Two Sides of the Same Coin
A/N: While this story will contain other characters from the DragonAge:Origins, the focus will be on the relationship between Zevran and the city elf. It roughly follows the game story line but there will be some AU deviations. Partly in the interest of streamlining the tale I wanted to tell and partly because I wanted to explore some ideas I had about the world Bioware has created.
The story is told in first person, alternating between Zevran and Darrian (my city elf). The events each describes occur roughly at the same time.
Since my tale follows the game, there are spoilers. Hope you enjoy!
I watched as the human merchant's blood soaked into the fine silk carpet of his bedroom. Ruthless and ambitious, he had strayed a little too far into a rival smuggler's territory. Unfortunately for the merchant, his rival had hired the Crows before he did.
It had been so easy to seduce him, to convince him that I was nothing more than an expensive male prostitute with a taste for fine jewels and human men. But when did humans ever look past the surface of an elf?
The joy of the kill was a cold hard knot in the base of my belly. Not even satisfaction. The merchant's guard had lied to Taliesan. Rinna had not betrayed us. His master had never known of the seduction plot I had devised with Taliesan and Rinna to get past the multitude of guards with which the merchant surrounded himself. If he had, he never would have accepted me so easily into his bed.
The stones I had placed around my heart when I watched Taliesan slit Rinna's throat for betraying us threatened to crack.
I tossed the blood streaked dagger onto the bed. It had belonged to the merchant who'd slept with it under his pillow. Foolish man. I pulled on my clothes and before I left I took the earring he wore in his left ear, a small perfect ruby the color of blood set in deep yellow gold wrought in the shape of overlapping palm leaves and slipped it into my pocket.
I slid out the window and dropped into the merchant's fine rose garden. The wall at the opposite end of the garden was only fifty feet away. I found the knotted black rope Taliesan had dropped down the side after disposing of the guard who patrolled this walled section of the estate.
"Good hunting?" he whispered, his face pale in the moonlight, as I came over the top of the wall. I undid the rope and dropped lightly down next to him then coiled the rope up and slung it over my shoulder.
I smiled. After a lifetime of practice it was easy. I threw on the long black cloak he tossed me and followed him into the shadows through twisting alleys stinking of piss and sometimes of blood. I thought about Rinna and the stone around my heart cracked. The masters would want to know what had happened to her. And her death deserved the truth of it to be spoken. When we paused at the entrance to a wider street, I stepped close to Taliesan's ear.
"We need to tell the masters about Rinna…and that she didn't betray us," I whispered.
He whirled on me. "Are you mad, elf? Do you want to lose your life a piece at a time? I prefer to keep my limbs intact and not watch as Master Jepheth carves them away inch by inch."
"We can't hide her death. The masters will demand to know why she isn't with us."
Taliesan frowned. "We'll just tell them she died in the attempt and we dumped her body into the harbor." His teeth flashed in the moonlight. "Which is the truth. So we won't even be lying."
I was too tired to argue and the masters sometimes punished for no other reason than that they felt like it. So I nodded and followed after him.
Taliesan made the report to Master Jepheth, a small thin human who had a reputation for creative ways of killing. Myself, I preferred the quick clean cut of a blade.
The master stood with his back to us, gazing out his broad sitting room window that overlooked Antiva City harbor. He had a fine apartment at the top of a building owned by the Crows. The gold threads in his black silk jacket glittered in the lamplight. When Taliesan finished his report, Master Jepheth turned and tossed him a fat purse then an even fatter one to me. We bowed and turned to leave.
"Stay a moment, Zevran," Master Jepheth said. Taliesan threw me a quick guarded look then glided out of the room.
"Ah, such a fine piece of work this night. You should be proud. Yes, very proud," he said with a chuckle. The skin crawled along my spine. Master Jepheth's voice was deep and he wielded it with the same skill as he wielded his blades. He was best at the subtle mockery that had just permeated every word.
He came closer and I lowered my gaze from caution, not in respect and not from fear. I wasn't yet ready to challenge a master.
Closer still he came, till he stood a hands-breadth from my ear.
"Such skill in seduction. Such craft. It seems your boasting in that may be justified." I felt his hot breath on my neck. "Did you think I didn't know about that little incident with Rinna?" My heart contracted. He pulled back and I dared to glance up.
"Who do you think bribed one of our informants to tell Taliesan?" He smiled, sharper than the edge of a killing blade. "The Crows knew all along. Rinna is easily replaced. She outlived her usefulness. And someday, Araini, so will you."
I kept enough mind to bow and not sprint from his presence. But his laughter followed me all the way down the stairs and out into the street.
My heart pounded. I wanted to throw the purse into the harbor.
I don't remember making my way home to my small apartment over an alehouse near the docks. Only standing outside Master Jepheth's building then closing my door behind me and leaning against it, my heart still pounding and the stones I'd placed around it crumbling into dust.
I had resolved not to look back when I left the Alienage where my father's people were forced to live. But I couldn't help the backward glance and my step slowed. Duncan paused.
"Come, we have a long journey ahead of us and we still need to purchase supplies."
I nodded, my throat too tight to speak and quickened my pace as I accompanied him into Denerim's main market square.
Humans jostled by us, probably thinking I was his elven servant, brought along to carry purchases. That I still wore the leather armor I'd taken from the castle and walked by his side with my eyes meeting theirs should have made them think otherwise. Most frowned and some shook their heads. A few muttered, but with the noise of bargainers and the snorts and grunts of horses and livestock, I couldn't hear them. Not that I needed to.
I glanced at Duncan when he stopped by a smith's and began inspecting a display of swords arranged on a table. Before we'd left the Alienage I'd handed him back his weapons.
He seemed…different from other humans. But I wasn't sure how far to trust him. He'd helped me in his own way. But whether that was from a sense of justice or because he'd wanted something in return, my pledge to become a Gray Warden, I couldn't say.
He picked up a sword with a plain hilt and sighted down the length of the blade.
"What do you think of this one?" he asked, holding it out to me. The smith gasped. I ignored the shem and accepted the weapon. I placed the flat of the blade just below the hilt on my fingers and smiled when it sat there, perfectly balanced.
:"Do you think that's wise, ser?" the smith said then gulped. Duncan only smiled and nodded at me.
"The Warden needs a new blade."
The shem stared at me, his eyes wide and round in his forge reddened face.
I stepped to the side into a small open area and swung the blade. One of the first lessons my mother had given me was how to tell a good sword. She'd always stressed function over looks.
A nearby market guard frowned and started walking towards us as I put the blade through a testing. Duncan strolled up to him and coming out of a whirling swing I saw the same shocked look on the guard's face I'd seen on the smith's. He stared at me a moment then nodded and returned to his post.
"It's a fine weapon," I'd said when Duncan returned. I glanced at the daggers on an adjacent table. "I was trained to fight with two weapons. If possible…"
"Oh, I think we can make a special deal for a Warden," the smith hastily said, spreading his hands.
The price was more than fair and I walked away with a fine sword and a slotted dagger strapped to my back to keep them out of the way.
"Thank you," I said to Duncan as we left the smith's.
"I can hardly expect you to fight Darkspawn with your bare hands," he said. He glanced around. "We'll speak further on the road about what faces us in the south."
"Where are we going?"
A caged goose honked and jabbed its beak at us as we passed by.
"We'll be heading to Ostagar, an old fortress on the edge of the Korcari Wilds. It was built to contain the Chasind Hordes that would surge up to invade the north from time to time."
I looked down at my worn boots. "Are we going to walk all the way?"
Duncan shook his head. "I've a pair of horses at the public stables."
"I don't know how to ride, ser."
He smiled. "Now you can learn. And Duncan will do."
It was so strange being so high up and looking down on the shem for a change. I found it hard not to smile. The small gentle mare Duncan gave me made it easy to learn riding. After about a week, when the soreness left me and my backside hardened, I found that I enjoyed it.
We made faster time than walking and while we rode Duncan told me about the Gray Wardens and their role in defeating the Blight that had threatened our world before. Several times an Archdemon had risen up and led hordes of Darkspawn in a bid to conquer the surface.
"It's been four hundred years since the last Blight," Duncan told me when we stopped for a mid-day meal. "Four hundred years to build up their numbers. And they're gathering in the heart of the Wilds."
"How many are there?"
He tossed me a packet of bread and dried meat and I settled in the shade of an oak tree by the side of the road. The horses grazed nearby, as far as their tethers, tied to a bush, would allow.
"After all this time? Thousands. Perhaps tens of thousands," he said and settled opposite me.
"Do they only show during a Blight?"
He shook his head. "Cells come up from time to time in odd places. Without an Archdemon to lead them, they're small disorganized groups. The Wardens patrol and wipe them out when they find them." He set a flask of water between us. "The horde in the Wilds is the largest we've seen since a Blight. And though we haven't seen the Archdemon, we know it's out there…somewhere."
"So that's why we're heading to Ostagar."
He nodded. "Two more weeks of traveling and we will join up with the King's forces already gathered there. They've already fought several battles…and won."
"But the fight isn't over yet?"
"No," Duncan said and his eyes went dark and brooding. "It's very far from over, my friend."
He didn't talk much of the Darkspawn or the Blight for the rest of the trip south. He spoke about Weisshaupt Fortress, seat of the Gray Wardens, a thousand miles away and taught me something of their history. He spoke of honor and duty and the sacrifices that were often required of Gray Wardens. He spoke of his fellow wardens with affection and I sensed deep bonds between him and them. And he spoke with compassion and conviction and always addressed me with respect.
I wasn't used to being treated with consideration by a human and I distrusted his motives at first. But eventually, in the long evenings when we camped I found myself beginning to tell him things I'd never expected to tell any human, things that even my father and I had seldom talked about. In one of those conversations he told me he had tried to recruit my mother.
Duncan smiled. "Yes, but Valendrian convinced me it would be better for her to stay in the Alienage with her family. Since there was no Blight at the time, I agreed with his wishes." He pulled the kettle off the fire and refilled both our cups. "I was deeply sorry to hear of her death. She had fire and spirit, but a cool head in a crises. Qualities she's seemed to have passed on to her son."
My cheeks flushed a little. I wasn't used to a human paying a compliment. But after more than a week of travel in his company, I knew he meant it.
"I was fifteen when she was killed by a human guard for not showing him what he thought was the proper respect."
"That must have been hard," Duncan said gently.
I stared into the fire, remembering when my father had brought her body back, her clothes soaked in blood. It was the only time I can remember him weeping.
"I wanted to kill that shem," I whispered. "If Shianni hadn't tied me down, I would have. Or at least tried to."
A faint smile appeared on his face. "She tied you up?"
"Yes." I could smile about that now. "I was so angry with her at the time. She told me that when I had the sense the Maker gave a fish, she would release me." I gazed down into my cup, thinking of her and the others I'd left behind. "Duncan, what I did back there…killing Vaughn and his friends… the humans aren't going to ignore that."
"I know, but you are a Gray Warden now and your duty lies elsewhere. I can talk to the King about what happened when we get to Ostagar. Beyond that I can promise nothing."
I nodded and drained my cup. He made no promises but he was, at least, being honest with me and that was something I could respect.
"Duncan, may I ask you something?"
His cup paused halfway to his lips. "Yes?"
"Did my mother know you wanted to recruit her?"
He shook his head. "I spoke to Valendrian first of my intention, but since he convinced me otherwise, there seemed no need."
"Did you now she was Dalish?"
His eyes widened slightly. "No, but it makes sense now considering what I'd heard of her."
I watched the flames dance in the stone circle the way the ones from our kitchen fire had danced in her eyes when she told me stories of her home. "She was the apprentice Keeper of her clan. They numbered less than twenty and they roamed the Silent Plains on the southern fringes of the Tevinter Imperium. Then one day a group of mages decided they needed fresh slaves so they attacked. She alone escaped but only because they thought she was dead."
I set my cup aside. "Her mage gifts weren't very strong, but she was skilled enough to hide them from the Templars. I think she missed the magic but she taught me everything else she knew." I looked in his eyes then. "She taught me to worship the elven gods, not the Maker."
"The dwarves don't worship the Maker either, but many of them have been Gray Wardens. The wardens draw their strength from every people and every calling. The Darkspawn make no distinction between the races. Neither do we."
I think I understood now why he had conscripted me. I still wasn't quite sure what being a Warden meant, but it seemed I would find a place with them and that helped ease the ache of loss from leaving my family and kin behind.
We arrived at Ostagar without even meeting a bandit on the road, let alone Darkspawn. We entered the camp about mid-day and left the horses with a guard who led them away to where a large number were already picketed.
Ostagar was far larger than I expected, dominating the side of a steep pine-clad hill. A wide bridge spanning a deep gorge connected it to the King's highway. The bridge was damaged in places, as though a giant had taken random bites out of it. But for the most part, it was intact and still solid. The king's army was camped on the tower side of the bridge.
"You're free to move around the camp, but I ask that you not leave it till after the Joining," Duncan said.
"A short ceremony that will confirm you as a Gray Warden. I can tell you no more than that."
He waved a hand. "I can only tell you that the secret is needful. You will understand after the ceremony."
After several weeks in his company, I knew that I wouldn't be able to pry any more information out of him.
"Come, let me introduce you to the king," he said as Cailin, in gilded armor, strode up to us. He smiled broadly, his yellow hair gleaming in the sun.
"Ah, you must be the latest recruit Duncan mentioned in his last letter," he said and laughed. I didn't understand what he found amusing and the laughter irritated me.
"Your majesty, this is Darrian Tabris."
"So good to finally meet you. Where do you hail from?"
I wasn't going to bow to any human king. "From the Alienage in Denerim."
"Oh, and how did you become a Warden?"
I folded my arms. I wasn't in the mood for pleasantries. "I killed an arl's son who raped my friend."
He blinked. "Oh, I…see. I…"
"I would not have put it quite so bluntly, your majesty," Duncan interjected smoothly. "But there are events in Denerim that you should be made aware of, if you will permit me."
"Of course, Duncan." He grasped the warden's hand. "It's good to have you back." Cailin smiled. "The Gray Wardens fighting beside the king. A tale for the ballads. There'll be glory enough for all." He glanced behind him and sighed. "I should get back before Loghain sends out a search party. We'll talk later, Duncan."
"As you wish, your majesty," Duncan said. He bowed and I followed suit, but only out of respect for Duncan. After Cailin left, Duncan turned to me and I tensed, expecting a reprimand.
"I understand your feelings, but he is the king. More than that, if we are to survive and overcome this Blight, we must work together, all of us. The Darkspawn make no distinction between elf or dwarf or human. Do you understand?"
He wanted me to, that was plain in every word. I searched his face then nodded. He looked relieved and motioned for me to follow him across the bridge.
:"Rest, get a hot meal and then find Alistair, another Warden, when you're done. Please tell him to bring you and the other two recruits to my tent and we'll discuss what's needed for the Joining. I prefer the ceremony take place as soon as possible." He told me the general layout of the camp then left.
. I watched him for a moment then turned my eyes to the steep hills that surrounded the old fort, wondering what the future had in store for me.