Seith had no idea how they managed to find their way out of that thaig. Between him, Fiann and Evan taking turns to carry Donna, with Evan playing healer as best he could and Seith wishing that he were somehow adept at healing magic.
Oh, he could break things all right. He could bloody well tear great big gaping holes in reality, but he could not fix the one person he now had to admit to himself he truly loved—the sister he'd never had while growing up.
Found family. That's what she'd called them a while back, and his heart had twisted a little at the words.
Their route took them ever upward, as Fiann led them unerringly to the surface along terraces and up more stairs. The doorways and windows of apartments gaped at them, whispering of the ghosts of the past that would snag unwary dreamers.
During some distant past cataclysm, the earth had shifted its bones and the lid had been torn from the thaig. When Seith peered up he glimpsed tangled knots of trees' roots like hair hanging down and birds that flapped and called. Birds. Sunlight slanting down through the chasm above. The sky was so bright he had to squint, but the air. Oh the air was fresh and smelled of freedom, and they hurried, for they feared the darkspawn that might still hunt them down. They were not free yet.
Donna wavered between delirium and semi-consciousness. He skin was so pale and clammy, and they stopped a few times so that she could vomit, which made Evan cuss because of the amount of blood that seeped through his makeshift bandages.
"We need help," he murmured to Seith when Fiann had gone scouting ahead. "As in real help." His woebegone expression said all Seith needed to know.
Yet Fiann was like a man possessed. He spoke calmly to Donna, pressed his lips to her forehead. "We're almost there, princess. Almost. Just you hang in there."
What were they going to do once they got wherever "there" was? Seith had no idea where "here" was—they could be all the way in the Nahashin Marshes for all he knew.
Fiann seemed oblivious to the doomed glances that Seith traded with Evan, especially when Donna no longer responded to any stimuli, and they were no nearer to an end that Seith could perceive. They'd stopped on a landing before a long bridge that bore testament to its builders' skills because the graceful span was mostly intact. Yet there were stairs leading further up, and to the left, and down… And they'd already doubled back this day. Creators, at least they'd had water to drink, even if it was somewhat stagnant and had been bustling with mosquito larvae—nothing a flash of fire magic couldn't sort out.
He supposed he should be grateful that by the time night fell, he could see faint stars pricking through the crack above them.
"I'm going to go scout ahead," Fiann said. "You guys—"
"We know," Evan said and waved him off.
Fiann was always scouting ahead. Perhaps he'd be scouting ahead when the inevitable happened, because Seith could no longer deny that. "Fenedhis," Seith said and slumped down.
"I suppose it's too much to ask for you to magic up another one of those portal thingies," Evan said.
Seith managed a raspy laugh. "What, and this time I'll bring through an Archdemon?"
Evan cut him a measured glance. "Knowing you…" Then he turned to Donna and smoothed hair behind her ear. "Not much longer now. I suppose it's for the best that he's gone off."
"Shouldn't we tell him just to stay put?" Seith couldn't look at his friend, already lying like a corpse. His chest ached, and it was from more than just the past few weeks' exertion. Donna couldn't die. Mustn't die. Not yet. It was all his fault. If he'd not deflected Mihanin's magic at quite that moment, that stray bolt wouldn't have shattered the stone… He gave a strangled cry and dug his hands into his hair and rocked forward.
Evan's hand was firm on his shoulder. "Don't."
Seith twisted round. "I could have done more! Everything is so messed up."
The human grimaced at him, his fine features sharp under the grime. "It is what it is. It's a miracle in itself that we've gotten so far after everything that we've gone through."
"Her story shouldn't end here."
"No one's story should end when it does, but who're we to say? You know I've been a total bastard to her? I feel like shit for the way she's always just carried a torch for me this whole time. Fuck, Seith, she uprooted her whole life just to follow me when I took off, and I was such a fucking bastard. I thought it was kinda cute at the time. Really great that my friend stuck by me when I went back to my ma's. 'Cos you know what my first thought was? I'd have some company on the road. It would be pleasant to have a friend along, tra-la-lah, while I go-barding. I didn't realise what hell she was going through. It was all about me." He grimaced. "And I've never told her how much she means to me. She's…like a sister. I knew she always wanted more from me, but I never told her how much she really meant to me."
Evan's eyes were suspiciously bright, and Seith turned his attention to Donna's still features while Evan wiped at his face with his wrist.
Somehow he knew that Donna would fucking hate to see them snivel around her like this. She'd tell them to suck it up. He could even imagine her slapping the back of Evan's head hard enough to make his skull ring. He laughed.
"Fuck it, but it's been a helluva story. She'd have written, right?" Seith said.
"Yeah, make her dad proud. Her real father."
"The one she never got to meet."
They both sighed.
"I'll write her a song," Evan said. "I'll make sure it's sung from Denerim all the way to Val Royeaux. Scum it, all the way to the bloody Anderfels if I have to."
"Minrathous too," Seith said.
"Aye, even if I have to gate crash one of the Archon's parties myself."
Seith allowed himself a small chuckle of laughter at the mere thought.
Voices rang out a level above them, and they both stiffened.
"What now?" Evan whispered. "Where's that bastard dwarf?"
Seith rose painfully. "I'll create a diversion. See if you can…"
There was no way Evan would manage Donna on his own, and they both knew it.
"No, we make a stand. Such as it is." Grim-faced, Evan rose.
Yet it was not a party of tomb robbers or darkspawn that reached them. Seith nearly sagged in relief when he glimpsed the Inquisition sigil beaten into silver breastplates. Fiann came ahead of a party of soldiers.
"It's young Lavellan!" a man called. "Haven't seen you in a while."
Seith blinked. "Donal?"
The human lowered the hood of his cloak and smiled at him and enveloped him in a hug. "Haven't seen you since."
"Ooff. If you say knee-high to anything, I will—"
Donal held him at arm's length so he could regard him. "You have the look of your mother about you."
The stocky human had a bit more silver at his temples, and a new scar that ran across his forehead, but otherwise he was the same as Seith remembered from his days getting underfoot at Skyhold. He'd always loved visiting in the tavern whenever Sutherland's crew was off duty.
"My—" Seith glanced at Donna.
The elven woman who crouched by his friend looked up at Sutherland at that point. "She's bad."
"You do your best, Feyana."
Things became muddled for Seith then as he and Evan and Fiann were swept up in the rescue party. A makeshift stretcher was formed out of blankets, and Donna was hefted away. Someone shoved a small flask containing some sort of herbal tincture in Seith's hand, and he downed the bitter fluid that immediately suffused him with a sense of hope and well-being. A blanket was cast about his shoulders and he was hurried from this place of darkness. In the end, that was all that mattered, wasn't it?
As it turned out, they'd exited the Deep Roads southwest of a tributary of some Orlesian river that eventually brought them to Val Foret. Here they requisitioned a coaches and sent birds ahead to Skyhold. Donna was in a serious but stable condition. That was all he could get out of the healer, Feyana. Between him, Fiann and Evan, they took turns to ride in her coach. She slept, in a severe weakened state. The few times that she did awaken, he wasn't sure if she even realised when and where she was, though her faint smile was brighter than the sun.
It was the strangest thing, Sutherland told him one night at an inn. They would never have diverted their search for a notorious band of tomb robbers if it weren't for the dream he'd had. Sutherland wasn't much one for putting any stock in dreams, but for some reason he said he felt as if he could confide in Seith, and he'd leaned closer so that only Seith could hear him tell how Andraste herself had instructed him to head towards that abandoned, nameless thaig. Imagine his surprise when he should run directly into Fiann headed the other way…
Seith shivered. Perhaps his father, the lord of dreams and lies, had shown them some mercy after all.
Donna wasn't certain of much for a long time. Her body was shaken and bumped, and someone forced her to drink awful-tasting liquids. Yet there were cool hands to mop her brow, and a familiar baritone half-sang the songs she remembered from her childhood.
Often, she fell into the oblivion of sleep, only to be woken into a half-state of awareness. Was this what it was like to dream? Gradually, the pain receded, but she sought refuge in the darkness, because that was where true healing lay. Little was certain, but she was among those she cared about, and by Andraste's grace, she was still alive and no longer lost within that Maker-cursed thaig.
Fiann's familiar hand was often slipped into hers, and she came fully to her senses, aware of the grind of wheels on gravel, of the swaying, jolting motion as they glided along.
"Where—" she croaked.
"Hush, my love, you are safe." Warm lips were pressed to her forehead and his familiar scent washed over her.
Donna cracked open her eyes and made out his blurred features within the dimness of the interior with its quilted walls. She lay on a makeshift bed across one seat of a carriage, and from the movement, they were hurrying along a well-kept road.
"Where are we?" she whispered.
"About three days outside of Redcliffe," he said.
"Please, drink something." Fiann brought a cup to her lips.
Donna swallowed a small mouthful of liquid, tasted elfroot and mint, as well as hints of a bitter tincture she knew was one of Evan's specialities.
"Is this going to make me sleep again?" Donna asked. She'd rather not. At least not for a while.
"You lost much blood," Fiann said. "You were struck by debris in that thaig, and the wound soured. We thought—" He grimaced, squeezed her hand hard. "We thought we'd lost you."
"Shhh," Fiann said, and half glanced over his shoulder at the two forms slumped against each other behind him—Seith and Evan each bundled in cloaks and leaned against each other on the opposite seat.
"It's been a long ride, and we've been taking turns tending to you. We feared we'd lose you, and we felt it best to bring you to Skyhold as fast as possible once we'd had you stabilised."
"How did we get out of the thaig?"
Fiann shook his head. "It was the strangest coincidence. Just as I was making my way to the entrance, I encountered a certain agent Sutherland and his crew." His smile grew broad. "Oh, he was a sight for sore eyes indeed! He tells me he'd been hunting down some tomb robbers and his quest had brought him within the vicinity of what he'd heard reported as an old thaig. The timing couldn't have been better."
Donna frowned. "How is that even possible?"
"The Maker works in mysterious ways, my love."
She wasn't convinced, be the drowsiness from the medicine she'd been given started to creep up on her and she slid away into sleep again.
Little by little, she was able to stay awake for longer spells, and the remaining days of her journey seemed to pass in a strange kind of limbo, as if the only world that existed was here, in that carriage, where she was surrounded by the people who were dearest to her. It pleased her no end that Evan, Seith and Fiann gave all appearances to have become fast friends since their ordeal. They spoke about their assorted pasts, their dreams, and Donna dug deep within her heart and realised that she didn't know what she herself wanted.
She hadn't touched her writing in months, didn't even know if she still possessed the wherewithal to pick up a quill, dip it in ink and make sensible marks on a fresh sheet of paper. If she did manage to finish a story, would her publisher in Kirkwall spare a glance for her submission considering that she hadn't been in contact with him for such a long time? Would she have to start right at the bottom again? Or would she be like her father and spew out a volume of words about events so weird, so unutterably bizarre, that she'd be considered completely mad?
Or would she end up working as a guard at some tavern again, like back in Redcliffe?
She and Fiann hadn't had a moment to themselves during this time. When they did overnight at roadside inns, she shared her room with Feyana, the dour Inquisition agent and healer who'd been assigned to their convoy.
There hadn't been any moments to discuss a future for her and Fiann together, and from the sound of things, he wasn't about to give up his adventuring ways anytime soon. Not with her still as weak as a newborn nug, and prone to dizzy spells.
For the present, she drew comfort from the fact that he was with her, read to her, held her hand. His eyes were warm when he looked at her, even if his kisses were chaste, as if she were a porcelain doll apt to break if he so much as breathed on her.
The day they arrived at Redcliffe, they stopped long enough to change horses. Donna and Evan traded meaningful glances, but he didn't mention her family nor did she bring up the thorny topic. What could she say about a mother who'd been all too happy for her stepfather to marry Donna off to further his business interests? At some point, she'd reach out to her half-brothers, but currently she didn't possess the nerve.
Soon enough, they were headed up that familiar switchback pass, and she asked that they keep open the blinds so that she could breathe in the fresh resin of sunshine on pines. The air grew crisper and colder as they ascended, and Donna shoved aside her concerns and merely enjoyed the last of their journey. Three days by carriage, with one night at an inn and a last night camping beneath the stars with the scent of wood smoke in her hair.
Then the road became steeper, and she knew they were on the final leg of their journey. Nearly there.
The mountain fastness appeared to grow out of the very peaks upon which it was rooted, its battlements adorned with the Inquisitions banners that fluttered in the brisk breeze that Donna was well aware never ceased. She pulled her cloak tighter, and hung out as far as she dared as their carriage rattled along. The snow-crusted heights made her feel the cold marrow deep.
Evan tugged at her, and she sat back down.
"You're going to catch your death if you hang out there like a peasant," he told her.
Fiann and Seith sniggered.
"I can't believe this is almost over," Donna said.
"You going to write about it?" Seith asked.
"Do you think anyone would believe me?"
"No one believes the esteemed Tethras's tall tales either," Evan said.
"He embellishes, for sure," Fiann said, "but there is a strong backbone of truth."
"How would you know?" Donna shot back.
"Oh." He shrugged, waggled his brows. "I get around."
"You've met him?" A cold thrill of something iced her blood. Then again, she wouldn't put it past Fiann. He travelled, a lot. On Inquisition business as a respected agent. She should have known.
"I've met him too," Seith said, "before you get all freaked out. He was still living here Skyhold when I was little."
"True." Donna puffed out a breath, feeling suddenly light-headed.
While she hadn't kept her actual father's identity a secret from her friends, the topic wasn't one that she'd brought up all that often. She didn't want to sound as if she were trying to lean on the identity of a father she'd never met, and who in all likelihood didn't even know she existed. Or, if he did, he sure as the Void hadn't been arsed to make any contact with her or her mother all these years.
As if sensing her discomfort, Fiann shifted over to her and pulled her closer to him so that she could lean her head against his shoulder. Still, she found herself a little miffed with him for only letting on now that he'd had dealings with the one and only Varric Tethras in the past. Yet she allowed conversation to flow around her, listened with half an ear while the others started talking about the first things they'd do when they arrived at the fortress.
Predictably, Evan planned to hit the Herald. Seith mumbled something about the library, until Fiann reminded them all that they were to go straight to the tower for a debriefing before anyone thought to go anywhere. Except Donna. She had a reprieve, and was to go straight to the infirmary so that a healer could examine her.
"I'm sure our resident mistress of the ravens will make special dispensation to come see you."
"Are you just sparing me the ordeal or is there something you're discussing that I shouldn't be privy to you," Donna asked, somewhat waspishly.
Fiann pressed his lips to her forehead. "The former, my love. You should see yourself—you're positively wan. Get some rest."
As if to mock her indignation, Donna was wracked by a fit of painful coughing that lasted so long that she feared she'd pass out. As it was, by the time their carriage rolled beneath the portcullis, she was ready to go straight to sleep again, and Evan muttered on about how he worried that she was feverish again.
Seith said very little; he only pressed his lips together and stared at her with worry etched in his dark eyes.
The courtyard was a chaos of stable hands, soldiers and servants. Fiann and Evan were right beside her, guiding her through the throng to an entrance near the kitchens. The twists and turns they took through the warren of passages in the lower levels of the castle were so confusing, Donna feared she'd be lost if she tried to navigate on her own. She hadn't been this deep into the mountain fastness before.
The infirmary was situated on the north-facing side, with arched windows overlooking the herb garden. Chantry sisters, clad in white, ghosted between the beds, and an older man dressed in dark blue robes with an Inquisition sigil embroidered in silver on the front took over from Fiann and Evan.
"Don't lea—" Donna said to Fiann, suddenly understanding that she was to stay here, among strangers, while they went on to see the Spymaster.
He paused, dragged her into his arms where she felt safe. "I promise you, I will come back, but you must rest, receive proper healing, and here you have the best with Enchanter Morris." He nodded towards the mage. "He studied under none other than Wynne." He laughed as she gasped. "Yes, none other than the lady herself. You're in good hands. Allow him to do his work. None of us are running away."
Unaccountably, tears prickled in the corners of her eyes, but Donna nodded, came in for one more hug and a kiss, then watched like a forlorn child as Fiann and Evan left.
"Come," Morris said, his touch gentle on her shoulder. "Let's take a look at you, shall we?"
When they were done with the examination, Donna slept. For how long, she wasn't certain, because whatever Morris had put in that tea to ease her fever, had knocked her out more soundly than she had expected.
The Spymaster was every bit as terrifying as she'd been the last time Seith had to endure her scrutiny, but it helped that Fiann and Evan were here for the debriefing and shared in his ordeal. She was especially interested in Mihanin's mission, and even more upset by the fact that Solas had taken the orb. Leliana didn't say as much, but Seith was certain she blamed him rather than Fiann for losing the orb.
Already Fiann leaned over the table, stabbing at locations on a map, and from the direction the toing and froing went between the dwarf and the Spymaster, Seith could pick up that they were plotting another mission.
"You'll accompany him, of course," Leliana said.
"Me?" Seith shrank back on his chair, hating the way his voice squeaked on that single syllable.
"Yes you." She steepled her fingers, her face shadowed beneath her hood. "You're better equipped than most of us to treat with the apostate and find out his intentions. Artefacts like that should not fall into the wrong hands."
Seith bristled. "And what makes you think that my father's hands are the wrong hands?"
That last conversation with Solas came front of mind, in startling clarity.
"I am but another tool for you then?" Seith said.
"Fortuitous, I'd say rather. Never a tool."
"But we were in the right place at the right time, to your advantage, it would seem."
His father offered him a small smirk. "I won't deny that, and I will warn that there are those who will seek to use you for their own ends."
"Like you." Bitterness burned at the back of Seith's throat.
"I'd rather you come to me of your own free will."
Seith saw it then. To the Inquisition he was but a tool as well—a dangerous tool—and they'd seek to control him, or destroy him, much like when he was only a small boy accidentally dragging demons through his own makeshift rifts.
Leliana watched him, and he tried to return her gaze evenly, but felt how his skin grew warm then cold, then warm again at her regard. She knew that he knew.
Seith dropped his gaze, studied his ragged nails, bitten to the quick.
"I will sleep on it and come see you in the morning," he mumbled.
"I will hold you to it," she said, and he had the distinct impression that she would have him watched in case he ran.
Thereafter he excused himself, said he felt unwell. It was an obvious ploy, but clearly Leliana and Fiann had no further use for him, though Evan remained behind, oblivious to Seith's discomfort and obviously enthusiastic about tagging along with Leliana's scheme. Allegedly she had word of an encampment somewhere in the Brecilian forest where elves had been noted coming and going, and there was talk of rebellion…
He couldn't even go see Cullen. That bit deep. His foster-father had retired to a farm somewhere in the Fereldan hinterlands, and now ran a home for Templars recovering from lyrium addiction. According to Leliana he was frail but still driven to overcome the aftereffects of withdrawal. Seith would have to visit him at another stage, and it galled him that he hadn't made good on his promise to help Cullen find a cure. He wasn't sure he'd have the opportunity now, not with all the complications he currently faced.
Numb, Seith wandered to the infirmary. He didn't quite know where else to go, and he needed to speak to Donna one last time. There, he'd admitted it. He was going to go. How, he wasn't quite sure yet, but despite his own misgivings about his trickster of a father, he wasn't going to be a pawn in the Spymaster's game either.
The lore surrounding the orb bothered him. A focus, a repository of vast power. To do what with? Frustration gnawed, because Seith could sense a larger story afoot, one in which he might still play a role.
"All right. I'll bite," he said to no one in particular as he paused on a landing.
A servant passed him, raised a brow at Seith apparently speaking to no one in particular. Then Seith hurried along, a tight smile tugging at his lips.
The infirmary was quiet, with only an apprentice seated quietly in a corner, studying her notes. The shutters were pulled closed, the lamps dimmed, and Seith only recognised the figure by Donna's bed when he was halfway across the floor.
His heart stuttered and he halted midstride.
Varric, perhaps a little greyer around the temples, a bit more careworn, sat by Donna's bedside, his hands folded over a book that rested on his lap. His head snapped up and his gaze alit upon Seith. He frowned but then a smile broadened his lips.
"Well if it isn't old Stinky. How are you doing?"
Seith could only laugh. "No one's called me that in more than a decade."
"I never forget my friends," Varric said.
His chest tight, Seith closed the distance between them then came to a halt at the foot of Donna's bed. She was breathing deeply, evenly, and though pale, looked far healthier than she had in a long, long time.
"Will she be all right?" he asked.
"Old Morris is a good one. Says she just needs rest."
"Have you spoken to her yet?" Seith asked. For some reason, his throat was so thick he could barely speak.
"No, but I'll be here when she awakens."
"Why did you never..." Seith was too tired, too overwhelmed to rely on subtly.
Varric shook his head. "I had no idea. Ceren, her mother…" He glanced at Donna then looked up at Seith again. "She never told me. All this time, and I had to hear it from Nightingale, and by the time I responded, you lot were missing in action. When that bird came, that you'd been found…"
"You came through to Skyhold immediately." Seith allowed himself a chuckle. "Donna's going to be so pissed when she wakes up and you're sitting right here."
Seith shrugged. "To be honest, I don't know. She used to tell me that we'd go to Kirkwall, and she'd make an appointment to see the viscount, and then she'd drop the jar of bees on you just to see the look on your face. She writes books, you know?"
"Hey?" Varric's smile was genuinely pleased.
"Something about a Bard's Gambit and a Dracolisk's Den."
"What? The Bard's Gambit and In the Dracolisk's Den," Varric said.
"You've read them?"
"Of course. They were a bit raw, but solid, for juvenilia."
Seith snorted. "Shit's weird."
"I saw what you did there."
"Indeed, well." Seith shifted from foot to foot, suddenly uncomfortable, as if he was intruding on someone else's story. "I must be off. Tell Donna I'll check in on her soon." Not a lie, exactly.
"Will do. See you later at the Herald."
"Sure." Now that was a lie.
They shook hands and Seith spared one last glance at Donna.
"Dareth shiral, ma falon," he murmured before he hurried from the infirmary.
As much as it felt as if his heart was tearing in two, this had to be done.
Seith hurried down the passage, dropping his barriers, drawing hard on his mana and leaning hard on his sorrow for the blade of willpower he'd need to tear the Veil once more. The air before him began to shimmer, and by the time he reached the disturbance, the rift was just wide enough for him to step through to the other side.
Thank you to all of you who've followed me on this journey. Donna and Seith have become dear to me, and have helped remind me why it is that I spin stories. This is our friends' "happy for now". As for what happens after, I'll leave that up to your imaginings.