It's the end! Yes, this is the final chapter …
The first bath was an exercise in futility. There came a point where Aedan wasn't sure if the filthy water was making any difference as he scrubbed at the ground in blood and dirt and what was that…? He rubbed at the mystery stain and put aside the brush. He called for a second bath.
Aedan fell asleep in the second bath. The water was warm and clean and as he sank into its depths he could hear the somewhat comforting sound of voices passing in the hallway, the muffled thump of something being dropped in the next room, the hiss and spit of the lanterns that adorned his room. Normal sounds, not the skittering of many legs or the shrieking moans of ghosts.
When he awoke the water was cool and he looked around himself in surprise. His fingers were a little numb beneath their wrinkled skin and it took him a moment to clamber from the tub. Clean clothes had been laid out across the bed for him and his armour had been set upon a stand. It was also clean. How many people had been in and out of his room while he slept… in a tub!? Granted the tub was screened from the main chamber, but he couldn't help shaking his head in wonderment.
Aedan had just finished dressing when there was a soft knock at the door. It was Leliana. He smiled broadly and stepped towards her, preparing to take into his arms. But the expression on her face stopped him short. She looked…apprehensive.
"Leliana, what has happened?" he asked.
Leliana shook her head softly and gave a wry smile before saying, "Apart from spending the better part of two weeks in the Deep Roads, you mean?"
Aedan chuckled and took another step forward. He pulled her into a close hug, resting his cheek against her head. Her hair smelled clean and fresh and he inhaled the scent of soap and woman with delight.
Besides having no baths, there had been little privacy during their time in the Deep Roads and he longed to kiss her properly, something more than the simple pecks to her cheek he had limited himself to in company of others. He bent towards her face but she turned away and said, "Aedan, I'd like to talk."
Her face was a mask of misery and Aedan's heart sank to the soles of his boots. His arms dropped leadenly to his sides and he found it difficult to draw breath. Talk? About what? He took a step back and regarded her carefully before asking again, "Leliana, what has happened? Is something wrong?"
Leliana's hands tangled themselves before her, and she looked down at her fingers a moment before speaking, when she looked up, her expression was one of forced calm. She said quietly, "Aedan, I know you care for me a great deal, maybe you even love me," her shoulders shrugged lightly.
Aedan opened his mouth to speak, he wanted to say, 'Yes, I do, I'm sorry I didn't say so sooner…' but she held up a hand and continued, "What we are doing is too important for you to be distracted. And I see that you are… have been… and I see how it pains you to choose between your heart and your duty…"
She continued speaking but Aedan had stopped listening to her words. He heard only his own thoughts, which predominantly consisted of no, no, no, no…
Leliana had stopped speaking and was looking at him quietly.
He said, "No… Leli, don't leave…"
Leliana blinked and said, "I'm not going anywhere…" she signed softly and said, "We are friends and we are a team and I will see this quest to the end with you. But I cannot sit by and watch you at cross purposes with yourself, because of me. Perhaps when this is all done…maybe afterwards, we shall see?"
She was looking at him seriously, but Aedan thought he could see a flicker of hope in her eyes. He took her by the shoulders and started to say, "I don't want…"
He was interrupted by a loud banging at the door.
Cursing, Aedan dropped his hands and moved to the door. It was Alistair. He beckoned urgently at Aedan and said, "The Assembly is in session, we must hurry!"
Aedan clenched his fists at his sides and took a deep breath. He leaned back through the doorway and said, "Leliana, I have to go."
She began with, "Of course you do…" but he quickly put in, "Can we talk more…later…please?"
She hesitated, and then nodded. He returned the gesture and stood on the threshold of the room a moment, simply looking at her until Alistair tugged his sleeve, urging him down the hallway.
"Where is Oghren, does he have the crown?" Aedan asked of him.
"He is waiting at the Chamber of the Assembly." Alistair replied as he urged Aedan to a swifter pace.
As they exited the Royal Palace, Sten and Zevran fell into step beside them and the four companions quickly made their way to the Assembly where Oghren was indeed waiting, crown held reverently in his hands.
Aedan could hear raised voices when the doors to the main chamber opened before them, but as they were announced a hush fell over the assembled deshyrs. Every head turned to face them and Bhelen asked, "Well Warden, what news do you bring?"
"I bring a crown forged by Caridin on the Anvil of the Void," Aedan replied and the hushed silence erupted into noise as the assembled dwarves gasped and exclaimed.
Steward Bandelor called for silence and Oghren took it upon himself to describe the outcome of their quest for a paragon. When he finished Lord Harrowmont stepped forward and gestured with his hands toward Aedan saying, "I would like to believe Oghren's words, but it is well known the Warden is Bhelen's hireling."
The disdain in the lord's voice was obvious, but though Aedan bristled he kept his tongue. This was not his place.
Bandelor had been turning the crown over in his hands as Oghren related his tale and he looked up at Harrowmont's words and called for silence. He said, "This crown is of Paragon make and bears House Ortan's ancient seal. Tell us Warden: whom did Caridin choose?"
Aedan swallowed drily, this was not how he'd imagined this situation. He'd hoped to pass the crown to Bhelen quietly, not become embroiled in debate. Caridin had not cared to hear the names of those involved, had simply told him to give the crown to the king of his choice. His choice. Aedan held back a sigh of frustration as he briefly wondered why it had fallen to him to name a dwarven king.
Harrowmont was speaking, "Why would a Paragon trust someone who knows nothing of us with such a decision? This is preposterous!"
Bandelor turned to the lord again, silencing him with a gesture, his face clearly indicating his patience was at an end. He said, "We have argued in these chambers long enough. The will of the Paragon is that the Grey Warden decide."
Aedan realized this was not a simple matter of blood. This was a matter of character. He looked toward Harrowmont. The lord's face could have been a thundercloud, such was his fury. He was an older man, his hair a steely grey and his face deeply lined. Harrowmont professed to have heard King Endrin's last words, but he had also promised the same deed to two houses in order to gain their confidence. Did his word really hold so little value?
In contrast, Bhelen was young and vibrant. His icy blue eyes flashed with confidence and though his manner was cold and he was rumoured to have been ruthless in his pursuit of the throne, he was ambitious. He had innovative ideas and the energy to see them through. He represented change, something the dwarves were historically resistant to.
Aedan nodded to no one in particularly, simply confirming his decision to himself and said, "I grant the crown to Bhelen."
Bhelen crowed as he stepped forward to receive his due and not a moment passed with the crown upon his head before the dwarf challenged Harrowmont, demanding that he acknowledge his rule. Harrowmont acceded, bending his knee to Bhelen. Orzammar's new king was not satisfied, however, and he cried, "Then as my first act as king, I call for this man's execution!"
An excited murmur rippled through the assembled deshyrs and Aedan stood there wordless. He was stunned, shocked beyond speech. What had he done? Had he made the wrong choice in crowning such a ruthless man?
He heard a gasp behind him and then Alistair's voice rang out, "We did not give you that crown so you could be a tyrant!"
Bhelen's expression showed no remorse, only determination as he replied, "You know better than anyone the war facing us, Warden. Orzammar cannot afford to be divided. Anyone undermining my reign is serving only the darkspawn."
The ringing in Aedan's ears prevented him from hearing anything more as he helplessly watched Harrowmont being led away by guards. He could do nothing. This was not his city, these were not his politics and he deeply regretted having been involved. He turned and began to walk away, walking past Alistair and Oghren, wanting to leave the chamber altogether. His job was done, he'd seen enough.
Not only had he perhaps lost Leliana in this quest, he'd ensured yet another man's death. Was this what it was like to be a Grey Warden? Was his life from here on out going to be filled with impossible choices and self recrimination?
Alistair caught up to him and placed a hand on his arm. He said, "Bhelen seeks an audience with you at the palace…"
Aedan searched his friend's face, looking for the accusation, and echo of his shame, but he saw only concern. He said, "Would you go? I… cannot…"
Alistair nodded quietly and said, "Where will you be?"
Aedan said, "Tapsters, I think. I need a drink."
When Alistair, Oghren, Sten and Zevran entered the tavern shortly afterwards, Aedan was on his second mug of ale. He was pleasantly numbed and was finding it very easy to forget his troubles. He waved to his friends, indicating the empty chairs around him. Oghren called for more ale and the men heartily set their efforts to catching him up. Well, all except for Sten who picked his mug up, sniffed at it, took a sip, made the most expressive face Aedan had yet seen take those Qunari features, then set the drink back on the table.
Aedan chuckled and Alistair turned toward him, one eyebrow raised as if to say, 'Share the joke.' Aedan regarded his friend thoughtfully a moment and then said, "Is it always like this? Being a Grey Warden, I mean?"
Alistair's features clouded a moment and he said quietly, his tone consoling even, "No, Aedan, it's not. I forget you never got to meet the other wardens, you never got to see the good side of being one of the order."
Alistair went on to describe an evening where a warden from the Anderfels, Gregor, had challenged the rest of them to a drinking contest, downing a pint of ale for their every half. Everyone laughed along with him as he related his own failure to meet the task. But Alistair's face fell as he went on to tell how Duncan had found them all passed out, except for Gregor, who was still drinking.
Zevran must have sensed the mood spiraling downward as both wardens contemplated Ostagar and Duncan's death and he quickly said, "There is a game we play in Antiva, the rules are simple. All we need is a dagger and some ale."
Aedan looked up and caught the elf's eye. He reached to his belt and drew his dagger, his fingers a little clumsy with drink and he dropped it noisily onto the table top. A few patrons looked over worriedly at the sight of a weapon, but when it remained untouched the moment passed. The rules were simple, they took turns spinning the dagger and whomever the tip pointed towards would take a drink.
Aedan spun first. The dagger spun crazily and stopped towards Sten. Sten raised an eyebrow but refused to lift his mug. Alistair said, "The riddle-master of Lothering won't join us in a simple game?"
Sten merely stared at Alistair in response and the ex-templar swallowed drily and reached for the dagger saying, "My turn?" The dagger pointed towards Aedan and he dutifully took his drink.
Aedan began to suspect his companions were conspiring against him when the dagger pointed towards him again and again. He'd lost count of the number drinks he'd taken, the table top was littered with empty mugs and it had already been cleared once. He heard a hiccup next to him and looked over to see Alistair was swaying gently in his seat. Aedan grinned. Perhaps the game was not so rigged after all. It was his turn. He reached for the dagger and missed, then tried again, giving it an almighty spin. The dagger flew from the table, but he could not track it's trajectory as he had simultaneously launched himself backwards, falling out of his chair.
His head landed in something soft and when he opened his eyes, there was a dwarven face above his, a feminine and pretty one at that. He winked and smiled, saying, "My lady."
She gasped and pushed at his head and that's when he realized that he was on the floor, on his back, with his head resting in this lady's lap. He was hauled roughly to his feet and the world began to spin crazily as he was marched toward a door. He landed on his hands and knees in a darkened alleyway and gravity caught up with him. He leaned forward and vomited into the gutter. There was a bark of laughter behind him and then a gasping moan. Alistair then dropped to his knees beside him and proceeded to empty his stomach also. Aedan began to laugh. He threw up again, and then sat back on his heels and howled with uncontrollable mirth. Things grew increasingly fuzzy after that…
When he opened his eyes again he wished he hadn't. His head pounded and his mouth was dry, and there was the most awful sound ringing in his ears. It took a moment to realize the sound was not a result of his pounding head, it was Oghren snoring. He rolled over and came face to face with Alistair, who was snorting more quietly than Oghren. Where was he? Aedan blinked and rolled onto his back again, before carefully sitting up. He soothed his pounding temples with his fingers as he glanced around the small bedchamber. Oghren was propped up in a chair beside the bed, and Alistair was his only bedmate. Zevran and Sten were nowhere in sight. Aedan saw a jug of water and launched himself towards it, not even bothering to find a cup. After draining the entire contents he felt somewhat human again, though his head was still tender.
He began to suspect they were in Oghren's house, but rather than wait for his companions to wake, Aedan decided to take a walk. He had some errands to run before he left Orzammar and some exercise would clear his head. He also had some thinking to do. It took him a while to find his way through the alleys and passages, but eventually he located a staircase that led back to the commons and found his bearings. He was passing the alley that led towards Dust Town when he heard, "Psst, Warden…"
He looked over and saw a familiar face. The dwarf leaned in towards him and whispered, "I have that nug you wanted me to get, for your lady friend…"
Aedan's face fell as his heart sank. He'd forgotten about his surprise gift for Leliana. He'd experienced such joy in arranging it for her, she was so fond of his Mabari, Jack, and he knew she'd love one of these odd nugs for her very own. It was on the tip of his tongue to refuse the nug, to ask for his coin back, but the dwarf thrust the leash into his hands and said, "Here, take it…"
Aedan mumbled a 'thank you' to the retreating back and looked down at the nug. The animal made a grunting sort of squeak and looked back up at him. Aedan sighed. "Come on then," he said quietly as he gave the leash a gentle tug. He found the weapon smith and retrieved the sword, Topsider's Honor, which he'd collected the pieces for. The smith had forged it back together and it was a handsome weapon. Aedan smiled in appreciation as he caressed the hilt and the blade, it was a fine piece of craftsmanship. He planned to give it to Alistair as a gift. He settled the account and left instruction for the sword to be delivered to his room at the palace.
He wandered behind some merchant stalls then and leaned out over the stone railing, gazing into the depths of Orzammar and down to the flow of lava that swirled below the city. It was an awesome sight and one he became lost in as his mind drifted from one subject to another, mentally tallying his gains and his losses. He'd completed his quest. He and Alistair had raised an army. Now it was time to return to Denerim and crown another king. Aedan had no doubts that Alistair would be a good king. He was neither ruthless nor hungry for power. He was the right man to lead Ferelden against the blight. His mind was settled on this score.
He was still bothered by yesterday's events though, Bhelen's merciless action. He shook his head gently and sighed, he had to let it go. His word was given and honoured, his job was done.
Aedan had just begun to think of Leliana, when as if summoned by his thoughts he heard her voice behind him. "Aedan? Is that you? And why are you holding a nug?"
He turned around and saw her standing there. She was dressed in her drakeskin leathers and as always she was beautiful. The soft glow of light in Orzammar only highlighted her colouring, made her more radiant to his eyes. He felt a pain in his chest as he looked at her, a twisting in his heart. She did not meet his eyes, for which he was momentarily grateful. Instead she was looking curiously at the animal sitting at the end of the leash in his hand.
He held the leather strap towards her and said stiffly, "It's for you…I meant it to be a gift."
Leliana gasped and put a hand to her mouth. She took the strap from his hand and knelt down beside the nug, gently touching it with her free hand. She smiled and her obvious happiness tore Aedan's heart a little more.
She stood up and stepped beside him and said, "Thank you, Aedan, it's so sweet and thoughtful of you." Her smile faltered and they stared at one another in an uncomfortable silence for a few moments before she hastily pulled a wrapper from her belt and said, "Look, I found this for Morrigan…it's a mirror, just like the one she had when she was a girl." She thrust the package into his hands and said, "You should give it to her Aedan. You are her friend."
Aedan stared dumbly at the mirror in his hands and then looked up at Leliana. It was a sweet gesture on her behalf, so very selfless. Her thoughtfulness was just one of the many, many things he loved about her. He put the mirror aside, resting it on the stone railing behind him and turned back to her.
She was standing there quietly, her hands twisted before her. It was a habit of hers, this tangling of fingers. He'd hoped for a romantic setting for what he was about to tell her. He'd hoped not to have his heart all but shattered first. But he decided that now was the time, the best time to tell her how he felt.
He reached out and took her hands in his own. She looked up at him and he saw the apprehension in her face. He said, "Leliana, I love you."
Her blue eyes widened and she tried to pull her hands from his, but he held firm and continued with what he wanted to say, "I don't want to be friends, Leli, I want more, I want to continue what we have started." He paused and searched her eyes for any clue that she felt the same way before saying, "Already my heart is yours 'til death parts us, whether that happens next week or in thirty years. I cannot, I will not, take it back. My love for you will be my strength, not my weakness."
Tears glistened on her cheeks and he loosened one hand to touch her face. He took a hesitant step forward, his need to hold her nearly leaving him breathless. She hesitated, wiping at her eyes with her free hand, and then she stepped forward also and he circled her with his arms. He held her tightly and felt her arms slip behind him and clasp him as closely in return.
Aedan felt whole again, complete. He sighed gratefully into her hair as his heart filled. He wanted to stand here and hold her like this forever, but she was mumbling against his chest so he pulled back to hear her words. She said, "I'm so sorry, Aedan, I did not mean…I did not want to hurt you. I thought…"
She was stumbling over words and he smiled at her. She stopped and smiled back before saying, "Some bard I am… you seem to have a unique talent for robbing me of words."
Aedan caressed her cheek again, delighting in being able to touch her, and said, "So you'll stay then? With me, as more than friends?"
She smiled and nodded, and then with a teasing light in her eyes, she said, "I've always wanted to be more than friends …"
Aedan gasped in mock horror and said, "You felt the same way and did not do me the courtesy of informing me? Making a man spill his guts like that…"
She silenced him with kisses. The first was light, that merest brush of lips. She drew back, said quietly, "I love you," and then lifted her lips towards his again.
They stood together encircled in one another's arms and oblivious to the city around them until they were interrupted by a gravelly voice saying, "There you are! Will you two stop that canoodlin'! We got an archdemon to kill!"
Oghren had found them. The dwarf turned and yelled over his shoulder, "Warden, he's over here!"
Aedan drew back from Leliana with a resigned but happy sigh. He kissed her lightly one more time, and hugged her quickly. When he looked up, Alistair had joined Oghren and he laughed at the pair. They looked much worse than he'd felt that morning, but then again, they didn't have what he had. They hadn't had their hearts lifted by love. He took Leliana's hand and walked over to his friends and said, "Well, we had better not keep it waiting then."