AN: Thanks to my wonderful beta, Windchime68. Your help is once again greatly appreciated.
Thanks also to Erynnar and Liso66 who help me keep my sanity on a daily basis and to everyone who takes the time to read or review the story.
The next few days after Elandria, Alistair, and Eamon's talk passed uneventfully in the Denerim palace. Everyone still remained at a high level of alertness, especially the guards for the royal family, but no more attempts were made on either the king or the prince. In an attempt to reassure those around him that all was well, Alistair tried hard to act as if nothing was the matter and to get back into his normal routine, but inside there was a part of him that never forgot that someone wanted him dead.
As Eamon was busy gathering the next candidates for the position of Kellin's nanny, Elandria spent her days split between Kellin, the salle, and the palace library. She had missed reading while living with the Dalish. Lanaya had a few books that she had acquired after Zathrian's death, but after growing up at the Circle Tower, Elandria missed walking into rooms full of nothing but shelves of books. Her current subject matter wasn't one she was enjoying necessarily, but one of the things Elandria had learned in her life was that it was best to be prepared. She was studying as much about the Fereldan nobility as she could reasonably stuff into her head; who feuded with whom, which of the houses allied together, who historically supported the Theirin kings, how each of the major families made their sovereigns; the list of subjects went on and on. There were times she despaired of ever making sense of it all.
Her admiration for Alistair rose as she realized just what he had been up against when she had blithely declared him king at that Landsmeet years ago. Elandria had never really considered exactly what that would entail for Alistair and how difficult it would be for him. The fact that he had risen so grandly to the challenge made her heart swell with pride.
Elandria was slightly surprised one evening when Alistair told her that he had a meeting scheduled with the Revered Mother the following day. When he asked if she wanted to attend, Elandria was pleased he had remembered her request. Elandria told him yes, but she was uneasy. She knew that the situation between her and the Chantry had to be worked out so they could all live in peace, but she didn't feel she was in a very good position. If the Chantry ever found out about her ties to the desire demon, they would be sure to label her an abomination and want to destroy her. Elandria was just glad Wynne was the only mage at court at the moment. All it would take is a mage probing her to detect those ties as Elandria had no idea how to hide them. As soon as the nanny issue was taken care of, the next item on her list had to be breaking her connection to the demon. That she had been able to keep it hidden so far was only luck, and her luck certainly would run out at some point, probably at the worst possible moment.
The next morning, Elandria was in Alistair's study well before the meeting was to take place with Revered Mother Perpetua. Once Alistair's clerk entered to advise them that the Revered Mother had arrived, Elandria, Alistair, and Hugh went through the connecting door, which led to an enclosed passage with its exit at a small meeting room. This room was used when Alistair wanted to have a discreet conference as no one could observe the king entering the chamber.
Alistair entered first with a smile pasted on his face. "Revered Mother Perpetua, how nice to see you again," he said. Alistair walked over to her, took her hand, and gallantly placed a kiss upon her first knuckle.
"King Alistair, good morning," she replied, slightly taken back by Alistair's greeting.
"You remember Lanie, don't you, Revered Mother? From when we were fighting the Blight?"
The mother's eyes turned coolly in Elandria's direction.
"Good morning, Revered Mother," Elandria said levelly. She stood slightly to the side and behind Alistair. She had promised to allow him to guide this encounter. "It's been some time since last I saw you. Congratulations on being named the head of Denerim's chantry."
After a distinct pause, the Revered Mother finally answered, "Thank you." She immediately turned her attention to the king.
"What exactly is this meeting about, your Majesty? The summons did not specify a subject. I have come as you asked and without my normal attendants."
Alistair put his hand out in indication of some chairs seated around a small table. "Please, ladies, let's sit down and be comfortable while we talk." All three seated themselves with Hugh taking up his favored position along the wall near the main entrance to the room. There was one of the Revered Mother's Templars also in the room, and he chose to stand opposite Hugh.
"Now," Alistair began, "I'll get right to the heart of the matter. As you are undoubtedly aware, there was an assassination attempt on me at our wedding reception last week. What you may not know is that there was also one on Kellin that same night, which was foiled by his guard commander." As Alistair quit speaking, he observed the Revered Mother. Even though he had been hoping the information would be news to her, she did not seem surprised by this. With an internal sigh, Alistair admitted to himself that he would have been shocked if she didn't have her own sources within the palace.
"I see," commented Mother Perpetua. "What does this have to do with the Chantry?"
Alistair paused a moment before putting his next words as delicately as he could. "It was suggested that perhaps the Chantry had some involvement in the attack."
"What?" A cry of outrage escaped the Revered Mother.
Alistair held up his hand to forestall her and he raised his voice a trifle. "Now, of course, I don't believe that, but there is a matter we need to discuss."
Elandria watched the Revered Mother carefully as Alistair directed the meeting. That awful night she had been fully prepared to believe the Chantry could be the force behind the attempts on Alistair and Kellin, but since then her anger had cooled. She had tried to look at things logically and dispassionately. The overriding question for her had been, what reason would the Chantry have for removing the last of the Theirin bloodline from Ferelden? The only answer she had come up with was…nothing. She had learned that until he had decided to marry her, Alistair's relationship with the Chantry had been fairly even and without conflict. The Chantry would have nothing to gain by removing Alistair as the king of Ferelden. Elandria had briefly considered that perhaps the Chantry was so afraid of her that they were willing to risk the upheaval that would be caused in the aftermath of the death of both the king and the prince, but she had decided that idea was too extreme even for the Chantry. If the attempt had been against her instead of Alistair and Kellin, then Elandria would be more willing to consider the institution, or possibly one of its members, as a suspect.
Mother Perpetua had drawn herself up in a display of indignation as she asked, "And just what would this subject be?"
Alistair leaned forward slightly, placing both his hands on the table in front of him, as he met the Mother's indignation with his own steely regard. "The Templars you have placed in attendance on my wife," he declared flatly.
Mother Perpetua, however, wasn't backing down. "Are you surprised, your Majesty? You are the head of the nation. If this mage gains power over you, there is nothing or no one to stop her because who will gainsay the king?"
Alistair's temper flared and he used his hands to push back against the table. "What? Don't you remember Lanie at all from those times four years ago when we would stop and talk with you? What part of her did you decide was thirsting for power, and do you think so little of me that you believe I would allow that to happen?" Alistair's voice was slowly rising with each question. "For the Maker's sake, Lanie lived for four years with the Dalish without a Templar in sight and managed not to become an abomination." Elandria winced at that comment.
"Be that as it may, I would be negligent in my duty if I allowed a mage access to you without any supervision. Do you think I haven't had those worried about this situation seek me out, asking for my advice and counsel?" the Revered Mother challenged the king right back.
Elandria broke in. "Enough, both of you!"
Alistair sat back, but turned his attention willingly to Lanie. The Revered Mother faced towards Elandria, surprised that she would dare to interrupt them.
"Just what do you consider adequate protection for Alistair? What will keep him safe from the threat you feel I represent?" Elandria asked curiously.
The Revered Mother paused as she knew that there was really no true protection for the king. As his wife, there would be times he would be alone with the mage, and if she really wanted to either harm or control him, no one could stop her. Mother Perpetua sat back as her mind raced, seeking an answer.
When the mother didn't speak, Elandria said quietly, "Alistair isn't helpless. His templar skills are his own protection and he carries them with him always. However, your Templar the other night almost prevented me from casting that protection spell around Alistair in time to prevent his assassination. While I'm willing to allow some templar supervision…"
"What?" exclaimed Alistair, surprised that Elandria would even consider such a thing.
"Think about it, Alistair," Elandria said as she turned her gaze on him. "the Revered Mother has a point. There will always be those who think I am exerting undue influence on you just because of what I am. If we allow the Chantry to place a few Templars in the guard, it may calm some fears among the people. I have nothing to hide from anyone." Please Maker, don't strike me dead for that lie.
Mother Perpetua was surprised the mage—no, she had better start thinking of her as Elandria—would be so sensible. Perhaps they would be able to work together after all.
Alistair spoke to Elandria as if he had forgotten the Revered Mother was in the room. "Are you sure, Lanie? After all you've been through and the things you've done, to be back to being watched once again, it just doesn't seem fair."
"It's not that much different from you, Alistair. How often are you unobserved as you go through your day?"
"Well, that's true enough, although my watchers are to protect me from others. You, on the other hand, will have to deal with knowing that the guards are there more to protect other people from you."
"I spent my whole life being told I was a danger and couldn't be trusted with my power. If allowing the Templars in the palace will make things easier for you, I can live with it."
"Lanie," Alistair murmured and his eyes softened as he looked at her. He hated the restrictions that were being forced on Elandria just so she could be with him, but at the same time, he wasn't willing to let her go either.
Elandria turned once more to the Revered Mother. "As I was saying, I am willing to accept some level of supervision; however, I will brook no interference in protecting Alistair or Kellin. I will not be responsible for my actions if one of your Templars gets in my way if something like the other night happens again."
The Revered Mother nodded cautiously in agreement, and the three of them turned to the matter of working out exactly how the Chantry supervision would be implemented.
Elandria truly wasn't worried about the Templars the Revered Mother would place in the palace. After her experience at the reception, she knew she could withstand a Templar's attack. Elandria honestly thought that Alistair might be the only Templar in Ferelden who could stop her if it became necessary. She had a hard time believing that she would ever willingly hurt him, even if she was taken over by a demon.
Zevran and Rhedyn parted company with Dougal early the following morning. They had stopped and camped the previous night. Even though Dougal swore he could find the trail in the dark, Zevran didn't want to take any chances on him losing his way and then having to backtrack, so they had stopped for the night once the sun set.
When they reached the spot that Dougal swore was the end of the trail Zevran stood very still just looking around. Dougal pointed out to Rhedyn the last sign he had noted. Zevran couldn't see anything, but Rhedyn nodded in agreement with the man; her eyes sweeping the area surrounding them. Zevran turned and signaled Dougal to move back a few paces the way they had come. Since Alistair had advanced Zevran some money before he left Denerim to help defray any costs he and Rhedyn might incur on their search, Zevran thanked Dougal for his help and reached into his coin purse to pay him for his time.
Once Dougal was headed back towards Cove, Zevran turned his attention once again to Rhedyn. He quietly watched her as she examined the ground and even trees and brush. Finally, she seemed satisfied and she turned to him.
"Follow me," Rhedyn said and headed off without a backward glance.
Zev turned a long-suffering look on the packhorse, but obediently moved off after her. He followed her wordlessly for quite some time. Normally, Zevran would pass the time with some idle chatter, but he knew Rhedyn needed all her concentration. Even though he didn't know anything about tracking, Zevran realized that it would be no mean feat for Rhedyn to actually follow Briana's trail.
After a break for lunch followed by a few hours of travel, Rhedyn suddenly held up a hand and stopped. She dropped to her knees as her eyes scanned all around her. Zevran stood quietly with the horse as he waited. Rhedyn turned to him, "I can't be sure of the way they went," she admitted. "There are two possible tracks. I could try going a short way in each direction to see if I can locate anything," she suggested.
"Hold on just a moment," Zevran said as he turned to dig in one of the saddlebags. He pulled out a case used to carry sheets of vellum. He removed and unrolled a few sheets before selecting the one he wanted. He rolled the others back up, put them in the storage container, and returned the case to the saddlebag of the grazing horse. He dropped to the ground spreading the sheet out in front of him. "Come here, Rhedyn."
Rhedyn walked over and knelt down beside Zevran to see what he had. At first it didn't make much sense to her as she had never been taught to read. But as Zevran pointed out features and places, the mental map she had taught herself to carry in her head so she always knew where she was helped her realize exactly what he had. "That is wonderful!" Rhedyn burst out. She reached out a hand to trace the path they had taken from Cove. "Why, anyone could travel from place to place with one of these!" she said excitedly.
Zevran had to smile at how like a young child with a new toy Rhedyn was. He had forgotten that the Dalish's traditions were oral and very few of them could actually read. He realized Rhedyn had never seen a map before. "Yes, very handy," he agreed. "Alistair made sure I had maps of the areas he thought we might travel in. That's one of the benefits of being king, up-to-date information of the kingdom."
Zevran watched as Rhedyn's eyes continued to take in the map and her fingers traced their journey's path. "If you wish, when we return to Denerim, I could ask Alistair to provide you with maps of southern Ferelden, as payment for your assistance. I know that the clans wander at the will of the halla, but I think that you could still put them to good use, no?"
Once again, it was like a door came down over Rhedyn's face, and Zevran wanted to kick himself. The enthusiasm in her eyes died away. "That's very kind of you," Rhedyn said, but then very matter of factly turned the conversation back to the issue at hand. Using her mental picture of the area, she placed a finger on the map. "We should be somewhere around here," she stated.
"Yes," agreed Zevran, willing to let the subject drop if she was. He set his own hand on the map, near Rhedyn's but not touching hers, as he pointed out. "Here is the town of Homestead. It is a major junction along The North Road. It's not too far from here. I wonder if the kidnappers could have been making for there," Zevran mused.
Once again Rhedyn bent her head over the map as she identified the direction the other track took. It seemed to lead off into less settled areas. "You stay here with the horse," she said decisively. "I'll see what I can find in both directions. I shouldn't be long." With that Rhedyn pushed herself up off the ground and strode confidently off as she chose the track away from Homestead to investigate first.
Zevran picked his map off the ground and moved back to the horse that was grazing at the end of its lead. He returned it to the case with the others absently, as his mind was full of thoughts of Rhedyn. How he wished he knew exactly what her story was. Zevran kept innocently stepping into traps in conversation that he had no warning of without an understanding of her past. Zevran suspected that Alistair had known more about Rhedyn than he told him before they left Denerim.
Rhedyn took her time as she searched diligently for any clues to the passage of the party with the princess, but she couldn't help thinking about the man waiting for her to return as she did so. Despite her inner warnings, she found herself warming to Zevran and that was dangerous. She had to keep reminding herself that she couldn't afford to trust him.
Rhedyn hadn't known what to expect when she had left the last Dalish clan that had sheltered her and gone to the Vigil to join Ashalle. She had thought that perhaps the Wardens would accept her, but it seemed they didn't want her either. Nathaniel Howe, second in command, was in charge of all recruits and he hadn't offered her a place with the Wardens, even after watching her in some of the training. Because she was Ashalle's family, she had been allowed to stay at the Vigil as long as she liked, but she hadn't made any friends. For one thing, the majority of the Wardens were humans, and human males at that. Rhedyn had never let her guard down enough to allow any of them to get close to her.
She hoped they found the princess soon. Once there was another person around, Rhedyn could withdraw more and keep to the background. That was hard to do with just her and Zevran in camp. Her own reaction to Zevran worried her even more. She had to be careful just in listening to him talk. The way the purr of his voice sent tingles down her spine was downright obscene, and she had the strangest wish to run her fingers through the blond locks that cascaded down his shoulders when he allowed his hair free in camp during the evenings.
Rhedyn came to a complete stop. What was she doing? She had allowed thoughts of Zevran to totally distract her from her job. She shook her head firmly trying to drive the images of him from her mind as she forced her concentration back to the trail in front of her. Rhedyn looked around and realized she had come farther in her musing than she should have with no definitive proof that Briana had been brought this way.
Muttering in disgust at her own foolishness, Rhedyn turned back the way she had come and quickly made her way to where she had left Zevran. She waved to him as she headed in the other direction so she could check the path that led towards Homestead. Zevran nodded at her wave, but did not try to detain her. Rhedyn firmly keep her thoughts where they should be as she surveyed the surrounding area, but once again she was unable to locate any definitive clues. She traveled a bit farther, hoping to find something, anything that would tell her for sure this was the correct way. Finally, she acknowledged defeat and headed back to where she had left the other elf and the horse.
Rhedyn felt a flush of disappointment that she hadn't located the trail when she arrived back to Zevran and he turned a questioning look on her. She shook her head. "I don't know," she replied to his unspoken query. "The signs I have been following are very weak, and now I can't say for sure whether they headed towards the town or took the game trail in the other direction," she stated.
Zevran ran a hand across his face as he thought. His eyes fell on Rhedyn. She was staring past him into the distance. There were a few frown lines on her face and Zevran quickly realized she was considering something. "What?" he asked. "What are you thinking?"
Rhedyn moved her gaze to his face. Finally, she blew out her breath as she seemed to come to a decision. "There is one more thing I can try," she admitted. "I have no idea if it will work or not. Take the horse up the trail a distance and hobble him in an area where he can graze as what I'm planning may take some time. I'll be back in a few minutes."
Rhedyn moved off back in the direction of the game trail. Zevran huffed as she left, but he clicked to the horse to start him moving back the way they had come. He was annoyed as he had no idea what Rhedyn was up to, and Zevran was grumbling to himself as he did as she had instructed him. By the time he returned, Rhedyn was back with an armful of foul-smelling plant material. Zevran looked at her questioningly while waving his hand in front of his nose. "What is that for?" he asked.
Rhedyn gave him an evil grin. "It's for you," she replied.
Zevran didn't even think. Force of habit caused his mouth to utter his next words. "Well, I'm more used to my partners desiring pleasanter scents, but if this is what you really prefer…" Zevran trailed off, realizing Rhedyn wasn't getting the innuendo. With a sigh, he forced himself back to the matter at hand. "What do you want me to do with this?" he asked nodding towards her burden.
"I'm going to try and call in some animals from the surrounding area. I—sometimes when Andruil blesses me—I can communicate with them a little. However, the animals will not come if they detect someone else. You will have to be quiet, hold yourself motionless, and use this to cover your scent." Rhedyn looked at him challenging. "Think you can do that?"
"Child's play, mi bella diosa de la tormenta,*" Zevran replied. "My training was most thorough."
Rhedyn transferred her armful of plants to Zevran with relief. "Set yourself up somewhere where you will be comfortable. This may take a while…if it even works," she warned. "It's important that once I start you don't move or break my concentration until I'm finished."
Zevran agreed and then found a comfortable position with a convenient tree trunk that he could rest his upper body against as he sat on the ground. He spread the stinking plants around him and even made the sacrifice of rubbing some of the leaves against his skin to help camouflage his scent. He then leaned back against the tree and watched Rhedyn.
Rhedyn moved some distance away, but still within eyeshot of Zevran. She had considered trying to do this without his knowledge, but she was starting to know Zevran well enough to realize he would just follow her if she tried to sneak off. She had no hope of keeping this ability hidden from him if she was to have any chance of success, so she had decided to be open about it. She threw a glance Zevran's way and saw he was prepared.
Rhedyn chose her own spot and settled down, clearing her mind of all distractions. She sent a prayer off to Andruil, seeking her help and asking her blessing. Rhedyn sent her consciousness out drifting, questing to see if she could encourage a response from any of the animals who might call this area home.
Zevran sat motionless, his eyes trained on Rhedyn, as he ignored the stench that surrounded him. She had pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around them, laying her head on her knees. Zevran used his internal clock, developed during those long years of Crow training, to measure the passage of time. He judged it had been almost half a bell before anything happened. The first thing he saw was a small bird fly down and land on Rhedyn's shoulder. He watched as it sat motionless for a few minutes and then twittered a bit before flying off. Rhedyn didn't move, however, once the bird was gone so Zevran didn't either. He continued to watch as a small hare timidly approached Rhedyn, putting its twitching nose and whiskers against her hand. Again, Rhedyn made no move. The hare stayed still for a moment or two before bounding off. Zevran held his position, the only things moving on his body were the slight rise and fall of his chest as he breathed and the slow blinking of his eyes when necessary. More time passed. Zevran could hear the sounds of the countryside; the call of birds, insects going about their business, and the ruffling of tree and brush as the wind gently blew. Finally, the last visitor appeared. It was a doe, moving on delicate legs. The deer approached Rhedyn and lowered its head to snuffle the nape of Rhedyn's neck. Zevran sat quietly, entranced by the picture before him. The deer stayed longer, but it eventually made its graceful way back into concealment.
Only then did Rhedyn move, sitting up and stretching her legs out in front of her as she murmured a quiet thank you prayer to Andruil. Zevran took that as permission for him to break his position as well. He rose and quietly walked some distance from the malodorous plants before performing a few simple stretches to limber his body. He had stiffened up after remaining motionless for so long. Zevran approached Rhedyn, who was still sitting on the ground, opening and closing her fists as she tried to restore her circulation. Wordlessly, Zevran squatted down. He then reached out and gently took her hands in his and began massaging her palms and wrists. He felt her momentary shock and Rhedyn began to pull away from him. Zevran turned his amber eyes on her, and she stared back at him. Her gray eyes widened and her breathing picked up as she seemed to freeze under his gaze, allowing her hands to lie in his. Understanding that Rhedyn had little to no experience with men, Zevran dropped his eyes to her hands, pretending that he needed to concentrate on his task. This would allow her time to recover herself before she jerked away from him in fear.
"Tell me," he commanded in his dulcet tones as his hands kept up their soothing motions. "What exactly happened here today?"
Rhedyn took in a deep breath as she tried to figure out how to explain to Zevran what she had done. She removed her hands from his grasp and Zevran let her go without resisting. She frowned slightly in thought but began, "In the most basic terms, I sent out a call for help with the mental image of a dark-haired woman amid a group of horsemen. I had three separate responses. The first was from a bird that had been in a pine thicket pecking the nuts from pine cones. It sent me an impression of a group of horses passing the tree it was perched in. The second was a hare that was feeding at the side of a stream when it felt the vibration of many horses' feet from the ground. The last response was a deer, and she gave me the clearest picture. The doe was grazing by a rock ledge not far from a small pond when she saw a group of horses. She did not stay long enough to note any characteristics of riders, but bounded away as soon as she realized they were there."
"I see," said Zevran. "Does this information provide any help in determining which way we need to go?"
"Well, it doesn't tell us exactly, but if I see the areas the animals showed me, I'll know we are on the right track," Rhedyn replied.
"So again, we need to make a guess as to which direction," Zevran commented as he thought. "My instinct is still saying they were making for Homestead and the major road."
"Let's head in that direction then," Rhedyn suggested. "We can always backtrack to here if we have to and try the other way."
Zevran agreed and so he trudged off to retrieve the horse and their gear before they continued on in the direction of Homestead. Rhedyn once again led the way, her sharp eyes looking for any physical sign of the princess' party or anything that would confirm the images the animals had shared with her.
They hadn't gone too far beyond the point where Rhedyn had turned back when she had scouted the trail earlier when they passed what even Zevran could identify as pine trees. He raised his eyebrows at Rhedyn. She nodded in acknowledgement, but neither said anything as they continued wordlessly on.
Rhedyn suddenly held up a hand and stopped, squatting down to look at something lying on the path. She twisted her upper body to grin at Zevran. "This is the right way," she said triumphantly.
Zevran brought the horse closer so that he was standing beside Rhedyn. She was looking at a small piece of leather sitting all by itself. "I don't understand," Zevran declared. "Why are you so excited? And what does this tell you?"
"Remember what Dougal said about how the horses' hoof prints seemed to disappear from the trail after a few hours?"
"No, I must not have been there when you were discussing the subject," replied Zevran.
"Oh, maybe you weren't," agreed Rhedyn. "Anyway, the important thing is that Dougal suspected that the kidnappers may have somehow covered their horse's hooves to prevent leaving clear tracks, and it looks like he was right. This piece of leather could have been wrapped around a hoof and somehow secured below the fetlock joint. See, look at this." Rhedyn picked up the piece of leather and turned it over so she could see the inside. Even Zevran could detect the obvious scores where the horse's hoof wall had abraded repeatedly against the leather.
"I see, my dear," said Zevran. "Let us continue on our way then, yes?"
Zevran reached down his hand and Rhedyn slowly placed hers in his as he helped her to her feet. Rhedyn quickly removed her hand and nervously wiped it against her leg before starting off once again. They had gone only a little farther up the trail when they encountered a small stream that soon emptied into a pond that had a rock ledge along its one side. Rhedyn turned to Zevran with another smile on her face. "This is the place the doe showed me," she said with certainty before continuing on with an even more eager stride.
Zevran followed in Rhedyn's wake. His admiration for her skill grew as he realized the boasts about her ability weren't false. He just hoped that when they arrived in Homestead the trail wouldn't go cold once again, as then it would be his turn to determine their course.
*My beautiful storm goddess