A/N: The world and characters of Dragon Age belong to BioWare, and I offer that company my deepest thanks for encouraging community creations.
I, Kiann Surana--mage, Grey Warden, solver of problems various and sundry--was afraid to close my eyes.
Yes, I know. Stupid. I'd faced down horrible monsters that spewed from the bowels of the earth. I'd vanquished bandits, ghosts, the walking dead, and an entire pack of werewolves--the latter by convincing the old Dalish Keeper to revoke his curse, but still. Vanquished. Most recently I'd stormed through the halls of my old home, obliterating a score of abominations and dozens of blood mages. I'd even outsmarted a sloth demon in the Fade. Truly, I was a force unparalleled in all of Ferelden. Not bad for a slip of an elf barely out of her apprenticehood.
And I'd been staring at the roof of my tent for the last Maker-knows-how-many hours, terrified of what awaited me in my dreams.
The darkspawn nightmares didn't scare me--no, that was a lie. They did. But once Alistair had warned me of them, I'd been able to block them out easily. No, what worried me more was the visions that filled my mind every time I closed my eyes; visions of the monstrous pride demon that was once Uldred, grabbing for me, imprisoning my hands, and beginning the chant that would twist my mind and soul into an abomination. No matter how I tried--and, Maker, I tried--I couldn't force those apparitions away.
Some Grey Warden I was. Some mage. How was I going to face down the archdemon if the memories of a dead demon shook me this badly?
Well, it wasn't like it was my choice to be a Warden. Damn Jowan and his stupid scheme. If he'd only been honest with me, maybe we could have avoided Irving and Greagoir. Maybe he and Lily would have escaped and I wouldn't have been conscripted. It still hurt that my best friend hadn't trusted me enough to tell me the truth…but I did hope that, wherever he'd ended up, he'd found a bit of happiness. Not like me. Sure, I'd seen more of Ferelden now than I'd ever dreamed, but I'd trade it all for my new mage quarters back at the Tower. Instead I was stuck sleeping on the ground, with Alistair's crappy lamb and pea stew congealing in my stomach, trying to figure out how by Andraste's sanctified girdle I was going to save Ferelden from itself. And right now, I couldn't drum up the will to care what happened to the blighted country.
I needed a break.
I almost discarded the thought out of hand, but it didn't want to let me go. A break was exactly what I yearned for. A reprieve from the sameness of camp, the doom hanging overhead, the pressure of the next quest. We weren't too far from The Spoiled Princess, the little tavern on the shores of Lake Calenhad. A thrill raced through me at the idea of a mini-rebellion. I wasn't due on watch until just before dawn. I could sneak there and back without anyone knowing. The only thing missing from my plan was someone to share it with. My smile fell a little, but then I shook my head. It didn't matter--it would still be fun.
I rose and pulled on a linen shirt and breeches instead of my customary robes. There wasn't any point in announcing to the other patrons that I was a mage; that would just be asking for trouble. I poked my head beyond my tent flap and cast my gaze about, looking for Sten. I couldn't see him, but I could hear his steps on the opposite side of camp as he patrolled.
Excellent. Excitement quivered through me as I bolted from my tent. Sam, my mabari, fell into step behind me without a sound, and we scampered into the night surrounding the camp. It took longer than I'd thought to return to the shores of the lake. Despite the late hour, The Spoiled Princess was awash in light and sound. Music poured from the cracked windows, and laughter, and song, everything I ached to be part of. A smile tugged on my lips as I marched up to the door and wrenched it open.
A band of minstrels in the corner were shouting a ditty about a maid who went to Denerim to find a husband. Heat rose in my cheeks at the raunchy lyrics, but the crowd laughed and cheered and sang along to the chorus, so I supposed it was a popular song. I let the noise buoy me along to the bar, where I slapped down a pair of coins and was rewarded with a tankard frothing with ale. Marvellous. I hoisted myself up onto a stool, Sam stationed at my feet, and took a long draught.
I'd started on my second tankard when the band switched to a song made for dancing. My smile grew and I tapped my feet against the post of the stool.
"And what's a pretty lass like you doing sitting at the bar?" The owner of the voice at my ear was a handsome human, dark hair, light eyes, who slurred his words just a little bit. Not enough to matter.
"Well, I suppose it's because I haven't been asked to dance yet," I said, a coy smile curving my lips.
"Oh, I can change that!" he declared, and swept me off to the dance floor.
My dance partner swung me into steps I didn't know, but I caught on quickly. I whirled around the floor, laughing, feeling lighter than I had in months. Oh, if I could only stay here forever. Forget Ferelden, forget the darkspawn, forget the sodding archdemon. Let someone else take care of it. I was having far too much fun to care about any of it.
By my fourth tankard of ale, I was feeling pleasantly fuzzy. A tad blurry, even. A hiccup snuck past my lips and I and my dance partner giggled. I still didn't know his name, but he had a nice giggle. And a nice smile. And nice eyes, too. I wondered if he had a nice kiss.
I could find out, I realized. There was nothing stopping me. I was out from under the Chantry's supervision, away from Wynne's watchful eyes, and maybe…maybe I could imagine I was kissing Alistair instead. Oh, that would be nice. Not that I would ever do it for real--he was a templar. It would just be…wrong. But I could pretend. My fellow Warden did have nice lips, after all, and his chest was delightfully sculpted--or, at least it seemed to be, the few times I'd seen him come back from bathing, half-dressed and dripping…
A frightened gasp and a shout pulled me from my reverie. I blinked a few times before I realized what I was seeing. Flames danced on each of the tables surrounding me; not big fires, but they tingled with magic.
"Maker's breath," my dance partner slurred from his seat beside me.
"Um." My eyes narrowed as I concentrated, but the magic squirmed away from me, dancing as expertly as the flames on the tables. I giggled as I tried to grasp it with mental hands and failed. The fires surged and I dimly realized that people were shouting and racing for the exit. "Sorry, sorry," I muttered to no one in particular.
All right. Fire wasn't listening to me right now, so let's try…ice. I pulled together enough wits to summon a blizzard. Cold air and snow blasted through the tavern and I found myself flat on the floor, laughing between shivers. My dance partner scowled down at me and I snorted, then coughed as the scent of charred wood infiltrated my lungs.
"That was you?" he demanded. "You're a mage?"
The fury in his eyes penetrated the bubble of fuzziness surrounding me. I swallowed, my throat gone suddenly dry and my giggles dissipating into nothingness.
"Sorry?" I whispered.
My head spun as I was jerked to my feet. A gasp burst from my lips as my arms were wrenched behind me and tears pricked my eyes at the pain. "Bind her hands!" someone shouted.
Sam growled and lunged at one of the men, only to be kicked away. Another man grabbed a chair and struck the mabari with it, once, twice...I lost count of how many times. My throat burned, raw from screaming at them to stop.
"You think it's fun, scaring folk, do you?" My dance partner leaned in close, his face ugly and twisted with anger. He spat, and the wet landed on my cheek and dripped down onto my shirt.
Fear burned off the last of the ale's effects and I stared at the man who'd smiled so widely at me only a few moments before. His eyes were blue, I realized, and as cold as the blizzard whimpering to its conclusion. "It--it was an accident," I stammered. "I didn't mean--"
"Come on, lads, let's show the mages at the Tower that we ain't scared of their ilk." My dance partner waved at the man holding me to follow him.
I planted my heels, trying to halt the progress to the door. I didn't know what they planned, but I'd heard tales from other apprentices about villagers attacking them when their magic manifested, or blaming them for a failed crop or other malady that befell the settlement. Some had been pelted with stones; others had been tied to posts and left without water for days; others had been thrown into deep, dark holes until the templars had come to retrieve them.
Panic choked me. "No--wait! I'm a Grey Warden," I shouted.
My dance partner stopped, then spun to face me. I thought for a moment he was going to let me go, but, instead, he wound up and punched me in the stomach. The air jolted out of my lungs and I gasped, feeling like I was suffocating.
"That," he growled, "was for good King Cailan. I was just going to tie you to the docks for the templars to retrieve you, but now I think we'll do something a little more special."
"Please," I whimpered as they pulled me along again. Terror made my knees weak and I stumbled. I cried out as the man holding my arms yanked them even higher. "I didn't mean it," I sobbed. "I'm sorry."
"Some Grey Warden," the man behind me scoffed. "Aren't they supposed to be fearsome warriors or some such?"
Not me. The words caught in my throat as they dragged me into the forest surrounding The Spoiled Princess. I'm just a girl, an elf, no one special. I tried to help a friend and ended up losing my home and became something I know nothing about. I'm no warrior!
I screamed as the first punch connected with my nose and something crunched. Warmth gushed forth and I blinked in shock and pain. They'd broken my nose. I looked up in time to see another fist arcing for my face; that one cracked into my cheekbone. I fell backwards and the fellow gripping my arms released them. I tumbled to the dirt, stray rocks and twigs digging into my back and legs but I hardly felt them over the agony pulsing through my face. I reached for the magic haphazardly, but it didn't respond. It couldn't--I had no focus, my brain reeling from terror and disbelief and lack of sleep, and even the adrenaline coursing in my blood couldn't help fix that.
A boot thrust into my midsection and I retched, one hand braced on the ground. Get up, get away, run, my terrified mind commanded. But my body wouldn't--couldn't--obey. Another kick sent me flying onto my side, and then I was pummelled by feet and fists, as the villagers took out their frustrations and their fear on me.
I didn't fight back. I couldn't. A boot heel cracked into my temple and consciousness mercifully began drifting away. Distantly, I heard the rustles of clothing, like someone was stripping themselves, then a disgusted admonition. The meaning of the sounds was lost on me, though, as I faded into nothing.