Once again, apologies to my readers for my extended hiatus. Work, children and other projects consumed my time at the expense of this story. I hope that my updates will be more timely in the future.
As always, Bioware owns all, I'm merely playing with their toys.
Aithne wrinkled her nose; its tip was cold outside her bedroll. She shifted tucking her body tight against Zevran's. Somehow the cold seemed out of place. Camping in the winter should be cold - but, no, that wasn't right. They were in Markham, in a house. She opened her eyes to find the fire out and frost coating blankets where moisture from her breath had condensed. She sighed and rose; the fire wouldn't relight itself. Zevran mumbled something and reached for her. Aithne smiled and tucked the blankets back around him.
"How is it we can never travel anywhere warm?" Zevran's complaint emerged from the blanket he had pulled over his head.
"You seemed plenty warm last night."
"I had company."
"Well, if that's all you need I can have Sky crawl in with you." The Mabari had come downstairs and was whining softly.
"No! No, I have no wish to be cold and smell like dog." Zevran wrapped a blanket around himself as he sat up and crept closer to the fire Aithne was kindling. "Here, I'll take care of this. Sky needs out."
Anders was entertaining Mei in the parlor, much to the amusement of a yawning Leliana, by the time Aithne returned from taking Sky for her morning run. She paused in the door to watch the child, grinning at the sound of a muffled "brasca" and the tantalizing scent of frying sausages from the kitchen.
Leliana stood and walked over to her friend. "She seems such an ordinary child; sometimes it's hard to believe she is more."
"I was thinking much the same thing." Mei's squeal of delight surrounded them as Anders found a ticklish spot. "I can feel no taint in her, no evil. Watching her, it's hard to remember she's central to a prophesy, a target for the Grey Wardens, and a potential pawn in games of power."
"She is a prize in such games, make no mistake of that." Morrigan joined them, looking scarcely refreshed despite a full night's sleep. The witch caught Aithne's gaze. "I would speak with you a moment."
Aithne nodded sharply and followed Morrigan back to the kitchen.
"Ah, such loveliness. To what do I owe the pleasure, ladies?" Zevran looked up from the pans sizzling on the wood stove.
"I've no time for such foolishness. What I have to say concerns you both." Morrigan's arrogant stance faltered a bit. "Aithne, you know what I will become. I have little time left and Mei must be kept safe – not just from Grey Wardens and the Tevinter mages, but also from my mother, when she returns. I trust no other with this; you alone have stood by me. I ask you, as a friend, to take Mei and raise her as your own when my time comes."
"What of Alistair?" Aithne queried.
"What of him? He contributed his seed, no more. Mei's future does not concern him." Morrigan's voice was cold. "He could not protect her, in any case. Ferelden is still weak from the blight and Alistair is not sufficiently ruthless."
"And I am?"
"Yes, you will do what needs to be done. You've proven that, against my good advice at times."
Aithne stared at Morrigan, trying to fathom the motivations in her yellow eyes. "What of Zevran? What is his part in this?"
The dark-haired witch gave a brief snort of laughter. "Besides the fact that he occupies your bed and appears likely to do so for the foreseeable future; he is lethal, cunning and devoted to you."
"Tsk, tsk, such flattery, Morrigan. And here I thought it was my dashing good looks and massage skills you wanted me for."
Aithne held up a hand to forestall the witch's reply. The subject was too serious for the conversation to degenerate into their usual sarcastic banter. "Morrigan, for myself, I would say yes. But I can't answer for Zevran." She turned to her lover. "It will likely mean travel and hiding in remote villages, possibly with the Dalish, for many years."
"To the gates of the Black City," was his soft reply.
"'Tis settled then. I will inform the others, so there are no questions when the time comes."
Aithne waited until the dark-haired witch left the room before turning to Zevran. To her surprise his lips were curved in a thoughtful smile.
"It seems your Fen'Harel has quite the sense of humor. It doesn't seem so long ago, that we were discussing why we shouldn't have children. Now we are pledged to a child with more dangerous enemies than our own."
They lingered over breakfast, the heavy snowfall abating their sense of urgency. Travel would be difficult, not only for the companions, but also for their enemies. Finally, warmed by hot food and a strong, bitter beverage Zevran called coffee, Aithne and Leliana set out for The Lady's Harp leaving the others to guard Mei.
A hum of comfortable conversation enveloped them as they entered the inn. Many of the inn's guests were seated in the common room enjoying a leisurely breakfast, since both business and travel had been postponed by the recent storm. The two women took seats at a corner table and ordered mulled cider. The innkeeper returned with the steaming cider and deftly slipped a scrap of paper to Leliana when he set the mugs down.
Aithne casually sipped her beverage (it really was excellent cider), while biting back her impatience to discuss the note. The hastily scrawled Plough and Furrow meant nothing to her, but Leliana seemed to recognize the name. They stayed at the table, two friends stopping to warm themselves, for nearly half an hour. Finally, Leliana rose and Aithne trailed her back into the cold.
The bard turned south from the Harp and casually strolled for several blocks before speaking. "The Plough is a brothel near the alienage; it serves some rough customers, and apparently our dark-haired spy. A bit of coin should yield information and access to his room – the Plough's ladies are neither paid nor treated well."
"How did the innkeeper know…?"
"You think my contacts exist only to provide shelter for travelers?" Amusement rippled in Leliana's words.
Aithne shook her head; the complexities of the game Leliana played were far out of her league. It was easier to simply follow the vibrant bard's lead in matters of intrigue than to attempt to sort them out for herself.
Not far from the alienage gates they found a decaying two-story mansion. Peeling paint on the sign declared their arrival at the Plough and Furrow. Aithne grimaced in distaste as they ascended the sagging steps. Her experience with houses of ill-repute had been limited to a handful of trips to the Pearl, none of them for pleasure. At least none of the Pearl's employees had the haggard, empty expressions she noted looking down from the Plough's windows.
"I don't buy Dalish." A hatchet faced Madam dismissed Leliana and gestured toward the door.
"I should hope not." Aithne swept her cloak back, revealing two dagger hilts previously concealed by her hood and the unmistakably rich sheen of drake-scale armor. "Because if I were to find one of my people held here…." Unfamiliar fury swept through her at the thought of a Dalish held in this cesspool.
Leliana grinned and yielded control of the situation to Aithne. It was not how she had expected the encounter to go, but the Madam's unfortunate assumption could yield both entertaining results and information without the expenditure of coin if the Dalish Warden continued on the same path.
Aithne stalked toward the human Madam, her righteous anger lending her presence greater than her slender stature. A hulking man with beady eyes moved to intercept her. She caught his fist and tripped him to the floor, a tiny stiletto poised to rid him of his family jewels if he interfered again. Aithne pinned the Madam with her gaze. "Now, let's start over. Perhaps we should begin with you not assuming that every elf is a slave or a servant. Then we could continue with you answering my questions. If you are polite and give me the answers I need, then we leave. If not, well…" The stiletto parted cloth, freezing the man on the floor, as its mate appeared in Aithne's other hand.
The Madam glared back, unwilling to submit to a mere elf. The second stiletto blurred and sank into the wall scarcely two inches from her head and another slender dagger appeared from a boot as the elf stared her down. "What do you want?"
"We are looking for a man." Aithne held the woman with her gaze silently cursing her own uncharacteristic lack of control. Leliana gave a precise description of their mark and it was clear the Madam recognized it.
"He's gone, left this morning with another fellow. Paid his account in good silver, he did."
"Do you know where he went?" It was a slender hope, but Leliana asked anyway.
"Nah, why would he tell the likes of us?"
"Let's go, she doesn't know anything else." Aithne allowed the bouncer to rise to his feet as she backed toward the door.
They slipped out the door as the sound of heavy steps and the jingle of chainmail sounded above them. The two rogues retreated, taking a wandering course down side streets and alleys until they were sure any pursuit was lost.
"Not that I didn't enjoy every minute of your little show, but warn me next time."
"Sorry Leli, I just…the thought of a Dalish in that place." Aithne frowned. "We probably would have more information if I hadn't…."
"I understand, it's part of your vow as a Dalish."
"We are the last of the Elvehenan, and never again shall we submit. Still, I'm more than just Dalish now, and then there's Mei…."
"Don't worry over it. We're not far from the south gate now, we can enquire there."
As it turned out, their quarry had indeed exited the south gate earlier that morning, accompanied by another armed and armored man. Aithne and Leliana hastened back to the house, concerned that the suspected Wardens had gone for reinforcements.
"Zevran, Anders, you're with me. Morrigan, Wynne, Shayle, stay and guard Mei. Leliana, can you find out if our friends had any other contacts in the city?"
"Good. Then let's saddle up." Aithne left, trailed by Sky, with Zevran and Anders close behind.
They exited the south gate before the noon bells rang and followed the only hoof-prints in the new-fallen snow. Turning their mounts west they headed for a hazy forest some miles away. With the fresh snow there was no need for Sky to follow the scent, and they made good time.
Several hours later, they rode beneath snow-laden trees and attempted to sort out the maze of fresh trails that wound through the wood. The area was clearly heavily used, no doubt by brigands, highwaymen and other unsavory sorts, though they saw no one. Even Sky seemed to have lost the trail in the myriad of scents swirling under her nose.
Zevran spared a glance for their back-trail before speaking. "This would be a splendid place for an ambush, no?"
"You think we were set up?" Aithne queried as she noted the unusual stillness of the forest.
"Si. This feels wrong."
"You're both making the back of my neck itch. I've spent enough time hunted by the Templars; I have no desire to be stalked by anyone else. Let's go back. Besides…" Anders wiggled his fingers dramatically and shivered. "I'm so cold that I'll be casting lightning-sickles."
With another wary glance around the silent forest, Aithne nodded assent to Anders' suggestion and turned her horse back toward Markham. "I suspect they've gone for reinforcements. We need to get back to make plans anyway."
It was a quiet ride back toward the city. Losing the Wardens' trail raised the specter of fresh pursuit and the need for a rapid departure from the Free Marches. They rode through the city gate just at twilight on lathered horses, plans already set.
Zevran and Anders went immediately to the market to obtain fresh provisions before the vendors closed their shops. Aithne headed for the house, anxious to prepare the rest of their company for an early morning and hard riding. She was nearly to the front door when Sky drew her attention. The Mabari was growling, hackles raised, and Aithne drew her sword before cautiously opening the door.
Blood… and the tang of fear. The scent swirled through the house. Sky rushed past her whining frantically, claws scrabbling on the wood floor. Aithne resisted the impulse to dash after the Mabari and sank into the shadows instead, stalking forward cautiously, aware of every sound, every breath of air. Too quiet now, no childish giggles, no conversation, not even the whisper of fabric from Wynne's sewing basket. A noise from the sitting room drew her attention, and she crept around the corner to investigate.
Leliana sat, tears streaking her face, over a pile of bloodied mage's robes. It was Wynne, her expression serene in death, as it had been in life.
The bard looked up, stricken.
"Leli, what happened?"
"I don't know. I spent the day chasing tips that led nowhere. I came back to find…." The red-head stroked the mages hand helplessly, choking on a sob. "It's not fair, after everything during the blight, to lose her now, like this…."
"What of the others, Lel? Where's Morrigan? Where's Mei?" Aithne's voice rose on the last words.
"I don't… I just barely got here. Oh, no!" The bard gently pulled a fold of Wynne's robe over sightless eyes as she stood.
Aithne motioned for Leliana to check the ground floor while she followed Sky's faint whines up the stairs. The metallic taste to the air told her of blood spilled before she found the first crimson splash, drips and drops, a bigger spray here, now a spreading pool on the rug. Down the hall, silent steps leaving no mark in the drying stains, she worked her way to the open door.
Sky whimpered, nudging the motionless Morrigan, who sat propped against the bed in a macabre display, tainted skin streaked with fresh scarlet and drying purple-black. Aithne knelt to check the fallen apostate, hoping to find some sign of life. "Morrigan, please, not you too."
"A bit late, aren't you, Warden?" The words were faint but unmistakable as Morrigan's eyelids fluttered.
"Morrigan! Here, let me help you." Aithne fumbled for a health poultice, trying to distance emotion and focus on her patient; airway- open, breathing- shallow but steady, circulation- pulse thready, blood loss, check for wounds. The healer's litany ran through her head as she worked to stabilize her patient.
"Aithne, I've found Shayle. She's alive, but I can't wake her. The rest of the house is empty." Leliana pushed past Sky to stare at the bed where Aithne was working to save Morrigan. "Will she live?"
Aithne shrugged. "I can treat the wounds I can see, but…." She paused and took a breath. "There's internal damage, and the wounds I can see are from no blade. This was blood magic. We need Anders."
"Where is he? Did something else happen?"
"Nothing happened, that's the problem. We lost the trail. Zevran and Anders went to the market for provisions…." Aithne stopped, realizing who else was missing. "Morrigan, wake up!" She gave her patient a gentle shake. "Morrigan, where's Mei?"
Black lashes fluttered against the apostate's pale face. "Taken…, I couldn't stop them."