A/N: What if… the words that launched a thousand thousand fanfics. And this alternative take for Leliana's personal mission just would not leave me alone. It appears that the torches that were lit in Origins are not easily extinguished. Dragon Age and all its sumptuous trappings including the Chant of Light belong to Bioware, and this is just me indulging my hopeless romantic. And also, here be ladies' sexytimes and spoilers for Inquisition, although sadly, no actual dragons. If it's not your thing, don't say I didn't warn you… Oh, and you may want to lay in supplies - it's a bit of a monster, but I couldn't see a good break...
The Canticle of Transfigurations
"Looks like I got here just in time."
The unexpected, slightly out-of-breath statement rings through the marbled silence of the chantry, shattering the stillness that foreshadows Natalie's death at my hands. The tip of my dagger kisses my former friend's skin, drawing a single bead of scarlet to rest upon her alabaster throat.
But that voice freezes me.
I can't make myself move. The tiny effort of wiping the whetted edge of my blade across Natalie's throat is beyond me.
The sister's prayer halts mid-word, her defiant gaze clouding with confusion. I can almost hear her thinking, what is she waiting for?
What am I waiting for?
Heavy, booted footsteps echo off the polished floor and walls, bouncing until I imagine I hear a regiment advancing. But I recognized that voice; I would recognize that voice, that high-born Fereldan enunciation, anywhere, and while it represents an army, it is an army of one.
It's not possible. Why here? Why now? Maker, have I not given you enough? I rail at my god in the silent depths of my mind. Have I not suffered enough, sacrificed enough? Have I not been faithful? Dutiful? Have I not given you everything that you have asked of me! How much more will you test me?
Behind me, the Inquisitor draws a surprised breath and a handspan of steel. I dare not look round. My gaze is riveted to the blood on Natalie's throat, the way the tiny pearl of liquid reflects both light and darkness. There's a metaphor there, overwrought and melodramatic; at least my sense of humour is still functioning, somewhere beneath my bemusement.
The footsteps halt, and a faint clink of metal on metal identifies the newcomer as armoured. Hardly surprising. I can smell it now – Maker, can she truly be so close to me - metal, oil and a dry leathery scent, overlaid with the faint, acrid, tang of rust. Wet wool, too – it must have started raining – and the earthy, animal smells of mud and horse and sweat.
She's ridden hard to get here.
"I'm not a threat to you, Inquisitor. Maker be my witness." The familiar voice is commanding, assured. Honest. Beloved.
There's a moment of silence, then the hiss of steel on leather as the Inquisitor re-sheathes her half-drawn sword, evidently satisfied there is no danger. A battered gauntlet slides between my blade and Natalie's neck, prising the lethal edge away from the soft skin, and the faithless sister's eyes widen as she looks up at her saviour.
For saviour she most certainly is.
"Please, Leliana. Don't do this." The voice again, the unmistakable tone that has been denied to me for so long by duty and obligation, for too long heard only in dreams.
I can't look at her, don't dare to make her presence a reality, not while I have this task before me. I must do my duty. This is what the Maker demands of me, what the Divine demanded of me, what the Inquisitor demands of me, though Ser Trevelyan doesn't really understand that as yet. "I must," I refute the plea, my tongue heavier than lead.
"Mon coeur, please. Stay your hand." The Orlesian endearment trips from her tongue smoothly, testament to my many lessons; a dozen memories of intimacy flicker behind my eyes at the phrase, warming my body. "You once asked this boon of me," she continues, "to spare one worthy of only death; grant me this woman's life in return."
Rendon Howe spits in fury. "Your father would be proud," he sneers, his tone fouled with an ancient, gangrenous hatred. "And when your head's on a spike next to his and your whore mother's, he can tell you so."
Instinctively, I shoulder my way in front of my love as she shifts her weight, prelude to a wrathful charge. "No, cherie! Don't. You've beaten him. He's defeated. All he has left are words, just sound and fury. He's already less than nothing, no? Killing him in anger will not bring them back, it will only haunt you. Please, my love. Don't do this."
The memory brings a satisfied mockery of a smile to my lips at the vindication of my skills. "He had a poisoned dagger. If you'd charged him, he'd have stabbed you in the neck. The life I spared that day was yours, not his." My own blade had been the one that had ended that malevolent bastard's life. Deaf to my own advice, I had struck him down in anger, but Howe's death, unlike so many others, has never haunted me. The same dagger now waits in my hand; worn, re-hilted, re-sharpened until barely more than a stiletto, but precious to me for having been the weapon that brought her justice in that dank, dark hellhole. For being the weapon that I used to protect her, even as she had defended me from Marjolaine. I try to ignore the whispering accusation at the back of my mind that her efforts were all for naught.
"And you think this is different?"
The realisation that she believes I am somehow in danger disquiets me. Natalie is hardly a physical threat, and behind me there are only allies, so how… Fighting for comprehension, I don't resist as she leans her weight gently against my blade. It falls from my suddenly slack fingers, skittering away across the floor. Using the space she's created, she interposes her armoured bulk between me and my prey. "Go back to your mistress," she commands Natalie, and the steel in her tone makes me shudder with equal parts trepidation and desire. "The Inquisition does not fear your cackling crow of a Revered Mother. She is beneath their notice, but she has most assuredly gained my attention."
"And who are you?" Natalie spits as she scuttles away, ungrateful to the last.
She straightens to her full height, tall as most men. Her back is to me, so I must imagine the smile that dawns beneath her determined stare, the cocky, confident smirk – that damned look in the eye of every Cousland - that has goaded many an idiot to their doom. "Who am I?" she asks, her tone as cold as winter and as hard as diamond. "I am a slayer of dragons and archdemons. I am one who has looked into the mouth of hell and found it could be vanquished. I am the castellan of Fort Drakon, the commander of the Vigil, the conqueror of the Blight. I am the one who stands watch in the shadow between the darkness and the light. You know my name. Get. Out."
Natalie runs, graceless in her panic. Every instinct drilled into me by my bard's training, by my years at Justinia's side, screams at me to retrieve my knife and bury it between the fleeing woman's shoulders, but I am rooted to the spot, my eyes yearning for a contact denied me for so long.
Threat dispensed with, she finally turns, and I can no longer refute the reality of her presence. Quicksilver eyes lock with mine, haunted yet joyful beneath an unkempt crop of short, scruffy blonde hair. Dark shadows of exhaustion hollow out her eye sockets, and her face is pinched, gaunt and pale, but Maker, Aryn Cousland has never looked better to my incredulous gaze.
I want to speak, but thought eludes me, leaving me staring witlessly at her. After more than two years, my parched senses drink in her presence, the one person in all Thedas capable of quenching the painful thirst of my soul.
"Andraste's everlasting grace," she whispers reverently, "I'd forgotten… Leliana, you're breath-taking." Silver fire burns in her eyes as she closes in, draws my hood back, and stoops to press a whisper of a kiss to my cheek. The rough scrape of her chapped lips lights a flame beneath my skin, wakes something long-dormant in my emotions, something I'd feared lost.
"Aryn," I breathe in reply, staring into the fatigue-clouded depths of her gaze, unable to look at anything else. If I look away, she might vanish. I do not wish to discover I am imagining this. "What… what are you doing here?"
She quirks a tired, but genuine, smile. "I'm not entirely sure. But I'm glad I came."
Behind me, the Inquisitor pointedly clears her throat. Aryn dips her head, masking a rueful grin as she turns and steps away, tugging off her gauntlets and reaching up to unpin her sodden cloak. I look her over, standing next to the woman I have helped mould into the Inquisition's champion, and I can't help but draw comparisons as I take in the details. Samara (or Sam, as she prefers) Trevelyan is almost the precise opposite of Aryn Cousland in every respect. Sam is short and slender, dark eyed and dark haired, with skin the colour of rich teak hinting at Rivaini heritage somewhere in her Free Marcher background. Aryn is tall and well-muscled, all shades of gold and silver; blonde, grey eyed, pale as the snows of Highever, scion of a true Fereldan bloodline. Sam is not yet truly confident in her leadership, albeit much improved from the bewildered prisoner Cassandra press-ganged to our cause. Aryn wears command like a second skin; authority and confidence radiate from every line of her posture. Her upbringing as well as her position in the Wardens and at Ferelden's court have made leadership as natural to her as breathing. And Maker, that streak of command has ever left me weak at the knees.
Even their attire presents odd contrasts. Sam's armour is magnificent: Harrit's masterwork, the Dragon suit, is a celebration of the smithing arts, the battle-garb of a hero and a legend, reflecting the light back from its dozens of burnished facets. Aryn's dark, plain plate and mail is battered and scuffed, the patina and scars of hard use marring almost every surface, though I know the damage to be merely cosmetic. I recognize the maker's mark etched into the breastplate; a smile quirks my lips as I remember Denerim's eccentric master smith and his fussy merchant partner throwing us from their shop. Aryn and Alistair had laughed so hard they'd been reduced to tears, their hilarity only heightened by Wynne's lofty disapproval at their behaviour. But we'd departed with a mighty prize, armour crafted from silverite and the hide and bone of a high dragon. Back at camp, the dwarven savant, Sandal, had laid silverite runes over every available surface; surrounded by darkspawn, the armour had shone like starlight throughout the battle for Denerim. Shortly after the Blight ended, Aryn took the armour to Mikhail Dryden's forge at Soldier's Peak to be skimmed with veridium and enamelled, masking its enchantments. "I don't really feel the need to let every darkspawn in the Deep Roads know I'm there," Aryn had remarked wryly when I had asked why. "Since whether I wish it or not, my path will always return to the Deep Roads."
I wonder for a moment, as I watch her strip her cloak and lay it out over a bench to dry, what might have been if Cassandra's original plan, to see Aryn take the role that Sam now holds, had come to pass. Just as quickly, however, I dismiss the flight of fancy. It's not fair to Sam, who has been tirelessly, flawlessly brave and committed ever since she woke to Cassandra's despairing wrath, a cataclysm she could not recall, and an unfathomable power she had neither sought nor coveted. Sam has saved people, Sam has built the Inquisition, Sam has bound us to our common cause, Sam has earned her position and the honours that flow to her. She may not be as skilled a warrior, as able a tactician, or as courtly a noble, but she has overcome every obstacle in our path with tenacious belief, level-headed pragmatism, and obdurate courage. She has surpassed the role we thrust upon her in every way imaginable, proof that the Maker does not always move as we anticipate, and it's unworthy of me to doubt.
"Leliana?" Sam's voice carries a hint of earned impatience, and I pull myself back to the moment, remember my place. I turn to face her, and extend a hand to indicate Aryn.
"My apologies, Inquisitor. May I present the Warden Commander of Ferelden, and Knight Seneschal of Fort Drakon and Vigil's Keep, Lady Aryn Cousland. Aryn, Ser Samara Trevelyan of Ostwick, the Inquisitor, and styled the Herald of Andraste."
Aryn offers a courtly bow. "At your service, Inquisitor," she intones politely.
"A pleasure to meet you, Commander," Sam replies genially. "You're a hard woman to find."
Aryn accepts the criticism with an equable nod. "I am, though I fear I can make no apology for the fact." She sighs pensively. "I know you have much to do, Inquisitor, and I am grateful that you chose to accompany Leliana on this journey. There is no doubt much you would like to discuss, and I can give you some time, but first, I must ask that you grant me a private moment with Leliana."
Sam looks at me inquiringly. "Please, Sam," I agree, breaking with my usual formality of address, and she nods.
"Very well. I'll wait outside." She makes her way to the door and disappears beyond it, leaving me alone with my lover for the first time in nearly three years.
The need to touch her, verify she is flesh and blood, suddenly outstrips all other concerns. "Aryn," I plead, taking a step toward her. She throws her arms wide, steps in and engulfs me in a crushing hug, swinging me from my feet. I wrap my arms around her neck, legs around her waist, hanging on tightly as I lean down and kiss her, savouring her almost-forgotten warmth, her taste, her strength. Arousal thrums through my body like a plucked harp string. For a brief moment, I feel whole, happy for the first time in years, but then a groan tears from my Warden. She shudders beneath me, and as I pull back I see tears running unchecked down her cheeks. "What's wrong?" I beg her, fear clutching at my heart.
"Nothing," she assures me, a luminous smile breaking through her tears. "I just… I missed you so much, Leliana."
"I missed you too," I confess as she sets me down. "It's been so long… I… Maker, you have no idea how worried I've been!" My voice climbs into emotional registers rusty with disuse. "Ever since you left Soldier's Peak with Avernus and Nathaniel…"
A knock at my office door heralds an unwanted interruption, and I scowl as my clerk timidly sticks his head around the door. "Forgive me, Sister," he apologises, "but there's a Grey Warden here for you."
A smile curves my lips. I haven't seen Aryn for a few months, between one thing and another; Justinia's had me running all over Orlais, and Aryn's last letter spoke of a Darkspawn swell near Caridin's Cross that had Bhelen's forces in disarray. It must have been put down swiftly if she's had time to make the trip to Val Royeaux. "Send her in, please," I ask, my irritation forgotten.
Patrice looks disconcerted, but withdraws, to be replaced after a moment by a young man I do not recognise, nervy and wide-eyed, in formal Warden armour that seems too big for him. "S-sister Leliana?" he stammers.
Swallowing my disappointment, I offer him a welcoming smile. "Be at ease, my friend. Welcome to Val Royeaux. How may I assist the Wardens?"
He proffers a tightly folded parchment, sealed with the winged sword of Cousland. "The Commander's compliments, Sister. She sent this for you."
I frown; Aryn does not normally dishonour her wardens by demoting them to messenger boys. Taking the letter, I fix him with an inquiring stare. "Thank you. Is the Commander in good health?"
"She seemed well when she left, Sister, yes." If the boy thinks it an odd question, he doesn't show it, but his response has clamped a frozen fist around my heart.
"What do you mean, she left?"
He blinks, confused. "Uh… she left from Soldiers' Peak with Lieutenant Nathaniel and Avernus, the same day as I left to come here. Lieutenant Sigrun said she had business to attend in the Deep Roads." He peers at me anxiously. "Are you all right, Sister? You've gone very pale."
"It's not… it's not her Calling is it?" I whisper. It can't be. It's too soon. Surely, by Andraste, it's too soon?
"Maker, no." The boy laughs. "She just said there was something she needed to do."
I nod acknowledgement. "Thank you, Ser Warden. Patrice will see to your needs."
He stares at me for a moment, not immediately recognising the dismissal, but then he blushes and bobs a clumsy bow. "Sister," he intones formally, then he clanks out of my office.
I sink against the lip of my desk, break the seal with trembling fingers.
Leliana, my heart,
I'd hoped to be able to journey to Val Royeaux to tell you this in person, but an opportunity has arisen that I must not permit to go begging. There's something I have to do, and it can't wait. I dare not commit more to writing at this time – I ask for your trust and understanding, that what I do, I do for the best of reasons. I'll write as often as I can.
Be well, my love. I remain,
As time passed, the letters had stopped coming. Nathaniel returned, but would disclose nothing, and I was left with scraps; sightings in the Deep Roads, then rumours, then whispers, then silence. Abruptly, my joy and relief is eclipsed by righteous, scorned fury. "How could you do that to me? How could you leave me to think you were never coming back?" I'm crying as I scream at her, hot tears of regret and wrath as the dam sunders and the frustration, loneliness and terrible, gnawing fear of more than two years of silence burst forth. "I thought you dead, Aryn! I was sure sending our scouts after you would mean I had to face that as reality!" A course I had actively avoided until Morrigan's meddling request to the Inquisitor had left me with no more excuses. "When I spoke to Alistair in Redcliffe he was sick with worry, he had no idea where you were!"
"Andraste's sweet mercy, Leliana, what do you mean you haven't heard from her?"
His reaction to my not knowing had ruined me; it was the moment, as I'd realised she had not even confided her plans to her best friend and dearest brother, that my fading hope had finally died. "Every time we found a rumour of a Warden, I dared to hope…" I had so desperately wanted Blackwall to be her, "…only to be crushed, over and over again. And then the Wardens – how could they be so stupid? Do you know what it was like to search the ruins at Adamant? Praying that I would not find your corpse among the slaughtered, or worse, the possessed? Do you know desperate I was to believe you had no part in such lunacy? And then I found out they murdered Justinia! Your order… they murdered the Divine! My Divine! Maker, I…"
"Leliana." One word, barely a whisper, but it's enough to halt my tirade. There's an agony of guilt, regret and self-loathing etched into Aryn's features, but her eyes… Maker, the sorrow in her silvered eyes would drown the world.
And suddenly, it all crashes down on me, everything I've suffered, everything I've lost. Justinia's kind, wise face is at the forefront of my mind as the anguish rises up to swamp me, as, finally, the need to grieve that I have displaced with work and war overwhelms my self-command. My knees give out and I sink to the floor, wailing like the broken-hearted, lost little child I am.
Aryn kneels before me, gathers me as close as she can while wearing armour, my mail scraping against her plate as she draws my face against her neck, fingers running through my hair as I sob. Her touch is impossibly soothing, as is the warmth of her skin and the so-familiar scent of her body. Closing my eyes, I surrender, weeping shamelessly in the care of one who loves me, and she simply holds me, infinitely patient as I spend my grief. When at last I quiet, she wipes the tears from my face with careful, tender fingers.
"I'm so sorry, beloved," she says softly, barely audible above the echoes of my anguish. "There are no words that can express how much. I never meant to hurt you, or frighten you. All I can do is explain, and beg your forgiveness, in the full knowledge that I don't deserve your charity." A tremor racks her. "Maker, even your generous heart may not be big enough for this."
Guilt twists my stomach in turn as I remember Sam's futile remonstrance with me not to kill Natalie mere moments ago. My heart is no longer as generous as Aryn believes it to be. I do not know if it ever can be again. "Talk to me," I plead. "Tell me everything."
"I will," she returns. "Some of it your Inquisitor needs to hear, and some she should not." She wipes her eyes, then offers her hand. "Come. Let's get this over with, and then we can talk for as long as you can spare."
My heart sinks, the kernel of hope of a permanent reunion crushed before it has a chance to properly take root. "You're not coming with us?" You'd leave me again?
She bites her lip, keeps her hand outstretched, an appeal for my trust. "Leliana, I… please. Let me explain?"
I nod, taking her hand and falling into step with her as we walk toward the vestry. Diverting momentarily, I stick my head out the door and find Trevelyan sitting on the steps watching the rain. "Inquisitor?"
She gets to her feet, her gaze searching my face for clues, her frown softening as she realises I've been crying. "I thought you'd forgotten about me," she offers lightly, and I'm grateful for her tact. "Lead on, Spymaster."
Aryn's sitting on a reversed chair, forearms resting on the back, positioned where she can watch the door. I'm struck, wounded, by how much older she looks, how careworn; when we are apart for any length of time my memory reverts to the image of her as she was during the Blight, so very young and so very serious. She has always been older than her years, raised to take her responsibilities seriously, and forced to cast aside any lingering traces of adolescence by tragedy and necessity. Her older self tempers her seriousness with wry, sardonic wit, a wit that stems from the same dark root as her sceptical view of the world, the world that promptly forgot the Blight as soon as the Archdemon fell to Starfang atop Fort Drakon.
Aryn Cousland never forgets the Blight.
It haunts her, day and night, in every quiet moment, in every hour of sleep. Except, she admitted once, in a moment of total vulnerability, when she is with me. Then, she can forget. Only then. "I only feel safe in your arms, Leliana." And I abandoned her to her nightmares to answer Justinia's call. That I did so with her blessing does not absolve me of neglect; the shadows beneath her eyes accuse me more eloquently than words ever could, words she would never speak. Can I blame her for her long absence when I was the one who set our feet on different paths, for the sake of a deep debt and a deeper faith?
Sam clears her throat to break the pregnant silence. "So. Our scouts found you then?"
"They found one of my lieutenants, who was kind enough to divert them," Aryn replies dryly. "The Deep Roads are no place for the uninitiated."
The understatement brushes a shiver down my spine as dark memories assault my recall, of weeks spent beneath the stone, hunting lost thaigs and lost Paragons to end a war that was none of our concern. The constant chittering of deep stalkers and spiders a in the dark; the obscene, damp warmth of the atmosphere, infected with the filthy miasma of the taint. Drums in the distance as the darkspawn answered the Archdemon's call to arms, a call that night after night woke both Aryn and Alistair screaming from their nightmares and drew shrieks to our encampments like flies to honey. And deeper, to a terror that still has the power to wake me in a cold sweat ten years later; Hespith's insane, sibilant whispers, Branka's heartless sacrifice of her kin in pursuit of glory, and the grotesque, leprous form of the brood mother nesting amid altars of putrid, ruined flesh.
Aryn is on her hands and knees, surrounded by a puddle of darkspawn blood and guts and her own vomit, body heaving violently over and over as she retches, fighting for the air to breath in hoarse, rattling gasps. "Alistair," she moans desperately. "Alistair!"
I try to comfort her but she shrugs me off. "Alistair!" His name becomes a near-scream. "Alistair!" Her brother warden shrugs off Wynne's well-meant inspection of his wounds, rushes across and kneels beside her, heedless of the gore as he bundles her into an ungainly hug, gauntleted fingers clumsily stroking her hair. She clings to him, gasping and shivering.
"It's all right," he soothes, ludicrously. "It's all right, it's dead. It's dead. It can't hurt you now."
"You promise me, Alistair," she sobs between laboured breaths, "you promise me now… on your warden's oath… that you'll kill me yourself…. before you let them take me… make me one of those…things."
"Aryn… Maker, I…"
Alistair cups her tear-streaked face in his hands, bestows a chaste kiss on her forehead. "I swear on my oath as a warden. I won't let them take you."
She stretches out a hand to me. "Leliana too," she chokes out. I crouch beside both of them, hug them both to me.
"Or Leliana," Alistair promises, voice muffled by my shoulder.
I blink, drawn back to the moment. "Sorry," I sigh. "Seeing Aryn has… well, it brings back memories."
"The quicker we get through our business, the quicker you can have her to yourself," Trevelyan says, not unkindly, and I nod agreement.
"As you say, Inquisitor."
"What can you tell me about Corypheus, Commander?"
Aryn shrugs. "Precious little. If you've spoken to Marian Hawke…"
"Then you know more than I do, no doubt. All I know is what Hawke told Bethany shortly after the encounter. Which culminated in Corypheus' death, so I paid it no more mind."
"You didn't think to look into it?"
"No. The wardens at Weisshaupt had it in hand, and, as I said, if he was dead, he was of no further concern. Living darkspawn are more worthy of my attention." Aryn scuffed a boot against the floor. "Hindsight has wonderful clarity, Inquisitor, but it's always wise to remember that in war, we do what seems right at the time. And that we have to live with it afterwards."
"I'm sorry," Sam says sharply, "but I admit I'm having a hard time believing that someone of your rank in the Wardens wouldn't be aware of a threat like Corypheus. You're the Commander of the Grey in Ferelden!"
"And I was a warden less than a year into my service when I was so named," Aryn replies with cool patience. "Understand this, Ser Trevelyan. Thedas is huge, and the Wardens are comparatively few and far-flung. There are less than twenty of us in Ferelden even now. We're also as a rule proud, secretive, and not given to trusting others with our confidences lest they be misunderstood." She flicks a wry glance at me; her refusal to disclose certain of those confidences has caused more than one argument between us over the years.
"People assume when they hear of the Wardens, that they are an order," Aryn continues. "Like the Templars, a regulated hierarchy with rules and regulations and protocols. Nothing could be further from the truth. The commander of each outpost, each garrison, each national cohort, has almost total autonomy. Among the Wardens, it is expected that those who can do a thing, will do it. Rank does not necessarily play a role. Weisshaupt is the heart of our brotherhood, but it is the library, the archive, the memory. The First Warden is the keeper of that memory, a political figurehead, and is always appointed from among the Weisshaupt command. Unless you go to Weisshaupt to study, you get by with whatever information you can find. In the field, our traditions and lore are largely oral, and Duncan had neither the time nor the inclination to teach me legends. He didn't even have the time to teach me the fundamental truth of being a Warden. What I know of our history is gleaned from time I have spent in Orzammar – the Shaperate has a long memory."
"You've been in Orzammar all this time?" I ask.
"I resupply there, when I can, but no – mostly I have been deeper in the Roads than any sane person should venture."
"With only Avernus for company?" I ask, horrified.
Aryn huffs a short, cynical laugh. "Avernus' particular brand of madness makes him an ideal companion for the Roads. He's such a contrary old bastard that he refuses to be depressed by being down there – being away from his books is the true torture, regardless of where 'away' actually is." She shakes her head. "I sent Nathaniel home because it was eating him alive. Sigrun has accompanied us for most of the time, thank the Maker, and Oghren stops by whenever Felsi kicks him out, once every four months or so. But where was I?"
"You not knowing about Corypheus," Trevelyan supplies, clearly unable to let the subject drop.
"Yes. When Bethany told me of Hawke's encounter with Corypheus, it troubled me, but since her sister's letter was necessarily brief, it told me little. The only part I took to heart was the warning that he could influence Warden's minds, mimic the Calling."
"And you've felt that?" Sam asks.
Aryn nods, the merest inclination of her head. "I have. It's faint, because I'm a long way removed, but it's there."
"Yet you don't seem to be panicking about it like most of your brothers."
Aryn sighs heavily. "They don't know any better. Most of the current wardens in Orlais had not been recruited when the Blight came, or if they had been, they were too distant to really feel it. This calling of Corypheus' is weak in comparison to the presence of a true archdemon, which is why, I think, Alistair and I have been less affected. And also, I know I'm too young." She shrugs. "Even allowing for the possibility of the Blight hastening my deterioration, I should not be hearing the Calling after only ten years. Five years from now, I might have had a very different reaction."
I bite my lip and look at the floor. I have always known her life would be curtailed, but can two-thirds of what life remained to her really already have been spent? Maker, how could I have been so careless? Has my blind adherence to obligation and faith cost me – cost her – the chance to enjoy her life? How could I have forgotten so quickly that she was supposed to die killing the archdemon, that for her to be alive at all is a miracle?
If Aryn sees my distress, she does not comment, keeping herself focused. "You've gone to a lot of trouble to contact me, Inquisitor," she continues, "only to ask pointless questions about what I do or do not know. Come to the point. What do you wish of me?"
"I would have thought that was obvious," Sam replies earnestly. "The Inquisition needs your help. You're the Hero of Ferelden, you've defeated a Blight, and you'd be a rallying point for the people. I have a company of Wardens who need a leader. And you're a skilled warrior and tactician. Morrigan said you could be a mighty ally or a terrible enemy, and while I'm overjoyed you're not the latter, I'd be even happier if you were the former."
"Morrigan?" Aryn darts a surprised glance at me. "You know her?"
"She's an advisor to the Inquisition on all matters arcane," I chip in. "A position she has also held in Empress Celene's court for the past three years."
"So that's where she slithered off to," Aryn mutters. She rubs her hand across her face. "Is she alone?"
"No," Sam responds, looking very curious, "she has her son with her. Kieran. He seems a fine lad."
A squall of pain flickers over Aryn's features, and she sighs. "Good. That's good. Forgive me, you surprised me – I lost track of Morrigan years ago. I didn't expect to hear of her. But in any case, she rates my abilities rather too highly."
"She said you were friends."
"We were." Aryn shrugs. "Maybe we still are – I haven't spoken to her in nearly ten years. Regardless, while I'm flattered by her opinion, and your interest, I regret I cannot join your Inquisition."
"Corypheus will destroy the world if he's permitted to," Sam says heatedly. "We need all the help we can get."
"One more sword will not tip the balance for you," Aryn disagrees. "And your Inquisition already has an inspirational champion. It has you. The woman who can close rifts. The woman who healed the tear in the sky. Andraste's Herald. Andraste's chosen."
"Surely you don't believe that," Sam scoffs. "Not after all you've seen."
"No. I don't." Aryn scratches at her neck. "Any more than I believe that bloody high dragon that lived above Haven was Andraste re-incarnated." She raps her knuckles on her breastplate. "But what I believe, or what you believe, doesn't change the truth. Nor the fact that this, unfortunately, cannot be my fight."
"I thought the Wardens were supposed to defend against evil?" Sam accuses angrily, deploying the righteous passion that serves her so well. It's a gift Aryn shares, like Alistair's skill with a king's rhetoric. But my warden is immune to the magic she herself can wield so well, merely cocking a sardonic eyebrow at the challenge.
"Defence against evil is the purview of the Chantry, Inquisitor. Not the Wardens."
"But how can you stand aside? Do nothing?" Sam demands incredulously. "Especially when your order is largely to blame for starting this!"
"Because I have an obligation!" Aryn retorts, anger erupting in her eyes. "One I cannot lay down, no matter how right or true my intended cause. This is not a children's fable, Inquisitor, where the path to victory is also righteous, this is the real world!"
Sam stiffens, offended. "I don't know what you…"
"Dumat." Aryn spits the name harshly. "Zazikel. Toth. Andoral. Urthemiel. Razikale. Lusacan. Seven Old Gods, seven blights. We've seen five, there are two more to come. At minimum." She launches herself to her feet, begins to pace in agitation. "In peace, vigilance. In war, victory. In death, sacrifice. This is my creed, and I may not frivolously cast it aside. There is no way to predict a blight, no set passage of time between them. The next one could start tomorrow. The last blight devoured half of Ferelden, and it was horrifying enough for the months that it lasted, but the first one lasted two hundred years. And it covered all the lands of Thedas. Generations lived and died at war with the darkspawn. If, Maker willing, you defeat Corypheus, there will still be another blight, and another." She halts, her gaze boring into mine rather than Sam's, imploring me to understand. "I must stand sentinel against that threat, and I cannot spare anyone under my command from that duty." She lets out a derisive snort. "Particularly since Clarel succumbed to one of the more spectacular fits of mage-trained decision making the world has ever seen." She took a deep breath. "The order in Orlais is compromised, and it is perhaps for the best that they seek public redemption with you. People have short memories, and little gratitude, and we have used up too much with this folly. But the larger order must endure, to guard against the next blight, and that endurance must be my priority. If the Grey Wardens are wiped out by Corypheus – which is no doubt part of his design – then nothing will be able to stop the rise of the next Archdemon!" She grimaces as she realises she is shouting, lets out a long breath, tempers her tone. "It is not that I do not wish to help – there is nothing I would like better than to wipe Corypheus from existence. But I cannot, at least not in the way you would wish, and my orders will stand. My Wardens are either holding watch at the Vigil, or holding watch at the gates of Orzammar, and there they will stay." She sits down again, meets Sam's gaze with honest tiredness. "I am truly sorry, Inquisitor. That must be my final word."
"No," Aryn cuts her off vehemently, her tone suddenly frustrated, almost pleading. "Please." She looks down at the table. "I can't." She hunches in on herself, defensive. "I did not come here for your Inquisition. I had already written a letter declining your invitation when my plans changed." She pulls in a deep breath. "Before the Blight even took hold, I lost my entire family, my entire world, in one night, to a murdering bastard. Even after I discovered Fergus had survived the butchery at Ostagar, I found my brother a broken man who deems my presence too hurtful a reminder of his losses. There was one soul, and one soul alone whose light and grace was a balm to my pain, who could make my nightmares fade. One person who rescued me from my darkest hour, made me want to live again, and whom I hold more precious than any other thing in this world." She looks up at me, tears standing in her eyes, the fire of her anger doused suddenly by longing and regret. "Understand, Sam Trevelyan," she says hoarsely, "that were there any way I could escape the confines of my conscience, to stand at Leliana's side in this fight, I would already be there! My only hope of realizing that dream is to complete the search I have started. But I beg you, do not tempt me by asking again. Because if you ask often enough..." She trails off as her voice cracks, fixes her gaze on the floor.
And I know what she was about to say, what terrible offer the very last thread of her sense of duty has managed to curb. If Sam asks again, if I ask, she'll come with us. For love of me, she'll spurn her obligations, do what I ask of her. And the guilt of doing so will ruin her. "No," I cut in, resolutely, forestalling Sam's reply, uncaring of the unshed tears roughening my voice. "No. I can't ask that of you. I won't. I'd let Corypheus burn the world before I ever hurt you like that." Sam stares at me, mute with surprise, as though she's really seeing me for the first time. "Aryn, beloved," I whisper, crossing the room to crouch beside her, casting off my gauntlets, taking her hands and squeezing them. "I understand. It's all right." Her hands flex in mine, and she runs her thumbs over my knuckles.
"Thank you, mon coeur," she murmurs, for my ears alone, then she sits up, wiping her cheeks clear of tears.
Silence reigns for a brief moment, then Sam nods slowly. "I do understand," she offers quietly. "I'm sorry. I hadn't thought of the bigger picture, at least, not in terms of the darkspawn."
"They're something of an obsession of mine," Aryn jokes, but her humour is forced.
Sam laughs anyway. "I can imagine. Will you at least tell me what you seek?"
"A cure for the Calling," Aryn says simply, as though it isn't an idea so titanic it can barely be contained in this building. "The taint is necessary to give a Grey Warden their abilities, but the price is an executioner's blade at your neck." She spreads her hands. "That all men must die is a given. My oaths as a warden compel me to fight for those who cannot fight themselves, and, if necessary, to die for them. I accept that bargain. But I do not accept that I must live under a death sentence. I underwent the Joining at eighteen. If the best comes to pass, I will be dead before I am fifty, and no healing magic known to man can change that."
"The Joining?" Sam queries, and Aryn hesitates, looks to the ceiling for guidance.
"If I tell you," she says eventually, "this can go no further. Normally I would not disclose this, but given how much you already know…" She regards each of us in turn. "Do I have your oaths that you will speak of this to no one?"
"I swear," Sam and I promise in unison.
"The Joining, the ritual that connects us to the darkspawn, and taints us, requires blood magic." Aryn wrinkles her nose in distaste. "Darkspawn blood, lyrium, and one drop of the blood of an Archdemon are mixed in a chalice, and we drink it."
"Maker's grace," Sam breathes, horror-struck. "But darkspawn blood is poison, is it not?"
"It is. It kills two-thirds of those who volunteer." Aryn bows her head solemnly. "Those who fall are considered wardens, honoured and buried as such. The corruption is what lets us sense the darkspawn, anticipate their moves, predict their attacks. But it is also what kills us – eventually, after a time, the taint becomes too much for the body, and you begin to turn. That is when the Calling begins, and when a warden traditionally goes to the Deep Roads to end their life cleanly in battle."
"It is the Joining that makes you able to kill an Archdemon as well, no?" I ask, sickened anew by the recollection of the fate that awaits her. We've never talked about it much – instinctively, I knew she wanted to shield me from it, but Maker, the knowledge has never stung so much before. Not now that I have seen the panic, the insanity it can drive brave men and women to.
"Yes." Aryn nods, shifts her weight uncomfortably. "An Archdemon's physical form can be killed by a normal person. If that happens, it simply possesses the body of the nearest spawn, since they are soulless. But if the spawn closest to it is a Grey Warden, who already has a soul, then both souls are destroyed when the Archdemon tries to merge."
Sam frowns. "So the Warden dies?"
"As you say."
"Then… how is it that you survived the Blight?"
Old regret sparks in Aryn's eyes, and she shakes her head. "That is… not my secret to tell. I will only say that it was not my doing, nor was it done at my behest. It was a… gift… from two friends, one of whom I know thought that what they did was right, the other whose ulterior motives I hope never to learn." She shrugs. "As I said, in war one does what seems best at the time. And lives with it afterwards."
Alistair and Morrigan. I'm sure of it, as I recall the wisps of an argument overheard.
"… Thought you were doing! I told Morrigan no!"
"I thought I was saving your life! And it wasn't your decision, so don't you dare try and take the blame for this! It was my choice." Alistair has tears in his voice. "Maker's breath, I can't do this alone, and you're too important to me. You're my best friend, the only one apart from Duncan who ever gave a damn about me as a person from the moment we met. I couldn't let you throw away your life, and you wouldn't let me, so where did that leave us? I know you'd have done it willingly, I know you weren't afraid…"
"I was afraid," Aryn whispers. "I've never been so scared in all my life."
"Funny, I could say the same about the night before." Alistair cracks a grin. "If only Riordan hadn't fallen off that bloody dragon… Listen, Morrigan's gone. She got what she wanted from us, and I don't regret that. I can't. Not if it means you're still with me, and you have a chance to be happy with Leliana. Nobody's sorry you're not dead, you hear me? Nobody."
"What if someone finds out what you did?"
"I'm a King, thanks to you. I have an army to protect me." Alistair smiles lopsidedly. "And if ever I can do something to protect my friends, I will. And you'll just have to learn to live with that."
"If I can survive the Blight, if there are darkspawn who are self-aware, like Corypheus, then other truths we have held as carved in stone may not be immutable," Aryn continues. "And if we do not need to fear the taint, we can be more open in our recruitment, prevent needless deaths in the Joining, and build hopes and expectations for a future, rather than the burden of the condemned man we carry now. That is my goal."
"And how will you accomplish that?" Sam asks. Aryn shakes her head.
"That I will not tell you. In part because the details of alchemy and sorcery are as a foreign tongue to me, and in part because you do not need to know. It is not your fight, and you have more pressing things to worry about."
Sam looks at me in appeal, and I shake my head. "I'm sorry, Inquisitor, I don't know." I cock my head to one side. "But if you leave her with me, I might be able to wring a confession from her."
Aryn laughs. "I thought Orlesians were meant to be subtle?"
"I'm a Fereldan, remember?" I chide. "I have to keep in practice once in a while."
"And I'm Free Marcher enough to know when to beat a retreat," Sam cuts in as she gets to her feet. "I'll leave you two to talk."
We wait in silence until the doors to the Chantry boom shut, then I get to my feet and offer my hand. "I should see what Justinia left for me. Come."
Aryn takes my arm as we walk through the marbled hall. "Your Inquisitor seems a good woman."
"She is." I smile fondly, remembering Josephine's breathless recounting of her last trip to Val Royeaux. "Honest, loyal, brave, intelligent. Passionate." I throw her a coy smile. "She duelled an Antivan nobleman to win the hand of her lady love."
Aryn arches an amused eyebrow. "Did she now?"
"Mmm. It was very romantic."
A chuckle. "Are you feeling ill-romanced, beloved?"
"Well, it has been a while. Would you fight a duel for me, brave warrior?"
"No." Aryn grins insouciantly. "I never trained with a rapier. But I'd gladly chop anyone who offends you into dogmeat with my longsword."
"That somehow lacks the requisite panache."
"But it's from the heart. Besides," Aryn's smile softens, "I did buy you a nug."
I laugh. "You did. And you bought me replacements when he died. Maker, Justinia hated them. She was allergic to them, you know."
Aryn shakes her head. "I didn't know. I might have bought more of them if I had."
My humour fades as I sense she's not entirely joking, and I remember that Aryn had never really warmed to Justinia. They'd met infrequently over the years; Aryn's trips to Val Royeaux had been few and far between, and Justinia had on numerous occasions disrupted my travel plans with unforeseen missions. Aryn, stubbornly refusing to blame me for these disappointments, would usually cast aspersions on the Divine's intent whenever it happened. It was one of the few subjects that could cause us to argue, in part at least, because I hated to let her down, because Justinia's close presence was difficult to say no to, and I have never enjoyed being torn between two loyalties. But in the end, my needs, and Aryn's, had always come second to our respective duties. We both understood that and accepted it, even if neither of us liked it.
The alcove opened by the hidden mechanisms is sparse, an altar supporting a simple jewellery box. Taking a deep breath, I lift the lid to reveal…
"No! This can't be it." I turn the box over, shake it out, but it's empty. "There's nothing here!"
"It's not what you expected," Aryn offers quietly, reaching past me to flip the lid over. "That doesn't mean it's nothing."
There's writing carved into the base of the lid. Lifting it, I read aloud. "The Left Hand should lay down her burden." Stunned, I look over my shoulder at Aryn. "She… she's releasing me."
Aryn nods wordlessly.
"The divine has a long reach," I whisper, my voice cracking, "but it is always her left hand that reaches out. A thousand lives, a thousand deaths. Her command, but my conscience that bore the consequences."
My warden embraces me from behind, drops her chin on my shoulder. "I'm so sorry, my love. I should have been there for you. I should never have left you alone for so long. Remember your heart, Leliana. Remember your compassion. Remember you are not Marjolaine."
"If not for you, I would have killed Natalie and called it a good thing." I tremble in her arms, feel the warmth of her breath against my neck. "And Marjolaine? Her games were trifles. Justinia gambled with the fate of nations. She needed me. No one else could have done what I did."
Aryn places a kiss just below my ear. "Let it go, Leliana. You don't owe her anything any longer."
"She… she told Sam to tell me she was sorry. That she'd failed me," I murmur. "She carried a fear that she'd used me, as I'd been used by others in the past."
"She did use you," Aryn states with brutal honesty. "You were compelled by duty and obligation, and she used you. She used your faith to drive you. And I compounded the damage with my absence." She draws me closer. "That she loved you, I do not question; she considered you a daughter. But she needed you for your skills, and in the end, that need outstripped all other considerations, even unto your well-being. She felt guilty for doing it, but she did it anyway. You don't become Divine without a measure of necessary ruthlessness. And she knew I was the one person that could turn you from that path, so she kept me away from you, as often as she could. And I," her tone turns bitter, "bloody great fool that I am, blamed you for that, believing that it was what you wanted."
"How could you know that?" I ask, turning to face her, knees weakening as I see the harsh guilt and self-reproach that scar my love's face.
"Yours was not the only letter Justinia wrote," Aryn replies. "I am not entirely foolhardy - Nathaniel has always known how to contact me at need." She sighs pensively. "Justinia's letter was both confession and apology, wrapped in a request that I not forsake you - as if such a thing were possible."
"But you did," I whisper, unguarded and honest in my turn, "when you left me behind for your duty to the Wardens."
The guilt that wells up in her eyes makes me want to snatch the words back, but the hurt of that day in Val Royeaux is a wound that has never really healed. Never been cleansed.
"I didn't," she protests weakly. "I didn't leave for duty. Not that the intention matters once the damage has been done." She shook her head despondently. "I woke up one morning and I realised it was nearly eight years since the Blight ended. And I counted all the time I had spent away from you, and there was far, far too much. And the more I thought about it, the more I feared we were growing apart. Part of the secret of living with the taint, of living longer, is to live a full life. And I realised I wasn't. My years were slipping away." She takes my hand, presses a kiss to my knuckles. "Without you, I'm damned to have far fewer of them. That night I had my first full-blown taint nightmare since the Blight, as bad as any I remember. Nathaniel told me it took them two hours to wake me, and I was screaming for you the whole time." Aryn swallows hard, as though the memory has a bitter taste.
"Maker, I…" Guilt and pity rise like bile, thickening my throat. I remember vividly how bad those nightmares can be; at times I've feared she would snap her spine in the convulsions.
She rests a thumb against my lips. "It was not your fault. Don't for a minute let yourself think that. But it was a catalyst. I decided I was not going to sit around and wait any longer. We left the next day. We tracked the Architect to his new lair, and he and Avernus are working together, attacking the problem from both sides."
"And you trust them?"
"I trust them to co-operate on this one goal, where they both have a vested interest. Avernus is dying, and wants his life's work to be completed. The Architect wants the Wardens as allies, and he cannot free his kin without us."
"Thinking darkspawn…" I try to wrap my head around it. Ever since Aryn first told me of the Architect, I've struggled with the idea.
"Are another weapon against the Blight," Aryn says. "Darkspawn are dangerous precisely because they are a hive mind, compelled by instinct or an Archdemon's will to destroy and desecrate. If they can be taught they have something to live for, freed from their compulsion, there will perhaps be fewer of them to fight in future. They could even come to view the Blight as a threat themselves." Aryn grimaces. "I know it's an awful risk to take, but I have the First Warden's blessing to try. As it stands, he only loses me if it goes wrong."
"Don't talk like that," I rebuke. "Your life is not some cheap trinket to be thrown away on a whim."
Her gaze locks with mine, searching, troubled. "You still believe that?" she whispers. "After all the stupid things I've done that hurt you?"
"That's hardly a single-edged blade, no?" I rebut. "I'm at least as guilty of hurting you." I press my fingers to her lips. "Don't argue with me. Not when I'm right. I know you're unspeakably chivalrous, but we've both made mistakes. We're here now. We still love each other."
She nods slowly, then looks away. "I heard rumours, on my way here," she confesses. "That your name has been put forward as the next Divine."
My heart drops into my boots. "That's true," I reply cautiously. "One among many candidates, of course."
"Would you accept? If they offer you the Sunburst Throne?"
I wait for her to look up before answering. "Are you asking me not to?"
She holds my gaze for a brief moment. "I don't have any right to ask that of you," she declines, looking away dejectedly.
Certainty fills me, and I grip her chin, forcing her gaze back to mine. "You have the only right," I pledge in a whisper, closing the space between us. "Because I love you." I wrap my arms around her neck. "I love you," I repeat, more confidently.
"I love you too, Leliana," she returns with simple conviction.
"I know," I assure her, "and I know that I chose to sacrifice my happiness and yours on the altar of duty. I know that for love of me, you placed yourself on that altar willingly. I know that for love of me, you would do that again. And I know that for love of you… I do not want you to." I kiss her, chastely. "Ask me," I whisper against her lips. "Ask me. That which lies within my power to grant, is already yours."
"Oh Maker…" Aryn groans, crushing me closer, "please, Leliana… don't walk where I can't follow. I just need a little more time. Avernus thinks he's close now. Please… please don't leave me alone."
"Never again," I swear, wishing that she were not in her armour, that I could get close enough to hold her warm, strong body against mine. Wishing Valence had an inn that was still open, where I could spend at least one night in her arms, grant us both the peace we so desperately crave. The memory of her hands and lips on my skin is near-forgotten, and a sudden, wild urge to be reminded lights a fire in my belly, send a pulse of arousal pounding through me.
"I can't lose you," she pleads.
"You won't. Aryn, my love, you have me. Whenever you are ready."
Her eyes darken to steel, and she swallows hard. "Soon, Leliana, I promise. I'll come home to you. Claim you as mine."
"Claim me now," I beg, suddenly desperate for her to consummate that promise. "Make me yours. In the sight of the Maker."
And she does.
In full sight of the Maker, his prophet, and every icon in the Chantry. Her capable, combat-roughened hands unbuckle my surcoat then snake beneath it, loosening the laces of my breeches as I kiss her neck. She grasps my hips, lifts me to the altar, buries one hand in my hair and pulls me close. She kisses me, hard and combative as her free hand pushes into my breeches, beneath my underwear. She makes no comment on how desperate I must feel, how much my body wants her touch, as I arch my hips shamelessly against her hand. I hook my legs around her waist, holding her close. "Please, mon coeur," I implore, "Oh Maker, please…."
"Many are those who wander in sin," Aryn recites softly as her fingers slide over my aching, wet flesh, "Despairing that they are lost forever."
A moan tears from me, a desperate counterpoint to her words. She presses me down, lays me out on the altar, pushing my shirt up to bare my stomach.
"But the one who repents, who has faith…"
Her fingers trace over my abdomen with practiced familiarity, as though we have never been apart.
Unshaken by the darkness of the world…" Beneath my smallclothes, her other hand explores my sex, tormenting me with gentle teasing.
"I need you," I plead, tensing in delicious anticipation.
"And boasts not, nor gloats…" Her fingers sink into me, confident and sure, and my hoarse gasp echoes from the vaults. "Over the misfortunes of the weak, but takes delight…" She thrusts again, setting a slow, torturous pace. "In the Maker's law and creations, she shall know…"
A tiny part of me, somewhere very far away, is appalled by her casual sacrilege; a much larger part of me thinks this is the most erotic thing I have ever heard in my life.
My body agrees; every nerve in me burns for her touch, a fire that burns hotter with each deft thrust of her fingers. "The peace of the Maker's benediction…" Aryn's voice is becoming steadily more breathy as she pleasures me, her fingers working in rhythm with her words, syncopated with the caress of her thumb against my bud.
"The Light shall lead her safely…" She knows the cadence of my body's responses as well as she knows the measure of the chant, and the arcane blend of piety and profanity is unravelling the fabric of my self-command. My hips begin to roll instinctively against her strokes, my breath sobs in my throat, and all I can do is bury my face in the sweat-damp warmth of her neck and cling to her.
"Through the paths of this world, and into the next…" She strokes my cheek with her free hand, tender and achingly gentle. Within me, she finds the heart of my intimacy, the secret place that for these past ten years, she alone has enjoyed the right to touch. "For she who trusts in the Maker, fire is her water."
She stakes her claim with confidence, with passion, and the cranking tension arches my back, drives my hips into her hand as every muscle draws tight as a bowstring. "Maker!" I yelp, fighting for control.
"As the moth sees light and goes toward flame," Aryn wraps her arm around my back, holds me tight, the confinement somehow heightening my tension as she intensifies her speed and rhythm, finding the precise combination that will undo me, "she should see fire and go towards Light. The Veil holds no uncertainty for her…"
"Maker, please, Aryn," I beg, drowning in the sensation, clinging to the last threads of coherence as a tremor ripples through my belly, jerking my hips.
Aryn pauses in her litany to kiss me ardently, her tongue duelling fervently with mine. "I love you more than the Maker ever could, Leliana," she swears as we break, breathless, desperate.
"I know," I gasp, shivering with tension, body and soul held right on the brink of release. "Oh, please, beloved, claim that which is yours."
"You're mine," she declares stridently. Our gazes lock, sapphire and silver. I fancy Creation itself takes a breath.
"And you will know no fear of death, for I shall be your beacon and your shield, your foundation and your sword." There is adoration and honesty and an unbreakable vow in her face as she drives her fingers deep, one more time.
The world shatters around me. My cry of pleasure, full-throated this time, echoes round the nave, shimmering in the incense-laden quiet, the echo punctuated only by the breath sobbing in my throat as the aftershocks jar me over and over again.
She gathers me in, cradles me close, as though I am impossibly precious and fragile. She is the only soul with whom I can be. As she holds me, caressing me with soothing touches, whispers sweet endearments against my hair, I complete the chapter of scripture she has quoted. "The one who repents, who has faith…Unshaken by the darkness of the world…She shall know true peace." Reaching up, I thread my fingers in her hair, rest my palm against her cheek and take a kiss from her lips. "I love you."
"I know," she echoes, kissing me back, a gentle, promising touch of her lips against mine.
"Thank you," I whisper against her mouth.
"For reminding me of who I am. That I am more than what Justinia made me. I am not the Spymaster, the Left Hand, the bard. I almost lost myself."
"You're so much more than any of those things," Aryn assures me. "But may I ask one thing of you?"
"Be yourself. Remember your heart, and your love. Don't hide your compassion, your generosity, your beautiful soul. Sing, laugh, tell jokes, tell the stories you love. Really live. And remember that I will return to you."
I smile, deeply content for the first time in years. "That's more than one thing, Aryn."
"I can repeat myself as many times as it takes," she offers slyly, flexing her hand and making me squirm, and I laugh with her.
"Much as I would love that, I should probably go," I sigh when the moment has passed. "I've asked enough time of Sam as it is."
Aryn is silent for a moment, then she nods resolutely. She presses a kiss to my temple and releases me. "Of course." Tenderly, she helps me re-dress, her fingers quick and sure on the laces and buckles of my gear.
"Be wary of Morrigan," Aryn counsels once I am properly attired. "I don't know what her intent in allying with the Inquisition is, but I doubt it's purely altruistic. And her son… he may have some part to play."
"Are you ever going to tell me what you know about that?" I ask with no small exasperation as we retrieve our discarded belongings.
"If you don't discover it for yourself in this business with Corypheus, ask me the next time you see me," Aryn hedges. "If he has a part in all of this, you'll know soon enough."
"He's just a boy, Aryn."
"No," she disagrees as she draws my hood up. "He isn't. But if there's one thing I trust about Morrigan, it's that she'll protect him at any cost."
I take her arm, and she walks me out to the door, to where our Inquisitor is occupying herself with tending the horses. My mount, one of Master Dennet's forders, a solid, unpretentious bay mare with a comfortable gait and plenty of pluck, is dwarfed somewhat by Trevelyan's barded charger, its armour nearly as ostentatious as its mistress's. The warhorse is nervy, shifting his weight, upset no doubt by the challenge of the newcomer.
And what a challenge he is. The third horse tethered to the bar is a magnificent blue roan stallion, massive of chest and near-on seventeen hands tall, pawing the ground and tossing his head as he watches the Inquisitor like a hawk. I smile as his nostrils flare at the scent of his mistress, an inquiring snort rumbling from his chest. "Carinus," I call softly, then I whistle a quick cadence. The stallion stills, cocking his head to watch as I approach, and permits me to lay a hand on his velvet muzzle. "There you are, my Coeur du Lion." His ears flick as he rubs his head roughly against me, shoving me back into Aryn. "You big softie," I chide affectionately, a giggle rising in my throat in spite of myself.
"You always could ruin his reputation," Aryn smiles, capturing me from behind and squeezing me close.
"I couldn't get near him," Sam apologises, her tone intrigued. "I wanted to rub him down, but…"
"He's a bad-tempered old sod, Inquisitor," Aryn dismisses the apology with a smile. "Leliana was always his favourite human. She bribes him - sneaks him apples when she thinks no one's looking."
"I do not!" I protest automatically, a bashful grin finding my lips, and Aryn grins along with me as she kisses my cheek.
"Sometimes, Sister Nightingale… you are a truly terrible liar." She turns to Trevelyan. "I have two gifts for you, Inquisitor, if you'll permit."
"Of course," the Inquisitor agrees, casting me a curious glance, and I realise that her perplexity is because of me. Has she never heard me laugh before? Surely she must have.
Aryn pulls a small scroll from one of her saddlebags. "It's not exactly a secret that you've been using Grey Warden treaties to conscript men and supplies for the Inquisition. Alistair will turn a blind eye to it – I daresay Leliana has kept him informed – but not all of his nobles are so sanguine. I can't legitimize your activities in Orlais, unfortunately, but this writ, signed and sealed by me and witnessed by my lieutenants Nathaniel and Sigrun, grants you leave to use the Warden treaties to deal with the darkspawn threat raised by Corypheus in Ferelden." She smiles sardonically. "It's not much cover, I grant you, but better than nothing."
"It's a lot better than nothing," Sam disagrees with a grin. "Josie's been tearing her hair out ever since Blackwall's duplicity came to light. Thank you, Commander."
"There's not much else I can do," Aryn says regretfully, "but I have one more idea for demonstrating that you have my support, even if I can't be there to say it in person." She unbuckles her shield from Carinus' saddlebow, and hands it to the Inquisitor. "Uncover it."
Sam pulls back the rough cloth cover to reveal the Cousland coat of arms, marred by three deep scratches across the face. She looks up, shock etching into her features. "Is this…"
"It is the shield that I carried against the Blight," Aryn answers with a nod. "The scratches were a gift from the Archdemon. The Cousland blade is a symbol the darkspawn have learned to fear – it would please me if Corypheus is taught to fear it as well. Use it with my blessing."
Sam bows. "I will take it on loan, with thanks. And on the condition that you come to reclaim what is yours, when you can."
"A condition I will be glad to fulfil," Aryn agrees, with a wink for me that says she's not thinking about the shield.
Sam turns to her own mount, frees her dragon-wing shield from its strap. "Here, take mine. You'll need a good shield, and it's never let me down."
Aryn accepts the shield and hefts it on her arm. "It's got a nice balance. Thank you, Inquisitor. Maker watch over you."
"And over you, Warden-Commander."
Aryn fishes something out of her saddlebag, and steps close to me. "When I have my answer, I will come for you," she promises, running her fingers deftly through my hair. "On Andraste's holy name, I swear. I am not interested in being parted from you any longer. I love you, Leliana."
"I love you too. For my sake, Aryn, please – be careful."
She kisses me one last time, an ardent, wordless oath, presses what she's holding into my hand, tugs on her gauntlets, then swings into her saddle. Carinus, ever alert for the chance to intimidate, rears, pawing at the air with his steel-shod hooves as his battle cry rents the air. Aryn bursts out laughing at his antics, and I laugh with her as I blow a kiss farewell. She wheels the stallion, he plunges forward, and they are gone, galloping hard around the bend and lost from view in seconds.
Sam watches after them for a long moment, then sighs softly. "If you've been holding me to that standard all this time, I'm amazed you didn't throw me out on my arse months ago," she observes wryly. "Your Hero of Ferelden is quite something."
"She is," I agree, "but Sam?"
"She's not the Inquisitor. You are. And I should have told you long ago that we could not do this without you, and that I am proud to have you lead us. Justinia's loss blinded me to my compassion, to my heart. I ran from my emotions out of fear, and grief, and I should not have. I've been standoffish and distant, because I was afraid. I regret that I have let you see me like this, lost in the darker aspects of my nature." I rest a hand on Trevelyan's shoulder. "I am honoured to serve you, Inquisitor. We could not ask for a better champion for our cause. I will do better. You deserve nothing less than my best effort."
The Inquisitor blushes furiously, then smiles. "The thought of you being more competent than you are already is more than a little scary, Leliana, if you don't mind my saying."
I chuckle. "I'll take the compliment as it is intended, Inquisitor." Looking down, I open my hand to see what Aryn's gift is. A piece of parchment, carefully folded, with the broken seal of the Divine clinging to the edge. Justinia's letter to her. So that I might know the truth. I unfold it, and tears sting my eyes even as I smile. Nestled in the crease is a single white wildflower with a delicate blush of red at the centre; Andraste's Grace. Cupping it to my face, I breathe in the scent, and as I do, I feel a weight lifting from my shoulders.
"I don't recognise that flower," Sam admits.
"Andraste's Grace. It was my mother's favourite scent. Aryn never forgets to bring me one whenever we meet."
"So she's a romantic underneath all that dragonbone and sarcasm, is she?"
"The greatest I have ever known," I agree, re-folding the letter and tucking it into my belt pouch. "Which reminds me, I must apologise for threatening you about Josephine. You've made her very happy, and I'm grateful for that. Her family often make her life… difficult."
"So I've gathered, one death threat, three social scandals and a duel over her hand later," Sam laughs. "It seems I've quite the knack for landing up to my neck in interesting situations."
"As long as you can get out of them again, as my old friend Zevran would say. Not that he should be considered a role model, mark you."
Trevelyan regards me thoughtfully. "Don't think I don't appreciate just how much we've achieved because of you, Leliana. I know that some of those decisions must have been hard for you. So thank you for each and every sacrifice you've made." She hops into her saddle. "You and Cassandra were well chosen, shield and blade. Justinia's judgement was impeccable."
And if her judgement is that I may finally be free of this duty… well, who am I to argue with the Divine? Smiling, I untether my horse. "Come along then, Inquisitor. If we ride hard, we might yet make the ferry this evening. We have a lot of work to do."
"You haven't changed that much, have you, slavedriver?" Sam groans.
"Well, if you prefer…" I swing into my saddle, pull my hood back, shake my hair free, and grin as I drive my spurs into my horse's flanks, "I'll race you."