For all of her initial enthusiasm at the idea, Sten was almost convinced she would not show up, that she would instead choose to bask in the praise and admiration the Fereldans were all to eager to pour on her. Yet he decided to linger on the docks a few moments longer, despite the stench of Ferelden being all the more persistant here and seemingly three times as acrid, and that was when he saw her, weaving her way through the crowd inexpertly, a hood pulled down on her face and a backpack clutched in her arms fiercely.
There is-- perhaps not joy, exactly, but satisfaction at the sight of Amell approaching him.
She looked up and, catching Sten's gaze, quickened her pace until she stood in front of him.
"Am I late?" she asked, looking up at him with a grin at the corner of her mouth.
She had traded her Tevinter robes for her old ones, the same she'd worn when he'd first met her in Lothering. Her backpack seemed filled to bursting and he dreaded to guess what she had packed that she considered essential for this trip, as practicalities did not often come to her as easily as idealism. She also seemed filled with nervous tension, though by the way she slunk around, keeping her head down, that might have been out of fear of being recognized. To her credit, she did not succumb to pride and excessive praise still seemed to embarrass her.
"The ship has not left yet," he said by way of answer.
"Well, then, we should board before it does," she replied cheerily.
* * *
They had to share a cabin, because she was a latecomer and did not wish to draw too much attention by purchasing one of the expensive guest quarters. But the cabin was large enough and furnished with two beds, a desk, a chair and even an armoire. For privacy, the beds had curtains, which seemed to satisfy Amell well enough; it was more than she'd had in the apprentice quarters at the Tower.
She dropped her backpack by the bed and stretched herself over the covers, staring at the ceiling.
"How long will this trip take?" she asked.
"That's not very long at all," she murmured and closed her eyes.
She stood so very still for such a long time that Sten thought she might have fallen asleep. He exited the cabin at one point, prowling through the ship to spot anything amiss and when he was thoroughly satisfied at the lack of danger, he returned.
The curtains of Amell's bed were drawn and her backpack had seemingly changed place from leaning against the wall to under the bed, if the strap poking out from under there was any indication. It was evening, so it was reasonable to assume she had gone to bed. This was not alarming.
What alarmed Sten, instead, was that she slept for two days.
* * *
When Amell blearily opened her eyes and got out of bed, her head felt heavy and her eyes tired. She slept without dreaming, as she'd come to prefer, but now she felt as ravenously hungry as in those days right after her Joining.
After she finally dressed and clumsily pushed the curtains aside, she was met with Sten's uncannily level gaze, falling upon her heavy as an anvil. He was sitting on his own bed, oiling Asala, but the way he peered at her, Amell sensed he had more reason than her tangled hair. He did not say anything, however, prompting the mage to ask, in a rather brusque tone of voice,
"Are you feeling well, kadan?" he rumbled, still not moving and only watching her.
"I'm fine. Just hungry. I think I'll get breakfast," she replied, blinking slowly.
"It is rather late for breakfast, considering it is almost evening."
It took her a few moments to process this, following which her eyebrows nearly reached her hairline.
"I slept a whole day?" she asked, seeming quite amazed by this performance herself.
"Two days," Sten corrected.
Amell's brow furrowed at this and she looked to the ground.
"I suppose I was more tired than I'd thought," she said at length.
"It seems so."
That was all there was to it; Sten did not prod with any more questions and Amell went on to brush her hair and go off in search of food. She took a dose of lyrium with her dinner and stayed up nearly half the night, but by the next day, her sleep patterns had returned to normal.
* * *
Sten noticed no other anomalous behavior on Amell's part for the next few days. She sometimes left the cabin, either for food or to visit the deck, but for the most part she remained there, sitting at the desk, absorbed by a book with tiny print and complicated diagrams.
He was somewhat surprised to note that she did not talk as much as he'd have expected, limiting herself to a few perfunctory remarks. The longest conversation they'd had was the one just after she'd woken up that first time. He did not think he would miss her incessant questions or their frustrating talks quite so much, but he still refrained from starting a conversation.
The voyage was shaping up to be quite boring, but Sten was nothing if not patient and if he could entertain himself in a small cage, he could very well do so on a medium-sized passenger ship. So he had no real excuse for his reaction when, one day, as he opened his eyes from a long overdue bout of meditation, he noticed Amell staring off into space.
The book was spread open before her, but forgotten, as she sat with her elbow on the desk and her chin propped in her palm, looking straight ahead at nothing at all. The expression on her face was uncharacteristically unreadable, which he'd learned that more often than not indicated dark thoughts brewing in her head.
"Is the wall truly so interesting?" he asked before he could stop himself.
Amell flinched violently out of her reverie and turned her head to look at him, bewildered.
"What?... Oh... no," she mumbled and gave a strained smile. "I was wondering if... I was thinking about... Well..."
Sten waited as she collected her thoughts and it was a few long moments before she started speaking again, her voice low and hesitant.
"I was wondering about magical research I might find in Seheron, but I can't imagine there would be any, considering what you've told me..." she trailed off awkwardly.
This, at least, was a familiar situation, unlike the taciturn behavior he'd witnessed in Amell for the past few days.
"You still disapprove," he noted as neutrally as possible.
"I won't go into this again," she sighed. "I don't know if your people are justified in how they treat their mages. Maybe they are. Maybe they are and I'm repulsed by this because I myself don't want to end up in a cage with my tongue cut out."
"Is that what worries you, kadan?" he asked as softly as he was able. "Nobody will put you in any cage, I promise you."
She turned around in her chair to face him completely.
"Nobody will put me in a cage, or nobody will try to?" she asked carefully.
Sten had hoped she would not pick up on the difference, but was not entirely surprised that she did. She was far from the awkward, callow child he'd met the year before. The battles, the obstacles, the travels had taken a toll on her and small wrinkles had appeared at the corners of her eyes. He had expected, upon meeting her, a spectacular failure, but whatever she lacked in experience or martial prowess she overcame through sheer dogged perseverance. Yet, perhaps her trials had merely revealed what was already there, a capable woman armed with determination.
Now, however, he saw only the tired veteran of a gruesome fight, disgusted with violence and seeking to avoid it. She had served well as a Gray Warden, there was no denying it, but he disliked to see her spirit dampened in such a way. He almost wished she'd at least argue with him.
"You will be safe with me, kadan," he said instead.
She smiled at this, visibly unsure of how else to reply. Her smile waned again however and her gaze fell to the floor.
"You said once that magic is a blade without a hilt, remember?" she said after a time.
"Yes." He waited to see where she was going with this line of thought.
"I didn't believe it at the time, but I understand that now, late as it may be."
Sten does not understand everything about humans, but he recognizes guilt when he sees it.
"I might have... made a horrible mistake," she continued, looking up at Sten like a child waiting to be scolded. "And it might have been for nothing," she added, quieter still.
"Does this concern your unexpected survival after defeating the Archdemon?" he asked.
Amell blinked, looking surprised by this.
"I know the one to strike the deathblow was meant to die. Yet you are here, now," Sten pointed out.
"I... yes. I'm here because I'm a coward. I wanted to live."
"So does everyone," Sten replies. "To sacrifice one's life for duty is admirable, but it is not a sin to perform one's duty and survive as well."
"But I shouldn't have!" Amell burst. "I... I had this terrible moment, this thought that... that I spent most of my life locked away from the world and the last year trying to save it and that I wanted to see these places on the map and read that one book in the library that I've waited my entire apprenticeship to study and I thought... I thought it wouldn't be a terrible price to pay, except I realized that I really didn't know the price and it could be anything and I won't be the one to pay it, the rest of the world will and... and I... I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know what I'm supposed to do now and it would have been just as easy-- easier, maybe-- to die and not have done something like this at all..."
Her babbling stopped as she hid her face in her hands and leaned forward, propping her elbows on her knees.
Sten found himself walking over, kneeling before her and gently removing her hands so he could look her in the eye. She was not crying as he'd expected her to, but she was well on her way there.
He sensed she wanted to be reprimanded in some way for her actions, if only to feel absolved of her guilt. It was childish, he thought, but then, she'd been a child not too long ago.
"If there is one thing you have taught me, kadan, it is that the consequences of a moment of weakness can be overcome," he said, looking at her pointedly. Coming from Sten, this was the equivalent of an uplifting speech.
She looked at him blankly for a few seconds, but eventually her eyes wandered over his shoulder to Asala and, rather unexpectedly, she started crying in earnest at that point, circling his neck with one arm and hiding her face into his shoulder. Sten was momentarily taken aback by this. He was rarely in the position of having to comfort someone and even then, certainly not a hysterical woman. It was... disconcerting.
He was relieved when she finally stopped crying and released him, though this segued into another, completely different kind of awkwardness as she sat there, dabbing at her eyes with a sleeve and he stood as well, unsure of what exactly had transpired and what he should do.
"Thank you, Sten," she said shakily and forced a grin.
"There is no need," he replied before moving away slowly, as if she were a particularly skittish animal.