and to warn the inland villages. The Avvar were long gone, and the castle that stood there was not more than 300 years old, a much more modern structure designed to weather all but the most furious and drawn-out assault or siege.

Unless, apparently, it came from below.

She asked Oghren to come with her, and found a deep series of passages below the castle, burial crypts, places of residence, long, twisting, low tunnels. She was a little afraid of getting lost, so she took her torch and marked signs for herself on the walls to guide her return. The crypts felt unquiet, as if there might still be spirits awake there, so she stayed away from them for now.

And at the very bottom of the maze, she found a deep chasm.

“Huh,” Oghren grunted. “Looks like it’s headed to the Deep Roads. Look, there used to be a ladder here. Those Grey Wardens weren’t very bright if they didn’t know about this or do something about it.”

“I wonder where it goes,” Elizabeth said. “But we can’t explore farther this way for now. How good are darkspawn at climbing?”

Oghren chuckled. “No better and no worse than most others. Although I think shrieks are pretty good at it. Ogres, as you might guess, no good at all. Probably why we didn’t see any of those when you showed up.”

“We’ll ask Glavonak for his advice,” Elizabeth said.

 

When she returned to the surface, she was met by a panting soldier, who handed her two small missives. One was a plea from a minor noble to aid his daughter, kidnapped by bandits for a ransom he couldn’t afford, and one was a plea from another minor noble who had seen darkspawn on his lands and did not have the soldiers to defend them – or even his own family. Both were extremely urgent.

She called Varel. “What I would do is take a small group to save this girl, and send Garevel with some soldiers to assist the farmers. However… I’m not yet familiar with this place…”

“Don’t be hesitant,” Varel advised her. “I’m only concerned that if we send soldiers, our fortress will be left even less defended than it stands now.”

“True. But the farmers have no walls to hide behind, and that’s why we’re here, after all.”

“You are a compassionate leader,” Varel said approvingly. “I’ll sort things with Garevel. Who do you wish to accompany you to rescue the girl?”

“Oghren and Anders, of course, and… if you’re not busy…”

Varel smiled. “I am busy, but I would be honoured to accompany you at least this one time.”

“I don’t think we’ll get to Amaranthine City to begin searching for Kristoff today,” she said with a rueful sigh. “Tomorrow, then. For certain.”

 

When I woke up again, I felt awful. My body was no longer on fire, but I was horribly weak. I rolled over and tried to sleep again.

The next time I woke up, it was early morning and I felt much better, not to mention a tiny bit grateful to the Maker that I was alive, although… I was kind of resentful of it, too. Why should I be alive, when my father and brother were not? Why should I be alive, and in her service?

When I got up, I found that my armour and swords were lying on a storage chest next to my bed. So she really was going to trust me. Interesting.

I put it all on and peeked out of the room. Not so much as a guard. Very interesting.

What would I do, then? For good or for ill, I was a Grey Warden. Whatever that meant.

Vigil’s Keep was much the same as it was when I grew up in it; I probably knew the halls better than anyone else there. I walked through the quiet halls in the early morning. I heard voices from the Great Hall and peered in, taking care not to be seen. Elizabeth and Varel were already awake, it seemed. I avoided the hall and went out the side door, going out to the east wall to be alone with my thoughts.

Firstly: my father was still dead, and I was still alive. No amount of regret or vengeance or hating Elizabeth would bring him back, and I did not think that spending that energy on hating her would be useful, nor would it make me happy. She had killed him, and she clearly felt that she had cause, and that… was that, to some extent. She didn’t seem like a bad person, other than that. I had deliberately goaded her during our conversation, and she had not lashed out at me the way I would have expected her to. She had been angry, certainly, furious, even, but she was not crazy.

I glowered moodily at the distant ocean. Then there was the issue of my being a Grey Warden. It wasn’t that I hated the idea. My great-grandfather had wanted to be a Warden. Might even have been a Warden. It was just distasteful that it was at her command, although since she was the one with the power in what had once been my home, it was her right, I supposed. It was still a big change in the direction of my life, and not one I had particularly asked for.

Did I want to be dead? When I told her I’d rather be hanged, was I telling the truth?

No, I decided. I was strong enough to survive the Joining, obviously. That meant I was strong enough to keep surviving. She said I’d have a shortened lifespan, but I’d make the most of what I had. And being a Grey Warden came with high ideals – to protect others, even with my life. I liked that. It was what I had always wanted to do.

That didn’t mean I was happy at this exact moment. My home was filled with strangers, my father was killed in his own stronghold – my mother was dead five years by now, taken by sickness – my younger sister Delilah was missing, and my youngest sibling, my brother Thomas, had died fighting in the Blight against the darkspawn. And even if I knew where Delilah was, what could I do for her, with our family shamed as it was?

What could I do for anyone?

I looked over to see Elizabeth climbing the stairs towards me, obviously coming to talk to me. I thought of moving away to avoid her – even a brief, foolish thought of fighting her – but I supposed now was as good a time as any to speak with her.

She stopped a few paces away from me, leaning on the wall as I was, awkwardly not looking at me. Her armour was very odd. None of it matched any other part, not her helmet that hung from her belt, her platemail, nor her gloves and boots. After a long silence, she said: “…Hello.”

I had to glance at her after such a beginning. She was fidgeting with her gloves slightly. Nice gloves, probably drakeskin, of the highest workmanship… She was nervous. Nervous of me? Really? “Hello yourself.”

After another rather long silence, I said: “So what am I to call you, now? Commander?”

“Elizabeth is fine,” she said quietly.

“…Why did you come up here?”

“…I came to see how you were doing.”

I snorted, half in annoyed exasperation, half in amusement. “You are such a Cousland.”

She glanced up at me then, uncertainty writ large across her face. “What do you mean?”

“I know you’ve had the best in courtly training. Yet no one in your family was ever one for small talk. Your father, your brother… even your mother, all so practical.”

She smiled a tiny smile. “You’re right. Well, then. How are you?”

I glared at the ocean. “I’m… well, I suppose. I did not expect you to ask such a thing.”

She turned to look at me head-on, seeming to brace herself slightly. “Nathaniel. I said yesterday that I don’t want to fight you – to be your enemy. So… if you can forgive me for what I have done against your family, I…”

“You’d forgive me for the sins of my father?” I asked sardonically.

“I already have,” she said. “Or at least I’m trying to. It’s a little difficult when you frown so.”

“Oh?”

“It makes you look more like him.”

I grimaced. “How unfortunate for me.”

She paused. “Were you… close?”

I had to think about that. There wasn’t any harm in being honest with her, was there? “For the last ten years or so, I have been training in the Free Marches as a squire and a knight. So I suppose not. But… when I was a boy, yes, I looked up to him very much.”

“I see,” she said softly.

This was taking me down mental paths that were dangerous. “Was there something else you wanted, Commander?”

“Right.” She straightened. She was tall for a woman. I still had a few inches on her but it would be difficult to loom over her… if ever I wanted to. “I’m going to investigate a missing Grey Warden who disappeared two weeks ago with Oghren, Anders, and Varel. He might lead us to the rest of the Grey Wardens who vanished in the attack two nights ago.”

“Understood.” She nodded and turned to go. Had she really come all this way up here to tell me that? “Commander.”

She turned, startled. “Yes?”

“I’d like to volunteer to accompany you. Varel would probably be of more use to you here, and maybe we don’t trust each other, and I still don’t like you, but I would… like to help.”

Her expression lightened, almost but not quite to the point of smiling. “I know from rumour that you are a good fighter.”

“I’m an archer and a swordfighter,” I said, nodding. “If you care to test me on the sparring ground, I’ll take you on.”

She did smile then. “I accept.”

Her smile only grew as she led the way down to the side of the courtyard where the soldiers were training. With a wave, she cleared them out of the ring, then turned to me and drew her sword and shield.

“No training weapons?” I asked.

She tilted her head, then nodded and unslung her helmet from her belt and put it on her head. Now properly prepared, she raised an eyebrow at me. “What, you’re not good enough to withhold your true strength?”

I eyed her crackling blue-purple sword. “I’m not keen on touching that with my own swords.”

“It seems to respond to my will,” she said. “It won’t give you more than a mild zap.” She touched the blade with her other hand and didn’t react.

I shrugged. “I suppose I can chance it, then.” I drew my twin swords. “Ready when you are.”

She glanced over to the side of the field, where a number of wide-eyes recruits, the dwarf Oghren, and a sergeant were watching with avid interest. The sergeant came to hasty attention. “Pret… en garde… allez!”

And she was charging at me. She covered the distance between us faster than I had expected, and I had to sidestep quickly to avoid getting hit squarely with her shield. But she anticipated my sidestep too, and I had to block with both swords as her sword sliced down towards me. I felt a tiny jolt from her sword, but nothing to really bother me, as she had said. Although if this match went on for longer than ten minutes, it could get annoying.

I had to jump back, reassess the situation. She was good. I had known that from seeing her fight the darkspawn, but fighting her myself, that was something else. I had reach, weight, strength, and age on her, and she was pushing me back. No wonder the Grey Wardens had appointed her their commander…

But I wasn’t too shabby myself, and I felt the hint of a grin begin to blossom on my face as I made my own move towards her, one sword on offence, one on defence.

She responded both to my attacks and to my grin, matching every strike I made and making some of her own, being forced to give ground and then reclaiming it with a vengeance.

“Kick his ass, Eliza!” Oghren bellowed with a giggle.

“Working on it,” she said, a little breathlessly.

“Work harder,” I said, slashing low at her legs, and she skipped backwards. As I adjusted my stance, she feinted, then kicked. “Oh, very tricksy, Commande-”

Her shield met my face and I fell onto my back, stunned.

Oghren guffawed. “Do you do that to all the boys, Eliza?”

She ignored him, sheathing her sword and offering me her hand. I hesitated for a moment, then took it and climbed back to my feet, feeling my nose. “Are you all right? I didn’t break your nose, did I?”

“I think you might have,” I said, slightly stifled, and she flushed with embarrassment.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hit you that hard…”

“She hit her boyfriend like that when she met him, too,” Oghren called, and she blushed more.

“Oghren, remember what I told you,” she said warningly, and to my surprise, the dwarf shut up, though not without a big grin. “Nathaniel, you’d better go see Ambassador Cera. She’ll heal you. I won’t take you on this mission unless you have no injuries.”

I managed a slight smile. “I will do that. Thank you, Commander. It was… fun.” And that was the truth. Whether or not I felt friendly towards her, whether or not we could overcome our inadvertent past, we could enjoy sparring together, and that was one thing.

“Yes, it was fun,” she agreed quietly, and smiled – and if she was ugly when she snarled, she really was quite pretty when she smiled.

 

We set out for Amaranthine after I had my nose healed. It took a few hours, as we were going on foot. I wasn’t terribly fond of any of my traveling companions – Oghren was crude, the mage Anders enjoyed playing the part of a fool, and I had no current wish to talk to Elizabeth. So I remained at the back of the group, although I won’t say I didn’t enjoy Anders spinning tales of outlandish monsters disguised as ordinary household objects to spook the dwarf.

The walls of Amaranthine eventually rose before us, to my relief. I wondered if anyone would recognize me, and hoped that they wouldn’t. I wondered if they would recognize Elizabeth, if she had been here before.

Apparently she hadn’t, as she had to endure several common cat-callers on her way through the huts on the outskirts of the city. Oghren growled at them but she ignored them with a face so blank I would actually have thought she was deaf. At the gates, she introduced herself to the gate guard, who at first attempted to check them for smuggled goods, and when he realized she wasn’t joking about being Commander of the Grey, hastily sent for his captain. The captain’s name was Constable Aidan, and I vaguely remembered him from when I still lived here before.

He welcomed her, with practical but courteous words, to the city. His gaze flickered as it passed across me, and I wondered if Elizabeth would give him my name.

She did not, and we entered the city. I went to ask her about it. “Why did you shield me?”

She blinked at me, apparently not comprehending me for a moment, then understanding dawned on her face. “I didn’t even think about that. I apologize. Do you know him?”

“I know of him, and I recognize his face. I don’t know if he knows me. It’s been about ten years since I was here.”

She nodded. “Changed much?” she asked, referring to the city.

“Not really,” I said, looking around. I glanced back up at the gate behind us now. “They stick traitors’ heads up on that gate, sometimes. I suppose I should be glad my father’s isn’t up there now.”

She looked at me seriously. “Would they really do that to their own former Arl?”

Even I wasn’t sure if I was joking. “Maybe. But it was a year ago. There wouldn’t be much left of it now even if they did.”

She grimaced, apparently finding my morbid humour not to her liking, and moved on.

I moved to follow her, when I suddenly saw a woman staring at us. I stared back at her, and frowned suddenly in concentration, and her face lit up. “De-” I began.

“Nathaniel!” she cried, rushing to me, and I felt my face involuntarily stretch into the widest smile I could manage. She threw herself into my arms and I hugged her tightly. “I’ve missed you, Nathaniel!”

“And I you,” I said, drawing back to look at her. “You’ve grown, haven’t you?”

“Well, I was only sixteen when you left! What took you so long to come back?”

“I know,” I said. “I’ve been worried about you ever since our father…”

She shook her head with a little frown. “Don’t talk about Father.”

I blinked. “What? Why not?”

“You don’t know?” she asked anxiously.

“Things… are complicated,” I said. “The thing I am certain of is that I now serve the woman who killed him.” I gestured slightly to Elizabeth standing a little apart from us. She had been looking happy, until I drew Delilah’s attention to her, when her face became unreadable, but I guessed she was not happy I had brought her into it, and in such a way.

“Oh, you are Lady Cousland,” Delilah exclaimed. “I am happy to meet you. Thank you for saving Ferelden last year!”

Elizabeth looked confused. “You’re… welcome. You’re not angry with me for killing your father?”

Delilah shook her head. “My father…” She stopped. “No, I’m not angry.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m angry. I think. Mostly I’m confused.”

“You’d better come with me, then,” she said. “Come meet my husband. I’ll make you tea and explain everything.”

I looked at Elizabeth, and she nodded. “Go on. I’ll find you when we’re ready to leave.”

“We’ll be at Albert the Grocer’s,” Delilah said, and took my hand like she had when we were children, leading me down the street.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

 

“Your husband?” I asked Delilah, when Elizabeth was out of earshot.

She nodded. “His name is Albert. He’s a good man, much nicer than that stuck-up noble that Father was trying to set me up with a couple years ago.”

I raised an eyebrow. “This wouldn’t be Albert the Grocer, would it?”

“There’s nothing wrong with being a grocer, Nathaniel,” Delilah said. “And… after how Father changed…”

“He changed?” I asked, a sinking feeling in my stomach, although I already suspected.

Delilah looked at me sadly. “You really don’t know, do you? Come in. I’ll put the kettle on and tell you everything.”

I stayed at Delilah’s house for three hours. She introduced me to her husband, an honest-looking, if rather sheepish man who seemed embarrassed to meet me. Apparently they were expecting a child sometime next year.

And she did tell me everything that my father, Rendon Howe, had done to drag our name into the dirt in order to further his avarice.

I didn’t even know what to say when she was done. My father… how could he have done such things to us? All he saw, apparently, was how much more powerful and popular the Couslands were, and wanted to take it for his own by any means necessary. I knew he had been a rather strict father with little humour, but I still remembered him as a strong ruler and a voice of intelligence and reason in the Landsmeet. To think that he would sink to such things as murder and kidnapping, the torture of innocents… to try to finish wiping out the last of the Grey Wardens, while there was a Blight invading… to imprison the Queen herself…

He had flown high for a few months, almost poised to become King of Ferelden, if he’d had the treachery to do away with Loghain. If he’d had the treachery to betray the Couslands, then perhaps that was his plan, and Elizabeth had stopped him before he could achieve it. Would he have been happy then? Would he have been able to be proud of what he did to gain it? Would it have been worth it? Would I have found out? I had never even wanted to become Arl of Amaranthine, prefering instead the life of a wandering warrior, although my parents had sent me to be squired to Ser Rudolphe in the Free Marches, my mother’s very strict cousin. Who would have inherited his ill-gotten gains?

And instead Elizabeth had struck him down, justly now it seemed, not just for her family, but for many other families, for Highever, Amaranthine, and Denerim, and maybe even all of Ferelden. And my family name was forever cursed by association… I had nothing now, not even my pride in my family’s history. To be sure, my grandfather, Tarleton Howe, had been a traitor to Ferelden, but his brother, Bryce Howe, had supported the rebellion. And Tarleton’s father might even have been a Grey Warden. No family was truly free from scandal, but this… would be hard to recover from, if not impossible. Rendon Howe’s ambition had disgraced my family far worse than Tarleton Howe’s ill-placed political stances.

What was I going to do?

“I think you should try being a Grey Warden,” Delilah said gently as I slumped at her table with my head in my hands. “It’s just the sort of thing you always wished to do. And maybe you will become friends with Lady Cousland. Maybe she can help you redeem our name.”

I sighed a long sigh. “I’ll see where it leads for now. That’s all I can say.”

“What brought you to the city today?” my sister asked.

“Apparently, one of the Grey Wardens who came here from Orlais went missing. The castle was attacked by monsters on the very eve that Elizabeth arrived, and while she protected the castle, all the other Wardens went missing as well, and she hopes that in finding one, she’ll find all of them.”

“So she came here searching for clues.”

“Yes. …I should probably go and see what she found.”

Delilah rose with me. “Be careful out there, Nathaniel. I don’t want to meet you again only to have you die on me.”

I managed to smile. “You take care too, Delilah. I’ll be back. I promise.”

 

I met Elizabeth and her two companions in the street near the tavern. She looked serious, but not more so than usual. “Any news?”

“It seems Kristoff was investigating strange happenings in the Blackmarsh,” she said. “I’ve heard stories about the place. It’s said to be cursed, isn’t it?”

I smiled. “Ah, the Blackmarsh. If you don’t watch your step, the ground itself will slurp you up like an Antivan noodle. And if the swamp doesn’t get you, the ghosts will.”

She looked at me drily. “You say that as if I should be afraid of ghosts.”

I stopped trying to be spooky. “You do not fear spirits?”

“I’ve put a few to rest. Demons are worse.”

“I think sometime I should hear your side of the story, as told by you,” I told her. “Delilah… told me many things.” I couldn’t hide the disappointment in my face or voice.

She reached out and touched my shoulder briefly before withdrawing again. “I’m sorry, Nathaniel. You seem like a good person. I… wish the past were otherwise, for your sake.” No platitudes about how it must be difficult, no pity. I appreciated that.

“Thank you, Elizabeth,” I said. “I have a lot to think about tonight, it seems. But I do want to keep being a Grey Warden.”

Her mouth narrowed into a thin line, not directed at me, but at herself, I think. “The choice was made for you. Even if you decided you did not want to be a Grey Warden and fled to the farthest reaches of Thedas, you would eventually find yourself fighting darkspawn again. Or so I am told. But I am glad that you want to fight with me.” She lowered her head. “When I was a child, even up to the day my family was killed, I thought it would be adventurous to be a Grey Warden and I would have loved to be one. Then when the choice was taken from me… when I found out what the Joining was… I didn’t want it after all.”

“But you turned out to be the best of them all,” I told her. “It’s said that no other Warden has killed an archdemon and lived, no?”

Her face closed down completely. “That doesn’t make me better. Anyway, my point was… neither you nor I decided of our own free will to become Wardens. And for me… I had nowhere else to go. Duncan needed my strength. And that was that. But for you… I didn’t have to make you a Warden. But I did anyway, because I was angry and it seemed the best solution to my problem at the time. I shouldn’t have done it. I am sorry.”

“Do not feel guilty,” I told her firmly. “I survived, and I intend to see it through. It’s what I always wanted, in a way. And we live noble lives, defending ordinary people against monsters. I like it.”

She looked up at me, uncertain, and I suddenly remembered that she was only twenty years old. “You truly think so?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you done chit-chattin’?” Oghren called back. “The mage and I are going to be halfway back to the Keep before you two so much as make it out of the city!”

 

We set out for the Blackmarsh the same afternoon; Elizabeth seemed driven to find these missing Wardens and didn’t care that it would likely get too dark to search for anything. Oghren was right up with her, hoping for a fight with something, anything, and Anders seemed resigned to his fate. Although he brought the kitten along. That was probably a bad idea.

I told him so. “You probably shouldn’t have taken the kitten, Anders.”

“Oh, he’ll be fine! He can take care of himself, can’t you, Ser Pounce-a-lot? He lived through the darkspawn attack. A swamp won’t be a problem.” It was a very cute kitten, and he had already trained it to sit on his shoulder. But that didn’t mean it could take care of itself. Well, Anders would only have himself to blame if anything happened to it.

“I always prefered my mabari, Huan,” Elizabeth commented.

“Huan as in from the story?” Anders asked.

“Yes. He might not talk, but he’s just as faithful as that dog.”

“Where’s the mutt now?” Oghren asked. “Shoulda realized you didn’t have him around sooner, gettin’ in everything.”

“He’s fine,” Elizabeth said. “He’s in Denerim now, at Anora’s request.” Her eyes passed over me. “Many mabari died at Ostagar, in the Bannorn, until there were hardly any left to fight in the Battle of Denerim. Anora wants to bring their numbers back as quickly as possible.”

“Ah, he’s a lucky one! Probably eats and lazes about all day with bitches as far as the eye can see,” Oghren said, laughing.

“I would think any mabari who follows the Commander would be a gentlemanly dog,” Anders said. “But I prefer cats. Even Mister Whiskers, the Tower mouser, who was eventually possessed by a rage demon and took out three templars before he was killed.”

“Impressive,” Elizabeth said.

Oghren giggled. “You think only only gentlemen are attracted to Eliza? That dog had terrible manners, runnin’ everywhere, pissin’ everywhere, droolin’ everywhere…”

“Kind of like you, then,” Anders said.

“Yep!”

Elizabeth pointed. “That’s a large skeleton. Are there dragons here? Should we be quieter?”

“You scared, Eliza?”

She shushed him and looked to me.

I hadn’t been expecting that, but yes, I suppose I was the one with the most local knowledge. “I think that might be the remains of the Queen of the Blackmarsh, a High dragon who terrorized the area for many years. She was finally killed during the Orlesian occupation when an Orlesian baroness decided to restore order to this corner of Amaranthine. It’s said, however, that when the moon is full, the Queen of the Blackmarsh can still be seen swooping across her domain.”

“Swooping is bad,” Elizabeth murmured to herself, and I had a feeling she was quoting someone or something. “But we don’t need to fear dragons today.”

“No, I don’t think so. I do have to ask, though, what your plan is, Commander. It’s getting dark and I hope you’re not planning to search the area by night for your missing Warden.”

“No, but I have a map of where he planned to camp, and I was hoping to reach it before dark,” she said. “He was apparently looking into reports of another talking darkspawn, and strange monsters shaped like worms with faces. There’s a ruined village there. His camp is just past that, in the hills above the swamp.” She paused. “If this baroness killed the dragon to restore order, why is it in ruins?”

“That’s another story,” I said to her. “For a few years, the area grew and prospered. But dark tales grew around her, that she used blood magic, that she hired many young girls as servants who were never seen again. Eventually her subjects rose up against her and burned her mansion, but the village of Blackmarsh never recovered, eventually fading away into these ruins here.”

“I see,” she said.

I chuckled a little. “When I was a little boy, I liked to daydream of coming here and setting the place to rights. Chasing out the ghosts and defeating any evil still lurking here.”

She glanced at me with a tiny smile. “We might end up doing that yet.”

Anders pointed at something else, a place where the air… shimmered. “All right, this is getting creepy. Who’s opening tears in the Veil?”

“Is that what that is?” Oghren asked. “What does that mean?”

“They’re… portals to the Fade, where the demons and spirits live. Don’t touch them. The Veil must be thin here. Maybe why that dragon and that blood mage chose to live here.”

“In any case, we must be a little more careful,” Elizabeth said. “I think… I think there are darkspawn nearby.”

“Darkspawn, ghost dragons, tears in the Veil, regular swamp dangers… This just keeps getting better and better!” Oghren said enthusiastically.

Elizabeth hushed him. “I just want to find out what happened to Kristoff. We are not so many or so powerful that we can take on all of those things at once. Perhaps we can come back with a larger expedition at some point to make the area safe.”

Oghren grunted and shrugged.

Kristoff’s camp was right where Elizabeth had said it would be, but it looked as if no one had touched it for several days. Too, there was the corpse of a man lying face-down in the swamp, who looked as if he had been dead for several days.

Elizabeth stared at him grimly for a few moments. “We have come to a dead-end.”

“Unless there’s something in his camp that gives us other clues to talking darkspawn and things?” Anders suggested.

“I hope so,” she said, then whirled suddenly. “Weapons ready.”

The sun had set and the light was fading rapidly from the sky, but out of the fog and mist of the swamp, several large, broadshouldered figures appeared a few minutes later. There were also strange squelching sounds…

My swords were in my hands, ready to fight on Elizabeth’s order. I think she was on the verge of giving the order to attack when the lead figure raised a hand and called: “Warden-Commander!” It was a strange, deep, rasping voice.

“Who goes there?” Elizabeth replied harshly, taut as a bowstring.

“I am called The First,” said the figure, and took a couple steps closer. So did its followers, and now we were definitely surrounded by darkspawn. Darkspawn, and strange worm monsters with tiny legs and horrifying human-like faces. “We knew you would come for the corpse of this one. The Mother said so, and she is always right.” It was so strange, to see a human and a darkspawn, standing face to face and speaking. The hurlock was taller than her – was taller than me, if it came to that – but she remained unintimidated.

“Who is the Mother?” Elizabeth demanded. “What is all this?”

“It’s an ambush,” I said dryly.

“An ambush? An… attack. This is no attack. I bring to you a message. The Mother is not permitting you to further his plan. She is sending you a gift.”

“I don’t want it,” Elizabeth said, baring her teeth. “Whose plan? What are you talking about?”

“She said you might not know. But you will not refuse the gift.” The hurlock held out its hand, and in it was a swirl of sickly green light and smoke…

 

I came to what felt like only a few minutes later, but it was broad daylight. I scrambled to my feet, my swords still in my hands, and looked around.

Anders was the only one still up, and he was trying to wake up Elizabeth. His cat was nowhere to be seen. Oghren was still out cold. Around us were the same darkspawn that we had been speaking to a short while ago, also in various states of confusion and waking up. The landscape was the same, but different. The sky was not truly daylight, but a strange, golden glow. The land had the same general shape, but it twisted strangely under the eye. For certain, though, the ruined town and the mansion on the seashore were no longer ruined but fully built still.

Elizabeth sat up abruptly and shook her head. “What… what happened?”

“Um, I think we’re in the Fade,” Anders said. “This isn’t the real Blackmarsh. Don’t know how we got here, though. The thingumyjigger that darkspawn held must be the culprit.”

“Where’s your cat?” Elizabeth said, nodding to me and shaking Oghren urgently. The dwarf came to with spluttering and coughing.

“Oh, Ser Pounce-a-lot is far too smart to get caught in the Fade. We’ll see him when we get out.”

“I hope so,” Elizabeth said. “You! What have you done? Why did you bring us here?”

“I am betrayed!” said the talking hurlock. “She did not say we would end up here too! This was not supposed to happen!”

“I could never trust my mother either,” Oghren grunted.

“What was supposed to happen?” Elizabeth shouted.

“I will be leaving you to the Children. I will find my own way back to the world! Back to the Mother!”

“Finally, some action!” Oghren said. “Forget answers, I want to split some skulls!”

Elizabeth snarled and charged, but the talking hurlock was already rushing away from the scene, and his followers, both darkspawn and worm, were charging back, blocking her. It was quick sword-work for a while, and those worms were terrifyingly fast and moved in a way that made me shudder to see, clawing at us with teeth and claws. I was almost more threatened by them than by the darkspawn.

When there was nothing around us but dead bodies and a terrible, unnatural silence, unbroken by the sounds of wind, water, birds, or insects, we gathered ourselves, sheathing our weapons and recovering our breath.

Oghren went over to the water’s edge. “Wait, did that growly nug-humper say we were in the Fade? The Fade! That’s where humans go to dream, isn’t it?”

“So I understand,” Elizabeth said. “I’ve been here once before, before I met you. It’s fine. We’ll find a way out.”

“You don’t understand! Dwarves don’t dream! We sleep like the Stone! I’m not supposed to be here!”

Elizabeth put her hands on his shoulders. “We’ll find a way out, Oghren. At least we’re together this time. Last time I was all alone and every one of my friends vanished before me once they realized they were in a dream.”

Oghren looked up at her sullenly, but quieted. “That must have been what you call a nightmare. You’re right, Eliza. But when we get back to the real world… I’m going to tear this ‘Mother’ a new one.”

“I’ll be there with you,” she assured him. “Anders, any insight on this situation?”

“Eh, no, not really. I think our best course of action is to find whatever’s controlling this part of the Fade and ask it very nicely if it will return us to the waking world.”

“I hope it’s that straightforward,” she said, and turned to me. “Are you all right?”

She was concerned about me? “I’m fine, Commander. A little confused, but ready to fight.”

She nodded. “Then let us head for the town. Perhaps there will be someone there who can help us.”

“Preferably friendly,” Anders said. “Most of the things interested in talking to people in the Fade are demons, and we don’t want those. Hopefully we’ll be able to find a spirit instead, even though they’re less interested in humans. …And dwarves. Mortals.”

We came to the village after some walking and found it… full of people. That was unexpected. Some of them cried out in alarm when they saw us, others came towards us with their faces full of hope. “Have you come to help us? Have you come to save us from the Baroness?”

“The Baroness?” Elizabeth said slowly, with a look at me.

“Not the same Baroness who once ruled the Blackmarsh with oppression and violence?” I asked them.

One of the villagers nodded. “She did horrible things to us, stole our children, and when we finally burned her mansion, she cast one final spell that trapped us here in this grey, lifeless place.”

“We should take you to the spirit,” said another. “He’ll be able to explain a little more.”

“A spirit!” Anders said. “What kind of spirit?”

“A spirit of justice,” said the villager, her face lighting up. “He’s come to help us!”

“Indeed, I have come to help these people,” said a shining ethereal shape. My mind gave it the appearance of a man in armour with a heavy helm on his head. He had a strong, commanding voice. “In the world of mortals, they are dead, yet their spirits cannot pass on. This Baroness keeps their souls trapped here and she feeds on their torment. I watched them for a long time and seethed for their plight, and now I am here to do something about it. And who are you?”

“I am Elizabeth of the Grey Wardens,” Elizabeth said. “My companions are also Wardens. We were trapped here but not, I think, by the Baroness.”

“I do not know what a ‘Grey Warden’ is, but you seem a capable sort. Will you aid us in fighting her and defeating her once and for all?”

“Will it return us to the waking world outside of the Fade?” Elizabeth asked.

“I do not know. But if you help kill this fiend, I promise I will help you find a way out.”

Elizabeth nodded. “In that case, we agree. How do you wish us to proceed?”

“We shall break down the gate.” He turned to the villagers. “Good people, let us take the fight directly to the witch! For too long have her crimes gone unpunished! Now is the time to reclaim your freedom!”

They cheered with a roar and rushed at the gate to the mansion, hurling themselves at it, hacking at it with whatever weapons they could find, until it splintered and burst open. With another roar, they poured into the courtyard, carrying us along with them.

On a balcony on the front of the mansion there appeared a beautiful woman in elegant clothes. She was not young, but her hair was black and shining, and her lips were red. She was flanked by two pillars of what looked like ash, but they writhed and contorted in a way that suggested there was some sort of intelligence there. “All that shouting and you only just decide to barge in uninvited?”

“Foul sorceress!” cried the spirit of justice. “Let these people go and submit yourself to justice!”

“And what of my justice, hmm? These people burned my home to the ground with me within it!”

“Because you were stealing our children for the sake of your… your vanity!” cried a villager.

“You lived on my land! Your blood was mine just as your lives are now!” The Baroness spat, rage contorting her face. Her gaze swept across our little group and sharpened. “But how now? You have gained more sympathizers to your pathetic cause?”

“We are no longer alone,” the spirit of justice said. “The Veil has been crossed by strong allies! You will fall!”

“As it turns out, I am no longer alone either,” said the Baroness, and gestured elegantly. The hurlock who had fled from Elizabeth appeared at her side, grinning at us.

“I have chosen the stronger ally,” said the hurlock to Elizabeth. “Once I have defeated you, she will return me to the real world where I will tell the Mother that I am not expendable!”

“Ooh, big words,” Anders muttered.

“You ran from me before,” Elizabeth said. “Are you so foolish as to think that you can face me now with so few allies?”

“This is so tedious. Have done with them,” the Baroness said with a bored tone.

“Battle is joined!” cried the spirit of justice, charging to the balcony at the Baroness.

Horrible monsters burst from the ground – more creatures of ash and dust. Had the Baroness summoned them? Did she still have the power to do that even when fighting off a spirit? The hurlock might be tough, but she was a bit scarier. The villagers agreed, breaking ranks and fleeing back into the village as the hurlock jumped down from the balcony to stand beside the ash creatures. Well, they weren’t fighters. It wasn’t their job to deal with this.

“I’ll deal with the darkspawn!” Elizabeth shouted. “Keep those things away from me! Anders, use ice!”

“Got it!” Anders cried, and began casting. One ash monster froze solid in its place and a second ice spell shattered it, sending fragments flying everywhere.

I came face-to-face with an ash wraith. How was I going to hurt this thing? Cutting at it would not harm it, would it? But if I did nothing, it would devour me and suffocate me. I lashed out, a blurring series of almost frantic attacks to keep it away. To my surprise, it flinched and quivered, although I was sure I hadn’t actually struck anything. But ash was falling to the ground… was I damaging the spell that held it together? I dodged a swipe from a fairly solid-looking set of sharp claws and slashed again.

Oghren shot past me and chopped it in half with his giant axe, and it collapsed in a cloud of fine particles. I tried not to breathe them in and looked around for another one.

One of them had almost gotten to Elizabeth! She was locked in combat with the hurlock, and it looked much bigger than her right now, driving her back, and she had no time to spare looking around for ash monsters. I sprinted for it, shouting a challenge to it.

It turned to me and before I could block, dove on me, instantly blinding and choking me. I lashed out, but of course I couldn’t feel that I was hitting anything. My eyes were burning as if on fire, and I had probably inhaled quite a bit of ash before I managed to stop my breathing, but if I didn’t breathe soon… I was going to inhale anyway. All I could hear was the rushing of ash in my ears…

A crack of thunder, a blaze of purple-blue light, and then an explosion knocked me backwards and onto my backside. A moment later I heard a small pained grunt. Eyes blurred with tears and pain and flecks of ash, I blinked enough to look up and see – Elizabeth had turned to stab at the thing attacking me, and the thing fighting her had brought its firey two-handed sword down on her side, searing through her strange silvery armour and cutting through her side. Her eyes were unseeing and filled with agony.

“Elizabeth!” I cried, scrambling to catch her as the hurlock pulled his sword out and she fell forward. Oghren charged past us, axe whirling, and slammed into the hurlock with a wild howl.

“I got you!” Anders yelled, and a blue glow pulsed around Elizabeth, once, twice, three times. The flow of blood stopped pouring from her side and her gaze focused again, blinking, on me.

“Nathaniel?”

“Are you all right?” I asked urgently.

“I-I think so-”

“Hey, look out!” Anders yelled, and I ducked as a stream of ice shot by overhead, blasting an ash wraith looming behind us.

I pushed her to her feet and followed. “Must keep fighting, Commander!”

“Agreed!” She smashed the pillar of ice that had trapped the ash wraith and turned back to the hurlock. “You’re going to pay for that! This armour is a gift from a friend!”

“Should not have turned your back on me, then,” the hurlock rasped.

“Oh for the love of-” I began.

“Just drop dead!” Anders cried, and some kind of spell hit the hurlock, who immediately looked a lot wearier than he had a moment ago. Interesting. I didn’t know darkspawn could look weary.

Now with both Elizabeth and Oghren pressing the attack, the hurlock broke away and ran back to the balcony. “They are too much! You must be sending me back through the Veil now, before it is too late!”

The Baroness broke away from her combat with the spirit. “Oh, I’ll send you back. I’ll send them all back, just as they wish! But your life will provide the power, you failure!”

“No! Nooo!” cried the hurlock, but the Baroness raised her hands in a pulling motion, and a sickly green light burst from the hurlock’s body, surrounding us just as before…

 

I woke to find it was pitch black out, and rain was beating on my face as I lay in the mud in Kristoff’s camp. I curled painfully to a sitting position. I did not seem to have carried over any injuries in the Fade to the real world, but I still felt as if I had fought several rounds of wrestling with a bear – and lost.

Next to me, Elizabeth pulled herself equally stiffly to her feet. I stared. The gash in her side was gone, the blood was gone, the rent in her armour was gone.

A short distance away from both of us, Kristoff’s body flashed with a strange golden light, and then began to move. I started and almost scrambled backwards several feet. He was supposed to be dead! Did we have undead to deal with now too?

“What… Where am I?” Kristoff cried out hoarsely, raising himself to his hands and knees. “What is happening!?” He sounded so lost and confused. If it really was Kristoff, I didn’t blame him. Being dead, and then being not dead…

“No… This is the world of mortals, beyond the Veil!” Kristoff said, pushing himself shakily to his feet. He looked about ready to keel over again at any moment, his legs shaking beneath him, and his face was still drawn and desiccated. “And I am trapped in a body of flesh!”

“…Spirit of justice?” Elizabeth asked in a small, shocked voice.

“Spirit of justice!?” Anders exclaimed. “Ow, my head.”

“Yes, that… is me,” said Kristoff’s body. “But- the Baroness has also returned to this realm! Can you not feel it?”

“She has the power to do such a thing?” Elizabeth asked.

“There was once, perhaps, a mortal like her, who did not. But whatever she was once, she is now a demon of pride. She has much power – enough to even bring herself to this side of the Veil without a host body. And, somehow, to bring me as well, although I am sure that was an accident. I should not be here!”

“Well I’m glad to be back, for one,” Oghren growled. “I wasn’t supposed to be in your silly Fade either!”

“What do you suggest?” Elizabeth asked. “If she has so much power… We can’t let a pride demon loose in the Blackmarsh. In a way, we brought her here. It’s our duty to remove her before she hurts anyone.”

“But I’m so tired, and it’s dark out, and I’m cold and covered in mud,” Anders whined. “Can’t we sleep for a bit and kill her tomorrow?”

“She must not be allowed to rest for one instant!” the spirit in Kristoff’s body exclaimed. “Justice can wait no longer!”

“Then we shall fight her now,” Elizabeth said. “I would want your strength at my back, Anders, but if you are too tired…”

“No, no, I’m fine,” Anders said dejectedly. “I’ll come with you.”

There was a mewing, and Anders’ orange kitten appeared on the branch of a tree above his head.

Anders brightened up. “Ser Pounce-a-lot! I knew you were okay. Come here! Everything’s all right now.” He reached up carefully and took the cat from the tree, setting it on his shoulder as usual. “I’ll be happy to follow you, Commander.”

“Good,” she said, with a tired smile. “You… how are we to call you?”

“You don’t wanna just call him ‘hey you’ from now on?” Oghren asked.

“I am a spirit of justice,” said the spirit. “That is what I am.”

“So, Justice, then,” I said. “Is that acceptable?”

“It is.”

“Then let’s go,” Elizabeth said. “We have a demon to fight.”

Wearily, we tramped back through the swamp, in the pitch black rainy night, towards the mansion, which was brightly illuminated by… something. I couldn’t tell at this distance if it was torches or magic. I hoped it was the former. Justice did not take long to get the hang of his new arms and legs, and I hoped he remembered how to fight, too.

When we reached the mansion, the rain had stopped, and the only sign of life was the Baroness, striding up and down her courtyard, observing what the human world was like, apparently. As we marched through the mansion gate towards her, she turned to look at us with an expression of disdain. “So I was not the only one brought to this world. How very tiresome.”

“We defeated you once, demon, we shall defeat you again!” Justice cried, pointing his sword only a little shakily at the woman.

She began to laugh, a triumphant, unhinged laugh, a laugh that turned into coughing and choking. She fell to her knees, retching, and a green light burst from her eyes, welling out to encompass her whole body. When it faded, a huge creature stood in her place, almost two stories tall, jet black and craggy with about fourteen green glowing eyes.

It was laughing as she had been laughing. “You think you can defeat me, worms? I did not know I had this much power in the mortal world! I will crush you easily and go on to rule it all! Watch in fear, mortals! Watch in envy, spirits and demons!”

“You have no right to speak,” Elizabeth said. “Do not speak to me of your plan to crush us and wrest from us that which we have earned and built with sweat, blood and tears! You know nothing of mortals! We are weary, yes, confused, yes, and yet we will fight you with every bit of our strength to protect our people and our land!”

“Don’t make me laugh more,” growled the demon with amusement. “Face me, and then talk to me of your strength! But you will be dead!”

“I’ll take that bet!” Oghren roared, charging forward. Elizabeth was at his heels.

I sorely wished for my bow. I could have shot that monster in the eye – in many eyes, it had enough of them to spare. It was slow enough I could have done it.

Instead I had my twin swords. Maybe I could distract it while Elizabeth’s magical sword and Oghren’s heavy axe and Anders’ magic did all the real damage.

It was a tiring fight on top of so many other tiring fights and many hours of travel. The creature might have been slow, but it was strong, and it flung Oghren clear through a solid brick wall. If it hadn’t been for Anders, I don’t think we would have made it. But at last, as it was brought low by Anders’ magic, Elizabeth and Justice stabbed it in what might be called its face, and it slumped to the ground with a bone-shaking groan and lay still.

“So it is done,” Justice said, and Anders slumped to the ground, exhausted. His kitten nuzzled his face and he petted it absentmindedly. “For what it is worth, I have fulfilled my vow. May those poor souls rest in peace, wherever they are now.”

“What will you do?” Elizabeth asked him.

“I… do not know. I am trapped within the body of this… Grey Warden, and I cannot go back to the Fade. Nor do I wish to die, as will happen if I let go of this body.” He turned to Elizabeth. “There are memories here, memories this poor man had before he died. He was killed by that darkspawn. He… hunted darkspawn?”

“That is what Grey Wardens do,” Elizabeth said. “The darkspawn would destroy everything we build, and the Grey Wardens defend against them.”

“So that is what you were doing when you were… tricked into the Fade,” said Justice. “Mortal, I know nothing of this realm, nothing beyond these few jumbled memories. What will I do? I do not know. You seem a creature of good character. Would you advise me?”

Elizabeth looked at him for a long time. “You could come with me to Vigil’s Keep until you have a better idea of what you wish to do with your… life.”

“Very well. This body is that of a Grey Warden, and you are a Grey Warden. Shall I join your cause? To avenge this man’s death would seem a worthy goal.”

“If that is your wish,” Elizabeth said, bowing her head courteously. “Someone commanded that darkspawn. Help us defeat her, and then see what you think.”

“Very well. Then I shall go with you.”

We marched back to Vigil’s Keep, bone-weary and starving.

 

I was in the Great Hall the next day, contemplating the portrait of my mother that still hung there, when Elizabeth approached me from behind.

“Funny, isn’t it,” I said without turning. “Considering all the things that have been taken, it figures that this would still be here.”

“Isn’t that your mother? Lady Elaine?” she asked quietly.

“Yes, it is,” I said, turning. “What can I do for you, Commander?”

Her eyes were still fixed on the painting. “Why is it funny? It’s a nice painting.”

My lip curled. “My father hated my mother. He only dragged out this portrait when my grandmother visited – which was not often, thank goodness. I’d be paraded before her like a soldier on inspection, and every tiny flaw I had would be picked apart while Father awaited his turn.”

She looked at me then, a tiny crease appearing between her eyebrows. “Why did he hate your mother?”

I shrugged. I’d said too much. “I don’t really know. The only thing they ever agreed upon was that I should be squired to Ser Rudolphe. She’s the daughter of Arl Bryland, and you know how wealthy they are.” I grimaced. “Of course, they wouldn’t touch me with a ten foot pole now. I’d be as welcome there as a bad rash. Anyway… someone should take this down. I think it’s staring at me.”

“As you wish,” she said uncertainly. “I’ll have Gemmet take it down right away.”

“Did you want me for something, Commander?” I asked. Or was she just checking on me again? I’d rather she didn’t. It… made me uncomfortable, to be honest. It was kind of her, but that was the whole reason it made me uncomfortable. It was not something I was used to, or wanted – it was just so awkward. Did she not think it was awkward?

She brought a beautiful longbow from behind her back. “I found this in the cellar storage. It has the Howe crest on it, and since you said you are an archer, I thought you might want it. It’s quite fine.”

I took it from her, surprised. “I… thank you. I do believe this belonged to my great-grandfather, Padric Howe.” I smiled involuntarily. “I think he was supposed to be a Grey Warden, but my family never heard from him after he went to join.” My smiled faded. “I guess he died in the Joining.”

She looked at me with those serious blue eyes. “Then he died a Warden, Nathaniel.”

“I suppose he did. In any case, thank you. I will be able to support you in battle better with this.”

She nodded, happy, I think, and went off about her business. I decided that I had better stop staring at Mother’s portrait and went outside.

I’d just climbed the eastern wall when I heard a high-pitched squeal, almost a scream of joy, ringing through the courtyard and turned to see Elizabeth together with the soldier who delivered mail. Elizabeth had just clapped a hand to her mouth and was turning bright pink in embarrassment to her own reaction to the letter in her hand. I chuckled. News from a dear friend?

She dismissed the soldier and hurried inside.

I smelled Oghren before I heard him. “Betcha ten coppers she’s gone in there to flick the ol’ bean,” the dwarf leered with a giggle.

I shot him a look. “That’s a very… uncouth thing to say about your friend and commander.”

“Only reason she’d squeal like that is because of the elf,” Oghren said.

“I’ll take that bet,” Anders cried. “I suspect she just won the lottery. That’s the sound I’d make if that happened. Isn’t that right, Ser Pounce-a-lot?”

“Nah, it’s the elf,” Oghren said confidently.

Anders considered. “On second thought, you’re probably right. Women don’t blush like that over the lottery. Ah well. Ten coppers, was it?”

“You’re both terrible,” I told them.

Although I’d learned something interesting. Elizabeth still hadn’t told me her story. She had an elf lover, did she? And she didn’t hide it? Interesting.

I lurked around the great hall for a while after that, and sure enough, she showed up again after about an hour. She looked happy, a smile hovering on her lips and a spring in her step that threatened to turn into a skip. She was definitely in love, badly, madly in love with someone.

“So that was different,” I said to her as she entered the hall, and her confident step stumbled in surprise.

“You startled me,” she accused me.

“Sorry,” I said, with a sarcastic half-bow. “Although, you startled me earlier as well, with that scream. Good news, was it?”

Her face lit up involuntarily. “Yes. My lover has made it safely to Antiva. I wasn’t expecting him to write so soon. Although it wasn’t his safety on the voyage there that I’m chiefly concerned for, the silly man…”

“Tell me about him,” I said. “You still have told me very little of yourself. How did you meet?”

She hesitated, then laughed. “Your father sent an Antivan Crow to kill me. I knocked him down instead, and then he asked to join my group rather than go back and be killed by the Crows for failure. Then it turned out he was a complete Casanova.”

“Oh my. And you actually fell for him?” The serious noblewoman and the amorous assassin… it was difficult to imagine.

She hesitated, her smile turning wistful. “It was a difficult journey. I think it’s fair to say we fell for each other. The only reason why he isn’t at my side now is that the Crows found him again, and he left in order to destroy them.”

My eyes widened. “Well, he certainly doesn’t lack for ambition, then. Good luck to him.”

“Indeed. But he told me he is the best Crow, so… I have hopes that he will remain alive.”

“You must miss him.”

She nodded, looking into the distance. “Very much. But…” Her smile returned, broadly. “Just hearing from him makes me happy. I’ve already written a reply. I don’t know when he will receive it. I doubt he’ll be able to remain in one place for long, and having a mailing address would surely be a death sentence… but he’ll get it somehow, and then he’ll know that I’m thinking of him always too.”

How very sweet. “Good for you, then.” She hadn’t mentioned he was an elf. She must not care.

“Oh, and there’s something I should tell you about that almost slipped my mind,” she said, suddenly turning businesslike. “Tonight is the… event where all the nobles of Amaranthine come to meet me and swear their oaths of fealty, with their words if not with their hearts.”

I smirked. “Your cynicism is delightful. Do go on.”

She snorted. “That was all. I was about to ask the servants to bring in flowers.”

“Does it need flowers?” I asked, looking around at it. It did seem tidier than usual, somehow. Ambassador Cera’s runes had been removed, and the floor had been scrubbed, the rugs beaten out.

She shrugged. “Elra told me it would be nice. Anyway, you don’t have to attend. I just thought I’d tell you so that you could plan your evening.”

“But I may attend, right?”

“If you wanted to.” Her voice suggested that she couldn’t think of a reason why I’d want to.

I made another half-bow. “It would only be proper to support my new liegelady. I’ll be there.”

 

Darlingest Liz,

Greetings from Antiva!

The weather was good on my voyage over, and there were no delays, no pirates, nothing particularly unusual. A silly Crow did try to kill me, but that is not unusual. I dropped him in the ocean and I believe he is attempting to swim to Kirkwall currently, as well as one can do when one is missing feet. I hope it is nice where you are, although knowing Ferelden as well as I do now, I do not have high expectations.

You have not experienced any assassination attempts since I left, I hope? I would really much prefer to be where you are, my sweet. Antiva is so dull without you to brighten it. Even with the Crows trying to hunt me down, this place lacks the excitement of being at your side. I never thought that these things I once thought so fun would feel so tedious – the running, and the hiding, and the stealthy ambushing and slaying of murderous wretches. I almost prefer your style of combat, the ‘charge blindly headfirst into danger because Zevran will take care of the rest’ style of combat. I tease, my darling. Actually, I do prefer your style of combat, because I get to watch you when things aren’t too difficult. It’s impossible to find anyone with your righteous fury and solemn sweetness in this country. Ah, well. I have been busy, although I shan’t tell you with what, and I expect the Guildmaster will agree to meet me soon. Or maybe I should kill him. What do you think?

I hear the darkspawn have still not gone away? They are like houseguests who overstay their welcome, no? I am saddened you have to deal with such business without me. I must deal with the Crows, but when I return to you, not even sharp razors will be able to separate us!

Until then, you remain in my dreams. Especially the naughty ones.

Yours always,

Z.

 

Dearest Zevran,

So many things have already happened since we parted ways in Denerim. You are correct about the darkspawn. They were assaulting my castle when I arrived! I slew every monster I could find, and then when the dust had settled, Anora showed up with Elra and Master Wade. Then I found out that all the Grey Wardens stationed here disappeared during the attack. Forgive me if I seem to complain overly much, but it’s a bit of an unwelcome surprise to find that all the people I thought I would be able to rely on and learn from simply aren’t there – and I have to worry about them now, too. On the positive side, maybe, is that Oghren is here as well. I don’t know what happened between him and Felsi yet, but I intend to get the story from him as soon as I have two minutes to sit down with him. Don’t worry, I won’t touch a drop of his alcohol.

I have made some other new friends here. The seneschal, Varel, is a practical man and I would be at my wits end running this place without him. There was a mage here during the attack, Anders, and I have turned him into a Warden rather than let the Templars take him back to the Circle Tower. He says he escaped from it seven times, and I wanted to try to let him be free. Oh, yes, Oghren has become a Warden as well. Sadly, Mhairi did not survive. There’s also an odd situation involving a spirit of justice, who calls himself Justice, and being bonded to the deceased body of a former Warden, which I don’t understand in the slightest, but he is here at the Keep for the moment, at least.

And I have saved the oddest news for last: Rendon Howe’s son, Nathaniel, was here when I arrived, imprisoned for attempting to burglarize the keep. I turned him into a Warden as well in a fit of anger, but I think he actually likes being one. He is a much better man than his father, so please don’t worry that he will try to assassinate me – or that he will hire you to assassinate me. That was a joke, but I don’t suppose it was a very good one. I don’t think he and I trust each other much yet, but we did do some sparring, and he helped me drive out a demon in the Blackmarsh, so I think it will turn out all right. He met his sister a couple days ago, and I think she told him how awful his father was. He’s a bit crushed by the news, but at least he doesn’t hate me anymore.

Forgive the overly long letter. I’m so happy to hear from you I can’t seem to be concise. I miss you dreadfully, your wit, your laughter, your eyes, your embrace, but it would be inconvenient to have more than one assassin – you – running about the place. I don’t know about naughty dreams, but I daydream about you every moment I’m not called on to make decisions about things or to fight people. I get fewer moments than I wish, although I suppose it is good that I am busy, too.

I don’t know what you should do about the Guildmaster. Do you wish him to stop trying to kill you, or to take his place? If it were me I would stick with the first one. But you know the Crows better than I.

You might have to stab Oghren when you return, however. He makes so many inappropriate jokes about us, and threatening to kick him to the Anderfels and back only stops his tongue for so long.

Every last bit of my love,

Elizabeth

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

 

The Wardens from Orlais had brought the white and blue uniforms of their order with them, and one of Elizabeth’s servants, Firiel, brought me one to wear. I went down to the Great Hall a little late to the gathering. I had no particular desire to stand out, either from my smart blue and white uniform, or from anyone recognizing me as Rendon’s son.

Unfortunately my wish was to go unfulfilled, as only a minute after I entered the Great Hall – the room now looking fresh with autumn flowers – Bann Esmerelle, who governed Amaranthine City, spotted me and came to speak to me. “Nathaniel Howe!”

I bowed to her rather stiffly. “Bann Esmerelle, I believe. It’s been a while.”

“Yes, yes. Nathaniel, it is good to see you. We all miss your poor father. He was so good to us. You look so much like him.”

“I do?” I asked, unsure whether I was pleased or not. Years ago, I would have been delighted to hear that. Now… after his disgrace, I wasn’t so sure it was a good thing.

“Yes, you have his nose. But your mother’s eyes.” Of course I did. My father had a big beaky nose, and I had inherited that. In actual, unfortunate fact, I was not a handsome man. Huzzah.

Esmerelle went on. “It’s somewhat of a surprise to see you here, and in that uniform. I would have thought you would never ally yourself with that girl.”

“I suppose letting her hang me would have been a much better choice,” I commented, and Esmerelle looked from under her brows at me, startled, I think.

“Can I help you?” said a quiet voice, and I saw Elizabeth hovering at Esmerelle’s elbow, ready to rescue me from her clutches. I tried not to stare. Either the Wardens had brought her a fancy dress in Warden colours and Ferelden cut, or Elizabeth’s servants had been very busy in the last couple days. But her sword was at her side as always, and she had attached her silvery pauldrons to her shoulders as if she always had to be ready for battle. Her hair was not in her usual braided buns but braided up onto the top of her head, with a very understated tiara across it.

“A new glass of wine, I think,” Esmerelle said dismissively. Elizabeth’s eyes met mine and for a moment they sparkled with mischief before turning away and deftly taking a glass from a passing servant’s tray. “In any case, what is she like?” Esmerelle accepted the glass from Elizabeth, again without looking at her. “We all know she’s a Cousland, impetuous, sentimental, violent… And so young. I know she was favoured to be Teyrna over her brother, and she did help Queen Anora put down that Blight, but she’s barely more than a child, is she not?”

“I do not know her well yet,” I said, painfully aware that Elizabeth was right there. “I would have said that she’s certainly more than a child, but…” Elizabeth’s eyebrow went up. “However, she’s… a strong woman. And if nothing else, Amaranthine does need someone to send those blasted darkspawn packing. Why not a Grey Warden?” My sarcasm was a little weak tonight, and I think Esmerelle missed it.

“So complimentary to the woman who killed your father,” Esmerelle said in surprise. “What has made you so loyal to her?” She began to look around the hall. “Also, this is her party, is it not? Where is she? Where is Arlessa Elizabeth?”

“I’m Elizabeth, if you’re looking for me,” Elizabeth said in that same quiet voice, carefully deadpan, and Esmerelle started and almost dropped her glass.

“Arlessa – forgive me – I didn’t see you-”

“It’s no matter. Nathaniel, would you introduce us?”

“Very well. Lady Esmerelle, this is Warden-Commander Elizabeth. Commander, this is Bann Esmerelle of Amaranthine City.”

“I am pleased to meet you, Bann Esmerelle. I hope we can work together on many things,” Elizabeth said, blandly polite, and Esmerelle bowed low, trying to hide her irritation and embarrassment. “Now, if you don’t mind, I must borrow Nathaniel for a moment.” She beckoned to me, and to Anders and Oghren, who also wore Warden uniforms, and began to make her way to the front of the room.

“That may not have been wise,” I murmured to her. “From what I recall, Esmerelle finds it difficult to take a joke.”

She turned serene blue eyes on me that said she didn’t care. “Words of experience, it sounds like. Stand here, please.” She lined us up on the second-highest step of the dais at the front of the room, where the Arl’s seat was placed. She did not sit there, but stood on the edge of the dais, looking across the crowd who turned to see her. They applauded her politely, some with more enthusiasm than others.

Now the room grew quiet and there were people looking at me, mostly at her but at me and my fellow Wardens as well. I swallowed while attempting to keep my face calm. I hoped she knew what she was doing.

“Good people of Amaranthine,” she said, her voice clear and strong over the hall, “Thank you for coming this evening. I am Warden-Commander Elizabeth, granted my station here by Queen Anora.”

“I would like to introduce my fellow Grey Wardens: Anders, a former Circle mage; Nathaniel, who has been training in the Free Marches; and Oghren of House Kondrat, warrior of Orzammar and one of my companions in the Blight.” Well, at least she had placed me in the middle, where I was more likely to be forgotten. And with the way Oghren was grinning, hamming it up for the crowd, and with Anders’ kitten sitting primly on his shoulder, I was possibly the least interesting one to look at as well, although I was the tallest.

Not that that would stop anyone who guessed who I was.

And Elizabeth quickly drew their attention again. “Most of you know me not only as the Warden who raised an army for Ferelden’s defence, but as the sister of the new Teyrn Cousland of Highever. I would remind you that until only recently, our two lands were the best of friends, and so shall we be again. Amaranthine is a beautiful land, and it is my duty, honour, and pleasure to serve her as your Warden-Commander and administrator.”

I couldn’t see her, facing into the crowd as I was, but her voice grew stronger, more stern. “While it would have given me great happiness to live here in peace after the Blight, it is obvious that the darkspawn have not completely withdrawn from the surface, placing us all in danger while they remain. You may be wondering where the Wardens who came here from Orlais are on this evening. I will be frank – they have been abducted by the darkspawn. It is my highest priority to rescue my fellow Wardens, and to find out why the darkspawn are still here, and to stop them.”

I wondered if that was wise, being so utterly honest and transparent. Letting the nobles know that not even the Commander of the Grey knew why the darkspawn were still here, would mean that some of them would chalk it up to youth and inexperience, some favourably, some unfavourably, and some of them would have a low opinion of Wardens confirmed.

I heard her take a step forward, and glanced towards her, seeing that she had leaned forward earnestly and raised a clenched fist. “I stand here before you not as Arlessa, but as someone who has devoted her life to fighting for others. Thus I swear to you that the Grey Wardens will fight to the last of their strength for your freedom! Give us your support and loyalty, and we will defeat the darkspawn and live free of fear!”

“Three cheers for Eliza- I mean, Lady Elizabeth!” Oghren yelled, and the room followed his enthusiastic gesticulating in polite applause. I clapped for her, too – I didn’t know she could orate like that. For a brief moment, I felt a twinge of envy – I could not orate like that – but I quashed it. I would not be my father, eaten up with jealousy of a Cousland. I noticed she hadn’t mentioned my father at all. It was probably for the best.

But under the polite applause, I saw faces that were unmoved and it worried me. Whatever I felt about Elizabeth, I wanted her to do well with my home, and to do that, she would need the support of the nobles. My father had favoured many, and those he favoured were not likely to find favour with her, not necessarily because they had been allied with Rendon Howe, but because their ideals and hers were so different, that much I could tell already.

I retreated to a corner as soon as I could, hoping that no one would come talk to me. I caught quite a few glances thrown in my direction, some that were perplexed or disappointed or upset, but for the moment I was left alone.

The nobles had stretched out their hands towards her and were reciting their oaths of fealty now. I wondered how many were sincere, and cynically guessed that maybe a quarter of them truly meant all the things they were saying about the honour of their families and loyalty unto death.

It was not a long oath, and afterwards, Elizabeth descended back into the crowd to meet her people more intimately.

One of the first people she spoke to was a stout older lord. “Lady Elizabeth, welcome to Amaranthine. I can’t say how much pleasure it gives me to see you here. I am Eddelbrek, lord of Feravel Plain, and I knew your father well.”

Elizabeth’s face brightening in surprise and pleasure. “I am very pleased to make your acquaintence, Lord Eddelbrek. I do recall you a little, although I was very small at the time, I believe.”

“Yes, quite small.” Eddelbrek chuckled, then grew solemn. “I am very sorry for the loss of your father, and swear to you that I had nothing to do with his murder.”

“I believe you,” Elizabeth said. “Thank you for your support.”

“If it’s not too much trouble, Lady Elizabeth, I would ask for your support in return. You see, Feravel Plain is mostly farms and fields – poorly defensible, and poorly defended. We supply the food for almost all of Amaranthine, and unfortunately we are also the hardest hit by the continuing darkspawn raids. I understand that you’ve had an attack here recently, but if you have any soldiers to spare, I would beg you to think of us.”

“While Lord Eddelbrek speaks truly, he is misguided,” Bann Esmerelle cut in smoothly. “Lady Elizabeth, Amaranthine City is woefully undermanned and darkspawn have even raided the outskirts of the city in the past month. If you send the soldiers to the farms, you would let our rich, ancient splendour be lost to the monsters.”

“Lady Esmerelle, do be reasonable,” Eddelbrek said. “Would you rather starve than lose the Chantry of Our Lady Redeemer?”

“It is up to Lady Elizabeth,” Esmerelle said stiffly.

Elizabeth looked between the two of them. “You both make good points. However, the city of Amaranthine has tall, strong walls, stronger even than Vigil’s Keep in its current state. A well-stocked city, even short on defenders, could hold out against a determined siege for many weeks – more than long enough for me to collect soldiers to aid you. Meanwhile, the farmers have little or no protection, and what good are we who fight if we do not protect those who need us most?” Also, in my practical opinion, we’d need farmers to feed our soldiers, or else we wouldn’t be able to protect anything.

“Lady Elizabeth,” Esmerelle began.

“Have those who live on the outskirts of the city withdraw into its walls,” Elizabeth advised her. “We must all keep as many people safe as we possibly can.”

“Do you not care about the history, the pride, the glory of Amaranthine?” Bann Esmerelle cried.

Elizabeth looked at her a little sharply, raising her chin imperiously. “History, pride, and glory are all things that should be preserved… but not at the cost of grieving families. I have faith that we will endure.”

The tone in her voice was final. Both Eddelbrek and Esmerelle bowed and moved away from her, leaving her to meet with other nobles.

 

It wasn’t the most interesting social event I’d ever been to, even with the tension and the awkwardness, but it made me appreciate not having social events very often in my life.

I think Elizabeth was thinking the same thing, as she drifted in my direction during the evening. “I’m not sure they like me.”

“I think some of them do,” I said. “Your speech made an impression, don’t worry.”

“You liked it? I’m glad. I spent the better part of the day thinking about it.”

“I certainly couldn’t have bested it. Now I see what people mean when they talk about the effortless Cousland charisma.”

She thought of something and laughed. “I guarantee you my brother’s speech when he Ascended to Teyrn was limited to ‘Hey, it’s me, let’s make Highever great’.” She paused and her smile turned wistful. “Perhaps with a mention of our father’s memory.”

“But Fergus is also a popular man,” I said. But he didn’t have his sister’s spark, though I wasn’t going to tell her that yet. “Anyway, there are a lot of nobles here with more of an interest in commerce or their own luxuries than high ideals. Or even, apparently, worrying about what the common folk might like to have, such as their lives.” She snorted. “Just don’t let them take advantage of you. Where’s Justice tonight?”

“I told him this might be a lot to take in. He is in a private room with some books that I thought might be helpful.”

“Good idea. You look nice, by the way.”

She blinked. “Thank you.” She looked down at her feet. “I thought I should wear the dress they brought me, although it’s a little bit short… but that just means I can show off the shoes that Leliana bought for me once in Denerim.”

“Leliana… one of your companions during the Blight?”

She smiled in fond remembrance. “Yes, indeed, one of my closest friends. She loves shoes, and while I would rather wear my boots anywhere, she insisted that I get something… ‘pretty’. And this is about the only time I will wear them, so I thought that I should.”

“Boots are good,” I said. “Is she Orlesian?”

“Ah, yes, I guess you can tell.” She paused, suddenly retreating into her shell awkwardly. “I don’t imagine you find this at all interesting, either.”

“This isn’t my favourite social activity,” I admitted. “Though it beats sitting in the cold wind and mud, waiting for an attack that probably won’t happen.”

“I suppose you’re right,” she said. “What is your favourite social activity, then?”

Did I have a favourite social activity? Did I want to tell her about it if I did? “Do archery contests count?”

A wide, involuntary smile flashed across her face before she schooled it back to calm seriousness. “I’d say they count.” This might not have been the most interesting social event I’d ever been to, but it did make me appreciate having an interesting Commander. She was definitely more interesting than most of the empty-headed nobles combined.

Another woman drifted over with a pleasant smile on her lips and an urgent look in her eyes. “Lady Elizabeth, I would like to speak with you for a moment.”

“In private?” Elizabeth asked, picking up on the woman’s demeanour as well and glancing at me.

“I can go, if you wish,” I offered. It was time for me to return to the dark corners of the room, anyway. I’d spoken to enough people for the time being.

“You can stay, Ser Nathaniel, but perhaps if you could warn us if anyone seems to be listening?” said the lady. “My name is Ser Tamra, and I’ve intercepted some letters between some of the nobles that suggest a conspiracy is afoot to remove you from Amaranthine, either by disgrace or by murder.”

“Do you know who these nobles are?” Elizabeth said, attempting to keep the sharp look from her face.

“I do not, my lady. None of the letters were signed, and I couldn’t trace the handwriting. I thought I should warn you, and offer my help.”

“Why should you help me?” Elizabeth asked slowly.

“I know your record, my lady. You are a warrior who protects the people under your command, a noble who despises politics. And your speech earlier tonight… You seem sincere in your wish to serve Amaranthine, and so I wish to serve you.”

Elizabeth smiled. “Thank you. You are generous, Ser Tamra. In that case, try to find out whatever you can about these conspirators so that I may confront them. I would wish to fight the darkspawn without fighting nobles as well.”

“I am glad, my lady. I will do whatever I can,” Ser Tamra said, looking relieved, and she bowed and left.

“I am, however, going to tell Varel,” Elizabeth muttered to me and began to make her way through the crowd towards her seneschal. And then she slowed and paused. “But maybe not this instant.” And she returned to greeting nobles, while I moved slowly back to my corner of the room.

 

I woke late that night after the event, strangely hungry, so I got up and went to see if there was anything the kitchens wouldn’t miss. I was in luck – there were a number of sweet pastries left over from the fealty gathering; I took a plateful and headed back towards my room.

On my way, I passed the dining hall and was surprised to see candlelight and hear voices. Elizabeth and Varel again. Did those two ever sleep? I crept closer to hear more.

“You could invite a member of each noble family to stay at Vigil’s Keep, effectively giving you a hostage regardless of who is in this conspiracy,” Varel was saying.

“I won’t do that,” Elizabeth said. “It might be effective, but it sounds too much like something Rendon would do. I would prefer to confront them squarely and not threaten those who would otherwise be favourable to me. …Besides, what if I am then forced to execute someone I have come to like?”

“I would suggest sending soldiers to spy on the nobles, but we have no experts in subterfuge and I doubt we’d learn anything effective from…”

She held up a hand to silence Varel, looking in my direction. I had thought I was being quiet, but she had heard me anyway. She beckoned for me to join them, glancing at the plate of pastries. “New-Warden hunger? I’d forgotten that happened.” There was a pot of steaming tea nearby and she poured me a cup.

“You hit on the most important side effects,” I told her, accepting the cup with a nod of thanks. “How did you hear me?”

She smiled a little. “After living with the Dalish in the Brecilian Forest for a summer, even a human can sense things in a quiet castle in the dead of night. You should go back to bed, though.”

“I realized earlier that I didn’t thank you for saving my life, Commander,” I said to her, and offered her a pastry. “I would not have asked you to almost die for me.” Not given our history, and I knew she caught the implication. Varel shot her a concerned look. I didn’t think he would be happy about the Commander almost getting herself killed for one of her soldiers.

She took the pastry daintily, looking a little blank. “You’re… welcome. But I would have done the same for any of my companions. I just… did it.”

I attempted a smile. “In any case, I am grateful. Perhaps I can do the same for you sometime.”

She smiled a tiny smile back. “Perhaps sometime I will let you.”

That moment, I realized what was happening. The vaunted Cousland charm was affecting me. Three days ago I had hated her, wanted to kill her, and already… I wanted to be her friend, instead.

And for some reason, I wasn’t even resentful of that fact. “But more importantly, why are you sending me to bed when you don’t seem to sleep?” I said to her, offering Varel a pastry as well. “You’ve been here how many days? And already you look more tired than when you arrived.”

“He’s right,” Varel said with gruff affection. “I’ve got enough grey for both of us, my lady. You proved your dedication tonight already. There’s no need to worsen your condition.”

Her… condition? I took a closer look at her hair and saw that indeed there were many silver threads mixed in to the glossy dark brown. She had more grey than me, and I had ten years on her. Her life hadn’t been easy, had it?

Instead she leaned against the table and sipped her tea. “Do you have family, Varel- Gideon?”

“Aye, I did,” Varel said, with a shadow in his eyes. “Lost my wife in the birth of my youngest, and then both my son and my daughter died in the Blight.”

“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said softly.

“She’d be about your age, in fact,” Varel said, looking her up and down. “Not so tall, nor so forceful, but she had your gentleness. …It’s one reason why I’m loyal to you, certainly, my lady.”

Elizabeth raised her chin slightly. “Gideon. When we are in private, you are to call me Elizabeth from now on.”

Varel smiled. “As you wish, Elizabeth.”

“Thank you.” She glanced at me. “You were both saying sleep might be good for me. I think I will do that. Don’t stay up too late yourself, Gideon.”

 

The next day I was woken by a loud crashing and thumping, as of heavy stones falling outside, and I huffed crankily at the ceiling of my room. The weather was overcast and the porridge we had for breakfast was lumpy. It was a wonderful start to the day.

The courtyard was a busy place. On one side, the dwarves were beginning to pull down the damaged wall and the tower, with human labourers doing most of the work and the dwarves directing. On the other side, Varel and Garevel were dealing with the recruitment process, beginning to build up Vigil’s Keep’s army back into a proper fighting force.

Elizabeth was in the thick of things, of course, speaking with Mistress Woolsey near the castle doors, and I avoided her as I went up to my spot on the east wall.

To my dismay, Anders was already there with his kitten. I had to make him leave. “How do the Templars always find you, Anders?”

The scruffy mage looked up from scratching under his cat’s chin with a gormless grin. “Incredibly angry, that’s how they find me! How are you this fine morn?”

I grunted in response and leaned on the wall. “There must be some trick to it, surely.”

“They began recruiting women,” Anders quipped. “The male templars never stopped for directions.”

I glared at him. “You are impossible to talk to.”

“Fine, thank you, and how might you be?” he replied, maddeningly perky.

“Oh, go soak your head,” I grumbled.

“What bee’s gotten into your bonnet?”

“You’re in my spot,” I mumbled.

“What?”

“You’re in my spot.”

“What’s so special about-”

Fortunately, at that moment we were both distracted by shouting from the courtyard, or I would probably have wrung Anders’ neck.

“You do not say that about anyone, elf or human!” Elizabeth shouted, and we looked over the walls to see Captain Garevel standing very stiffly as she leaned into his face, the elf servant Firiel standing nearby looking frightened and confused.

Garevel saluted very formally. “I… understand, ser. I apologize.”

“Apologize to Firiel, not to me,” Elizabeth said sternly. “That goes for all of you! If I hear any slurs against elves, you’ll be on field patrol with the darkspawn for a month!” One of the new recruits was foolish enough to snicker, and she rounded on him.

And suddenly, I saw her demeanour change. She had been angry and showing it, but now she became a deadly, thinking sort of calm. There was still a fire in her eyes, but she wasn’t going to throw a tantrum like a despot.

She walked over very slowly to the recruit, who was starting to look a little uncertain. “Something amusing about this situation to you, ser?”

“Ain’t ya doin’ a knif- an elf, lady?”

“That has very little to do with it,” Elizabeth said, and glanced at Varel. “Seneschal, I want this man whipped and thrown into prison for a day to think about his words. I will not tolerate racism in my castle.” But she still needed every soldier she could get.

“Yes, my lady.”

She dismissed Firiel, to whom it seemed Garevel had apologized properly, accepted another salute from Garevel, and began to climb the stairs towards us. Her eyes were worried now. “Do you think that was too harsh?”

“How should I know?” Anders asked. “You’re the boss-lady.”

She looked at me and I shrugged. “They know you mean business. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble from them on that matter.”

“But what if they resent me for it?”

I looked down at Garevel, who was carrying on yelling at the new recruits as if nothing had happened. “Some of them will probably respect you more for it. You’re a strong woman. Don’t second-guess yourself.”

“Make mistakes boldly, is that it?” she asked.

“Story of my entire freakin’ life!” Anders cried brightly.

The shadow of a smile crossed her face. “I will remember that. Thank you. I’ve not had to put these lessons into practice before, mostly.”

I nodded and turned to look out at the ocean, still cranky but slightly mollified by Elizabeth’s presence. She could make Anders bearable. She seemed to actually like his company.

“So what’s the plan for today, Commander? Do we get to laze around and catch our breath?”

“In this glorious, sunny weather,” I muttered.

“I’m afraid not,” Elizabeth said, sounding more energetic now. “I’m leading a force to the Wending Wood to hunt for the bandits attacking our traders. All the Wardens are going, including Justice.”

“So we have to come too?” Anders asked, with a bit of a pout. “Fine. It’s nicer than a swamp, anyway.”

“You’re still taking the damn cat, aren’t you,” I grumbled.

“Of course I am! He can sense danger!”

I rolled my eyes, but followed the other two down the stairs to where about forty or fifty soldiers were assembling – not the newest recruits, but men and women who had been at Vigil’s Keep since I had gotten there. Sergeant Maverlies was at their head. Justice and Oghren were also there, and none of us were wearing the blue and white uniforms. They were nice enough, and practical, too, but in the forest we would only stand out. And I liked my regular armour.

Elizabeth had even had gear prepared for us to camp in the forest overnight. This wasn’t a mere jaunt into the woods, then. She was serious about clearing the path right through to Denerim. She certainly didn’t do things by halves.

“So, Nathaniel,” Oghren said as we set off, “that whole ‘quiet and stoic’ thing must get you a lot of action, huh?”

I frowned at him, then thought of a way to deflect him. “I take it you’re an admirer, Oghren?”

The redheaded dwarf sputtered. “What? No! No, well not unless… No!”

“Good,” I said simply. “Then I won’t have to worry about getting too drunk at camp tonight.” Not that Elizabeth had brought a surplus of alcohol, although with the way the dwarf always reeked of it, that wasn’t a problem. Someone with a low constitution could probably get drunk just inhaling his fumes. I wondered how Elizabeth stood it.

The dwarf gave a low, appreciative chuckle. “Okay, I like you. Just… not in that way.”

I gave him a polite nod and conversation ceased between us for the moment.

The road got twisty and turny in the depths of the wood, snaking between massive ancient trees and Tevinter ruins lurking on hilltops. It was the perfect place for ambushes. We hadn’t gone very far in before we found the remains of a ruined caravan, looking a couple months old. A short while later, we found another, much newer – perhaps a couple of days old.

Elizabeth stopped to inspect this one. “I don’t think this was caused by bandits.”

“Ser?” Sergeant Maverlies asked.

“These look like the marks of…” Elizabeth frowned. “How to put it… Sergeant, have you ever seen trees walk? Particularly in this forest?”

“No, ser?”

Elizabeth looked around at the forest. “How about Dalish? Do Dalish live here?”

“I… think so, ser? We don’t often see them. Why, ser?”

“These wagons were wrecked by some powerful force, too powerful for mere bandits, but without the filth that an ogre would leave behind. I suspect sylvans, or…”

She looked up abruptly and we looked with her. There was a flicker of movement in the trees, and then the soldiers in the rear of our group cried out in fear as tree-roots erupted from the ground, encircling us in a solid living barricade.

A beautiful elf-woman stood on the hillside above us, glaring down on us. Her golden hair glinted in the sun, and she grasped a sturdy staff in her hand. Elizabeth stared back at her, guarded, but not reaching yet for her sword. “Who are you?”

“I’m asking the questions here,” snapped the elf. “Where did you get that ironbark armour? Whose body did you steal it from, human?”

I saw Elizabeth’s hackles rise and and she maintained her calm with an effort. “This was a gift from Varathorn, Master Shaper of the Brecilian Dalish.” That explained a few things – the strange texture and colour of her armour, and her reaction when it had been damaged in the Fade.

“You’re that human who led the armies against the darkspawn, aren’t you? That’s the only reason I haven’t destroyed you already.”

“Yes, I am Elizabeth. What shall I call you?”

“What are you doing here?” the elf demanded as if Elizabeth hadn’t spoken.

“Protecting my people,” Elizabeth said strongly. “Is it you who attack the travelers on this road? Let my soldiers go!”

The elf’s eyes blazed. “You – you’re no better than the rest of the shems after all! You come into my woods with soldiers and order me-”

“If you are attacking people, human or elf, I will stop you!” Elizabeth cried. “I don’t care who you are!”

The army began to mumble and I surreptitiously drew an arrow and set it on the string, but the elf swatted casually at the air with her hand. Faster than I could blink, roots erupted out of the ground below me and twisted around me, leaving me immobilized and gasping for air.

“You’re the ones who killed my sister!” raged the elf. “You’ll all pay for that!”

“You tree-addled wench!” Oghren bellowed. “If you think Eliza kills elves, you’re out of your mind! She just threw a man in prison this morning for calling them names!”

To my surprise, the elf hesitated, uncertainty plain on her face. “You’re allied with those who murdered my sister-!”

“Who is your sister?” Elizabeth said. “Tell me, and if I can set things right, I shall.”

There was a long silence as human and elf stared at each other. I could feet roots digging into my ribs even through my leather armour, and prayed that they wouldn’t constrict any tighter around my throat.

Without warning, they released me, and the roots around the entire group vanished into the ground, leaving nothing but disturbed earth. “You have one chance,” hissed the elf. “My sister’s name was Seranni. She was killed, along with the rest of my companions, in the north-west part of the forest. She was murdered by human soldiers. Their weapons still lie there. Tell me who they were and let me have my revenge! Else I will destroy even your precious castle and you within it.”

Elizabeth took a step back. “I will find out whatever I can, I promise you. I want no trouble with the Dalish.”

The elf hesitated again, then scoffed – and vanished, seemingly into thin air.

“Ser!” Sergeant Maverlies gasped. “What- what was all that? What’s going on?”

“There may indeed be bandits within these woods, but that is not the story behind the merchants’ troubles here,” Elizabeth said. “This may be out of your league, Sergeant. I can cover more ground with only a few companions. I will take the Wardens and investigate the claims of this woman. You should return to the Keep and inform Varel and Woolsey of the situation.”

“But ser!”

“I’ll be fine,” Elizabeth said firmly. “Please believe me. Go on, back to the Keep. If you do see any bandits on your way back… give them a piece of my mind.”

“…Yes, ser!”

Elizabeth gestured to us, and we set off away from the road towards the northwest. After only a short while she stopped. “Anders, Nathaniel, are you well?”

Anders had been attacked as well? “I’m fine, Commander.”

“It was mildly uncomfortable, although a little exhilarating,” Anders said. “I’m fine too. And so is Ser Pounce-a-lot.”

“Good,” Elizabeth said. “Justice?”

“I suspect the situation is more complicated than it seems,” Justice said. “I am sure that merchant caravans are not to blame for this woman’s sister’s death, but the murderers must be brought to justice regardless of her actions.”

Elizabeth blinked, apparently having asked a different question than was answered. “Very well. Let’s move quickly. We might be a few days out here and we should get answers as soon as possible.”

 

It took us a day or so to find the place where the elf’s sister had been killed; the forest was large and this event had supposedly happened a couple months ago. But eventually we found a clearing in the forest with four cairns of stones and a ruined Dalish camp – and a couple broken swords and arrows that did not look Dalish in design.

Elizabeth looked at them closely, but neither she nor the rest of us could deduce who might have wielded them. They were very plain, and quite cheap. They were definitely human-made, but more than that, we couldn’t tell. There were also no remaining tracks leading to or from the place, but Elizabeth made the decision to keep searching the forest for more clues.

Her decision was a wise one. A few hours later, in a dark corner of the forest farther west, we came upon a pit in the ground filled with mouldering corpses. They were all human, and naked.

Oghren growled in his throat as he looked at them. “I don’t know about the elves, but this lot were killed by the darkspawn, no question of that.”

Elizabeth was looking around. “There are darkspawn near. I think this is a trap.”

“Oh boy!” Oghren seized his axe. “Come on, then!”

Bushes snapped, and a dozen darkspawn came rushing towards us. Quick as a thought, I loosed an arrow, taking down one of them. Anders blasted another with a fireball. We supported Elizabeth, Oghren, and Justice as the three armoured warriors threw themselves into the thick of combat.

It was a tiring battle, and Oghren took a serious knock to the head before it was done. Anders healed him but said he might still display signs of a concussion for a few hours.

While Elizabeth was inspecting the bodies of the darkspawn, I was looking again at the pit of corpses. It wasn’t likely that any of them could be identified at this point, or even that a link could be found to the dead elves, but…

Something was twinkling on the ground at the edge of the pit, and I frowned at it as I reached for it.

A root burst out of the ground at curled around my wrist, stopping me short. I looked up as the elf woman appeared on the other side of the pit. “Don’t touch that,” she snapped.

“Or what?” I retorted. “Is it part of another trap?”

She snarled at me, and more roots picked me up and tossed me – relatively gently, actually – away from the pit. She swiftly rounded the edge and picked up the thing I had seen. She inspected it with wide eyes, then clasped it to her heart. It was some sort of amulet. “Oh, Seranni…”

“Does it belong to her?” Elizabeth asked quietly as I picked myself up.

“Yes,” said the elf, her anger seemingly dimmed for the moment. “She… she might even be alive-! I can feel it!”

“Good to know,” Oghren grunted, still rubbing his head. “You mind not attacking more human caravans from now on? We need the stuff they bring us.”

“Yes, yes, whatever.” She whirled on Elizabeth. “Will you help me find her?”

Elizabeth answered slowly. “I don’t even know your name. Who are you, and where are you from?”

“My name is Velanna, formerly of the Amaranthine Dalish,” said the woman, her stature tiny but her posture proud.

“Formerly?”

Velanna’s lip curled, but she answered. “You humans burned the village where my clan lived, trying to drive us away like animals. When I sought revenge, my Keeper, Ilshae, banished me.”

“Sounds like you seek a lot of revenge,” Anders commented.

“Maybe I do,” said the elf coldly. “There’s a lot to get revenge for. Like the centuries of oppression and humiliation that the elves have endured at the hands of you humans.”

I expected Elizabeth to say something in her defence, given how much she wanted to elevate elves from being second-class citizens in Ferelden society, but instead she said: “Perhaps I will help you find your sister, but I have responsibilities towards all of Amaranthine. However, it seems that darkspawn were involved in her disappearance, so while they are around, our goals coincide and we may as well work together.”

Velanna snorted. “I suppose that is the best I can get from a human, and a human noble. Very well. I can work with that.”

“It’s getting late,” Elizabeth said. “Will you allow us to return to Vigil’s Keep to rest and prepare for a further expedition?”

“All right,” said Velanna. “In fact, I’ll come with you. I don’t want you to forget your promise to me.”

“Very well,” Elizabeth said. I wondered how well that would work. With such an abrasive woman… and many in the Keep not as open-minded about elves as Elizabeth wished… we might have problems. And from how Elizabeth was speaking, I suspected it would be a few days before we sent out another expedition, one that she herself would insist on leading again. Velanna would probably get impatient before then.

But perhaps we’d be able to get trade going in Amaranthine again.

 

It had been a week since that day, and I had actually seen little of the elf woman. She was around the castle; I knew she had been given her own room, but she ate her meals on her own time and in her own place, and she was more reclusive than I was, lurking up in one of the higher towers of the Keep, silently observing us all.

I would have expected her to pester Elizabeth more, but the young Warden-Commander was clearly run off her feet, still adjusting to all her new duties. She was constantly running about, overseeing Garevel’s recruits, discussing Warden finances with Woolsey, answering more domestic questions from the castle staff, familiarizing herself with Amaranthine’s resources and politics with Varel, and discussing the rebuilding of the castle with Glavonak. We had come across an outcropping of what Elizabeth and Oghren called granite in the middle of the Wending Wood, and apparently it was the desired material for rebuilding the castle walls damaged in the darkspawn attack. I had far fewer duties – a couple of watches, and keeping my skills sharp – and I made a visit to Delilah in Amaranthine in the middle of all of it.

Delilah was happy to hear that things were going smoothly so far, and I was just glad to be able to spend time with my sister. Visiting her gave me a space away from the castle that had once been my home. It wasn’t that I was unhappy there currently, really, just… it wasn’t the same, so full of strangers. And Elizabeth. There were times, certainly, when I forgot that she killed my father. But there were also times when I remembered. And for all that I was starting to like her, sometimes I just had to get away from her. Maybe that was why Velanna didn’t come bother her. If she hated humans so much, living in a human castle must be incredibly stifling.

After another few days had passed, it came time for the monthly ritual of hearing court cases that fell under Vigil’s Keep’s jurisdiction, as well as any legal disagreements of the lords and ladies of Amaranthine. Elizabeth was judge, of course, with Varel at her side, and I chose to watch, just to see what she would do.

After a few minor cases, there came one that I would have thought would also be minor – a shepherd named Alec had stolen two bushels of grain from a storehouse belonging to the crown, an offense punishable by hanging. The wretched young man could hardly lift up his head in Elizabeth’s presence, but he stammered out some sort of defence – his sheep had been stolen, he could find no other work, and his family was starving.

I would have expected Elizabeth to have the man flogged and imprisoned, but instead, she stepped down from the dais – again, she wasn’t using the arl’s seat – and walked around the young man, looking him up and down from all sides. “How many people are there in your family?”

“S-six, your ladyship. My mother and father, too old to work, my wife, and my three children…”

“You look strong and healthy, Alec. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I need soldiers to fight the darkspawn. Join my army, and your crime will be pardoned and your family fed.” Well, now that we were getting more of the trade we ought to, that would be much more doable than before.

Alec’s eyes widened in surprise and hope. “Y-your ladyship! I-I-”

“Go take him to see Captain Garevel,” she said to the guards with him. “He is not to go home for one month, but find out who his family is and send a soldier’s month’s pay to them.”

“Yes, ser.”

The next case was of a pair of nobles quarreling over land. I would not have paid much attention to this one either, except that the lady had claim on the gentleman’s land because my father had promised it to her for her support during the civil war during the Blight. Naturally, the man did not wish to give up his land.

Elizabeth supported him, saying: “I am not Rendon Howe. Whatever promises he made to you were made void by his death. Ser Derren keeps his land.” But I also noticed that although Ser Derren implied that Lady Liza had done more than just support my father, Elizabeth did not punish her either. I wondered if anyone else noticed.

She was almost done when a giant of a man was brought in, a man with red hair and tanned skin and a fat face. He was introduced as Ser Temmerly the Ox, whom I vaguely remembered as being even more of an ass than an ox, and the charge brought against him was murder.

Murder of one Ser Tamra, who had warned Elizabeth about a conspiracy against her.

Unfortunately, there was absolutely zero evidence to convict him of the crime. It seemed certain that he had done it, but as Varel pointed out, that wasn’t enough for justice. Short of a confession, which I had an idea Elizabeth would not be using torture to extract, there was nothing she could do to punish him.

And then a cool look crossed her face as she regarded the hulking thug. “Absolutely no evidence, you say?”

“You can’t touch me,” said he, roughly.

“Perhaps not,” Elizabeth said, raising her chin. “However, as the chief suspect in the crime, you certainly can’t just be released, not until my… substantial and extremely long investigation into Ser Tamra’s death is concluded.”

The man looked like she had just punched him in the gut. “What? You can’t do that!”

“She certainly can,” Varel said, trying to hide a smug, gleeful grin. “Take him away!”

When Temmerly had been dragged out of the room, Elizabeth couldn’t hide a smile of her own. “That… was satisfying. I suppose he will have to be released eventually, and I wish Tamra’s death could have been pinned on him, but…”

“Perhaps he’ll think twice on what he can get away with under your rule,” Varel told her. “Well done. You made… some very different choices than I would have made, and very creative ones, too. I think Amaranthine will respond favourably.”

For a moment, she looked uncertain, and then she nodded. “Although that conspiracy still exists, and I expect the woman I crossed today is in it.”

“Do you want to do something about it?”

She thought for a long moment. “I can’t think of anything right here and now. I hate to leave it brewing, but I must hope to think of something later.”

“Understood, my lady.”

She nodded to him and went to check on the mail.

There were two letters for her today, another one from her lover, which made her smile reflexively, and one from her brother, which she tore open immediately. Something small and relatively heavy dropped into her hand.

“What’s that?” I asked, coming up beside her.

She held it up. It was a tiny silver charm shaped like a step-ladder. After a moment, she laughed. “I get it.”

“Hmm?”

“Whenever my brother annoys me,” she explained, “I usually ask him ‘Can I get you a ladder, so you can get off my back?’ I suppose he has taken the initiative on himself to get me a ladder so I can give it to him the next time we quarrel.”

I had to smile. “Ah, siblings. I know the feeling.”

She was reading the letter. “Yes, that’s indeed what he says here. ‘Hang this on that chain next to that gaudy ring you wear. I don’t want to feel less important to you than that ridiculous elf of yours.’ Oh Fergus… am I going to have to beat you up again?”

I laughed, but I was curious. “He gave you a ring?”

“He did,” she said, and from under her tunic she pulled a silver chain with a plain silver amulet, and beside the amulet was a heavy gold ring with sapphires and rubies in it. She began to attach the silver ladder charm to the chain on the other side from the ring.

“But you don’t wear it? Are you not engaged?”

She hesitated. “I… don’t think Zevran believes in marriage. He didn’t believe in love, before he met me. And besides, it’s an earring. It doesn’t fit my finger.” True, it looked a bit large for that.

I frowned. “I don’t wish to question your private life, Commander, but…”

She looked up at me with her serious eyes. “I trust him. He trusts me. For now, that is enough for both of us.”

Fair enough. If she trusted him, I wouldn’t throw cold water on her. If this Zevran really was faithful to her, there was nothing to worry about, and if not… she would find out in her own time. It wasn’t my place to say anything.

 

Darlingestest Liz,

I don’t have much time to write today. I may have kicked a hornet’s nest or two in the last few days, and all of Antiva is looking for me. Me! I feel very important right now, as you may expect. Do not worry, none of them can catch me. I am currently clear outside of Antiva City – although that is all I will say on that matter. I’m not sure what you meant with your advice on the Guildmaster, but he is dead now so he is certainly no longer trying to kill me; just every one of his peers and underlings is.

So your mortal enemy’s son is your new best friend? I must call him Nate, to celebrate his new status. And this Justin – pardon, I mean Justice of course – is it anything like what dear Wynne was dealing with during our acquaintance? The rest of your new friends sound interesting as well. I hope I can return to meet them soon, and tease them to the best of my ability. Are any of them attractive?

It does sound like you have been busy. Strange about the darkspawn kidnapping Grey Wardens. On a serious note, were any of them women? Do you know? I know you will be able to deal with everything, so I will try not to fuss. I know how you hate it.

And I am to stab Oghren, am I? Excellent. I always wondered when you would ask me to.

Ah, how I miss your strong, loving arms, my dear. I think about them hourly. And every other part of you, too, including and especially-

 

Dearest Zevran,

Things might be settling down a bit here, at least for the moment. There might be some trouble with the Dalish ahead; apparently some villagers have been harrassing them and drove at least one Dalish woman to exact terrible revenge. Her name is Velanna and she is staying at the Keep until I keep my promise to her to find her missing sister, who might have been abducted by the darkspawn. I still have not found the missing Wardens and while hope dwindles for them every day, I will not give up yet. I do not know if any of them are women… As for my companions, I suppose Anders might be somewhat handsome. ‘Nate’ resembles his father too much (and his face looks a little like a horse stepped on it when he was young, forgive me for my unkind words), and Justice is literally a corpse. So no, none of them can hold a candle to you.

I met the nobles of Amaranthine and they officially swore fealty to me, but I was told by a woman who is now dead that some of them are conspiring against me. I don’t like to leave them be but I also refuse to resort to any sort of tactic that Rendon Howe might have used. Do you have any advice as to honourably discover who they are and enforce their loyalty? Please note that I am not inclined to hire any of your former co-workers, even as mere spies and not assassins. I realize that limits my options greatly indeed. As for the woman’s murderer, there was no conclusive evidence that he did it… but he’s a nasty man anyway and I threw him in prison while I conduct an investigation. That I’ll probably get around to five or six months from now. Am I evil for that?

My brother sent me a silver ladder charm; in his note he asked me to hang it from my amulet’s chain beside your ring. Apparently your gift to me is threatening to his brotherhood. And Nathaniel is confused by our relationship, but he forbears to ask too many questions so I won’t thrash him. For now.

You miss my arms, do you? You do realize that I can hardly read a word you say without blushing? The things you write… you are determined to make my nose bleed from embarrassment, aren’t you? I was going to tell you how much I missed your kisses, and of the dream I dreamed of you, but now…

No, I couldn’t not tell you, could I? I dreamed-

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

 

A day later, Elizabeth had finally managed things such that she could leave affairs to Varel and Garevel for several days. She found Velanna, sent for the rest of the Wardens, and departed again for the forest.

“Finally!” was Velanna’s only comment. “I thought I was going to go crazy waiting for you slow humans.” After that, she stubbornly said nothing, even when Anders attempted to flirt with her.

At the edge of the forest, Elizabeth turned to Velanna. “Are there any places in the Wending Wood which you know to be used by darkspawn?”

“It varies,” Velanna said. “Or else don’t you think the Dalish would have dealt with them ourselves? We hate the darkspawn as much as anyone else.”

Elizabeth ignored the sharp tone. “How does one find out?”

“I will ask the forest,” Velanna said. “I was Ilshae’s First, and I have a great deal of power.”

She closed her eyes, stretching out her hands, and began to glow gently with a green-gold aura. I seemed to sense rather than feel or see a power radiate out from her like a wave.

After a moment she lowered her arms, the glow faded and she turned to Elizabeth. “There is a corruption in the north-east corner and the south end. Of the two, the north-east feels old. I suspect the south location.”

“Then that is where we will go,” Elizabeth said. “Do you mind leading us?”

Velanna frowned, but took the lead, walking surprisingly swiftly into the woods. Anders, Oghren, and Justice had to jog to keep up with the tiny elf woman. Elizabeth didn’t seem to have any trouble, on the other hand, and I… I didn’t find it as easy as Elizabeth, but I was more used to the outdoors than the other three, it seemed.

We stopped for lunch at about midday, not even half-way there yet. I had been talking with Justice about something inconsequential but I noticed Velanna shooting deadly looks specifically at me rather frequently. “Your glares suggest that you do not care for my presence more than the others.”

“I’m simply wondering how your kind can call yourselves ‘nobles’. It seems ironic.”

I couldn’t help a bit of a smirk. “We like irony. And it rolls off the tongue better than ‘oppressors’.”

Her gaze became more pinched. “Ah, so you’re a funny human.”

“Not I,” I protested, pretending to be very serious. “I wouldn’t dare lighten your mood, my lady.”

Her lip curled and she turned away from me.

We had to camp partway there – if we had been on the road, we might have been in Denerim by now, or if we had all been elves, we would have reached our destination, but traveling through the depths of the forest was not so easy for some of us and Velanna had to slow for us several times. But we reached the place she said was corrupted in the morning of the next day.

“Huh,” Oghren said. “It’s an old silverite mine. I wonder why I’m not surprised?”

“I didn’t think the darkspawn cared for shiny things,” Anders said.

“Shut up, all of you,” Velanna said, her mood more sour than ever after having to wake up with these particular humans, I think. “Elizabeth – are we just charging straight in?”

Elizabeth looked at it. “I can’t think of any other way to go in. There are certainly darkspawn down there, and many of them, but unless there is another entrance to this place, there is nothing clever about attacking them.”

“Unless Velanna can scout ahead with her roots and vines,” Anders said, popping dried fruit in his mouth. His cat was on the ground, investigating some twigs, pouncing on insects.

“They are for attack. They can’t see things,” Velanna said shortly.

“Then in we go,” Elizabeth said, a little shortly herself.

“I’ll go first,” I volunteered. “I’m a reasonably good scout.”

“Good on you, Howe,” Oghren grunted. “Makin’ yourself useful.”

I rolled my eyes.

“I’m right behind you,” Elizabeth said. “And Velanna will be with me, in case we find any trace of Seranni.”

I dropped into a crouch as I entered the low opening in the hillside. The less of a silhouette the darkspawn inside saw, the better. Elizabeth followed my lead, which pleased me to see. The first part of the mine was simply a shaft, descending through the earth and stone with a rather rickety wooden set of stairs. In the centre of the shaft was a sturdier pulley system, I guessed for hauling up the ore that had been mined.

I stopped to listen, but I heard nothing, sensed nothing. I could smell something odd, but perhaps it was just musty mine air. Or perhaps it was darkspawn and I just couldn’t tell.

I waved the others forward and began to creep down the stairs, still alert for ambushes. It couldn’t be helped that Oghren and Justice were a little more clumsy than the rest of us – even Anders was more stealthy than they were. Actually, Anders was quite stealthy. The product of running away from the Circle Tower seven times? His cat cheerfully pranced past me towards the bottom of the stairs, and I took that as a good sign.

We reached the bottom of the stairs and stood on solid rock, which was a bit of a relief – it was far less likely to give way beneath us, and it didn’t creak dreadfully under our feet. I looked to Elizabeth and after looking around, gestured in a direction.

We were all grouped together, which was our downfall. We had made it half-way across the chamber when something flared under my foot – some sort of glyph or sigil. Elizabeth went down immediately, followed shortly by Justice and Velanna. I felt my eyes drooping against my will, and I fought to keep them open, to move back off the glyph, but it was futile. Anders was trying to cast something but he hadn’t finished his spell before he fell over face-first onto the hard stone floor.

As Oghren and I finally succumbed to the spell, I saw a figure in robes appear in the doorway ahead of us, surrounded by armoured figures, some of whom moved like darkspawn, and some of them… didn’t…

 

When I came to, I was in a large cell with most of the others. My armour and all my gear had been removed and I was wearing raggedy, patched-together old clothes that were much too small for me. I sat up with a low groan, still feeling groggy, and counted the other people in the cell, who were also wearing rags. Justice was sitting in a corner, looking confused… Oghren was still out of it, and I thanked the Maker that at least our captors had found pants for him. Velanna was practically clawing at the bars, and Anders was sitting in another corner with his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling…

Where was Elizabeth?

I said it out loud, and then more strongly when no one responded to me.

“No idea,” Anders said. “There’s no way out of this cell, though. Trust me, I know incarceration systems.”

“Ridiculous,” I said. “There must be a way out. We have to rescue her.” She was the one who bound us together; without her, we weren’t a team, or even companions. We were just people who followed her.

Oghren stirred, then clambered to his feet hurriedly. “Where’s Eliza? What have those scum done with her?”

“We don’t know,” I said. “Help us find a way out of this cell.”

At that moment, a door opened in the chamber outside of our cell, and – two hurlocks entered, dragging Elizabeth’s limp body between them! We all cried out and hurried forward, to take her from them or to rush them, I wasn’t sure which, but I was game for either. But the hurlocks were clever, and managed to open the door and force Elizabeth’s body in without any of us getting out, despite Oghren’s best efforts.

The dwarf growled fiercely at the darkspawn, who shrugged and left the room again, and then he turned back to Elizabeth.

She was alive, that much we could tell right off. Oghren straightened out her body carefully and leaned over her, waiting for her to wake up.

“I think she might recover faster without you hovering, actually,” Anders commented.

“Shut up, mage,” Oghren said. He truly was worried about her, then.

I returned to inspecting the cell, but it seemed as Anders had said – there was no easy way out.

I heard Oghren’s breathing change and turned to see that Elizabeth had opened her eyes – and they were wide and full of fear. She carefully sat up and scooted backwards into a corner, huddling up a little, shaking. I had never seen her so frightened. I hadn’t thought it was possible.

“Eliza! Eliza!” Oghren said, keeping pace with her. “What did those bastards do to you? Tell me!”

“I don’t know,” she whispered, hugging her knees and not making eye contact with anyone. “I was unconscious for most of it. I… did wake… once… I was… I was… I was tied to some kind of table, and… someone… was apologizing to me…” She bowed her head, her face crumpling. She was truly afraid of something.

“You don’t think you’re going to end up like Hespith, are you?” Oghren asked, for once sounding serious. “Or… or Laryn…?”

She raised her head with stricken eyes, but before anyone could ask who Hespith or Laryn were, the door to the chamber outside our cell opened again, and Velanna screamed.

“Seranni!!”

“Velanna,” said the other elf, but even I could tell she was sick. “You must leave here before you get hurt. The Architect is not evil, but I do not trust some of his underlings.” Behind us, I could hear Anders giving Elizabeth breathing instructions to calm her down. Good man.

“Seranni, are you all right? You look… unwell.”

“I am fine,” Seranni said. “Truly. But you must take this key and escape before anything else happens to you.”

“You’re coming with us, right?”

“No, I must remain here. There is good work to be done here. I will be fine, Velanna. You have made some new friends? I am glad. Take them and leave. The darkspawn have your things. You can get them back if you’re careful and clever.”

“Seranni-”

“I must go!” Seranni said, and fled the room.

Velanna unlocked the door frantically. “Seranni!”

“We need weapons,” Elizabeth said from behind me, still quiet, but more calm now than before. That was the Commander I knew. “We need to know more. Who is this Architect? Why does Seranni trust him? We can take the underlings. Let’s go.”

We moved quickly out of the cell, and I opened the door cautiously – we didn’t have weapons yet – and peeked into the next room. It was empty for the moment, but even as I glanced in, several darkspawn entered, clearly heading in to check on us. “Three hurlocks and five genlocks, headed this way.”

“We’ll ambush them,” Elizabeth said. “Oghren?”

Oghren giggled in anticipation. “Right you are, Eliza.”

The darkspawn pushed open the door and Oghren pounced on them with a roar. We only had our fists and feet, but as soon as Oghren had wrested a weapon away from the first darkspawn, suddenly things became easier. We grabbed the weapons of the fallen and slew the rest. Only Anders was unable to take part, saying afterwards that he had no training with blades and would be more likely to cut off his own limbs than help us.

We had no idea where we were, except that we were deep underground. Elizabeth said she felt many darkspawn in this place, and it was incredibly maze-like, with chambers that looked carved with straight edges as if for residence, and tunnels that looked as if they had been nibbled out of the stone. We did manage to find some crude armour, which made me feel a bit better. We’d at least have a better chance of survival. If only we could find our own things.

Somehow, we made it to a completely different prison area, fighting through several groups of darkspawn on our way. At least, Oghren said it was different. At first I thought there wasn’t anything there, but then-

A weak, wet cough from one of the cells. Elizabeth tried the key from our own cell and it fitted.

A man lay there, in the same rags we had been wearing. He was very pale and his breathing was shallow. His eyes were closed, but they opened when we opened the cell. A faint hope came into his face. “You… are…”

“I am Warden-Commander Elizabeth of… Amaranthine,” said she. “Who are you?” She knelt beside the man.

“I am Grey Warden Keenan of Orlais,” breathed the man. “You came, Commander…”

“Where are the others?” Elizabeth asked urgently. “I have been looking for you. I did not expect to find you here.”

The man shook his head weakly. “You’re too late… they’re all gone. I’m the last one left.”

Elizabeth’s face hardened. “What did they do to you?”

“Took our blood, mostly… he rambled about giving the darkspawn an Awakening… We weren’t tortured, Commander, but… we were used until we died. And now I am dying…”

“You’re coming with us if I have to carry you to the surface myself,” Elizabeth cried.

The man managed to smile. “A darkspawn crushed my legs; I haven’t been able to walk for days. And I only have minutes left, Commander. I can feel it. But I am glad that such a one as you is leading the Grey Wardens in Ferelden. I… have a request…”

“What is it?” she asked, clasping his hand.

“If you find… my wedding ring… give it to my wife, Nida. A darkspawn with… a huge maul… stole it from me. Tell her… I died… trying to make this world… a better place.”

“It will be done,” she said. “Rest easy, Ser Keenan. Your wife will know what became of you, and I will drive the darkspawn from Amaranthine.”

The man smiled and closed his eyes again, too weak to speak.

 

We left that place and continued on, still lost. There was no sign of Seranni, no sign of the mine that we were supposed to be in, only tunnels and tunnels and tunnels. At length we came to a larger chamber, and were met by seven individuals – six of them wearing our gear, and the seventh carrying a large maul.

“Yuck!” Oghren yelled, and charged. “Get out of my clothes! Those are my disgusting clothes, not yours!”

I shook my head, dodged a spell from one of the diseased-looking people, and shot an arrow towards another one.

After a fierce scuffle, we retrieved our own items. Oghren immediately began to strip and change, despite the loud protests of the rest of us; the rest of us found private corners in which to dress in our own clothes again.

I felt better in my own armour. For one thing, it fit me. Even the fact that a diseased stranger had been wearing it minutes ago until I put an arrow in his eye didn’t bother me too much. Perhaps it would bother me once I reached civilization again, but for now, beggars couldn’t be choosers.

Not long afterwards, we came to a great door, and through it, into a large hall lined with pillars. On one side was a balcony, with no way up that we could see, and on it there were two women, an elf and a dwarf, and a strange, tall, human-looking creature with grey, partly-melted skin and strange armour. I could not see his eyes through the gilded mask he wore.

The elf woman was Seranni, and Velanna shouted her name.

The grey-skinned being turned sharply to us. “Ah, Commander of the Grey… you are leaving already?” His voice was strangely smooth and rough, both pleasant and chilling.

“Who are you?” Elizabeth demanded. “I am here, I may as well have answers.”

“I am… the Architect, you might call me. I had hoped you would remain my guest until things could be explained to you.”

“So explain now,” Elizabeth snarled.

“Very well.” The Architect steepled his incredibly long, clawed fingers. “As you probably know, the darkspawn are driven to seek out the Old Gods. When we find one, we attack your surface lands and you fight back until we are defeated. In order to break the cycle, I needed Grey Warden blood.” He shook his head, seemingly regretful. “I did not expect that my emissary to you would be seen as an attack. I should have. But it is so hard to guess how your kind will react.”

“You killed those men,” Elizabeth said. “Did you gain their blood by slitting their throats?”

“No! I did not realize how fragile you were. It is difficult to gauge how much of a creature’s blood it needs to live… But I digress. When you become what you are, you drink of the blood of my kind, and undergo… a transformation. Similarly, we must transform. I have created a version of your Joining that uses Grey Warden blood. You take our taint into you, and then we take your resistance. I sought out Urthemiel to try it on him, and I failed… but it succeeds in all my other experiments.”

“You caused the last Blight?” Elizabeth cried.

“I… did. I am sorry. It was not my intent. And even now, some of my… children have turned against me. They could not take their Awakening, and went mad. The Mother is one of them, and she gathers the discontented to her, seeking to destroy me and then you. But it is possible for my kind and your kind to live together. See, Seranni and Utha carry the taint, and yet do not die, and my hurlocks carry your resistance and speak as intelligent beings. That is how my brethren are freed from the call of the Old Gods. That is how we shall someday have peace between my kind and your kind.”

Silence fell in the hall.

Peace?” Elizabeth asked, her voice low and terrible. “After all you have done, after all you are, you think you can have peace with the rest of Thedas so easily? Five Blights, countless deaths and untold pain and suffering, the fall of kingdoms, and you think you can have peace because you taught your pets to speak?” She bared her teeth. “After you yourself admitted it is your fault that Urthemiel awoke as an Archdemon, and the only reason the entire world had not been devoured by corruption is because we are Fereldan and Ferelden will. Not. Die!?”

“I did not say it would be easy,” began the Architect, and Elizabeth cut him off with a sharp gesture of her arm.

“Everything I lost, I lost because of you! And I am only one person – a whole nation is still weeping for her dead children! Do you know of the destruction across the Bannorn? Have you seen the vast plains of burned, barren ground? Amaranthine was spared, but other places – it will be years before anything grows there again! The bones of innocents still lie unburied under the sky, because of the darkspawn! They are worse than wild beasts, destructive, treacherous, cunning, bloodthirsty monsters! And if they speak – now they will only be more deceitful and treacherous! You think you are doing good in this world!?”

“I wish to stop the Blights, not destroy the surface lands-”

“There’s more,” she said heatedly, and I expected her to go on with her rant, but instead, she turned to us. “Do you know how baby darkspawn are made?” she asked bitingly.

“Well, when a mommy darkspawn and a daddy darkspawn love each other very much,” Anders muttered.

She growled at him. “There’s nothing of love in it. It starts with a woman. A normal woman, human, elf, dwarf, qunari – it doesn’t matter. They drag this woman down to their deepest caves, to the very heart of their reeking, putrid strongholds, and there, they rape her. They feed her on darkspawn flesh and the flesh of her own people. And then she swells into a bloated mountain of festering flesh whose only purpose is to vomit forth armies of their kind.”

The entire chamber was dead silent. Oghren was nodding mutely. I looked down at her hands and saw she had clenched them so hard that drops of blood had fallen to the floor.

And that is why I hate you!!” she screamed at the Architect, whirling towards him, a terrible look of rage and pain on her face, leaning forwards like a mabari that smelled blood. “I will always hate you and all your kind, and nothing you can do will ever change that!”

“I did not do such things to you,” said the Architect softly.

“I don’t care! You’re still one of them! Unless you have a plan to end this unspeakable- unspeakable horror, all your lofty goals are smoke in the wind! And no matter where you darkspawn run to, no matter what you do, I will find you and I will destroy you all!”

The Architect sighed. “I suppose it will take time to make you see reason. Very well. You may leave to think it over.”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Elizabeth screamed hoarsely. “I’ll kill you, and free your prisoners!”

“I’m not a prisoner,” Seranni said softly, upset.

“Come, Seranni, Utha. We must leave them,” the Architect said, and with a long look back, Seranni and the dwarf woman followed the darkspawn out of the chamber. Elizabeth started forward, although how she intended to get up to them I wasn’t sure, but the Architect turned and with a glowing orb of power, brought down stones to block up the entrance to the balcony.

Velanna looked heartbroken, the most vulnerable expression I’d seen on her face since she’d joined us. “Seranni!” She turned to Elizabeth. “I have to find her!”

“I would like nothing more,” Elizabeth said, still breathing hard from her rant, “but I don’t know how to find her from here.”

“Make me a Grey Warden, then.”

Elizabeth looked at her with tired eyes. “Why?”

“Because then I will meet Seranni again,” Velanna said. “You Grey Wardens can sense darkspawn, can’t you? If she is infected with the taint, I’ll be able to find her eventually. I need to be a Warden, Elizabeth Cousland. Make me a Warden.”

“Very well,” Elizabeth said, and we marched home without Seranni, half-defeated and more confused than ever.

 

I was not present for Velanna’s Joining, but it seemed that she had survived, because she actually came and joined us in the dining hall for breakfast, much to my surprise. She seemed defensive, almost defiant about it, but only Oghren attempted to tease her about ‘dining with us lowly non-elves’. Elizabeth joined us briefly, still not looking entirely rested, and I noticed she had a new shield.

I asked her about it. “New shield?”

She glanced at me in surprise. “Yes. Master Wade made it for me. Now I can send my grandfather’s shield back to my brother, where it belongs.”

“And have a shield with Grey Warden heraldry instead of Cousland heraldry.”

She hesitated. “I suppose.” She was still torn between her two families, I could see. She left shortly after, saying something about catching up with Varel.

I caught Velanna glaring at me again, the elven tattoos on her forehead creasing in displeasure. “Still with the deadly looks, my lady?”

She snorted. “’My lady’ is such a human thing to call someone.”

“It is a term of respect,” I said, pretending to be grave. “You think it is human to be respectful?”

She glared at me again. “Now you’re mocking me.”

“I think you’re a lovely woman, and due some respect,” I said, not entirely serious but not entirely joking, either. “So I call you a lady.”

She sputtered. “Well, stop it!”

Oghren guffawed. “You got shut down, Howe!” Even Anders chuckled.

I almost made a snarky retort, but restrained. Telling them that they only got shut down harder in the days previous would not endear Velanna to me, I was certain.

 

Several months passed. Summer had come and gone and it was harvest time. Rebuilding of the walls was going well, from what I could tell, and construction had reached the main gate. The projected gatehouse was going to be about three times as grand as it had been previously.

Elizabeth had taken the Wardens to Amaranthine to attend a sporting event and we were coming home slowly the morning after, still wearing our blue and white uniforms. I had placed first in the archery competition and Oghren had placed first in a drinking competition; no surprise on either of those things.

Velanna and Justice had been pretty bemused by the whole thing. Justice’s body was holding up surprisingly well for a dead man’s, but he was now wearing a full-face helmet, on Elizabeth’s recommendation. There had been some drama when Kristoff’s fiancée found out that he was dead and his body being used by a spirit, so she couldn’t even bury him, but somehow or other, that had been smoothed over, at least on the surface.

We were talking about elves, always a dangerous topic with Velanna around, but we were doing it anyway. Since it was just us Wardens, we were talking fairly freely about Elizabeth’s lover being an elf. “He’s my equal,” she said. “I’ve never seen him as less.”

“You weren’t living as a noblewoman when you met him, though, surely,” Velanna said. “That must have affected your relationship.”

“I’m sure it did. But I wish to see Elra and Gemmet as equals as well, and there is a barrier there… They will not let me be familiar with them the way Zevran did; they place me above them, and I can’t make them stop.”

“That’s the problem with city elves,” Velanna said with some disdain, although I was fairly certain Elizabeth’s lover was also from the city, being a Crow as he was. “They make themselves subservient; they’ve lost all their pride. And then there are the humans like you, who think you can just fix things. It’s arrogant of you. And all people with power never fail to abuse it sooner or later. You’re idealistic now, but how long is that going to last?”

“But I shouldn’t do nothing, should I?” Elizabeth frowned in puzzlement. “It’s a tricky problem, certainly. I’m trying to be humble in approaching it, but it’s a big problem and even just eliminating racism in Vigil’s Keep looks to be a bigger task than I imagined, let alone the rest of Amaranthine. I would welcome your input.”

“Oh, don’t say that,” Anders said. “Next thing you know, we’ll have an elf on the throne in Denerim!”

“That’s another thing,” Elizabeth said. “The Denerim alienage is not a good place to be, and Loghain let it languish in misery, but I doubt Anora is taking my advice on the place. I had hoped she would be a good ruler in all things, but it seems she is a good ruler in things except for this.”

“Sounds like Orzammar,” Oghren muttered.

Elizabeth blushed. “I apologize. I should not be criticizing the Queen.”

“Did you hear something?” Anders asked his cat. “I heard nothing about Queen Anora. Did you?”

She smiled. “Thank you, Anders.”

“My pleasure, Commander.”

As we drew near the castle, Velanna frowned. “Do you hear shouting?”

We paused and listened. “I do,” Elizabeth said. “I wonder what is wrong?”

We hastened on our way to the castle, and a few minutes later walked through the gates to see a large crowd of peasants gathered in the courtyard, under the wary eye of Captain Garevel and his soldiers.

“There she is!” cried a man on the edge of the crowd, and for a minute, I thought they were going to try and rush her.

But she raised her hand for silence and they grew quiet as she crossed over to stand on the front steps of the castle with Garevel and Varel. “What do you want with me? Why have you gathered here?”

Instantly, the shouting broke out again, but the gist of it was that the people were hungry, and blamed it on her for hoarding grain. She frowned, and I frowned. From what I could tell of catching snippets of her discussions with Varel, she had gone to great lengths to balance what tithes of grain she took from whom and where.

And now there was a mindless mob intent on taking it from her again, regardless of what she had done for them. Varel said quietly to her: “I fear this must be work of the conspiracy against you and the Grey Wardens. If the common folk just rose up on their own, I’ll eat my boot.”

“That is reassuring. I am worried about the implications of my people being hungry at harvest time,” Elizabeth said, and raised her hand to speak again. “I always need more soldiers to defend the land. Join my army, and you will be fed.”

“It’s true,” cried Alec from among the guard. “She did it for my family.”

The angry grumblings from the mob did not abate. “You just want to get us all killed by monsters so we won’t complain to you anymore!”

“Varel, you don’t coddle a revolt, you put it down,” Garevel said. “Just give me the order, ser.”

“Firm but fair,” Elizabeth murmured to herself. “If I give in to their demands, they will only riot more. I do not wish it, but…” She stepped forward. “If you will not work for me, I can do nothing for you. Go home or my soldiers will see you out.”

“Tyrant!” yelled one hysterical woman, followed by a rock that struck Elizabeth in the shoulder, and her expression sharpened.

“Garevel, give me a shield wall and drive them out of the castle.”

“Aye, ser. This could get ugly, though. Stay back.”

And she did, and so did the rest of us Wardens, watching in dismay as the unhappy peasants attempted to fight the soldiers, or broke and ran out of the keep. If we had been in the forest, Velanna would have been able to call up tree roots to terrify them as she did to us when we met her, but Elizabeth had forbade her to do such magic within the Keep, for fear of causing more damage to the structures.

Two or three people lay dead when finally all the peasants had fled. Garevel shook his head as he returned to Elizabeth. “Uprisings never end well.”

“I wish… I didn’t say the right thing, did I?” Elizabeth said. “There had to have been some way…”

“Not always,” Varel said.

“If you give in to the mob, you’ll always be ruled by the mob,” Garevel said.

Varel sighed. “You’re right, Garevel. Lady Elizabeth, before this mess began, Bann Esmerelle and some other nobles were awaiting an audience with you in the Great Hall. I was about to send out a runner to look for you. Would you accompany me inside?”

“Yes, I will,” Elizabeth said. “Wardens, you are dismissed.”

“I’ll come,” I said mildly. “I may as well.”

She gave me a grateful look. “Thank you, Nathaniel.” She didn’t like meeting with Esmerelle on her own; the two of them had butted heads more than once over the last few months. But Esmerelle seemed… less aggressive when I was present, even if I didn’t say anything. I wondered if she still saw me as my father’s son, maybe the ‘true’ heir of Amaranthine, even though my new loyalty to Elizabeth was pretty clear. I’d never wanted to rule, anyway.

With Varel, we headed inside and for the Great Hall. Esmerelle and three other nobles were there – Lady Liza, if I remembered correctly, and a Ser Timothy and a Lady Morag. They were all in armour, which I found unusual – they had traveled to Vigil’s Keep before without armour. Had they come with fewer guards this time? Or what?

“Lady Esmerelle, I apologize for the wait,” Elizabeth said. “Had I known, I would have returned to Vigil’s Keep more quickly. What is it you would like to see me about?”

“The good arl,” Esmerelle said icily. “The good arl you killed.”

“You’re still loyal to Arl Rendon?” Varel asked, his hand on his sword.

“Rendon was good to us. Good to me,” Esmerelle said. “And I intend to avenge his death!”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement, and Varel sprang forward, his arm upraised – and was struck by a crossbow bolt that had been squarely aimed at Elizabeth’s chest.

Elizabeth’s eyes widened but she recovered and reacted quickly. The man who had shot the crossbow was lurking behind one of the pillars in the hall, and she brushed past Varel, drawing her sword and shield in a smooth motion as she did so. I dropped to one knee, an arrow on the string, looking for other threats. There were other men hiding behind pillars, and I dropped one before he could raise his own weapon. There was a clatter and Elizabeth tripped over Esmerelle’s foot, rolling swiftly and blocking the sweep of Esmerelle’s two-hander with both her shield and her blazing sword.

Varel had started forward, although the arrow was in his sword arm, but after only a minute he had swooned to the ground, clutching his arm. Was the bolt poisoned? I yelled for guards, although the two that had been in the hallway outside the Great Hall were already tangling with the men on the right side of the room. It might be a few moments before more could get here.

A few moments might be all it took to murder Elizabeth… Esmerelle’s allies were closing in on her, and she still hadn’t gotten up yet. I shot Lady Morag in the back of the head and dropped my bow, running forward, drawing my swords. Ser Timothy got in my way and I had to stop and face him.

Somehow, Elizabeth was back on her feet, keeping both the crossbowman and Esmerelle and Liza in her field of vision. “This won’t work, Esmerelle. You should not have done this.” Indeed, all the nobles were wearing mostly ceremonial armour, and I’d be damned if Esmerelle had ever done her own fighting before. What did she expect this to accomplish?

Esmerelle gestured to the crossbowman, who grinned and said: “The Antivan Crows send their regards.”

Elizabeth had stiffened for the briefest of moments, but it was not enough for Esmerelle to capitalize on. And now the Warden-Commander was angry. Well, angrier. “You think a pretty voice is going to distract me from fighting? I’m not afraid of Crows.” And the man was clearly not her lover.

I stabbed Ser Timothy in the throat and sprang to Elizabeth’s side. “I’ll deal with these two. You go get that assassin.”

“Thank you, Nathaniel.” She was off.

“You would defend her with your life!?” Esmerelle cried. “She slaughtered your father in his own castle!”

“She avenged her father!” I retorted. “My father was a monster who tortured innocents for fun! She truly wants what’s best for Amaranthine… but I don’t suppose you’ll ever see that. You certainly won’t,” I said, and stabbed Lady Liza in the gut while blocking Esmerelle with my off-hand.

Guards rushed in and seized Esmerelle as Elizabeth returned from the corner of the room, her sword bloody. She stopped them before they could drag Esmerelle away. “Let’s not drag this out. Esmerelle, you stand guilty of breaking your oath of fealty and commiting treason against your sworn lord. I cannot have traitorous banns, Esmerelle. Your sentence is death.”

“You’re not half the Arl that Rendon was,” Esmerelle spat at her. “You- you infant!”

“When I said that I wished we could work together, I meant it,” Elizabeth said softly. “I wish you could have seen that.” She shrugged and raised her sword. “Perhaps your successor will be more idealistic.”

Esmerelle shrieked and struggled until Elizabeth’s sword clove her head from her shoulders.

Captain Garevel had arrived with the rest of the soldiers. “What a mess. I apologize deeply, Commander. She told me they wore armour for fear of darkspawn and I believed her. It won’t happen again.”

“Never mind that,” Elizabeth said, rushing to Varel’s side. “Va- Gideon! Talk to me!”

Varel’s eyes fluttered open. “Lady Elizabeth…”

Elizabeth was inspecting the bolt that was still stuck in his arm. “I can’t be certain, but from the way he’s reacting… he’s been poisoned with Crow poison.” She swallowed, her eyes wide and on the verge of panic, then turned and barked out a list of things to bring to her. When they hesitated, she put on her commander voice, regaining control of herself. “Quickly! Every moment is precious!”

The soldiers rushed off. Elizabeth was trying to lift Varel herself. I got on the other side of him and took him from her, although he was too heavy for me alone either – we’d both have to carry him. “Where do you want him?”

“His room. Quick, quick.”

 

Varel was unconscious for most of the day, and Elizabeth hardly left his side. I was there when he did wake, and she cradled his head against her shoulder like a child and gave him water. “M-my lady…”

“Shh,” she shushed him. “Everything’s fine. I survived, Nathaniel survived, you survived, and all the assassins are dead.”

He smiled weakly. “I’m glad of that, Elizabeth.”

“Garevel wants to hide it as long as we can,” she said. “Is that wise? Bann Esmerelle’s disappearance will be discovered quickly.”

“You’ll have to make some sort of public statement, certainly, before it becomes awkward.” Varel closed his eyes wearily. “You’ll figure it out. You’re a smart girl.”

“You saved my life,” she said quietly. “That bolt was aimed right at my heart. I don’t know how well ironbark stands up to crossbow bolts, and I’m not interested in finding out…” A shiver ran down my spine at her words. She had been so close to death. She faced death on a fairly regular basis, but not… like this.

“It was my honour,” Varel said, as she let his head rest on his pillow again. “Must have been some nasty stuff in that poison, hmm?”

“Yes, indeed,” she said. “I’m eternally grateful that I’ve seen it before, so I knew how to deal with it.”

I snorted. “And by that, you mean: ‘it was used on me and my lover told me how to fix it if he wasn’t around’, am I right?”

She looked at me, startled, and Varel chuckled. “I’m still not sure what to think of this lover of yours, Commander, but I think I’ll be rather in favour of him if he ever comes to visit.”

She smiled. “I’m glad. I hope he comes to visit soon. Now, you must rest for the next day. I’m told that straining your heart soon after could be dangerous to you. Stay put, I’ll do my paperwork in here to keep you company.”

 

Sweetest of sweets,

Darling, I don’t have a lot of advice for you when you won’t do the one and you won’t do the other. While we write and bicker, they are laying plans and I don’t wish to come back to a dead Liz, please! The best I can suggest, then, is to sleep in your armour with one of your companions in front of your door, since your loyal mabari (almost as loyal as me) is in Denerim. Won’t Anora let you have him back if you ask nicely? He must have sired many puppies by this time, enough to provide half the Bannorn with new dogs.

I’m still safe, my dear, at least of this writing. I took out a very difficult opponent the other day! It was shockingly easy, since I didn’t have to actually fight him. By the way, do you have a food and drink taster? You may wish to get one. I’m told I’m getting a bit of a nickname around these parts! The Black Shadow – it has a nice ring to it, no? I’ve started wearing black leather, rather than green, or else I might be the Green Shadow, which does not have such a ring to it. Anyway, one down, fourteen more to go – in this cell. And then on to the next one!

I cover your face (and then the rest of you) in kisses,

Z.

 

Dearest Zevran,

Despite all our arguments over the matter, it seems the conspiracy has been resolved reasonably well. Bann Esmerelle and a number of her cronies hired some Crows and came to kill me, throwing a small uprising of villagers at me first to distract me. It failed completely, I’m happy to say, and Gideon is very grateful that you taught me the antidote to Crow poison – he took an arrow for me, brave man. Esmerelle wanted revenge for Arl Howe’s death, and still seemed confused that Nathaniel had no intention of supporting her. For my part, I’m glad that he was at my side. Any last doubts I might have had about his character are gone.

I did have to execute Esmerelle, and you know how I hate to execute people. I can’t tell anyone here that, either; Garevel has been very impressed with my stoic facade and I don’t want to disillusion him now. I did not hesitate when I did it, showed no weakness. I just wonder what would happen if I let her live. Probably she would try to kill me again. She’s no Loghain, that’s for sure. But I feel like a bully, killing someone who’s already been defeated… Forgive me, I know you see things differently. If only you were here to take care of such things for me. People would make impertinant insinuations, but I don’t care.

Forgive me, I’m feeling a little low today in general. I am very glad to receive your letters and know that you are safe. The Black Shadow, hmm? I suppose I can get used to it. Especially if you were to say it to me with your beautiful voice. Should I be starting a countdown to the final elimination of the last Crow?

I return all your kisses with interest,

Elizabeth

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

 

I wandered into the dining hall after the first night watch in late fall to find it not empty; Elizabeth and Oghren and Anders were sitting at the table closest to the wine cellar, mugs of beer in front of them. From the way they behaved, they’d been at it for a while.

“Hey, Nate!” Oghren called. “Come join us!”

“What’s going on?” I asked, taking a seat on the other side of Elizabeth from him and accepting a mug of beer from Anders, who was sitting across from us.

“Reminiscing, mostly,” Anders said. “She was just telling us how she met Zevran.”

Damn. I had been meaning to ask her about her stories from the Blight, and now I’d missed a bit. “Go on, then. What part are you at?”

“You missed the best part,” Oghren said. “Go back to the beginning, Eliza.”

“Fiiiine.” She swallowed some beer. “Th’ beginning-beginning, or th’ beginning of Zevran?”

“What happened on the day you met Zevran?” I asked. “I’d like the whole story eventually, but you can tell me that later. It’s a bit late at night for that now.”

“Hmm, we’d just come from th’ Circle Tower…”

I heard all about the assassin’s failed ambush, and the infamous Cousland shield-to-the-face that Elizabeth was so fond of using, and some of Zevran’s persuasive arguments to join her group, and some of their later exploits together. She looked happy, talking about him – and she was talking more than she usually did. Whether it was the alcohol or just that she liked talking about Zevran, or both, it was interesting to hear so much from her, and so freely.

“Even Wynne came around to th’ idea of ‘us’ eventually,” she finished. “Sh’ said it made her happy to see us happy.”

“Except when they kept the camp awake at night with their shenanigans,” Oghren said, waggling his eyebrows.

Elizabeth took a larger gulp of beer than usual and slammed her mug back on the table with a little more force than necessary. “Tha’ was one time. One time, Oghren, and ’twas your bloody fault anyway.”

I raised my eyebrows and she elaborated. “Shared some of ‘Oghren’s Special Brew’ with me. I passed out th’ instant I drank it!”

“That doesn’t even sound possible,” Anders said. “I mean, you’ve only had four beers, you’re clearly a light-weight, but…”

“It’s possible for Eliza,” Oghren said, and slapped her on the back, sending her head lolling back and forth as she giggled.

Now was not the time to ask how she felt about the propriety of sleeping with a man before she married him, given her status in Ferelden society. Although… I could put the pieces together myself. A lonely girl, an attractive man, and a hopeless task with little hope of even having a status in Ferelden society again – it made sense. Although that didn’t quite explain how casual and open she was about it now. She was a proud woman; perhaps she felt it would be insulting to hide it?

“I know you miss him a lot,” I said. “You don’t seem to want to talk about him normally, but his name comes up frequently-”

“No you don’t!” Oghren barked. “The reason why we’re all drinking is to get her to stop crying from loneliness in the first place! Don’t talk about missing him!”

My eyes widened. The Commander of the Grey, crying? Well, yes, she was young and under a lot of pressure, but… I hadn’t imagined her crying before. I had never seen her cry before. “I apologize-”

She sniffled. “I miss him so much! He’s off being chased by th’ entire Crow guild, an’ I can’t do anything about it! And I just want – I just want him back, so I can see him and hear him and hold him…” She put her head down on the table, still sniffling. “An’ he can’t come see me because then it puts me in danger! Selfish twit!” Her voice was muffled.

“There, there, Eliza,” Oghren said, awkwardly patting her shoulder. “He’s a slippery bastard. He’ll find a way to do it someday soon.”

“Why are you drinking, anyway?” I asked. “It doesn’t seem like something she would do to distract herself.”

She raised her head and hiccoughed. “Oghren always does it? There must be something to it, having your head all heavy and dizzy… The room’s spinning! Whee!”

“I would recommend against taking Oghren as a role model in anything, especially drinking.”

“Shurrup, Nate Howe,” she slurred at me, and giggled.

My eyes gleamed in amusement. It was funny to see her this drunk, although not a little disturbing, too. “Shut up yourself, Lizzy Cousland.”

She rocked back and forth with laughter. Laughter that turned hysterical, and then into sobs.

I stood. “All right. I think it’s time for the Warden-Commander to go to bed.”

“I think you might be right,” Anders said, and sighed. “And we were having so much fun, too.”

“I’m going to keep having fun,” Oghren said. “Want to stay with me, Anders? No talking about schleets, mind. I’m wise to your game, now.”

“Oh, all right,” Anders said, but I saw his eyes twinkle. “But have I told you about the yuffins?”

“Andraste help us all,” I muttered, putting one of Elizabeth’s arms over my neck as she stumbled drunkenly at my side.

The stairs up to her bedchamber were dark, very dark. She was mostly asleep before we got even to her floor.

I froze as she suddenly swung her other arm around me. “Zeeeevvvv…” I had to catch her before she fell over, and was now standing with her awkwardly in my arms. Her hands shakily snaked up to my hair. “I’ve missed you so muuuch… Kiss meee…”

I swallowed, hard. She was drunk, asleep, and thinking of someone else. Maker, I was trying to see if Velanna would give me the time of day. But… she was a lovely woman, even drunk and asleep and thinking of someone else, and her lips were right there…

I put her away from me, gently. “You’re drunk, Commander.” No one would know? What was I thinking? I would know, and I wasn’t so dishonourable that my conscience wouldn’t bother me. “Come on. Just a little further.” I unwrapped her other arm from my neck and tugged her up to her door.

She tried to drag me into her bed, and she was strong even when inebriated, but I disentangled myself as gently as I could and went to get Elra to attend her mistress. “Be careful, she’s… lonely.”

“Yes, ser,” Elra said, and hurried in. “There, my lady, let’s get your boots off before you get your blankets all dirty…”

The next day, she was all business, and I would never have guessed that she had so much as a hangover except for the way she winced whenever she had to go outside in the morning. She made no mention of the night before, and I doubted that she even remembered it.

As for Velanna, she was still not overly fond of me. “So you not only gave up on killing the Grey Warden who murdered your father, you actually joined the order.”

Well, she had joined the same order, she needn’t have said it like that. “Are you trying to pick a fight, Velanna? Baiting me like this is juvenile.”

“I just wanted to know how you felt,” she said, but the tilt to her head and the snide tone in her voice told me that she was after something more than that.

Two could play at that game. “How do you feel knowing you murdered all those people because you were too arrogant to check your facts?”

She glared at me coldly. “Warm and fuzzy.”

“You’re a terrible person,” I told her, finally nettled. “And your ears are clownish.”

She made an exasperated sound. “Who’s the juvenile one now?”

I tried not to pout as I strode off to my spot on the walls – pretty soon I wouldn’t be able to be there, Glavonak had almost finished with the towering front gate and there was really only the east wall left.

 

That fall, Elizabeth began a weekly habit of heading to one of the local villages with one or another of her fellow Wardens, to visit the taverns there and hear the local news. She even went with Justice a time or two, although I understand he kept his helmet down the entire time. He was beginning to get a bit of a reputation as “the Mysterious Warden”, which amused Anders and me greatly. I think we all enjoyed our casual outings with her, and although Garevel huffed about security, the villages near Vigil’s Keep seemed happy enough to see us too.

Today was no different; she slid into her usual seat, and when the innkeeper came around with her beer, she asked: “What’s the news?”

The man behind her turned. “You’re looking for news, fair lady? I just might have some to interest you.” His speech was more rough than his words would suggest, and it was awkwardly charming to observe that he was attempting to flirt with Elizabeth. It was not very widely known that her heart was taken, and obvious to all that there was no man at her side currently – although rumour had it that Anders or I was secretly her beau, I was given to understand.

She smiled at him and nodded. “Go on.”

“I’m Colbert, and this here’s my friend Micah.”

“I like eggs,” said the other man at their table, an elf, blandly.

“We was hunting in the Knotwood Hills, although game’s getting scarce at this time of year, when suddenly the ground collapsed in front of us!”

“I lost my lucky rabbit’s foot,” Micah said, nodding.

“There was a big rift in the ground, long and straight, and it looked like someone built a really nice tunnel there at one point,” Colbert continued. Elizabeth traded a glance with me. The Deep Roads? So close to the surface? “But the really weird part was, I’m pretty sure we saw darkspawn down there.”

Elizabeth sat up straighter. “You’re sure?”

“Pretty sure. I’ve seen one before, once – from a distance, mind you. But they had the same gait, and the same dirty look – and the same teeth.”

“Where exactly in the Knotwood Hills is this location?” Elizabeth asked.

“It’s half a day’s journey west of here by the North Road, and then south about an hour,” said Colbert. “You’ll know you’re getting close when you see two hills like layer cakes; it’s just past those. It’s pretty big, you can’t miss it, especially with all the leaves coming off the trees right now.”

“Understood,” Elizabeth said. “Thank you, you’ve been very helpful.” She felt around in her belt pouch and handed the two men an entire sovereign. “You have the gratitude of the Grey Wardens.”

“Cor, thanks, your ladyship,” Colbert enthused. “Say thank you, Micah!”

“Thanks, lady,” Micah said.

Elizabeth looked at me and smiled, just a little. “New leads are always nice. Now we can hunt again.”

“I’ll drink to that,” I said, and raised my glass.

 

The weather was getting colder and wetter the day she gathered the Wardens and set out for the Knotwood Hills. The tunnel was just where the two hunters had said it would be, a great rift into the earth where a hill had collapsed into the depths. We found a way down, aided by ropes we’d brought, and Oghren stamped around importantly, looking up at the carven walls that towered above us now.

“Why is it the dwarves build so high?” I asked curiously.

“Why not?” he grunted. “Just because you surfacers are so extruded has nothing to do with how high we’d like to build. Besides, have you seen your great big tower in the middle of the sodding lake?”

“Sure, but…”

“You think we like living in cramped little holes just big enough to run through?” He was cranky.

“It would make the dusting easier,” I said wryly.

Velanna walked over to Elizabeth, looking uneasy. “I am not thrilled with this idea. But it’s possible Seranni could be down here, so I will follow you.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said. “If you do see her, let us know before you go running off.”

“Very well.”

“Then let us go,” Elizabeth said, looking both ways. One way was hopelessly blocked up. The other looked feasible to traverse, and she pointed that way. “Let’s see what we can find.”

We each took a lantern and headed off into the Stygian gloom.

The tunnel seemed to go on forever, unlit and cold, with no sound but the tramp of our own feet. Velanna kept glancing at the ceiling as if wondering if it would also fall in. I hoped that if we were attacked, she wouldn’t use her root spells.

I saw some flash of colour in the light of my lantern; it was an oval green stone, carven with swirly shapes and spirals. I checked my pace for a brief moment and scooped it up. It was pretty, and I slipped it in my pocket.

The tunnel came to a branch, one descending farther, the other keeping on straight as far as we could see by our lanterns. We came to a stop as we looked in each direction.

Elizabeth’s helmeted head turned abruptly, towards the down-facing road. “Weapons.” I readied my bow, straining to see down the vast dark hall, straining my ears to hear among the echoes, a sense of unease building in me. Was this the Wardens’ sense of darkspawn?

Running footsteps in the darkness, a woman gasping and panting as she ran, and behind her, the growls and grunts of inhuman creatures.

“Justice, Oghren, with me,” Elizabeth said, and sprang forward, down into the dark. The rest of us were to provide covering fire, eh? Would help if I could see.

“Not to worry,” Anders said, as if reading my mind, and cast a small fireball high down the hall. It illuminated a dwarf woman in armour running from a crowd of twenty or so darkspawn. I let fly an arrow; beside me, Velanna flicked her hand and several of the darkspawn fell with a gurgle. I had time for one more arrow before Elizabeth and her two men crashed into them. The dwarf woman turned to fight alongside them, wielding two small axes.

“Thanks for coming along!” I heard her say as I got closer, looking for more chances to snipe genlocks without hitting Oghren… much. “Don’t know what I was going to do all by myself. Are you Grey Wardens or something, or just crazy people?”

“We’re Wardens, yes,” Elizabeth answered, sounding taken aback. I was a bit, myself. This woman sounded entirely too cheerful for someone who had been running for her life.

“Sounds like you don’t mix fighting and talking,” the woman said. “Fair enough. Not many of my mates do, either.”

“Er-” Elizabeth made no further answer, whether out of concentration or confusion, until the darkspawn lay dead.

The dwarf woman pulled off her helmet and breathed a sigh of relief. “That was pretty close. Thought I was going to join the Legion of the Actually Dead.”

“Are you all right?” Elizabeth asked.

“I’m fine. Everything hurts, but I’ll be fine. I need to go back. See if there’s anything I can do.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s something going on in the old fortress of Kal’Hirol. I think the darkspawn are breeding an army. The Legion went to investigate, but it… proved too much for us. And now I think I’m the only one of my band left.” For the first time, her head dropped. “It was a massacre.”

“What is your name? Where is Kal’Hirol? Is that why there have been so many darkspawn aboveground in Amaranthine?” Elizabeth asked in a rush.

The woman chuckled. “My name’s Sigrun. Kal’Hirol’s down thataways. Can’t say I know anything about Amaranthine, is that a human land?”

“It’s part of Ferelden, yes,” Elizabeth said. “I currently lead it and while the Blight has ended, darkspawn attacks have not, which is not normal. If the darkspawn are breeding an army, I will help you discover it. My name is Elizabeth, Commander of the Grey.”

“Oh! Great!” Sigrun perked up. “Then my mission is no longer impossible, just… improbable!”

“An optimist, then,” Anders murmured to himself.

“Can we go right now, then? I want to see if anyone else survived.” Her cheerful mask seemed to be slipping, just a bit, and I didn’t blame her. “Please? Darkspawn left to their own devices get up to all kinds of nonsense.”

“Don’t I know it,” Elizabeth said. “Lead on, then, but please tell me you’re not thinking of assaulting a darkspawn-held dwarf fortress with only our few numbers and no planning, no information?”

“Eh, we’ll see, right?”

Elizabeth seemed satisfied by that vague answer, and off we went down the dark corridor at a jog.

Oghren, of course, wasted no time. “Well helloooo, there. Ever been to the surface?”

“Nope! Is it nearby? It must be if all you humans – and elf – are down here, right?”

“Yep. Let me know if you want me to show you around! I’ll take you anytime. Aaaanytime.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Oghren,” Elizabeth said chidingly.

He paid her no mind. “The name’s Oghren, by the way, though the ladies pronounce it ‘Ohhhhh’-ghren.”

Elizabeth sighed and Sigrun smacked her forehead with a hand. She learned fast, not that there was much to learn about Oghren. “I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said. “Please, ignore him. The rest of us do. Is there anything you can tell us about Kal’Hirol before we get there?”

“I don’t know that much myself; never was a good student of history. The others told me it used to be important, a centre of learning for the smith caste. When the fortress was lost, a lot of their knowledge was lost with it. They’ve never built anything quite like it since.”

“An unfortunately common story, I am coming to notice,” Justice said.

“I realize I have neglected to introduce my companions,” Elizabeth said, and did so.

“Good to know you have names,” Sigrun said. “If we get in a fight I can actually talk to you, instead of saying ‘hey, you, the tall one’.”

“Except me,” Oghren said.

“I wouldn’t want to talk to you even in combat if possible,” Sigrun retorted.

The tunnel opened up into a vast cavern, much too big for our little lanterns to illuminate. Sigrun had us shut them anyway, to avoid giving away our presence to the darkspawn. But there was light, of a fashion, luminescent fungus growing over much of the roof of the cavern, and we could dimly see a great wall in the distance, wrapping around a fortress built into the wall of the cave, with a town filling the cave floor. It was impressive, from what little I knew of dwarven architecture.

But the feeling of unease I’d had before didn’t go away. In fact, it was stronger.

We kept to the shadows as we came down the ‘main street’ of the town, and froze suddenly. Something had groaned near us, and it sounded like a man; a wet, throaty, pained groan.

Sigrun crept forward. “Jukka?”

“Si-Sigrun…?” It was a male dwarf, wounded near death.

“Jukka, be still, try not to talk. I found friends.”

“No…” the dwarf said. “I feel my death upon me… and it is sweet release.”

“I have bandages, I can-”

“Listen,” the dwarf panted urgently. “I… overheard the darkspawn speaking.”

Sigrun stiffened. “Th-they speak?”

“They mentioned a broodmother… maybe more than one. And… they mentioned “the Children”. I don’t know what they mean, but… Sigrun… you are the last of our band. You are the last… of the Legion in Kal’Hirol. You must… stop them…”

“I will,” Sigrun said. “Now, hold still-”

“That will be easy, as he’s dead,” Velanna muttered, but she was standing towards the back of the group and I don’t think Sigrun heard her.

I heard a step on gravel from outside our group and turned. “Commander! Ambush!”

Having been spotted, the darkspawn wasted no more time on stealth but rushed forward with gurgling cries of rage. I dropped to one knee to steady my aim in the gloom and shot an arrow back at them.

Among their number were those horrible man-faced worms that we had been told were the Children while we were in the Blackmarsh. I shot one in the side and it kept coming, until I jumped to my feet and drew one of my swords to destroy it. Velanna was faster, though, using the end of her staff to smash through its face.

“Thank you,” I said to her, and she grunted before casting another spell at the monsters behind it. I stayed by her side, loosing arrows as fast as I could.

“Why are you so close to me?” she demanded as we fought.

Could I come up with a satisfactory answer while distracted by not dying? “Since I happened to be in your vicinity to begin with, should I not aid you? Does my presence displease you?”

“Mmph,” was her eloquent answer. I had to smile. Truly, she was a wonderful woman no matter where she was.

There were still darkspawn running from the fortress through the village to attack us. “We can’t stay here,” Elizabeth called over the melee. “We must bring reinforcements if we are to assault Kal’Hirol.”

“But these monsters-” Sigrun began.

“I don’t want to leave a broodmother unchecked,” Elizabeth said. “But we are in danger of dying here with your friend if we don’t retreat and regroup.”

“You’re the Commander,” Sigrun said reluctantly, and we began to disengage from our foes and draw back. I shot my last arrows at as many of the white worms as I could – they made nice targets in the faint glim from the ceiling.

 

We tramped up to the surface, the darkspawn having abandoned their pursuit of us a short while ago. Elizabeth was suspicious. “Do they not normally hunt their quarry until they die?”

“There must be something in Kal’Hirol they are trying to protect,” Sigrun said. “Why are they talking? I’ve never heard of talking darkspawn before.”

“Well, there are two sets of darkspawn,” Anders summed up, “and they don’t like each other. One of them wants to use us Wardens to make darkspawn into people, and one of them wants to kill everyone just like normal darkspawn, just with more talking.”

“I suspect the latter type is infesting Kal’Hirol,” Elizabeth said rather dryly.

“How awful on all counts. Perhaps they’re protecting the broodmother Jukka mentioned,” Sigrun said. “What is a broodmother?”

Elizabeth shuddered, just slightly. “An abomination that produces more darkspawn, as I’m sure you guessed… My question is, is this Mother we’ve been told about one of them? The ‘Children’ were there, and they seem to show up when she is mentioned.”

“Well, there’s one thing for certain,” Sigrun said. “I’d like to join the Grey Wardens.”

“Hmm? Why is that?”

“You’re strong! Very strong!”

“The Legion of the Dead are also very strong,” Elizabeth said.

Sigrun was frowning in a way that suggested some inner pain, perhaps even… guilt? “Not strong enough. The Legion isn’t supposed to run. We’re already dead, we shouldn’t run to save our lives.”

“If you hadn’t, we wouldn’t know about Kal’Hirol,” Elizabeth said gently. “Becoming a Grey Warden is dangerous, but if you truly wish to, I will not stop you.”

“You would let a dead deserter into your ranks?”

“I don’t believe you’re a deserter, that’s a bit strong,” Elizabeth said. “I know a little of the Legion of the Dead. The Grey Wardens are a different kind of brotherhood, and we’re not quite so suicidal.”

“Could have fooled me,” Anders muttered.

“I trust that you won’t run from our side,” Elizabeth finished.

“That’s very generous of you,” Sigrun said, and lapsed into silent thought. “Yes, I’d still like to join the Grey Wardens! You did save my life. I’ll remember that if I get so terrified again.”

Elizabeth smiled. “Good. We’ll be glad to have you. Assuming you survive.”

“Eh, I’m dead anyway,” Sigrun rejoined cheerfully.

“When we get back, I must speak with Varel and Garevel about Kal’Hirol. I doubt that even now, we’ll have the numbers to attack it directly, but we can’t just leave it under Amaranthine in enemy hands, either. This will take thoughtful planning.”

 

I approached Velanna after we returned, before she could flee to her chamber in one of the higher towers. “I found something that you might like, Velanna.”

“What?” she asked warily.

“It’s not going to bite you,” I told her, with a bit of a smile, and handed her the green stone. “I just picked it up down there, and I know your favourite colour is green, so I thought you might find it pretty.”

She blinked at it, stared, blinked again, then reached out to take it. “There’s no other reason for it?”

“None at all. I could make up some nonsense about the symbolism of the colour green, but that doesn’t seem like your style.”

“It isn’t.” She looked at it carefully all over. “…Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I said, and almost turned to go, but she spoke again.

“I… may have… misjudged you a little.”

Now I had to smile. “Just a little?” I teased.

Her face stayed perfectly serious. “I sometimes paint all humans with the same brush.”

“As long as it’s such a pretty brush, I don’t mind.”

She gave me an unimpressed look. “I’m sure I don’t know what that means.”

“It means your apology is appreciated, my lady.”

Now I’d flustered her; her cheeks coloured, just the tiniest amount. “Well, then. …Good.”

I gave her a little half bow and turned to go, but I hadn’t gotten more than a few steps away when-

“Wait. Nathaniel. When you were talking about the pretty brush… did you mean… me?”

I chuckled with good nature. “It can’t be the first time someone’s said you’re pretty.”

Now she was definitely flustered, raising prickly walls all over. “And if it is?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Then you must not talk to many people.”

“Most people aren’t worth talking to.”

“I see. Well, good night,” I said, bowed again, and left, feeling like I’d accomplished something. She’d spoken to me! Even accepted a gift from me! Not that that meant anything, but perhaps our conversations would be less awkward in the future.

Or maybe they’d be more awkward than ever. With both of us being the way we were, it was extremely likely.

 

Shortly after Sigrun arrived, Elizabeth sent me to lead a team into the tunnels and catacombs beneath Vigil’s Keep to find where the darkspawn had come from. I was surprised by her trust, but gratified as well. Yes, we were friends, I think, but I was still pleased that she was beginning to rely on me as a… an officer of the Wardens, one might say, although we had no official ranks among the six of us who followed our Commander.

She would have wished to lead the investigation herself, and I had the impression that several people were getting impatient with her, but she was busy with a thousand different things that needed her personal attention and could not wait. So it only made sense that she would send someone else, though I wished for her experience in dealing with caves. Training as a knight really hadn’t prepared me for this sort of work. In Elizabeth’s absence, Sigrun was an immense help, especially when we found a great dwarf-made door in one of the tunnels.

“Yep, that looks like the smiths of Kal’Hirol made it,” she said, inspecting a seal or emblem on the door. “Ridiculously solid, could be operated by a child, will keep anything out short of a High dragon – and they’d have a tough time of it themselves.” She sobered. “It looks like it was nearly complete except for some finishing touches. If they’d been able to seal it, perhaps…” Perhaps some of them could have escaped this way, was the unfinished thought between us.

“Well, if a child can handle it, so can I,” Oghren said, setting hand to lever. Great wheels the colour of bronze spun, and the door swung shut with a very final-sounding clang.

“Fabulous,” Anders said. “Now we can breathe easy. About the ominous hole beneath the castle, anyway.”

“Well, we still have to check the rest of these caves on this side of the door, make sure there aren’t any new cracks that have appeared since the door was made,” Sigrun said. “Make sure there aren’t any beasties lurking around from before we closed it.”

“Sounds sensible,” I said. “Let us do so, in the same manner that we discovered this door.” So we turned to head back to Vigil’s Keep – and were faced with some kind of black, malevolent spirit. It hissed and pounced at us.

“Run!” Anders yelled, blasting it reflexively with ice.

 

The rest of that day was far too exciting, running about in dark tunnels, trying not to get separated from the others, trying to figure out how to hurt this blasted spirit. It possessed corpses, threw stones at us, and was generally a pain, until Anders and I figured out what was trapping it and how to destroy it.

And even after it was destroyed, we still had to search the caves systematically for any remaining creatures or exits. Oghren nearly mutinied on me, but Sigrun knocked him down.

That evening, very weary, I wandered into the dining hall, but this time Elizabeth was the only one there. “Elizabeth?”

She turned quickly, holding something in her hand, about to hide it in her tunic, but she saw it was me and stopped. “Nathaniel.”

I sat down next to her. She’d been drinking again, and was on her second mug, if the level in the jug next to her was any indication. “Drinking again? What did I say about taking Oghren’s advice?”

She smiled, but it was only with her mouth, not her eyes. When she realized I wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry, she pulled another mug from farther down the table and filled it for me. “It’s… the anniversary of my parents’ death.”

“Ah.” I sipped my beer, looking down at the table. “I apologize for interrupting.”

“It… wasn’t an interruption. I’m happy to see you, truly.”

“What were you looking at?” I asked.

“…My amulet. My father… gave it to me…”

The way she said that… was there more to the story than that? I was curious, but I didn’t want to intrude on her pain…

We sat in silence for a few minutes, drinking together.

“Will you tell me about it?” I asked.

She glanced up at me. “Are you sure?”

I nodded, and slowly, she told me the tale of the Fall of Highever, how my father had come to them, feigning that his soldiers had been delayed on the road by weather, how Fergus Cousland had led the Highever soldiers off to fight the Blight and left Highever undefended, and how the Amaranthine men had invaded and slaughtered everyone they could find, including Elizabeth’s sister-in-law and young nephew. How she and her mother had fought back, trying to find her father, and how her best friend and knight had stayed behind to defend them with his life. How she had found her father with a grievous wound, and how the Grey Warden Duncan had taken her away, saving her and Elra and Gemmet and another soldier – and that was all who had come alive from the sack of the castle.

She was silent for a long time when she had finished, and I was silent too. Her voice had shaken whenever she spoke of someone dear to her, and when she spoke of how her parents had bid her farewell, she had to stop for tears, but she was quiet now, enduring. I wanted to do something to comfort her, but feared that she would reject me in this moment and did nothing.

She spoke again. “I found letters from Rendon to his soldiers when I took over, here. He went to great lengths to have only his most loyal soldiers in the attack, the ones who would neither mind betraying his allies nor killing civilians.”

“I’d like to see them, sometime, if that’s all right,” I said. As if by this point I needed more proof against my father. But a little more couldn’t hurt.

She nodded, and we drank some more.

“There was one… other… time I saw my father,” she said. “I was searching for the Sacred Ashes of Andraste to cure Arl Eamon’s poisoning, and I had to endure a series of tests to determine if I was worthy to approach them. One of the tests… was apparently to be confronted by a spirit from my past. For me, it was my father. He told me he was proud of me, and gave me this amulet,” and she touched her chest, where the amulet lay under her clothes. “Sometimes I imagine I see their faces in it…” She looked away from me. “You must think me crazy.”

“No, I don’t.” If the Ashes of Andraste truly existed, anything could happen, especially in relation to them.

But when she reached for the jug again, I stopped her. Combining this emotional state with falling-down drunkenness would not be good. She let me, and instead, I poured the last of the beer into my own mug.

“How did my father die?” I asked her.

She stiffened. “Do you truly wish to know?”

“Yes.”

She paused, collecting her memories, then began telling me how she went to the Arl of Denerim’s estate to rescue Queen Anora from being his unwilling guest-prisoner. “I was just supposed to rescue Anora, but I won’t deny that in my mind the whole time the thought was in my mind that I might meet him and have my revenge.”

She stopped, and I looked at her. “Go on.”

“You truly want to know? I know you looked up to him…”

“That was before,” I said, a little quickly. “Things are different now. I just want to know how he died.”

“All right,” she said, but she was tense. “In order to free Anora, I had to find a mage and make him end the spell he had placed on her door. The mage was supposed to be at Rendon’s side… and we finally found him in the dungeons.” Ah yes, the dungeons that were supposed to have a secret passageway straight from the Arl’s bedchambers. How charming.

“Every moment is seared into my memory,” she said in a low voice. “It seems distorted, narrow in focus, but I remember all of it. It’s like the death of my parents, but more so.” She thought for a moment. “We yelled at each other for a bit. He recognized Zevran and was confused as to why he would join me. I asked him why he betrayed my father; he told me of his jealousy for my father – for all Couslands. He told me my father would be proud of me, but that he only wanted me dead more than ever. I charged at him, past his guards – I think there were guards – and struck him with my shield. He hit the wall, but took a swing at me first…” She turned her head a little away from me and gestured to a narrow white scar on the right side of her neck, just under her ear.

I swallowed. An inch in any other direction, and she would have been maimed or dead. “Did you not have your helmet?”

“It fell off in the ruckus,” she said. “It was a common guard’s helmet, for my disguise to get in.”

“Then what happened?”

“He had to hurt me one last time, and tried to tell me how my parents died… I screamed and cut off his head and my sword broke on the wall.” It came out in a rush and she sat with her shoulders hunched and tight, waiting for my reaction.

I thought about it for a while. “He didn’t suffer, then. I didn’t think you would torture him, not even him, but… Even if I hate him now, even if he was a monster who deserved it, I’m glad of that.”

She was still tense and silent.

I sighed and put my hand on the table near hers. “We’re more alike even than I thought, really. Both Ferelden nobility with an interest in martial arts, forced to live with almost nothing to our names, losing our parents and learning to carry on…” I glanced sideways at her. “Falling for blonde elves…”

She relaxed a little. “How are things with Velanna?”

“I’m not sure,” I said honestly. “She accepted a gift from me, and a compliment, which I think is a good sign. But she doesn’t treat me with any preference above our companions, either.”

“Give her time,” she murmured.

“I am,” I said. “Living in human society, receiving the attentions of one of those evil humans, it must be a lot to adjust to, let alone deciding if she likes me back or not. Are you all right?”

She glanced at me, startled. “I will be.”

“Thank you for telling me about my father, Elizabeth,” I said to her. “I know it can’t have been easy to tell. But… I…” can have closure? Was that what I wanted to say? Could there be closure on such a man as my father? “I’m glad to know.”

She nodded. “I trust you enough to know you wouldn’t ask if you thought you would hate me.”

“True enough. But, our similarities… is that why you associate with me so much, despite the way our pasts were joined?”

She nodded again. “When we first met, at least. You might not have liked me, but you were someone who understood my life. Now…” She looked at me. “Now you are just my friend.”

I smiled a real smile. “And you are mine. Thank you. I’ll retire now. Would you like an escort back to your chambers?”

She hesitated, then nodded. “Yes, thank you.”

When we reached her room, she paused and turned to me. “You’re a good man, Nathaniel. I think the Howe family will find its redemption in you.”

I blinked at her. “Thank you. I hope so too.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

 

As the year drew on towards midwinter, construction on the castle slowed. The walls were nearly finished, but there were still some towers that were definitely not. We were vulnerable while they remained so, but fortunately the darkspawn seemed less inclined to move about in the bitter cold, and then only attacking outlying farms and skirmishing with the army.

The army was of what Garevel called ‘a decent size’ right now, but attacking the dwarf fortress of Kal’Hirol was still a tall order. We didn’t want to lose the entire army even if we did come out victorious, which was not a guarantee to begin with.

But if we left the darkspawn alone, they would grow an overwhelming force and destroy us whether in Kal’Hirol or Vigil’s Keep. And there was no weather down in the Deep Roads to slow them down.

When we weren’t patrolling aggressively, there wasn’t that much to do around Vigil’s Keep in the cold. Sigrun, who had survived her Joining, dove into our library, oddly enough. Since that was one of my hiding places, I tolerated her there as well. She was only there to learn.

When she came to talk to me, it was a bit of a bother. “Cheer up, no one loves a grump!”

I looked at her over the top of my book. “For a dead woman you’re remarkably perky.”

She smirked. “I could be less perky if you like.” She flung a hand dramatically to her forehead and affected a swoon and a tragic expression. “’The darkness of the Deep Roads is seeped into my soul. The world is dead, my heart is black. Alas, woe, woe!’”

My deadpan was well practiced, or I would have dignified that with a chuckle. “Let’s stick to perky.”

She laughed and went off to find a new book.

 

Around that time we received confirmation that Oghren was actually a terrible person, as his girlfriend showed up at the Keep with their baby son in her arms, demanding an apology for being abandoned. I couldn’t say I blamed her for her anger in the slightest. Even for how good-for-nothing the dwarf was, if he couldn’t tell the woman in his life that he was going to join the Grey Wardens… Even if it was obvious that he was the opposite of a family man, if he didn’t have the decency and fortitude to tell that to the woman in his life, I wondered just how reliable he was for the Wardens. Sure, we had slightly more combat, but a man who just up and left when he was bored… Not promising. Of course, he hadn’t left yet, and Elizabeth would scold me if she knew my thoughts.

What had this Felsi woman seen in him in the first place? How was she so loyal to him that she followed to demand an apology, instead of saying to herself ‘good riddance’ and washing her hands of him entirely? Was there something about him I was missing? Oghren would have attributed it to his sexual prowess, but I was fairly certain that couldn’t be it. Maybe crude, disgusting idiots were her type, in which case… Not that it was my place to say anything, but I wished her luck.

I wondered if anything like that would happen to me. Or, if Velanna joined me, decided she’d had enough, and left, if she would tell me she was leaving. Or if she, too, would disappear silently, unable to bring herself to tell me she couldn’t put up with me or my life anymore.

But that was all speculation, especially since she was only just allowing me to speak to her on a regular basis like a normal person.

Elizabeth, who had to deal with the situation the most as Oghren’s friend, seemed annoyed, and I could guess why. She was still well in touch with her lover and they had every intention of meeting again someday.

We’d better survive the darkspawn first, then.

Towards the goal of surviving, I did spend quite a bit of time each day on the training ground, cold though it was. Velanna actually joined me. It seemed the cold didn’t bother her. She claimed she’d faced worse. Even so, it was a little unfair of her to use ice spells in our sparring.

Sigrun was another who joined us. “I’ve been watching you fight, Sigrun,” I said to her later, in the Great Hall. “The Legion of the Dead trains its people well.”

“Oh, they taught me a few tricks, but I was fighting long before then.”

“Oh? You were in the army? Orzammar’s army?” As if there was any other army she could have been in.

Her normally cheerful face hardened just slightly. “Fighting for scraps of food. For a place to sleep. For survival.”

My face was the picture of consternation, I was sure. “Oh, I… I didn’t mean…”

She gave me a rueful smile. “It’s all right. You’re a noble.”

I turned away, thinking a bit, but I didn’t hear her leave. “Sigrun… I understand a little how difficult surviving poverty can be.” I turned to face her again. “When I came back from the Free Marches, I had nothing. No money, no family… nothing.” It had been a hard year, with nothing more than the clothes on my back and my swords at my side. Before that, my life hadn’t exactly been comfortable, but at least I usually knew where and when my next meal would be. Before that, I would never have looked on my time with Ser Rudoph with any sort of appreciation.

“I’m sorry,” she said solemnly. “I didn’t know that.”

I nodded to her. “You have my respect for surviving what you did.”

She chuckled. “I didn’t survive. Legion of the dead, remember?”

“…Oh.” Now I felt a fool. I shut up, realizing that to apologize overly much would be to insult her.

“Not a big deal,” she said. “And hey, I’m not the only dead Warden on staff. My deadness is just a bit more of a technicality.”

“That is true,” I admitted. I wondered how Justice was doing inside his armour, really.

 

That month due to political pressures, Elizabeth was forced to released Temmerly the Ox from her prison, and sullenly he went, nor did she watch him go. I wasn’t privy to the details, or I’d have recommended she keep him locked up for years. Less than six months was not enough of a punishment for murdering Ser Tamra, even if it couldn’t be proved definitively that he was the culprit. And true to her word, she had ordered an investigation, but it was fairly useless – there were no witnesses, Temmerly’s cohorts had disappeared, and yes, his clothes had been stained with blood, but no one could prove it was her blood, and no one could prove that her stab wounds had matched his sword. And at this late date, any evidence there had been was long gone.

It wasn’t right, letting him go free. But it wasn’t right locking him up on no evidence. She could have exercised her power as arlessa and kept him languishing for years, but then she would have seemed vindictive. Still, I didn’t know what arguments Temmerly’s allies had brought against her to make her release him this early. I hoped it wasn’t threat of force; surely she wouldn’t bow to those below her so easily. It wouldn’t be like her, not after the way she’d put down Esmerelle’s little rebellion. But it wasn’t my business.

Anders watched him leave the castle, and seemed wistful afterwards. Not that he had any love for Temmerly. Far from it. But…

“Is something wrong?” Elizabeth asked after dinner. The jovial mage had been quiet enough to draw her attention.

Anders made a grimace. “It’s nothing I want to bother you with, my lady.”

“I’m curious, then.”

Anders looked awkward, frowned, made another face, toyed with the cat on his shoulder. “It’s just… Please don’t think I’m ungrateful. You freed me from the Circle Tower, from the Templars. You were even willing to help destroy my phylactery, you killed Templars for my sake…”

“They were outside their jurisdiction,” Elizabeth said, though she frowned at the reminder. She hadn’t wanted to kill them, I think. I hadn’t been there, it had just been the two of them in Amaranthine. But they’d been willing to kill her, I’d heard, and Templars might be Templars with their sacred duty to protect mages, but it was foolish of them to try to kill the Commander of the Grey, Hero of Ferelden. So I didn’t blame her for it, and Anders certainly didn’t.

“Well, anyway, I’m grateful, really. I just… am starting to feel…”

“Yes?” She put her head on one side, looking innocently curious. It was a ploy, I was sure of it.

Anders obliged her, whether he realized it was a ploy or not. “Well, trapped. But by the Wardens now.”

She nodded. “I see. I felt the same way for the first few months of becoming a Warden. But I did not leave my home of my own volition, as you did.”

“So you don’t know what it feels like to be free,” Anders said, sympathetically.

“I know a little,” she said, smiling a small smile. “The year between the Blight and coming here, I was free.” There was a distant, happy look in her eyes; she was thinking of her lover. I was almost jealous.

“Don’t you miss that?” Anders said.

“Yes. But I’ve come to accept my responsibility as Commander. As for you… I’m sorry I couldn’t stop the Templars in any other way.”

“It’s not so bad,” Anders said hastily. “Queen Anora was there, what else were you going to do? And I survived the Joining and all, and I can sense darkspawn so I can run away from them in time – when I’m not being responsible. Because you’re a good influence on me.”

Elizabeth smiled in amusement. “Am I? What I was going to say was… In the end, couldn’t you say life is a trap? We all get forced into situations we didn’t want, sooner or later.”

“I mean, I guess you’re right. I just intend to fight that.”

“Cuz ye’r lazy,” Oghren put in.

“Yes, and so what? What’s wrong with that?”

“As long as you don’t get anyone killed,” Sigrun put in. “I don’t care a whit.”

“Anders,” Elizabeth said, getting his attention again. “If you truly want to leave, I won’t stop you. You’ll have some leeway now to resist the Templars as a Warden. But… please stay. I’d miss you.” Couldn’t speak for the others, I suppose. Would I miss him? I suppose I might, just a little. Him and his silly cat.

Anders smiled down at the table, not meeting her eyes. Embarrassment? Reluctant acceptance? “Well, you asked, and that’s more than the Templars ever did. Politely, too. Don’t worry, I’m not leaving yet. I’m curious, too. To see how this whole ‘talking darkspawn’ thing plays out, and this Mother and Father war and everything.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said, relaxing a little.

 

It happened to be a week later that she decided to lead a Warden scouting party into Kal’Hirol, just to see what the terrain was, get a fix on the number of darkspawn likely to be there, and possibly even to see where that rumoured broodmother was. But she didn’t intend to be noticed, and so only brought Sigrun, Justice, and me. I understood her strategy – if she brought too many soldiers, or if a large spell from one of our two mages went astray, she would be noticed far too easily. But if we were spotted by the main darkspawn forces there, we would be hard-pressed to fight our way out alive. I brought extra arrows, just in case, and it was impressed upon Justice that returning alive was more important than seeking absolute retribution upon the darkspawn.

Neither Varel nor Garevel was happy with the idea that the Commander was risking her own life on an unusually dangerous scouting mission, but Elizabeth held firm. She always was of at least half a mind that to do something right she ought to do it herself, but in this case she might not have been wrong on that. I certainly didn’t have the experience yet to lead such a mission. So our indomitably determined leader descended with us into the dark depths yet again.

Kal’Hirol lay as we left it, deceptively peaceful under the glow of the lichen or fungus that covered half the roof of the cavern. Sigrun led us again under the shadows of the houses, but not down the main street, this time. We went as softly as we might, and if anyone heard anything, we came to a stop until it passed.

In this slow manner we eventually came right to the wall of the fortress. “How now?” Elizabeth asked in a whisper.

“Hidden door,” Sigrun whispered back. “Thataway. Follow me.” She’d told us the rest of her Legion had tried to storm the main entrance and had been massacred there. We certainly didn’t want to do that.

“I do not like this,” Justice muttered. I patted his shoulder and we followed the women anyway.

The hidden door was well concealed. Only Sigrun knew what to look for, and it took her a few minutes to activate the opening mechanism. No darkspawn knew of it, that was certain.

Creeping through the inner courtyard, trying to blend into the stone when there were darkspawn across the way, quickened my heartbeat uncomfortably. I had to at least keep my breath calm. There weren’t so many darkspawn there. We could have taken them. But that would have summoned hundreds more, Elizabeth feared.

We made it to the inner gate without being detected, descending a long, surprisingly narrow flight of stairs. Golems lurked in alcoves beside the stair, and I glanced suspiciously at their small jeweled eyes.

We reached the bottom of the stairs, in a wide hall, and heard – and felt – a thoomp from behind. As one we turned, and saw the golems had come to life and were descending towards us, their jeweled eyes glowing. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but they seemed menacing, stomping implacably towards us.

Elizabeth had turned to face front again. “Genlock with a control rod!” She was right. The little beast was laughing at us, and I could hear the scurrying of heavily armoured feet. I couldn’t tell which direction; it seemed to be from all around us. So the golems were certainly hostile, then.

Quick as thought, I shot an arrow at the little monster, and it dodged, cackling. I shot again and again, and my third arrow struck it in the face, cutting off the cackle with a gurgle. But the golems were almost upon us from behind, and showed no signs of stopping, even though their controller had been slain.

“We have to move!” Sigrun cried, and Elizabeth agreed, and we ran. Darkspawn poured out of holes around us, racing us to the far end of the chamber – we weren’t going back up the stairs past the golems. There was a door there, a great heavy door. If darkspawn appeared there, we would be dead, and our mission in vain.

Sigrun was first through, followed by me, with Elizabeth behind me. No immediate darkspawn in view ahead.

“Go!” cried Justice, stopping and turning at the door. “I shall hold them off, for a while.”

“Justice, get on this side of the door this instant!” Elizabeth cried, sword blazing, while Sigrun and I hauled at the heavy doors.

Justice was already fending off attacks, stopping the tide of darkspawn in the very entrance of the door. The choke point would soon be filled with bodies, but if he didn’t move, one of them would be his. “It would not be right to allow these creatures to slip by-”

“Stop talking and get over here!” Elizabeth ordered with a shout, and surprisingly, Justice obeyed. And yes, a couple darkspawn got in before we managed to slam the door behind him and bar it. But Elizabeth was ready for them, and as soon as the door was locked, Sigrun and I turned to help.

Panting, we looked back at the door. It was extremely sturdy, and all the pounding on it barely shook it. They’d need a troll to break it down, and I hadn’t seen any of those- but the golems.

Right then, the door shuddered under a heavy blow. “We have to continue,” Sigrun said. “We have to get away before they get the door down.”

“Please tell me there’s a second connection to the Deep Roads from in this fortress,” Elizabeth said.

“Wellll… I don’t know for sure. But I imagine there must be. A second gate would mean more ways for the darkspawn to attack, but not having a second gate – putting all your nugs in the basket of a single gate – that would be foolish. So let’s leave here and look for it. We already know there’s a bucketload of darkspawn here, probably equaling your army, if I had to extrapolate. We got what we came for.”

“We need to know where the broodmothers are,” Elizabeth said, but led the way further into the carven halls. “Where might the second exit be, if you had to guess?”

“As far away from the first one as possible.”

Her voice had been steady, calm and controlled, but I glanced down and saw her slender hands were shaking, just a little. So our brave leader wasn’t quite as fearless as she projected to be. I suddenly admired her a little more.

As we went on, it became clear to all of us with some surprise that the part we had just passed through was the fortress and this was the main city of Kal’Hirol. The part we’d seen outside the wall must have just been the slums for the casteless. This part of the city was much clearer of darkspawn, although we still saw a few, lurking in buildings. They didn’t seem to see us.

We came to a grand square, and that’s when the visions started.

“Commander, are you… seeing what I’m seeing?” I asked, blinking hard.

“I think… maybe?”

“Ah, sometimes you get lyrium ghosts in places of great drama,” Sigrun said. “They say the memories of the Stone are forever, and Kal’Hirol is known to be rich in lyrium. I’ve never seen it before, though.” Her face tightened a little. “After all, what’s more dramatic than the darkspawn conquering a city?”

“Hush,” Justice said. “I cannot hear their words.”

There were words? I strained my ears and heard a faint echo that was neither us nor the darkspawn.

“For generations, they have told you you were nothing! Swept you away like so much dust! Now, you are the only thing standing between them and the darkspawn that threaten our empire! Show them that you are not nothing! Show them that you can be warriors! Let the Stone tremble with the thunder of your footsteps! Fight!!”

There was a ghostly ringing of warcries, and a great conflict between spectral darkspawn and ethereal dwarven figures. I don’t know about the others, but I flinched. With the visions casting movements everywhere, would we be able to detect an actual attack by real darkspawn in time to react?

We turned a corner and saw more visions – a couple, arguing.

“We have to follow them. I’m not going to sit here and get eaten by those monsters.”

“But this is our home! We can’t survive out there!”

“We won’t survive in here.” The visions faded.

Elizabeth shook her head as if trying to clear it. “The Stone may want us to know what happened here, but I wish it didn’t make me jump literally at shadows.”

“On the bright side, the darkspawn are just as jumpy,” Sigrun put in, pointing. “Even though they must be used to the visions, they’re less likely to be aware of us because of it.”

“Good point,” Elizabeh said, and kept going.

A few streets later, we saw a vision of the same dwarf who had been giving the rousing speech at the gate. He spoke in the same bold tone of voice, though the ghostly crowds around him were thinner. “These weapons were taken from the armouries of Kal’Hirol! I ask only for volunteers who would rather die fighting than give in!”

But now I heard grumblings from the crowd. “Sod off. You people left us for dead.”

“Yeah! We should just take your weapons and kill you instead!”

The dwarf captain looked undaunted. “Then you go to your graves knowing you murdered the one person who thought you worthy to bear arms for Kal’Hirol! Do you want that, or do you want to prove your worth?”

Behind us, I heard more whispers. “Those bastards left us behind, and he wants us to fight to defend their escape?”

“We’re going to die anyway. Dailan is giving us a chance to prove we’re not worthless.”

“You’re full of sod, duster. Some of us are going to try to make it to the surface. You in?”

“No. I’m going to do something right for once in my life.”

“We know some of these brave dwarves stood with the captain at the end, from what we saw before,” Justice said. “It is good to know some had the courage to give their lives for others.”

“For others who didn’t care about them, even,” Sigrun said. “How much do you know about the casteless?”

“Not much,” Justice admitted. “I have not studied the culture of your people yet.”

“I’ll fill you in sometime. Wait, what’s that, in there?”

Long-dead bones, scattered and broken, some still in dwarven or genlock armour, others looted. The chamber they lay in had a great steel door, twisted and torn from its hinges – I shivered to imagine the power that could do that to dwarf-wrought steel.

Sigrun had found a book – a journal, from the looks of it. She glanced up. “It’s that captain we were seeing, Dailan. Listen to this.”

2 Pluitanis: More southern thaigs have fallen. Varen Thaig and Kal’Barosh are overrun. Four thousand lives lost. The darkspawn are almost at the gates of Kal’Hirol. The fortress must be evacuated.

4 Pluitanis: There will be an exodus to Orzammar. Many nobles are appalled, Orzammar being a trade city so close to the surface. They fear losing their Stone sense to the surface vapours – a ridiculous notion. But Orzammar is the easiest to defend.

7 Pluitanis: Scouts have sighted the horde. It is vast. To outrun the darkspawn, the commanders say we must leave now with nothing beyond bare essentials.

7 Pluitanis (addendum): I have volunteered to remain behind with a contingent of men. We’ll hold off the darkspawn so others can escape. Ancestors have mercy.

9 Pluitanis: The casteless are still here, forgotten in the panic. They are 500 strong. If even half can be inspired to fight, they’ll make an army. There is a chance – a small chance – that this will make the difference.

10 Pluitanis: Two hundred men and women. Ancestors grant that 200 are enough.

15 Pluitanis: The darkspawn have pushed us back to the inner keep. Only a handful of us survive, but we’ve held them back five days. We could not have done this without the casteless – no, not casteless. To call them “casteless” would be a mistake. Their sacrifice must not be forgotten.

May the Stone remember the defenders of Kal’Hirol, who were born casteless, and died warriors.”

There followed a list of names, which she did not read aloud now – the two hundred who had fought alongside Dailan. Elizabeth turned to Sigrun. “This should be known. We should take this and give it to Glavonak. He’ll know what to do with it.”

“I agree completely, Commander. They stood by Dailan, and he stood by them. May they rest in the Stone.” She put the journal into her pack, and we continued, heading downwards.

We ended up on a lower level entirely, immediately under the city – no, in the next part of the city. It was warmer here, a river of lava flowing by the great ramp.

And there were darkspawn attacking darkspawn. One of them cried out in words, and I stiffened. It – he could be a lead on the darkspawn conflict. But he was too far away for us to hear him.

Still… we could use his distraction to get past the enemy, ourselves.

And glad we were of it. There were not hundreds of darkspawn here, as I would have expected, but there were dozens, and on the “enemy” darkspawn’s side those worm-ish Children. Still, I wondered where the rest of the darkspawn were, if not here. Could they all have been upstairs? Then how did we manage to slip by them all?

We did get entangled in a small fight about halfway through this part of the city, but so many of the darkspawn were fighting each other that we managed to dispatch our opponents without drawing the attention of the armies. Then we descended even lower into the earth.

 

We found ourselves by a waterway or sewer of some kind, but the water appeared polluted with lyrium. We knew better than to drink or even touch it. The place was brightly lit, whether from the veins of lyrium in the walls, or the lyrium-tinted lichen growing thick on the ceiling. And ahead there was a violent red glow.

We turned a corner and found a large chamber ahead of us, ringed with the water-filled sewer. The remnants of the invading hurlock’s force lay smashed to pieces around the chamber, and the hurlock himself hung helpless in the grip of an enormous steel golem whose body glowed with fire.

Another hurlock paced before him, ranting. “The Architect sends many, but does not come himself! He is a cowarrrd! I will kill you, and he will know he has failed to destroy the Lost! He will know that the Mother will tear him apart!” With one swift motion, the burning golem ripped the hurlock in two, torso in one hand, legs in the other. The dead hurlock didn’t even have time to scream.

I flinched in horror, and I think the rest did too. Elizabeth gasped, and when I looked at her, her face was pale. I agreed. None of us wanted to suffer that fate.

As the hurlock’s body twitched and gradually fell still, the other hurlock – The Lost? turned to us, having noticed our presence. “More foolish servants of the Father, have we? I will destroy you, and Mother will be pleased! None who serve the Father may live!”

I sensed Elizabeth would have liked to ask a few questions, but the golem was stomping towards us, its tread shaking the earth, and the hurlock was casting something. We couldn’t have that. I snapped off an arrow before we scattered before the golem. It bounced off the hurlock’s armour, but at least it interrupted his spell.

“Take down the hurlock first!” Elizabeth shouted. “Avoid the golem! We’ll worry about it later!”

“Yes, ma’am!” I answered, nocking another arrow to my bow. I still had plenty; my preparations had stood me in good stead. Justice was charging, Elizabeth was charging, and Sigrun looked like she wanted to charge but there were too many tall people in her way. There were certainly too many people for me to risk a shot.

A fireball hissed out from the Lost’s hands, and an answering flame erupted from the burning golem. We all ducked. I hopped over a charred darkspawn corpse and shot again. Another miss, but now Sigrun had closed with him, axes swinging, striking him in the arm and side, making him stagger back. He shot another, larger gout of flame outwards, and Sigrun jumped back herself, shielding her face. A mage would have been extremely useful right about now.

Elizabeth was closing in herself, shield high against the flame, and swung her sword forward. Lightning cracked and the hurlock took another step back, his other arm now useless. And now was my chance – one last arrow, through the eye, and he fell to the ground. Dead, I hoped, but I wasn’t close enough to confirm. Now where was that golem? Where was Justice?

“Nathaniel! Your back!” Justice shouted, and I began to run forward… and tripped over another corpse. Before I could get to my feet, a burning, implacable grip clamped around me, and I knew I was done for. I was dead, and in a painful, horrifying fashion, too. What would Father think…?

“Nathaniel!” Elizabeth screamed, charging the golem head-on. Was she suicidal?

But she was right. I couldn’t give up yet, not until my body had actually been ripped in half or incinerated to a crisp. My arms were pinned to my sides, and I kicked somewhat uselessly at its arm. Its other arm was engaged in holding off Sigrun, who was hacking at it fiercely. Was she even making a dent in that burning steel? Justice was still behind it; I couldn’t see what he was doing, though I could feel tremours that I assumed were from his attacks.

“Sigrun!” Elizabeth shouted. “Get on my shield and attack its face!” Insanity, that’s what that was. My armour was beginning to burn. I didn’t have much time left.

But somehow Sigrun was launched towards the golem’s head, and she chopped at it with a piercing warcry. It stumbled back into a stream of water coming from the ceiling above, and its whole body hissed with steam.

Then Elizabeth stabbed it. With Starfang.

Lightning cracked, blazing through the water as the point of her sword screeched across the golem’s surface. The lightning hit me and I screamed, hardly registering that I’d been dropped and that Justice was already dragging me away from the golem.

The golem was twitching, fizzing, its limbs clanking to its sides; then it fell backwards, splashing into the sewer.

For a moment, all we did was catch our breath.

“Dead?” Sigrun asked cautiously.

“It looks like it,” Elizabeth said. “Nathaniel…?”

“Alive,” I groaned. “Barely. I-I owe all of you my life. Thank you.”

“Can’t let our resident grump die, can we?” Sigrun said, but she seemed embarrassed to be thanked.

Justice passed over a flask of a healing potion. “You will need this.”

“I certainly do.”

There was nothing a potion could do for burned armour and charred clothes, but I felt well enough to stand afterwards. I hoped we wouldn’t have to fight too much more in this place, because I was just about done for the day.

Elizabeth watched me anxiously. “Are you well enough to travel?”

“I should be,” I answered, unsure of what else to say. I wanted to thank them again – a hundred times – but that would have been overkill. “I do hope we’re near the end, though.”

“Me too,” Elizabeth said. “Sigrun?”

“We should be close,” Sigrun said, leading the way to the door on the far side of the chamber. “There might be one more level below this one, but lyrium storage like this water suggests is generally near the bottom. That way if there are accidents it doesn’t affect the city. Much.”

“Then let’s press on, and get home as soon as we can,” Elizabeth said, and stepped through the door.

And yelled in surprise as tentacles erupted from the floor around her. “Broodmother!” Lightning flashed and some of the tentacles were beheaded by her crackling sword, but more appeared to replace them.

“Where? Where?” Sigrun shouted back, diving after her. I slung my bow away and drew my swords. If this creature was as Elizabeth described, shooting it would be less effective. One more fight, then. I just had to survive one more fight.

Elizabeth ran, dodging between tentacles. Sigrun was close behind, and Justice and I followed as fast as we could, but we were less agile. I got caught by a tentacle and slammed into a pillar, and it took me a moment to get up again, my battered body slow. I might have been crushed if Justice hadn’t stopped to shield me. “Thank you,” I gasped.

“Keep going,” he said, and I did.

“Down there!” Sigrun was shouting. “In the pit! Four- no, three of them!”

“We can’t hit them from up here, short of-” Elizabeth broke off. “Everyone! We have to break the chains!”

The chains? Ahead of me was a chain, the bar of each link as wide as my arm’s width. It looked pretty unbreakable. What it was attached to… There was a massive vat, full of lyrium, I believe, suspended from the ceiling by four of these chains, anchored in the stone beneath us. A spellcaster would be mighty useful again here. “How are we going to do that?”

“I’m not sure yet! Maybe we can get the broodmothers to break them for us!”

“How do – ahhh, I think I see.” If we played bait and let those tentacles hit the chains instead of us, they might be able to do it. Of course, if we did get hit, we’d probably die, smashed against those chains or knocked down the pit to our deaths.

But it was the best plan we had.

I skidded to a halt in front of the closest chain, glanced around at the tentacles swinging in my direction, and rolled to the side. One flashed over my head and slammed against the chain, making it shake and rattle, jostling the vat. So they had the force necessary to get this job done. And the chain looked a bit rusty, although that could just be surface corrosion.

My life became a series of adrenaline-filled dodges based on pure reflex, slashing at tentacles that frightened me particularly, just trying to get them to batter at the target behind me. I couldn’t focus on what the others were doing. If they were in trouble, I couldn’t help them. I hoped they weren’t in trouble.

I heard a crack and a rumble, and one of the other chains dragged from the ground, rattling cacophonously as it slipped through the moorings in the ceiling. The whole chamber shook.

The tentacles paused, as if startled, then came for me with new viciousness. I couldn’t stay here. I darted forward, feeling the burn in my arms and legs and lungs and gut, and I heard more thunderclaps and groaning stone. Enough of the chains had broken that the giant lyrium vat was sagging, teetering, and with a roar it crashed down into the depths.

The tentacles flailed wildly, but though they managed to strike me, knocking me down, there was no force behind them anymore, and then one by one, they fell to the ground, limp like jelly.

We collected ourselves, all of us breathing hard and sweating. Elizabeth was holding her shield-arm oddly, Justice was limping, and Sigrun was bleeding from a headwound. But we’d all survive to see home, which was a triumph. Although we still had hours to march before we reached it, and we would not dare to stop until we reached it.

But dammit, I’d get home tonight if I had to march in my sleep.

Sigrun let her head flop forward with weariness, but she was grinning. “We did it. If the rest of the Legion were alive, I know, I know they would honour you in some way.”

“That’s quite all right,” Elizabeth said, smiling. “The army above us may still exist, but at least their reinforcements will be fewer now. That’s reward enough for me. I hope it’s enough for Vigil’s Keep.”

“Oh, yes, quite. And I didn’t believe you about the factions in the darkspawn, but I see now that it’s true. Very curious… and disturbing. Well, it’s something to ponder. Especially when you need to be reminded that impending doom is right around the corner.” She smirked, and Elizabeth smiled, and together they led the way to a door on the far side of the chamber.

 

I was heading up to my room, more than ready for a long, long, long sleep, when I stopped short in surprise. Velanna stood nonchalantly before my door, as if she just happened to have chosen that spot to lean against the wall. She was not looking at me, though I knew she heard me coming, until I spoke. “My lady, this is a surprise.”

She glared at me then. “Don’t tease me.”

“I am not,” I said, honestly. “What can I do for you?”

“Well.” She looked away from me again, then huffed quickly and faced me head on, head lifted proudly. “I just wanted to let you know… I’m glad you returned safely. You look awful.”

I offered her a little smile. “I am glad to be back… and grateful for your feelings. It was rough out there.”

“I should have been with you. The Commander doesn’t trust my temper or my magic… and… she… may have a point. And I hate being underground for long. But I could have helped.”

“Aye. And I wish you’d been there. Next time, you’ll be with her. And maybe I’ll stay behind.”

She hesitated a breath more, then thrust her hand towards me. “And I would like to give this to you. To thank you for the stone.”

“Thank you,” I said, surprised, and pleased, though I didn’t even know what it was yet. It was a fine whetstone with a leather strap looped through a hole in one end. “Thank you very much. I’ll certainly use this.”

“Maybe next time we’ll both be in the sortie,” she suggested abruptly, in response to what I had said about staying behind, I think.

“I think you’re trying to suggest you don’t hate me as much as you used to,” I said.

“What if I am?” Velanna replied with irritation. “Anyway, that’s all I had to say. Good night, Nathaniel.”

“Good night, Velanna.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

 

She stood in the gateway, waiting impatiently for the tiny figures down the road to come closer. It seemed to take a very long time, and meanwhile, the chill late winter wind was nibbling at her fingers, her nose, her ears, even through the woolen gloves and hat she was wearing. Not fashionable for an acting-arlessa to be wearing a peasant’s hat and gloves, but she actually didn’t care, though she would have cared even less if they’d actually worked completely against the cold. She did not pace, though she was tempted to, instead maintaining a poise of motionless dignity.

Maverlies and Alec, on guard duty, were looking at her wonderingly, she knew. But she wasn’t going to show the least bit of weakness in front of her brother. Briefly she wondered why, if it was some sort of younger sibling complex, if she was still seeing him through upraised eight-year-old eyes.

“Beth!” came a hail. There was her brother, and his escort, a dozen Highever soldiers, finally marching up to the gate.

“Fergus, it’s good to see you,” she said, smiling. “Quick, come inside, it’s absolutely freezing out here.”

“Yes, you don’t want to know what colour my toes are,” he said, grinning, and clapped a hand on her shoulder in a manly fashion. “Look at you, Arlessa Cousland.”

“I’m not an arlessa,” she corrected him. “I’m Warden-Commander.”

“Is there really a difference? Amaranthine is an arling.”

“Of course there’s a difference. I’m not an arlessa.”

“Whatever you say, Beth. Oh, aren’t you going to show me your wonderful castle? This place is massive, bigger than Highever. Although that tower’s still missing a few bits.”

“After we’ve had a chance to warm up a bit,” she scolded him. “And thanks, Teyrn Obvious. It’s almost done. Can’t build in the snow, however. It probably won’t be done until spring comes. But we won’t fall to the darkspawn even in its current state.”

They got inside the main gate, which at least cut the wind, even if the front entrance was still chilly. Fergus stamped the muddy snow off his boots. “Where do my men go?”

“Captain Garevel will see to them,” she said, and Garevel bowed to her. “Come, I’ll introduce you to the Wardens. There’s always a lovely big fire in the main hall.”

“Can’t wait.”

She’d asked the other Wardens to wait in the main hall, and they were there as requested. As Fergus entered, Nathaniel and Anders bowed. Oghren drank, Velanna rolled her eyes, Sigrun smiled, and Justice stood motionless, inscrutable inside his helmet.

Fergus recognized Nathaniel immediately and narrowed his eyes. “So you’re Nathaniel.”

“I am,” Nathaniel said calmly, but there was a wariness in his eyes. She decided not to interfere.

Fergus took a deep breath. “Can’t say I’m happy about you being anywhere near my sister, but she’s told me emphatically that you are not your father, so I won’t… I’ll try not to hate you on sight. But I’ll be watching you.”

“I understand, Teyrn Fergus. You have nothing to fear from me.”

“Good. …Though mostly because she’s giving me that look that’s telling me not to lay the ‘overprotective act’ on too thick, or she’ll kick me out into the cold.”

She had a look? She didn’t know that.

“Nathaniel’s been an exemplary Warden,” she said. “You’ll believe me sooner or later. And you remember Oghren, of course.”

“How could I forget? The one with the excellent brew.”

“Glad ye liked it,” Oghren growled, smirking. “Got more for you… but only if Eliza has some too.”

“Absolutely not,” Elizabeth said. “And this is Anders, one of our mages, and Velanna, our other mage, and Sigrun, also of the Legion of the Dead, and this is Justice.”

“Pleased to meet you all,” Fergus said with a bow. “You all look very… unique.”

“You could say that again,” Anders said, smiling.

“Although, why do you wear that helmet, ser?” he asked Justice.

“I am told it is uncomfortable for others to look on me, and while I am here I have no wish to bring any shame to the Grey Wardens.”

Fergus looked startled. “Well, if you say so. Seems a little odd.” He glanced at Elizabeth.

“He and I agreed on it,” she told him. “We have our reasons. Before I forget, while you’re here, I have something for you.”

“Women? Wine? …Wwwwheelbarrows?”

“Wheelbarrows?” She blinked at him. “It’s not something beginning with a W.” She gestured, and Elra came in, curtseyed to Fergus, and handed him the Cousland shield. “I can hand Grandfather’s shield back over. I have a my own now, a good one.”

“Yes, thanks. It’s taken a beating, hasn’t it? I can tell you’ve had it refurbished. I’m glad it served you well, but it really should-”

“-should stay in Highever,” she finished for him. They were of one mind on this, and it made her happy.

“Still have the same maid, I see.”

“Of course I do. She’s familiar, and devoted. I’d be a fool to look for anyone else.” Elra smiled bashfully at her words, but she meant them all, and wished she could say them in a way that didn’t sound so… proprietary. She also liked that she could talk to Elra about the sorts of things she had talked with Leliana about, before, now that Leliana had gone back to Orlais. “Anyway, you wanted to see the castle? The rest of you can go about your business if you like. Or you can come and offer your bizarre commentary.”

 

“I’m ready to leave, Nathaniel,” Elizabeth said to me, her scarf already swathed over her nose and mouth.

“I’m not,” I said to her. We were at the tavern an hour’s walk from Vigil’s Keep – not the closest one, but a good one for news, and we visited quite often still. Her brother had gone back home again, after staying a week and much teasing of everyone he could, especially Velanna because it was so easy, though Sigrun and Anders gave as good as they got. I stepped in a few times on Velanna’s behalf, though I still wasn’t sure she appreciated it. But even towards me, he seemed more at ease. I was glad of that. There was still snow on the ground outside, though it had been slightly less freezing of late, and Amaranthine was hoping for sun tomorrow. Spring was slowly coming. “I need just a minute.”

“I’ll go on ahead while you settle matters here, then,” she said, giving me a brief smile and vanishing out the door.

It took me a few minutes, and it was a little darker outside by the time I followed her. She wouldn’t have gone far – she liked to walk fast, but she’d wait for me. Though it was odd I couldn’t see her on the road ahead. Had she truly gotten that far ahead of me? Had I taken so long?

And what was that fresh scrape in the mud and snow? I looked back. Surely those were Elizabeth’s footsteps, firm and purposeful, now that I was looking for them, and the footprints of others… converging on hers from behind at the signs of a brief scuffle. Who would dare-? Why? How long ago? I followed the trail behind the huts of the hamlet, my stance low and alert, my bow in my hand, and as I turned the corner I heard Elizabeth give a cry of outrage.

I froze as I saw what was going on. Two men held Elizabeth by the arms, though she was struggling with all of her strength and they could barely contain her. Temmerly the Ox was standing before her. Even from this distance in the poor light, I could see her face contorted in rage, disgust, and even a little fear, though it was almost drowned out by the other emotions and I was sure the men did not recognize it in her; they didn’t know her as I did. She tried to kick him, kick those holding her, but as she did, the two men yanked her backwards, slamming her back against a tree. Temmerly leaned towards her in her stunned state and kissed her hard on the mouth.

I saw her whole body stiffen, no longer struggling but frozen in shock, and found I was clenching my fists around my bow so tightly it was creaking. Time to put it to use. But I didn’t have a good shot on any of the men at this angle.

Temmerly stepped back, but now he was reaching out to touch her. Red coloured my vision; I had to concentrate if I was going to get a good shot.

My bow twanged; my arrow flew true, straight into the head of the man holding Elizabeth’s right arm. Even as he fell limp, she was in motion, tearing her other arm away from the other man, and swinging a magnificent right hook into Temmerly’s jaw. I hurried up, my bow in one hand and one of my swords in the other, but she had her own sword drawn, pointed at Temmerly, who had been knocked into a crouch on the ground. Her face was filled with a terrible fury, her eyes reflecting the crackling, snapping lightning of her sword. With a shrill cry, she raised it, ready to strike and kill him. I didn’t stop her; nor did the other man.

Her sword stopped at the top of her swing. “No,” she said, her voice low and cold now, though she was still shaking with emotion. “If I kill you now, no one will know what utter scum you are. Get up.”

“Too girly to get your hands dirty-?” Temmerly began, and she smacked him solidly with the flat of the blade, discharging lightning into him, and he fell forward again with a grunt.

“Nathaniel, bind their hands,” she ordered, and I put away my bow and sword and did so. I usually had a bit of rope around, and she knew it. “Get up,” she ordered them again.

Temmerly tried to escape twice on the march back to Vigil’s Keep, but each time, Elizabeth struck him with the flat of her sword, and that halted him each time. “I can just shoot you if you try to run,” I told him the second time, and he didn’t try again. His companion didn’t try at all, and seemed to be flat-out terrified of his fate, sniveling like a coward. I had no sympathy. He should have considered that before he molested the Warden-Commander. Before he molested my friend.

We were met by guards soon after we came within sight of the castle, and they took over, and Elizabeth could sheath her sword again – she’d held it in her hand the entire way home. But she did not order them to the dungeon. Instead, she called for Varel, and Garevel, and the other officers of the Keep, including Woolsey and Glavonak, and Justice.

“Ser Temmerly, known as the Ox,” she spat from the dais in the Great Hall, her eyes blazing. “And… companion. You are accused of assaulting and molesting the Commander of the Fereldan Grey Wardens with intent to rape and kill. Nathaniel Howe is my witness.” I couldn’t swear to the ‘intent to kill’ part, but the rest had been pretty clear.

“Lies!” Temmerly cried boldly. “We were minding our own business when he shot Charles and she took us prisoner at swordpoint! They made up that story on the way here!”

“The bruises on my arms say otherwise,” Elizabeth hissed. “And so do I.”

“She just hates me because she thinks I killed Tamra!”

But every face around showed how little they believed him. “Lady Elizabeth would no more make up such a story than she could blot out the sun,” Varel said sternly. “How would you like him dealt with, my lady?”

“Fine,” Temmerly shouted. “Fine! I did touch her, as women should be touched. I didn’t even get to do more. But who wouldn’t do the same, to an uptight bitch like her!?” Many hands reached for their swords at those words, mine included. “There are lots who’d like to see her put in her proper place, scrawny mannish Cousland tomboy! She has no business in Amaranthine! I’m not afraid to speak truth to power!”

Elizabeth’s gaze was hard as steel. “Hang him tomorrow at dawn. His companion too.”

“No, please!” cried the other man. “Have mercy, your ladyship! I did it under threat, I meant no harm to you…”

“He lies,” Justice said. “He deserves death as much as the other.”

“I know,” Elizabeth said. “The way he giggled in my ear- No mercy for one such as you.” She turned to Varel. “Is it still the fashion to put heads over the city gate?”

“It is, my lady.”

“When they are dead, do that.” She turned on her heel and walked out.

 

She huddled under her blankets, still fully dressed, shivering – no longer with rage, but with fear and horror. And some rage, still, too. And nothing had happened, really, he hadn’t had time to do anything-

And when she thought of his disgusting mouth on hers, when she thought of his whispers in her ear of how he was going to make her into the lowest of the low and then gut her like a rabbit and no one would miss her, she knew it wasn’t nothing. And she still felt his hands, groping at her breasts and crotch, still felt the bruising grip on her arms, the roughness of the tree at her back.

And yet nothing had happened. It wasn’t fair. She didn’t even know why she thought it wasn’t fair, just that it wasn’t.

Thank the Maker for Nathaniel. For being able to find her, for being able to set her free, for being nearly as furious as she was, for everything. She knew that from now on, she could never think of him as Rendon Howe’s son. She already thought of that little enough as it was, after all they’d been through together, but from now on no one could doubt his loyalty.

She felt imaginary hands on her and shook, trying not to cry with frustration and emotional weariness. She was strong, she was above this. And yet she wasn’t.

Elra came in, her expression saying she knew everything, and instead of going about her normal duties to her mistress, sat beside her on the bed and hugged her. “I’m sorry, my lady.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about, Elra. I’m being a fool.”

“You are not a fool. It’s the reaction of every woman to such things.”

Truly? Was Elra making that up to comfort her? “Has… has anything like that… ever happened to you?”

“Yes,” Elra said simply. “I think it happens to everyone, sooner or later. There is no woman unmolested… only women who have not been molested yet.”

“That’s awful. It wasn’t here, was it? Here in Vigil’s Keep?” and her temper flared again, ready to hunt down the culprit that moment if need be, though she was still swathed in blankets. “Although if it was Oghren, I won’t put him to death…”

“No. No, my lady. It was a long, long time ago. In Highever. He’s dead. Dead because of Arl- I mean, Rendon Howe.”

She relaxed again, tired. “And yet… why does death for Temmerly seem right, and death for someone molesting you seem…”

“Like an overreaction?”

“It sounds horrible. It ought to be the same punishment no matter who does it or who it is done to. Am I selfish?”

“I think there is more to it than that, my lady. Not just because you are human and I am an elf-”

“No, that’s nothing to do with it. I hope.”

“But you are the Warden-Commander, Arlessa in all but name. I’m just a servant. That man’s attack on you was not about lust but about power. Someone raping me would not be committing treason.”

“Oh.” She hadn’t thought of it that way. And Elra was right. Temmerly had not once expressed desire towards her, not before, and not now. Only told her she needed to be ‘put in her place’, that ‘women ought to be touched’. She drew a deep, shuddering breath. “I want to kill him. I want to humiliate him. I want to be avenged on him. But then his crime won’t be taken as seriously.”

“I know. But if you would hear my humble opinion… you did the right thing. Even in the heat of your anger, you did the right thing.”

“Elra…” Elizabeth unfolded, just a little, enough to put her head on Elra’s shoulder and put her arms around her. “You are so wise. You’ve made everything clear to me. Thank you.”

“I live to serve you, my lady.”

“And if anyone does touch you… or Firiel… tell me. It might not be about power, I might not put them to death… but such crimes should not take place, not in Amaranthine while I lead her.” She felt a hot tear escape her right eye. “Maybe such a thing is as impossible as trying to mend relations between humans and elves. But I have to at least try.”

“And that’s why you are Lady Elizabeth,” Elra said, patting her back comfortingly. “Would you like me to bring you your nightclothes?”

“No,” Elizabeth said, embarrassingly quickly. “No, that’s fine. I will sleep in my clothes tonight.” Changing her clothes would not take away the touches, and stripping before dressing again was the last thing she wanted to do right now. Maybe tomorrow.

 

Elizabeth was up at her usual time the next day, I noticed, doing her usual routine, as if nothing had happened. She was in her office doing paperwork at the same time the gallows was being prepared. She was dressed in full armour, which was not normal, but I didn’t blame her.

“You’re not going to watch?” I asked, looking out the window at them.

“He’s not worth my attention,” she snapped, glaring at me. “I refuse to acknowledge that traitor’s existence again. If you’re going to watch, do it somewhere else.” And she went back to her paperwork.

“Yes, ma’am.” I paused. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there sooner. Or that I didn’t go with you from the tavern.”

She put down her pen and looked at me more sadly with serious blue eyes. “You have nothing to apologize for. I owe you a great debt for saving me. And should you have been with me, our guard would have been down, even more than mine was, and they would likely have killed you first.” Maybe she was right about that, but maybe while they were distracted with me, she could have been ready to fight. …Such what-ifs were pointless, weren’t they. “Elra says that every woman is treated so, sooner or later; touched without consent, to no purpose but selfishness. Maybe not with such malice, maybe not with thoughts of treason, but though there are many good men like you who would never do such a thing, there are many wicked men who think nothing of it. Who perhaps don’t even know that they are doing horrible things.”

I would never do such a thing. Would I? My heart grew heavy and my stomach uncomfortable as I considered it. If I hadn’t been such an awkward, secluded teenager… I might have done such things without knowing what I did. I told her so, slowly.

“But you would not do them now, because you are an intelligent being who acknowledges that women are also intelligent beings,” she answered, a little bit sharply. Maybe I shouldn’t have told her.

“I like to think so…”

There was a sound from out the window, and she flinched. I turned to look. “If you’re going to look, do it somewhere else!” Right. I forgot.

And that was the last she ever spoke of Temmerly. She never even looked at his rotting head when it was set above Amaranthine’s gate. But she seemed to trust me even more than she had before, as well. She didn’t make a big deal out of it, preferring to pretend the incident had never happened, I think, but she was grateful to me.

 

She wasn’t herself the next day, nor the next day after. She continued to wear her full ironbark armour all the time, and avoided touching anyone except Elra. Not that anyone came into contact with her to begin with; she wasn’t familiar with people in that way, a little bit aloof from everyone except her Warden friends, and they weren’t the touchy-feely type. And she was grateful for it.

She longed for Zevran, desperately, and yet she couldn’t tell him about this. What could he do? What could he say? All she wanted was to be held by him, to replace those horrible memories with fresh, loving ones, but to ask him to come back just for that was selfish. His last letter had said he was going into the Antivan provinces for a while and wouldn’t be in contact for a few months anyway. By the time he could answer her, or come to her, she would be past all this. She hoped. Though she wouldn’t mind seeing him anyway. But she didn’t want to interrupt his mission or put him in greater danger. So she wouldn’t ask.

But a week after, she was still struggling to recover herself, and she knew that wasn’t right. Was it? She didn’t know. She knew so little about these experiences. She’d been sheltered, as a Teyrn’s daughter. She knew it happened, sometimes – or as Elra said, to everyone eventually, she knew that now. But was it normal to still be disturbed so long afterwards, when nothing had really happened?

She was short with Varel that day on some inconsequential bit of logistics, and he sighed, looked at her with compassion, and stood. “Let’s go for a walk.”

“Don’t want to,” she said, petulantly. Some Commander of the Grey she was. She sounded like Alistair. Or Anders. Varel only waited by the door of her office, and after a minute, she got up and followed him.

He left the Keep, heading around the west side towards the hills and forests there. They walked in silence for a while. The air was cold and crisp, the sun shining brightly, the ground frozen hard enough not to be too muddy, and the trees sparkled with tiny flakes of ice.

She didn’t know what to say. She should apologize, perhaps. But she sensed that wasn’t what he wanted. So what did he want? What was his purpose in coming out here?

“I just thought you’d like a change of scenery,” he said finally, as if reading her mind, and they came to a stop in a little clearing in the woods, surrounded by leafless young saplings. “Being cooped up in the Keep can’t be so nice.”

It’s safe, she wanted to say, but she was no coward, was she?

“I… can’t imagine what it’s like for you,” Varel – Gideon said. “I know you’re having trouble sleeping. And eating. And on concentrating on the present. I know you can’t forget, even though you’re trying to, trying to pretend you do. And when I think of what that blight did, of what he wanted to do… my heart grows hot with anger. I feel you were too merciful on him. Impressively cold-blooded, and your message will be heard loud and clear, but I wished he were chopped into little pieces and fed to rabid Mabari.”

“Me too,” she whispered, and the shaking started. She stilled it with an effort. Think about something else. Don’t think about him. Gideon’s talking to you.

“And you know I love you like my own daughter, and it hurts us all to see you struggling to move forward all alone. But you’re not alone. Any of us would gladly help you. But I think the others are a little afraid to reach out to you. They’re young and awkward – or in Justice’s case, have never been taught social skills. I’m an old man, my feelings don’t matter. So. Will you let us help you?”

He reached out a hand to her, gently, as if her answer didn’t have to mean anything if she didn’t want it to.

She looked at him, and he looked at her with warmth in his grey eyes, and slowly her facade crumpled and fell, and she began to cry. To cry, as she hadn’t cried even in Elra’s arms, even alone in her bed late in the night when she couldn’t sleep. He reached out and gathered her into his arms – and he wasn’t wearing armour – holding her like her father might have. And she came willingly, leaning her head on his shoulder, crying into his coat. She trusted him, trusted Gideon Varel, loved him like a father, almost like she had loved her true father, didn’t mind him holding her, whispering gentle reassurances into the top of her hair.

She felt… fresh when the crying had passed; tired, but a little more like herself, as if a stopper had been pulled and some of the poison in her mind and body had begun to drain. She sighed deeply but kept leaning on Gideon. “Thank you.”

“No need for thanks, lass.”

She straightened and took a step back. Her eyes must be raw and red, her nose and face horribly blotchy… and yet she could breathe again. And she didn’t need to hide from him. “No, thank you. I… I think I will feel better now.”

He smiled a small smile. “Shall we continue?”

Not go back to the Keep? Why not? It was a nice day. “All right.”

 

Months passed and Temmerly became a distant, near-forgotten memory. Spring came and was passing into summer. The castle was completed, more or less. The darkspawn remained quiet. Amaranthine thrived, and we at Vigil’s Keep grew strong. Between Elizabeth and Garavel, we tried not to grow complacent, only patrolled the lands as best we could. I knew Elizabeth was suspicious. We hadn’t defeated the darkspawn in battle yet. Perhaps the friendlier faction, the Architect’s side, had defeated the other side?

I suggested it to her, but she rejected the idea. “Would that creature not have sent word? He seems to like meddling in that way. I don’t believe it. Something is waiting for something to happen. But I am not leading my forces into the Deep Roads without cause.”

So we waited for the darkspawn, who were waiting for who-knew-what.

And then one day a frantic messenger appeared, hurrying to the castle on horseback. She caused such a commotion that we were well assembled in the hall to wait for her, and by chance, several of the Lords of Amaranthine were also there to debate strategy with Elizabeth. “Commander! Commander!”

“What is it, girl?” Varel said, waving her forward.

“An army of darkspawn has appeared within sight of Amaranthine City!” Fear took root in my gut. Delilah and her newborn son should be safe behind those thick walls, shouldn’t she?

“Maker protect us,” Lord Eddelbrek said. “They’re attacking the city?”

“How many?” Varel asked.

“I-I don’t know for certain, ser. Constable Aiden said maybe two thousand.”

“Amaranthine has been undermanned for months,” said Garevel sourly. “She may not last long.”

“It will take some hours to assemble the army and arrive at Amaranthine,” Varel said. “She’ll have to hold out until we get there.”

“Then we must not tarry,” Elizabeth said, finally speaking. “Assemble the men. I will move on ahead with Nathaniel, Sigrun, and Anders and two-thirds of the army. The rest will remain here to defend in case this is a feint.”

Garevel frowned. “Two thirds? We’ll be outnumbered, Commander.”

“But we can join with the city’s defenders, few though they may be, and we fight for our homes, do we not?”

“Aww, can’t I stay behind?” Anders whined. “Velanna will be happy to go in my stead.”

“I would, Commander,” Velanna said. “…Please.”

“I know,” she said. “But I have made my decision. And remember – staying may not be safer than going. Any more comments?” She looked sternly at the other Wardens. I had the sense she was not in the mood to debate any more, only to move. I felt that itch too, that sitting still cost lives every moment.

“Fighting darkspawn with almost certain death awaiting?” Sigrun said. “This is fantastic! I’m happy to fight alongside you.”

“My family built that city over generations,” I said. “I will not let it fall.”

“I’ll make sure the Vigil’s ale supply is safe,” Oghren said. “Heheh. Leave a few darkspawn skulls for me to kick in, arright?”

“If ever I had doubts about you, they are erased,” Justice said. “Fight nobly. And if you die, die with honour.”

“I will,” she said. “Garevel, assemble the army. We move as soon as they are ready.”

“Aye, Commander.”

“Maker protect you, Commander,” Varel said, bowing, and she walked down the hall, head high, to lead her men to war.

 

We arrived at the city in good time, having taken only an hour to gather and arm some eighteen hundred soldiers, and then marching hard across the roads, thankfully dry in the good weather we’d been having. There were some straggling darkspawn in the fields around the city, and we fell upon them and destroyed them easily before convening in a small pine forest not far from the city. Constable Aiden came to find us there. “Warden-Commander, I am glad you arrived when you did… but I fear there is little that can be done now.”

“What has happened? What is the situation?” Elizabeth asked. “Surely the city is not fallen already.” But smoke was rising from it, a horrid sight.

“A few nights ago, gruesome pale creatures emerged from beneath the city. They spread pestilence and destroyed all that they touched, and they were quick and with sharp claws.”

“The darkspawn call them the Children, though I don’t know why,” Sigrun said. “If it makes it simpler to speak of them.”

“We managed to track down and deal with most of them, but then the darkspawn arrived this morning. We sent our messenger as soon as we saw them, but then they discovered the smuggling tunnels.”

“I see,” Elizabeth said. “So now they run amok inside the walls.”

“That’s it exactly. Waves of them have poured out from the Crown and Lion. We were overwhelmed within an hour. I’m sorry, Commander. Amaranthine is lost.”

Elizabeth’s eyes flashed. “Amaranthine is not lost.”

“It’s too late. The walls still stand, but there will be few survivors after all the chaos of this day.”

“My sister,” I murmured, my fear bubbling to the surface.

“Constable! A darkspawn approaches, alone!”

“Archers, bring it down!”

Even as the bows raised and drew, the darkspawn raised a hand. “Peace! Do not be killing. Only talk. Architect has a message. For Grey Warden.”

“What is it?” Elizabeth said, face darkening thunderously at the mention of the Architect.

“The Mother’s army – it marches to Vigil’s Keep! She attacks now! The Architect – he sends me to warn you! You must save the Keep, then finish the Mother – in her lair.”

“We must go back to the Keep,” Garevel said.

“What about the darkspawn here?” Sigrun said. “We came all this way…”

“Soon they will be going to Vigil’s Keep as well,” the darkspawn said. “The Mother – she wants the Keep destroyed utterly. There are hundreds there, and trolls.”

“We can’t go back with this army at our heels,” Garevel said, and turned to Elizabeth. “Commander, there are ballistae here. We can turn them around and fire the city, burn all that remains and all the darkspawn within.”

Elizabeth said nothing, frowning at the looming walls of the city.

“We have already lost Amaranthine. We can’t lose the Vigil as well.”

“But- Delilah,” I said. “Commander, I must know where Delilah is. Please.”

Elizabeth stared in anguish at the city, then looked back down the road to Vigil’s Keep. And she gave a despairing cry. “Ah! What good is a dwarf-built castle if it cannot hold against a siege? We retake Amaranthine!”

“No, no!” the darkspawn said. “If you stay, the Mother will get what she wants!”

“Then you’d better fight alongside me so we may be done here all the sooner!” Elizabeth retorted, eyes snapping, and the darkspawn stepped back.

“I will… do as the Grey Warden bids.”

“Amaranthine, then,” Garavel said, and sighed. “The darkspawn are never this organized on their own. Something must be leading them.”

“Then that is my target,” Elizabeth said, and turned to the army. “Soldiers of Amaranthine! This is a challenge unlike any we have faced before. I know some of you- many of you are afraid, whether of Amaranthine’s plight, or of the darkspawn, or simply of death. And that is natural. But this is what we must do, to save our land, to save our people, our families, our friends! Follow me, fight with all your heart, and we will save them! We cannot lose today! Draw your swords, and fight for Amaranthine!” She thrust her sword above her head as she spoke, shimmering with lightning, and the men cheered and raised their own weapons, clattering in a great rush.

She pointed to one captain in particular. “You there! Take your company and follow Nathaniel.” To me, she said: “Once we get into the city, go save your sister.” She raised her voice again. “Save all the civilians you can! The Chantry is defensible. Secure it and bring them all there!”

“Thank you, Commander,” I said, and nodded to the men.

The main gate of Amaranthine was wide open, and filled with darkspawn. It seemed they’d chased Constable Aiden and his men out, and let in more of the monstrous army through it. Now it let us in to wreak our vengeance.

We hailed them with arrows, and then Elizabeth led a charge towards them. All was noise; the screeching of the monsters, including more of the Children, the warcries of our army, the clash of weapons on weapons and shields and armour, the sick sound of weapons meeting flesh, the shrieks of the wounded and dying. Anders lit up the back end of the darkspawn with a fireball or two, which certainly helped, although the city was already plenty on fire enough without him adding to that.

It was too thick to shoot, so I slung away my bow and drew my swords, plunging into the thick of the battle. Ugly grinning faces with pointed teeth gibbered at me, and I dodged and parried and slashed for all I was worth. There was no time to feel fear, only to let adrenaline carry me onward.

The darkspawn fell away, and we were through the first encounter. But there will still more in the city; we could hear them, hooting and growling, could even see them in the distance, though they were not yet charging us.

Elizabeth nodded to me, and I nodded to my captain, and off we went to the left towards the burning market. I could see another clump of darkspawn there, too busily engaged in looting and destruction to turn to us yet. I could fix that.

Three darkspawn fell to my arrows before they banded together with a howl, charging us. Good, that would get them away from the houses of the civilians, the ones that were still intact. Was Delilah’s still there? No time to see yet, only time to shoot arrow after arrow – to not stop shooting arrows until they’d all been felled.

Delilah’s house still stood, untouched, unburnt. A good first step, but was she still inside? As the men set up a defensive formation, shields out, I ran to the door and banged on it. “Delilah! Delilah?”

“Nathaniel!” I heard her cry from inside. “You’ve come!” Oh, thank the Maker.

“We need to get you to the Chantry,” I said. “We’re getting all the civilians there. Come, get Albert and Thomas, we must leave now!”

“Oh, Maker… We will do as you say. There are others here…”

“Everyone. Everyone goes to the Chantry!”

I heard heavy things being moved back from the door, and it opened, and a dozen people hurried out. Delilah had her son in her arms, and she held my eyes gratefully for a moment before following the others. Other doors opened, and more civilians came out, maybe a hundred in total. So many – and yet only a tiny portion of the city’s inhabitants.

“To the Chantry!” I called, and hoped that Elizabeth’s side had managed to make it safe. Of course they would have. And they had, when we arrived, two hundred men left to hold it. And then we went back to the market, to make a push north, to drive the darkspawn back toward the north gate. We could do this. We were going strong.

And then I saw the trolls. But not trolls like I’d seen before on patrol, or on adventures with Elizabeth. Bigger, burlier, and covered in armour a full two inches thick. How were we going to fight those?

I’d just have to be a really excellent shot. There were five of them. My own men were beginning to look a bit sparse – I’d lost probably a quarter of them so far in the conflict. I hoped Elizabeth was doing better; she did have more soldiers.

The trolls roared and my men took a step back, faces going pale. “Steady!” I called. “Hold it here!” I sighted down an arrow. Just a little to the left…

The troll I was aiming at growled, shaking its head violently so that its helmet rattled, and jumped forward, snatching up one of the soldiers. He screamed in terror, then in pain as it began to tighten its grip. Could I-

I shot, and the arrow struck the troll true in the eye. It wasn’t dead, but it dropped the man, who was dragged back behind the front lines by his fellows.

The troll roared again, picking up a tree trunk as a club and swinging it. Twenty men went flying, some of them striking the walls and falling limp to the ground. Dead or unconscious, I couldn’t tell which, didn’t have time to look. All my focus was narrowed to the troll’s other eye. And there were four more around it. The carnage was going to be bad; I couldn’t shoot them fast enough.

My second arrow bounced off the helmet, making the troll look around for what had struck it. My third was on target, blinding the troll entirely. With luck, it might attack its fellows by accident…

“Fall back!” cried the captain. “We can’t maintain this position against these monsters!” Shields were useless against these attacks. Ordinary men were useless against these attacks. The street was filled with dead.

“No, you’re right,” I said. “Fall back.”

But at that moment a slender, silver-grey-clad figure came bounding out of the cross street and flung itself at the hindmost troll, and blue-purple lightning flashed. Magic flared around another, before it burst into flame. And a smaller figure was darting around the feet of a third troll, axes flickering in the firelight, whooping with delight, and behind the three was the rest of the army, roaring with bloodlust. The cavalry had arrived, to use an Orlesian phrase.

My men turned with a cheer, no longer shaking in their boots. As long as Elizabeth fought like that, they’d follow her anywhere, against any enemy. I aimed again, through the mouth of the blind troll, and finally brought it down in a massive thud.

Elizabeth had somehow scaled the front of her troll and had stabbed it deep in the face through the open front of its helmet. It made an ineffectual grab for her and fell forward; she leapt backwards at the perfect moment and landed on her feet, skidding back slightly.

“Well met, you,” I said to her, grinning. “That was impressive and courageous.”

She was panting fit to burst. “Learned it from Zev. Glad you’re all right. Sister?”

“She’s at the Chantry now.”

“Hey!” Sigrun yelled. “I think it’s the darkspawn general! Get him!”

“On it!” Anders yelled back, and a blast of ice radiated out towards the cluster of darkspawn. The north gate was still closed, and they didn’t seem to know how to open it. They were trapped.

“Let’s go,” Elizabeth said to me, and ran off again. She was some kind of warrior angel, that was what.

 

“Commander, the darkspawn are retreating,” Garevel reported when we’d defeated the last of the monsters around the general, and the general itself.

“Has there been any word from Vigil’s Keep?” Elizabeth asked. She was covered in black darkspawn blood, and had a scraped cheek. But though her shoulders slumped with weariness and she was still breathing hard, her blue eyes were still bright with determination. I wished for her youthful energy.

“None. But the men are exhausted. We cannot march back and fight another army tonight.”

“Then let them rest, and follow tomorrow at first light,” Elizabeth said. “I must go back and see what can be seen tonight.” When Garevel opened his mouth to protest, she smiled a little and held up a hand. “Don’t worry. I don’t intend to assault them head-on alone. I will wait for you.”

“Not only that, Commander, but once they’ve become entrenched… how shall we take them on? It would be suicide to attack them on open ground. At this point, if the Vigil still stands, those inside have a much better chance of surviving than we would.”

“And yet they will be overwhelmed eventually, if our information is true,” Elizabeth pointed out. “We must break the back of the siege. I know there will be heavy losses.” Her gaze swept around at the surviving soldiers. “But together this army and the Keep will be stronger than each separate.”

“And what of Amaranthine? What if the darkspawn return again? We do not have the resources to block the smuggling tunnels now.”

“The civilians must reach safety. Are there any villages or halls within a few hours where they might take refuge for a few nights?”

“Greenhall,” Garavel said. “It’s not far, and Esmerelle’s nephew is much friendlier to your leadership. We could impose on him for at least a short while.”

“He’ll be compensated for it,” Elizabeth said. “Make it happen. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You’re not going without us, surely, Commander?” Sigrun asked. Anders and I stepped up beside her.

“I miss home,” Anders mumbled.

“Get a grip,” I told him.

“I do have a grip,” he said. “I’m gripping my staff so hard I’m a little afraid it’s going to fall apart.”

“Thanks, Anders.”

“No problem.”

“Yes, you can come as well,” Elizabeth said to us. “But we won’t be attacking tonight. I just can’t sit here and wonder. Even if I can do nothing when I arrive.”

“I will follow you,” I promised her. “Whatever you do.”

“I know,” she said, and held our eyes for a moment before turning to walk into the gathering night.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

 

Dawn broke on a discouraging sight. Under a grey, overcast sky, Vigil’s Keep was encircled by darkspawn, though they couldn’t climb the cliffs of the mountain behind. Still, there was no way we were getting in to reinforce the defenders.

Garevel and the army arrived a few hours after dawn; they must have set out as soon as Elizabeth had ordered. We’d been watching, hidden in the trees a long way off. Arrows constantly flew between the defenders and the attackers. The walls were holding strong, but the gates… though they’d been forged by dwarves, it seemed these ogres were even stronger than before, and their armour was thick. I only saw one ogre fall to arrows all morning. Must have been Sergeant Maverlies; she always was an excellent sniper. Velanna’s spells did more, but I only saw them sparingly. She must have been conserving her strength. Knowing her, she’d have fought too hard the day before. But anyway the gates were dented and rattling; we could hear it from here. The defenders probably hadn’t slept for all that din.

“What are your orders, Commander?” Garavel asked. “Confronting them without the cover of walls is suicide.”

“I agree,” Elizabeth said. “But those gates are going to fall within the next few minutes. When that happens, we must disrupt their assault. Their army is not so great that we can’t press through and reach the inner keep to reinforce the others, especially if they see us and make a sortie.”

“A lot of men are going to die, Commander.”

“I know,” she said, and her blue eyes were unreadable in the morning light. “But the darkspawn will drive us from Amaranthine step by step if we do not have the keep and that I cannot allow. Ready the soldiers. Anders! Stay close to me, I’ll protect you. And you’ll be in a good position to do some damage.” She turned to the soldiers. “One more battle, brave warriors! Stay close together and do not fear, neither darkspawn nor death!”

They did not cheer – they were tired, and it would have given away our position. But under the spell of her words, they stood straighter, gripped their weapons harder. We formed up on the edge of the forest, waiting with grimly beating hearts for the gates to crack, to join our comrades in the castle in their struggle.

As Elizabeth predicted, the gates only lasted a few more minutes before the sustained battering caved them in for good; the darkspawn howled in triumph and began to push forward. But Elizabeth and her army roared in defiance, charging across the open plain before the castle to win the door.

We took the darkspawn completely by surprise, their forces completely out of position to deal with us. All was blood and teeth and noise and blades and confusion, but we held together, pushing through their lines. Yes, they were most thickly clustered right where we wanted to go… but that made things easier for Anders. And Velanna, up on the walls, saw him and cast her spells to capitalize on his. I waved to her with one of my swords; amazingly, she saw me and waved back. Had she been looking for me in the crowd?

There was an answering roar from inside the castle, and the defenders began to push back outwards, not just trying to weather the darkspawn charge. I could see the bright steel helmets behind the darkspawn. We might make it yet.

 

She lunged and blocked and stabbed, ever mindful of the half-panicking mage behind her, trying to watch all directions at once, trying to keep her men away from the ogres, and the ogres where they could be shot or magicked. The enemy was fighting viciously, but confused, each one lunging for the first human it saw, uncertain whether to attack forwards or backwards. But she was driving forwards, towards the safety of the gate, and they were almost there, she could almost reach her beleaguered men.

“Hold fast!” she heard Varel calling. “Andraste’s blood! Bring them in, good boys! Bring the Warden-Commander in!”

“Ogre!” she heard someone scream then, saw the ogre within the gate charge, broke through the melee just in time to see Varel caught head-on in that charge, knocked back by a mighty blow.

Maker, no! She screamed and hacked one last hurlock out of her way, heedless of all else around her, racing to his side. The ogre was winding up for another blow on the prone man; she slashed its leg and it redirected its punch towards her with a bellow. She dodge-rolled around it, slashing its other leg, swift and fierce, caught up in mindless vengeful wrath.

The ogre turned to face her, backhanded her; foolishly, she tried to block instead of ducking and was hurled back towards the wall. She tumbled head-over-heels before skidding to her knees, getting a foot beneath herself to charge back towards the monster. Charging forward, only focused on the attack, on stabbing her sword into its gut, she was taken completely by surprise when she felt a yank and her feet leaving the ground.

It had seized her, carrying her into the air in a crushing grip. She could feel her armour collapsing, could feel her ribcage about to snap – or at least imagined she did. It raised her to its face and roared deafeningly, spattering globs of spit at her.

She screamed back defiantly and stabbed forward with all her strength, Starfang plunging through flesh and skull and brain, lightning cracking like a thunderburst.

The ogre swayed and fell forward, losing its grip on her at the last second; she went rolling away, but it lay still and did not come after her. Nathaniel was at her side, helping her up frantically.

But her only thought was for her seneschal. “Varel!” She tore herself away from Nathaniel’s helping hand and dashed towards the fallen man, throwing herself down on her knees at his side. “Var- Gideon! Are you all right? Speak to me!”

His breathing was shallow and rasping, and his face was white and clammy. Not good. “Anders! Anders, where are you? Gideon!”

His eyelids fluttered open. “You… made it, Commander. Just… in time. Have we won?”

“Anders, get over here! Hold on, Gideon, just hold on-”

He gave a tiny shake of his head. “My spine… I can’t feel my legs. Broken ribs… lung gone… I’m not going to make it… Elizabeth.”

Eyes wide in denial began to water despite her commands not to. She clutched his hand, squeezing it tightly through their gloves. “No, that- you already took an arrow for me, I don’t want to- I- Don’t leave me now!”

“My very dear girl… Elizabeth… you already saved me once. It has been… an honour to serve you.”

Anders was finally there behind her, but all she heard was a very quiet “Oh hell” from him and knew that Varel had been right.

“Fight them… with everything… you have,” Varel rasped, almost inaudibly. “Save… Amaranthine.”

“I will. Oh, I will!” She choked on tears as she leaned forward, putting her arms about him and kissing his cheek. “Rest easy, Gideon. I’ll watch over Amaranthine for you.”

She felt a slight sigh and knew that he was gone. She pulled herself away, stumbled to her feet – she couldn’t fight, her legs were shaking, hands shaking, she could hardly stand, and she couldn’t see… She couldn’t fight in this condition, and her men needed her. She angrily ripped one of her gloves off to smear the tears out of her eyes and found Garevel and Justice standing before her. “Commander, the Keep is ours. The darkspawn are retreating.”

Nathaniel stepped in between them with a look of compassion for her. “Commander, take a minute. I can take stock of the situation.”

Oh, Andraste’s grace. She needed it. “Thank you, Nathaniel.” She couldn’t think straight, could hardly react to anything around her. Maker, this was shameful in a Commander. But she couldn’t control it, not now. Varel…

Varel was dead, and the fact still hadn’t even fully sunk in yet.

“Send someone to track the darkspawn,” Nathaniel was ordering behind her, dimly half-heard. “They’re broken and diminished. Don’t let them know they’re being followed, just let us know where they’ve gone.”

She stumbled wearily into the great hall, up to the dais where a day before she’d led her forces away so proudly. It was full of soldiers and servants now, those who had prepared for a last stand just in case. They made way for her but she hardly saw them, collapsing at last beside the throne that she never used, leaning against it as if she had no strength left in her. She heard footsteps and glanced up through blurred vision; blonde hair, small stature, and green clothes meant Velanna. “I’m sorry,” was all the woman said, shockingly gentle, before turning away again.

How long she sat, weeping and grieving, she wasn’t sure, but it was too long. Varel wasn’t the only one who’d died in this battle. She wasn’t the only person to have lost someone dear to her. But he had been like a father to her- and with that thought, she was off again, useless for at least ten minutes more.

Someone settled a blanket around her shoulders, and she looked up to see Oghren and Elra. Oghren said nothing, only plunked himself down on the steps near her and taking a pull from his flask. Elra sat gracefully beside her and put her arms about her.

“I can’t fulfill my duty in this state,” Elizabeth whispered hoarsely, with a gigantic sniff. “What sort of leader am I?”

“Only a truly heartless person would not grieve at the loss of a loved one,” Elra murmured. “You cannot go on without time to breathe. …He was good to me. Good to us all. We love you, Lady Elizabeth. You are not alone.”

She thought it was true, now that Elra said it. She could feel it from everyone else in the hall, or imagined she could, that they were with her, supporting her. If she hadn’t been grieving, they would have been repulsed. And Nathaniel was capable of substituting for her for a short time. It was all right. Wasn’t it? It was all right.

 

Dinner came, and she couldn’t eat. She forced herself to – she’d be weak as a tadpole the next day if she didn’t take in some form of energy, but she was more than half afraid she’d simply vomit it up later. She went to bed soon after, and she couldn’t sleep, though her eyes burned and her head was heavy as lead and her limbs and ribs ached.

If she’d been faster. If she’d been stronger. If Varel hadn’t been so far forward. If she’d gotten Anders to attack that ogre first.

The past couldn’t be changed. Varel was dead. All she had to do now was avenge him. And if the scouts did their job, her chance would be soon.

Unable to sleep, liable to drown on her own tears blocking up her nose, she got up to pace. And to have a drink of wine. And to pace, until the tears and the shaking slowed and she lay back down again, and this time could close her eyes, if not rest.

She rose, uncertain whether she had slept or not, when the sky turned light and the first birds began to chirp outside her window. She put on clothes and armour and went for the door.

Gemmet stood there, hand raised to knock, and jumped as she opened the door first. “Yes, Gemmet?”

“Ser Nathaniel says the scouts have returned, my lady. They’ve found the darkspawn.”

 

Drake’s Fall. The most charming side of Amaranthine.

That was sarcasm.

It had taken us – all of the Grey Wardens but Anders and Justice, led by Elizabeth – most of the day to get to this place, and it was already falling dark as we approached the low barren hills. We could have set off earlier, but there had been so much to do in the morning, continuing last night’s damage assessment and repair work, and figuring out who to bring and who to stay. In the end, the army had been left behind. There were undoubtedly many darkspawn ahead of us still, but they would be in disarray. And our army was also in disarray, in no shape to fight anything, setting to work barricading the fallen gate. It might have been reckless, but Elizabeth and I had decided the best course of action was to bring only Grey Wardens and leave the rest to recover. And to leave Anders to help heal the wounded and to protect them if darkspawn attacked again, and Justice with him. Anders was content to be left behind.

How Elizabeth was still standing, I wasn’t sure. She had been so wrought by grief the day before she hadn’t eaten more than a mouthful, and I was positive she hadn’t slept all night. She was young, certainly, better able to bounce back from physical stresses, but somehow she’d found a reserve of emotional strength, too, and marched ahead of us with an air of desperate calm. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a darkspawn who got in her way.

Moon-bathed white bones rose about us as we entered the High dragon graveyard. There was an old Tevinter tower at the centre of it, and that was our destination. Beyond that, the scouts had not gone, reporting that there was in fact a dragon nearby. We were well on our guard for it. I hadn’t fought a High dragon before. Some drakes, once, a small young dragon, but never a fully matured one. I’d gathered that the Archdemon was rather like a dragon, so at least Oghren and Elizabeth had some experience with the beasts.

And there it was, its broad wings blotting out the light of the moon as it wheeled around. We tried to hide in the shadow of a cliff, but it was too late – it had seen us, and was diving to attack.

But there were six of us, and soon it learned that we were not to be trifled with, experience or no. It gave a roar of discontent and swung away, wings driving at the air, and vanished into the night. Recovering our breath, we continued on, to the door of the tower. A wide stair spiraled both up and down, with seemingly little variation. We set off downwards.

The stairs wound on, and on, wide enough for two to walk abreast but not quite tall enough for me to stand straight. It didn’t bother the rest, and I didn’t suppose it bothered the taller darkspawn either, used to stooping through narrow tunnels as they were.

On and on. Would it never end? We must have been walking for twenty minutes and yet the stairs never varied. Why had the Tevinter built this?

At last, there was an arched door and the blasted stairs came to a halt in front of it. Sigrun pushed the door open and gasped. The area beyond it was a vast cavern, so huge I could hardly see the further wall, though the place was dimly lit I knew not how. Around us were ruins of Tevinter design, and beyond in the gloom I could faintly see other towers just like the one we had just descended. At least I could stretch my legs and back now.

A shadowy figure was waiting for us, and as we stepped forward, it came to meet us. “I’m glad to see that you are well, sister.”

Velanna gasped and ran to her, though she stopped short of hugging her. “Seranni! Oh, thank Mythal you’re still alive.” She pressed a hand to her heart in a gesture of relief, then flung both arms towards her sister. “Now tell me, why are you with the darkspawn man – the Architect? You never said, and I don’t understand.”

The sick woman smiled. “The Architect is kind to me, and tender, and he has told me his plan. The darkspawn are just like us. The Architect has freed them, and they search for a place in this world, just like the Dalish are searching. Everything he’s done, he’s done to help his people.” She sounded so earnest, and yet… could she have been manipulated? But she was with this Architect constantly, she must have some insight into his plans. “You can respect that, can’t you, Velanna?”

Velanna’s brows drew together in distress. “But do you believe him? Seranni, they killed our friends, and so many others. Don’t you remember?”

The other elf nodded, smiling. “I do, and this is why I must help them. They are like children – come into the world with no understand of what is good and fair. They have a bestial nature, but I’ve seen them overcome it. They just need to be shown how.”

Elizabeth laughed bitterly, but said nothing.

Seranni glanced at her, but turned back to Velanna. “The Architect is waiting for me, and for you. He will explain everything. You will see as I have seen.” She turned and ran ahead of us into the gloom.

Velanna started after her. “No! Don’t go!” She turned to Elizabeth. “We must follow her!”

Elizabeth considered for a moment. “As good a plan as any. Lead on.”

It was true, it could be a trap. But somehow, it didn’t seem likely. Seranni was sick, it was clear, and yet her mind seemed alert. Overly fond of the Architect, yet not insane. She wouldn’t knowingly lead her sister to her death.

The path led to another tower, and we headed down again; this one was wider and had high ceilings. She wasn’t waiting for us at the bottom, and we paused there briefly, before Sigrun gave a cry and pointed upwards. The Architect was standing on a landing above us, the dwarf woman at his side, watching us impassively. “And so we meet again.” The dwarf woman drew her sword, a nasty snarl on her face. But the Architect held out a pacifying hand before her. “No, Utha. That is not how this must begin.” He stepped off the balcony, floating through the air down to our level, stopping before Elizabeth, who stared back at him murderously from within her helm, her own sword in hand. “I owe you an apology, Commander. Our last meeting… did not go well.”

“Understatement of the year,” I muttered.

“If you think my hatred of you has changed, you would be severely mistaken,” Elizabeth growled.

The Architect spread his hands. “I only wish to prevent further misunderstanding with you and the rest of your order.”

“A ‘misunderstanding’?” Velanna asked. “Did you not attack the Grey Wardens?”

“I sent the Withered to ask for the Grey Wardens’ help, as I said.”

Elizabeth made a sharp movement. “You murdered the Orlesian Grey Wardens.”

The Architect shook his head. “The Grey Wardens that were brought to me were already dead. I took their blood just as I took yours, because I had little choice. Things had not gone as I planned. I only ask that you hear me out one more time.”

“You most certainly had a choice in taking my blood!” Elizabeth cried, her stance ready to spring.

Velanna jumped forward with a hand on Elizabeth’s sword arm. “Wait! Please! Seranni trusts him. We can at least listen to him.”

Elizabeth hissed but lowered her sword. “Speak quickly.”

The Architect bowed his head graciously. “I cannot defeat the Mother alone, and I cannot free the darkspawn unless she is defeated. Our goals are the same. Whatever you think of my past actions, I offer you this, with no tricks or conditions. Afterwards, I shall leave you to continue my work without disturbing you further, if you wish. Or we can discuss a further alliance, if you are not wholly against the idea.”

“This is what my sister saw!” Velanna exclaimed. “An ally, amongst the darkspawn! This is an opportunity we cannot pass up.”

“So he can raise an army of intelligent darkspawn to rule, aye?” Oghren grunted.

“I do not seek to rule my brethren,” the Architect protested in his slow voice like wind in dry reeds. “I only seek to release them from their chains.”

“And what makes you think they want to be free?” Elizabeth demanded.

“How would they know, when the choice has been deprived them? Without choice, there is only one path before them and that leads to the Blight. I believe there is another way. I am not evil, or mindless, or cruel. I wish for peace as much as you do.”

“So you say,” Elizabeth said grimly. “Stealing the blood of the Wardens is monstrous.”

“I thought it little different from your order’s use of darkspawn blood. We both do what we must in response to the Blight. The first blood came from Utha, freely given. She was a Grey Warden, as you are, and joined us… many years ago.”

“This is the right thing to do,” Velanna said earnestly. “Seranni believes it, and I do too.”

“I am with her,” I said, and was rewarded with a grateful look from Velanna. “What he says… I have thought about what he said before, and it makes sense. And I am not one to deny second chances,” I muttered, and saw Elizabeth’s eyes narrow.

Sigrun turned to Elizabeth and Velanna. “I vote we take the deal. Not that I’m fond of darkspawn, but it’ll relieve some of the pressure off Orzammar, right?”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea, but I’ll go along with everyone else,” Oghren said.

Elizabeth wouldn’t meet any of our eyes, glaring at the flagstones. Thinking hard. Trying to overcome her long-held prejudices? Prejudices that were not without basis?

But this was the best thing to do, the right thing to do. “Elizabeth,” I said softly.

“Fine!” she spat, and Velanna jumped. “Fine, if all of you together think so, so shall it be! I am not so petty. But hear me,” she growled at the Architect. “If any more of your ‘experiments’ go mad and start causing trouble, you will inform me of it, or I will not be merciful.”

“You will not regret this alliance,” the Architect began to say, but she had swung around towards me and Velanna again.

“Since this is your idea, you can take responsibility for any backlash. My priority is on those who live in Ferelden.” As in, not the darkspawn.

“Understood,” I said, but smiled at Velanna. Elizabeth wouldn’t go back on her word once she gave it.

“What now?” she demanded of the Architect.

The Architect gestured to the path ahead. “I cannot approach the Mother physically; wards and the Children protect her. But when you reach her, I will do whatever I can to help you. You have my promise.”

Elizabeth took a long look at him, then headed for the exit, her eyes still fixed on him until she reached the door. Only then did she turn her back on him and head across the clifftops to the last tower ahead of us, jogging out into the open space.

Darkspawn were waiting for her, gibbering multitudes of the remnants of their army. Her sword blazed as she raised it. “Well, let’s end this, then!” And she was off, Oghren, and Sigrun behind her. I hadn’t spent many arrows yet, but that was about to change. I hoped I had enough. Beside me, Velanna raised her staff and her arms, and a great tornado of fire appeared from high above us and slammed down into the darkspawn, taking out at least one ogre in its furiously swirling flames. “I suppose I should thank you.”

“For what, my lady?” I asked, picking off a Children worm trying to flank Oghren.

“For taking my part back there. I don’t suppose anyone else really believes the Architect is sincere.”

“Do you?”

“Seranni does, and that’s enough for me.” She cast again, a black miasma manifesting over a cluster of genlocks. “Do you actually, or were you just trying to get on my good side?”

“No, I believe he is sincere. But I understand why the others do not, completely. Grey Wardens are supposed to fight the darkspawn, after all.” I glanced over at her, daring to take my eyes off the battle. “I care for you, Velanna, as you know well. But I wouldn’t go against my own values simply to ingratiate myself with you.”

She shot a glance back at me before we both returned our attention to protecting Elizabeth and the dwarves. “Hmph. Do I know it?”

There was a slight smile playing around my lips. “Give me my own chance, my lady. I think I can prove my sincerity a bit more easily than the Architect.”

“Good luck then,” she grumbled, and I chuckled. “No, I know what you mean. I… Fenehdis! Ogre!” Warned by her scream, I jumped forward, spinning to re-aim at the ogre that had somehow climbed up behind us. She was already trying to pin it with stones, what few roots were available down here, anything. There wasn’t much, and it smashed through the barrier she had raised easily… and then she clonked it in the head with a flying rock. It reeled back with a howl, and I shot it with two arrows through the mouth. We both hopped backwards as it fell forwards, nearly flattening us.

“Nice catch,” I said.

“Nice shot,” she answered, glaring as if she wanted me to be sure that she didn’t like complimenting me, not really. I smiled back, then readied my bow for the battle ahead.

But Elizabeth had that well in hand, and as I watched, she knocked a genlock from the cliff’s edge with her shield. “What were you going to say before the ogre interrupted us?” I asked Velanna.

“Nothing,” she said, quite quickly.

I shrugged. “Very well, then. Though keep in mind either of us might fall facing the Mother…”

She snorted. “I’m not rising to your bait.”

My spirits were rising the closer we got to the end, and I couldn’t help teasing her. “So you do have something.”

She jabbed with a sharp elbow. “Shut up, Howe.”

“As my lady wishes.” I captured her hand in mine as Elizabeth turned to wave us on, and she didn’t pull away.

Elizabeth saw, and her grim expression eased a little. She was still angry, her feelings on the darkspawn more stubbornly set than the rest of us, unwilling to accept our decision as the correct one, I could see. But she could still be happy for us.

The last tower was immensely long again, and deposited us at the edge of an underground lake. And there was the monster we sought, a massive blob with a human female torso sticking out of the top. Before her was a swarm of Children worms which charged at us terrifyingly fast; Oghren roared and charged back, heedless of those rending claws.

When they were gone, Elizabeth stepped forward cautiously towards the Mother, but before she had made up her mind to attack, the monster cackled and spoke. “Now the pieces fall into place! The Grey Wardens come, instruments of the Father! Oh, and the Father, he is but a shadow! Oh, how my children protect me! How they love me!”

A ghostly figure shimmered in the air to our left. “I have told you many times, Mother, I am not ‘the Father’. I am simply the Architect.”

The broodmother pointed at him viciously. “It does not change what you are! You took away that beautiful music! Left us with nothing!”

Perhaps Elizabeth wasn’t wrong about the darkspawn not wanting to gain sapience. The Architect sighed heavily. “It was a mistake to free you. It has left you with madness. I am truly sorry.”

“Ah, but has he told you who is responsible for the last Blight?” shrieked the Mother. “Do you know who started it? It was him!”

“He told us,” Oghren said. “So what? You’ve still got to go. You’re the one who attacked Amaranthine with a sodding army!”

“I am sorry for that as well, as I have said,” the Architect said. “It was not my intention to bring yet greater suffering to the surface-dwellers.”

“Pretty words mean nothing without actions behind them,” Elizabeth reminded him coldly. “And if you are trying to use me as a pawn I won’t stand for it.”

“All I ask is a small measure of trust, which I will return tenfold, Commander.”

“And how lonely the Father was,” the Mother said, snickering dementedly. “How terrible to be the outcast, the outsider! He wants to be ‘friends’ with you! He claims he wishes the darkspawn to be free. What he truly wants is to ‘correct’ them!” Well, if that ‘correction’ meant they stopped attacking everything, stopped hunting for Archdemons, I was all right with that. It was no more cruel than a monarchy issuing an edict, except the Architect had no interest in ruling. Or so he said.

“Enough bickering,” Velanna said, which was a bit rich coming from her. “Let’s finish our task here.”

“However you feel about what I have done, the Mother is mad. She cannot be allowed to-”

“Begone, shadow! You cannot harm the Mother any more than you already have!” She flung out a hand and the Architect vanished with a poof. She turned to us and leered. “And now our heroes are alone. Oh, the Mother knows your ways. You will not let her be, oh no… not after what she’s done. So it must end, it all must come crashing down! Perhaps we will hear the song again when we die. Oh, let it come! Let it come!” She lifted her eyes upwards, spreading her arms in a wild exultance, then glared at us suddenly, shrieking, the skin of her face peeling away horrifically.

Tentacles erupted from the ground, shooting towards us, but Elizabeth was already in flight, face hard as stone, blue eyes blazing with determination, sword crackling with power. With a defiant yell she reached the Mother and stabbed.

She was beautiful, a warrior with the fierce, noble heart of a dragon, and she had my loyalty until the end, whenever that may be. And the rest of us were behind her, united in purpose and spirit. It seemed we’d never had such coordination before. Oghren set to work chopping apart tentacles before they could hit us, Velanna hit the Mother with a combination of curses and stone projectiles, Sigrun was looping around to hit the Mother from behind, and I was shooting for the Mother’s heart, or where it would be in a human. And Elizabeth… Elizabeth was unstoppable.

Even when the Mother’s tentacles knocked away Velanna’s stones, when her back mounted claws swatted my arrows, when Sigrun was picked up and hurled into Oghren, knocking them both down, she was still charging forward, dodging tentacles. Velanna was ambushed by a stray pair of worms, knocked to the ground, and I turned, drawing my swords and preventing them from wounding her. Even as I dispatched the second one, I felt a weight on my back and the points of little insectoid feet, and my face met the ground. Velanna took a mere glance and blasted it off me with a fireball, helping me up quickly.

Elizabeth had reached the broodmother and was climbing now, showing no hesitation or repulsion at its hideous sagging flesh or the multitude of enormous breasts under her hands, coming face-to-face with the monster’s human body. Even as tentacles shot towards her to seize her, beat her down, crush her, some mysterious force seemed to hold the monster back, and she impaled the Mother through the chest, driving Starfang deep with both hands.

The Mother shrieked and jerked spasmodically, lightning playing over her bloated body. Elizabeth wrenched her sword back and jumped backwards, landing squarely before the Mother. The scream trailed off into a wail, and the Mother slowly wilted forwards, her limbs going slack and the flesh hanging loosely from her face. A last twitch of her claws and she was still, a massive already-putrid corpse.

Elizabeth cleaned and sheathed her sword with swift movements and turned away, head held high and proud, striding for the exit without looking back. Velanna set the body on fire and followed.

 

We had to camp part of the way back, too exhausted to make it all the way back in one trip. It had been a frantic three days – the attack on Amaranthine, the attack on Vigil’s Keep, the attack on Drake’s Fall… I was ready to sleep for several days on end. And now the darkspawn threat was greatly diminished, we had the luxury of doing that.

At last, we saw the mountain and the Keep rising below it. Garevel turned out an honour guard for us. But at the head of it was a young man both broad and tall, with a boyish face and a soft scruff of blond facial hair. “Elizabeeeeth!”

Elizabeth stopped short, then ran forward. “Alistair!” Her face was lit up in a way it hadn’t been for some time, and it warmed my heart. And this was the famous Alistair Theirin, was it? I was looking forward to meeting him… even though he might hate me at first.

They met and he enfolded her in a bear hug. “I haven’t seen you in forever! How have you been? Oh, what a foolish question. I got the short version from Captain Garevel. I’m just glad to see you alive.”

“A-Alistair, when did you arrive? Why have you been away so long?”

“Last night, late. I was a bit worried when I saw the gates had been broken, but wow! I love what you’ve done with the place. Er. I mean what Master Glavonak has done with the place.”

Elizabeth actually giggled. “He did a marvelous job, yes.”

“And I’ve been gathering recruits. I’m sorry to hear we lost all the Orlesian Wardens… I learned a lot from them while they were here, and I was hoping to learn more…”

“I as well. But we have some Wardens. …Including Oghren.”

“Yes… I’d heard about that. My condolences.”

“Hey!” Oghren growled in his direction, but he was grinning. “Speak for yourself, nughumper!”

Elizabeth laughed again, near-hysterically. “Oh, Alistair… I’m weary to the bone. Let’s go inside where I can sit and eat and you can tell me everything.”

“And you can tell me everything, riiiight?”

“Yes, yes.” She walked past him, nodding to the honour guard, waving the rest of us after her.

In the courtyard, Alistair’s recruits were waiting, and Elizabeth stopped short again. “Sarah! Rain! Hannah!”

A trio of women broke away from the cluster to greet her. “Surprise, Lady Elizabeth!” said the human mage among them. “We decided to join you!”

“We’ve had some adventures, decided to settle down,” said the dwarf.

The elf snorted. “Hardly. And with this place in the shape it is, seems like we have some work ahead of us.”

Elizabeth smiled widely at them all. “I’m happy to see you all again. Thank you for coming.”

“And your lover?” the mage-girl whispered loudly. “Is he okay?”

“As far as I know,” Elizabeth said, her face growing more subdued momentarily. “I haven’t heard from him in a little while. But he’s been well, yes.” She couldn’t hold back a smile at the thought of him, and it warmed all our hearts.

Alistair had been looking at all of us who followed Elizabeth, and his eyes narrowed at me. “Howe!”

“Er, yes?” I asked.

“Elizabeth, you did know that this is the son of Rendon Howe, right? I’d recognize that nose anywhere! What are you doing with him?”

“Nathaniel is a true and loyal friend,” she answered, frowning mildly at Alistair. “I’ll tell you the same thing I told my brother: he is not his father. I couldn’t have made it this far without him.” She glanced at me, and I read gratitude in her glance.

Alistair pouted suspiciously at me. “I don’t believe you.”

“I’m too tired to care,” she said, and went towards the gate. “I’ll introduce everyone properly inside.”

“Everything has been prepared, Commander,” Garevel said. “There’s not much available for a celebration, but I imagine a surplus of alcohol and good cheer will set that to rights.”

“Good,” she said. “Tell-” and stopped short and swallowed.

There was an awkward pause, until it became clear she was struggling to hold back tears. Alistair saw it, and took her gently by the arm. “Food, you said? I like food. Do you have cheese? I’ve been dying for a bit of cheese these last three weeks, you know. Slogging along the north road, hardly a tavern to be found…”

She leaned on him like a brother. “I’m glad you’re back, Alistair.”