|The Widening Gyre
Author: MLoreley85 PM
A Blight threatens all of Ferelden, and Evelyn Amell bears the burden of driving the darkspawn out of her land. Despite having others at her side to share her burden- including Alistair, the only other Grey Warden in Ferelden- she feels her center come undone. (Amell/Alistair, with Cousland OC)Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Romance/Fantasy - Amell & Alistair - Chapters: 5 - Words: 20,236 - Reviews: 8 - Favs: 4 - Follows: 6 - Updated: 03-02-13 - Published: 01-19-13 - id: 8924761
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The Widening Gyre
Chapter Five: Lake Calenhad
AN: A BIG thank you to everyone who's read and reviewed! I can't reply to anonymous reviews, but thank you all the same, it's brought a smile to my face! And thank you to Persephone Chiara for brainstorming with me and lending me her Rhiannon Cousland for this story.
The salty smell of Lake Calenhad filled the air as the party began their approach through the ruins long ago abandoned by the ancient Avvars. Evelyn recalled what she read of the barbarian tribes, and gazing on the fallen columns and wreckage, she felt a pang of loss; their history was still only half-understood, even by those living in Kinloch Hold- the fortress they constructed with the aid of dwarves. Now, the stones at their feet were all that remained.
Even the Tevinter influence could be felt, as she shifted her attention to the Imperial Highway. Or at least, what remained of it. The road had fallen into such disrepair that large chunks of the structure had simply fallen away, crumbled to the ground beneath it or tumbled into the lake itself. There was little reason to repair it nowadays; after all, the less opportunities the mages had to escape the tower, the better.
Above the ruins and the trees still obscuring her view, the jutting spire of the tower cut into the night sky, sharp and ominous. The sight stirred the dread in her gut, and she resisted the urge to turn and flee. Seeing the pale, grim faces of her companions, Evelyn wondered if she wasn't the only one getting the urge.
Even the perpetually stone-faced Qunari, devoted singularly to his own strength of character and resilience, looked uncomfortable as they worked their way closer to the tower. His already greyed complexion was turning ashen with every step, and if Evelyn peered closely, she could see the tiny beading of sweat on his brow.
"How are you holding up?" Evelyn asked of Sten before she could stop herself. The sound of her worry hung in the cold air between them, and was received just as warmly. He stared down at her, calm but stern.
"I am well enough. Do not concern yourself needlessly with me," he replied stiffly.
"Funny, because when I look at you, I'm not seeing someone who's doing very well," she pointed out, not content to be rebuffed so quickly. "You're not making a fuss about it, but Sten, you look ill."
"For one so shriveled and pale, you have little room to comment on how ill others appear to be," Sten answered more snappishly than he intended.
"Perhaps not," Evelyn sighed, feeling him shove back against her attempt to address whatever it was bothering him. Suddenly, she lit on an idea, a fragment of something he'd mentioned before. "But, wasn't this where you were last with your comrades? In that battle with the darkspawn?"
If the tall man had been pale before, he might have gone sheet white at that. Now, he regarded her with a glare that could have cleaved her in two had it been a tangible weapon. "I see your memory is not as faulty as your sense of decency."
"I apologize, Sten. I did not mean to rub salt in a wound." She shook her head, mentally kicking herself for having brought the subject up so bluntly. "I only meant, this cannot be easy for you. You've already endured so much just traveling with me, and have done so unquestioningly. In fact, this is the first I've seen you hesitate even slightly."
He thought over her words, glowering. "It is my shame that you see any hesitation." He let out the air from his lungs in a drawn out expression of exasperation at himself. "Do not let my weakness inform your actions."
"It is not weakness to be pained by loss," Evelyn insisted, folding her fingers together thoughtfully. "And you lost much here. I could never fault you for being overwhelmed by your return here."
"Do not project your discomfort onto others. It will not disperse your anxiety. You are merely seeking companionship in your fear." Sten frowned even further, which Evelyn had not thought possible. "I am not afraid, so do not attempt to corral me in with your failures."
"I am not-" Evelyn stopped herself, closing her mouth on her protest. He wasn't entirely wrong in suggesting that she was projecting a bit more than she meant to. "Alright, so you have a point. I'm sorry. You're not me. In fact, that's a very good thing, because you're so much more resolute than I am. Your strength inspires courage."
Sten fell silent again, not prepared for her to agree with him. His dealing with the humans so far had painted them a pitiable and dishonest lot, unable to come to terms with their own weaknesses. At least this saarebas could recognize the truth when she heard it... sometimes, anyway.
Evelyn measured his silence in steps, the other party members too absorbed in their own conversations to interrupt hers. Though, she noted with a faint smile, Alistair kept glancing back during his chat with Rhiannon, checking on her, and quickly looking away if he caught Evelyn returning his gaze. She focused on Sten again, smiling entreatingly. "Do you want to talk about what happened here?"
She sighed, "Then do you mind indulging me anyway? I've found that giving voice to your nightmares often helps make them seem much smaller than when you keep them inside."
He made several bitter strides without a single word, before closing his eyes in thought. "As you know, I was not sent here alone. Several of the Beresaad were with me as I came to seek answers about the Blight. We saw no signs of the threat we'd been sent to observe, traveling through the countryside... Until we camped by Lake Calenhad."
The more he spoke, Evelyn noted, the more his stony facade melted away. As he relived the experience, his strange eyes went distant, his voice tightened, he grew paler. "They came from everywhere. The earth beneath our feet, the air above us, our own shadows harbored the darkspawn. I saw the last of the creatures cut down, too late. I fell."
Evelyn shuddered. "That sounds very familiar. I encountered them up close while we'd explored the Korcari Wilds. As you said, they burst from the ground, no warning, as though born from the darkest recesses of our mind and given form. When they poured from the forest at Ostagar that night... I still can't fathom the full scope of how many there were."
"I heard the stories of Ostagar. Your kith stood their ground when others fled. No one can do more than that." Sten nodded his approval, before retreating to his memories again. "I don't know how long I lay on the battlefield among the dead, nor do I know how the farmers found me. But when I awoke, my sword was not in my hands, and I was no longer among my brothers; instead, I was surrounded by foreigners who regarded me with as much fear as they did pity."
"And that's when you attacked them?" Evelyn asked softly, resisting her instinct to put her hand to his arm consolingly.
"I did. I'd inquired after my sword, but they hadn't seen it. And in my rage, I killed them. With my bare hands." He shook his head at himself, disgusted. "I knew they didn't have the blade. They had no reason to lie to me. I struck them down in my panic."
"That's... terrible!" Evelyn breathed. She knew he'd killed eight people, including children. At the time, she'd seen only his penance, his eagerness to die for his sins. Even conceding his confusion, his anger, she couldn't conceal her shock at his actions.
"I know," he frowned with remorse. "I cannot justify what I have done. My honor is forfeit."
"This was over a sword?" Evelyn asked, trying to keep her nerves from shaking her voice.
"That sword was made for my hand alone," he explained sharply. "I know you would not understand; you are no warrior, you are only saarebas. But what I lost that day was not only a weapon, it was a part of myself. No warrior would cast away his weapon unless he were a coward. I could not return in such disgrace."
Two thoughts connected in her head at once, lighting up in sparks. Sorrow suddenly overwhelmed her. "You didn't kill them because of the sword... Sten, you couldn't be responsible for the darkspawn attack, or what they took from you. You can always go home again, surely they would understand that your sword and your brothers in the Beresaad were lost because of the darkspawn?"
Sten sneered at her. "Even if I could return to the Arishok to bring my report to the him, I would be slain on sight. They would know me as soulless, as a deserter. That I live would be proof enough of my desertion."
Evelyn's hands went over her mouth, and she had to fight tears- Sten would not appreciate tears on his behalf. "So you couldn't return home. In one fell swoop, the darkspawn took everything from you... Oh Sten, I'm so sorry."
"...Thank you." He murmured softly, not entirely willing to accept her pity.
"The darkspawn rip away all we hold dear," Evelyn said, more to herself than to Sten. "I have lost my brethren as well, Sten. And before you say it is not the same, you are right- I did not know my Grey Warden brothers as well as you knew your Beresaad. But they were the first place I've felt welcomed, where I felt a higher purpose in my life." Her hands shook as she let them fall to her side.
Sten regarded her curiously, uncertain what to make of the tiny woman. It wasn't pity she was offering him; she was sharing in his grief. He hadn't thought humans, much less a saarebas, capable of trying to understand him or his people. They'd always reacted with fear, with loathing. His regret at killing the farmers and their children had not been only the loss of life, but his own weakness at having lost control of himself. Even only briefly, he'd turned from his teachings in the Qun, and it left a wound that still bled.
His lips tightened as the thought sank in. She'd seen that wound without him expressing it; this whole conversation had been her attempt to patch it. Clumsily, perhaps, and ignorant of what the wound truly was. But she had been right; talking about what had been gnawing away at him helped to abate the power it had over him. He kept a smile from forming.
She turned from her thoughts to look up at him. "So, you lost your weapon somewhere in this area, correct?"
He caught her meaning. "If I knew where to look, it would already be in my hands," he snapped.
She beamed to him despite his sharpness of tone. "It's as good a starting place as any to begin looking for your sword. I promise you, Sten, we will find it. I may not be able to help you as much as I wish I could, but I will not let you be kept from your people because of the darkspawn."
"Perhaps those words are empty," he began defensively, uncomfortable with the warmth in her voice when she spoke to him. "But... thank you all the same."
"No, thank you, Sten, for trusting me with all that," she grinned.
"With all of what?" Cutting into the brief moment of understanding between the mage and the Qunari, Alistair had fallen back until he stood in the middle of them.
"Oh, if you want to know, you'll have to ask him, Alistair," Evelyn giggled. "I'm not really at liberty to say."
Alistair pouted. "I thought you said no secrets between us, Evelyn! This isn't very no-secrety of you!"
"Ah, but this isn't my secret. It's not even really a secret, come to think. But just like I would not ask Morrigan about what you were like as a child, you should not be asking me about Sten's past." Evelyn shrugged.
"If you want an idea of what he was like as a child, just think of him now," Rhiannon suggested teasingly over her shoulder. "Only smaller, probably louder, and whinier."
"Heeey!" Alistair protested. "I mean, you're probably right, but heeey!"
Evelyn laughed, engaging with her people again, breaking the connection between her and Sten in full. He didn't truly mind; he would do the same, should he find others of his kin. And, truly, it only reinforced what he already knew; she would never fully come to know him. This saarebas was an unchained danger to herself and those around her, and would never submit to the Qun- he saw too much of the fire in her eyes to believe otherwise. She would always defer to the weaknesses of her kind.
But he did not doubt her sincerity when she swore she would help him.
"So, we're getting awfully close, huh?" Alistair asked as an opening to the subject. When the words hung in the air, he saw how they might otherwise be perceived, and stammered out, "I-I mean to the tower, n-not us, I mean, maybe, but I meant in proximity to the tower, the docks, I meant..."
She had to pinch her lips together to keep from laughing at his fluster. Even in the dark, his blush was clear, and she smiled reassuringly. "Yes. To both meanings, my friend. I only passed by this way once in recent memory, and it was heading the other way, but this does seem familiar."
He wasn't sure he heard the rest of her sentence, beaming the way he was at her initial response. Well! That had gone better than his fumbling attempts to communicate with girls had gone in the past! And she even agreed with something he hadn't even meant to say, but hadn't he meant it anyway? He couldn't be certain anymore.
He cleared his throat, and forced the buzzing of happiness back to a manageable amount, sobering quickly. "Remember, whatever else we encounter here, I'm here with you. You aren't facing this alone."
She chuckled anxiously. "I know I'm not being subtle about being worried, but you don't have to keep reassuring me."
"Don't I?" He asked, patting her on the shoulder softly. "You're tenser than he is," he gestured towards Sten. "And almost just as serious."
Her mouth twisted uncomfortably at his jab at Sten. "That would not be a bad thing, you know. This is official Grey Warden business we're on, after all."
"Yes, yes," he agreed, disappointed that she hadn't taken the bait on his joking. "We're also here because you want to be here for the people you left behind when you were recruited, though. I mean, Official Grey Warden Business could have taken us anywhere, after all. You said yourself we're going here because it's personal for you."
"Alistair, listen." She paused, letting him actually listen to their environment. "Do you hear that?"
"...The sound of my insensitivity?" He guessed, knowing he might have crossed a line before.
"No, listen," she asked again.
He did. Outside of the footfalls of their companions, there wasn't much to listen to. The wind occasionally rustled the grass that had grown around the ruins, and in the distance, the sound of water rippling around the wood of docks and against stone babbled. "...I don't hear anything," he admitted at last.
"That's precisely it. We can't hear anything. When I was at the tower, I still heard the birds singing, the animals chirping and growling at each other. As I left with Duncan, I still heard people talking in the Inn. But this..." she made a sweep with her hand. "It's not about what you hear, it's what's absent. And even were it not for that, you can feel it, too. I know you can."
He frowned. "Something isn't right here."
"Precisely. I don't know how clear it is for you... but especially with that... creature... we faced on the way here..." She shivered. "Something has gone very wrong. The Veil is thinner the closer we get to Lake Calenhad. I feel the oppressive presence of the Fade... and worse."
"All the way out here?" he asked in surprise, though he felt her words ring true in the back of his mind. He'd been unsettled by the same feeling. "You must be rather sensitive to it."
"I've always been highly aware of the Fade, Alistair. Even when I'm there, I've had full presence of mind. Actually, one of my mentors trained me in the art of Spirit Healing because of this sensitivity," Evelyn sighed sadly. "I point all this out, not because I knew all of this when I heard the rumors, but because the closer we get to Kinloch Hold, the more I know that I was right to come here first. Something very, very bad has happened here, and time is of the essence."
He nodded faintly, staring up at the spire. "I think we're in agreement there."
She folded her arms over her chest and turned her gaze from him, focusing on the overgrown path before them. "So while it started at something personal, I hope you'll understand why it's grown beyond that for me, and separate my urgency for getting there in time from simply being homesick."
"I didn't mean- you know, I really should just shut up," Alistair huffed at himself. "I should know better about you by now. And I shouldn't be teasing you when, clearly, the situation is more dire than we thought."
Evelyn stopped and wheeled around to stand in front of him, halting him. He opened his mouth to ask what she thought she was doing, but as she glared up at him, he lost the nerve to speak. "Alistair, you stop that right now," she ordered. "You are not wrong, this is personal for me, and that is why I am so grateful that you are near, because I need that support. But I do need you to take this seriously."
"I will- I am," he stammered.
Transitioning suddenly from her glare to a sunny smile, Evelyn patted both of his upper arms in a friendly gesture. "Good! That's all I ask. Then I can count on you, and do my job." She considered for a moment, then smiled sheepishly. "Though I may just leave the talking with the Knight-Commander up to you. He might respond better that way."
"Oh, no no no," he smirked. "What makes you think I'm any good at the talking thing? Haven't I proven otherwise enough already?"
Her grip on his arms tightened, and her expression softened warmly. "You give yourself too little credit, Alistair. You've kept me going this whole time with your kind words." She leaned closer to speak even softer. "You give me the courage to face this... even without the threat to loved ones to guide my actions. So do not doubt your ability to convince others."
His breath caught in his chest, where it hammered to escape. Before he could say anything further, she nodded once and broke contact to turn back on their path. They were nearing the docks, and she hesitated at the crest of the hill overlooking the lake. Alistair watched her, saw her silhouette through the moonlight reflecting off the lake, wrapped in soft light.
While the others stiffened and gasped at the wave of unexplainable horror washing over them, Alistair missed the stirring of dread in the back of his mind. He was far too distracted by the thumping in his chest, the stirring in his gut that edged ever lower, just watching their fearless leader.
He would have to puzzle out what she meant by "loved ones", with that tiny darting glance to the side and faint smile, some other time.