Title: "Dust Their Wages"
Standard disclaimers, as always. Title adapted from the A.E. Housman poem "Shot? So quick, so clean an ending?" (A Shropshire Lad, XLIV.)
This is set over twenty years after Origins and Amaranthine, and - fair warning - all our heroes are either dead or dying. And it is time for the Warden-Commander of Ferelden to go to her Calling.
"Dust Their Wages"
My dear heart, the Warden-Commander of Ferelden writes.
And stops, staring down at the brown goose-feathered quill between her scarred, ink-blotted knuckles. The scraped parchment, thin and fine. Outside the window of her musty study, seagulls dive and keen in the wind from the sea that smells of salt and freedom and further shores, and her throat tightens in grief.
There are no words for what she wants to say. It is the silent scream of a trapped and dying god twisting beneath her breastbone like poisoned knives. It is the burning coldness of the taint racing in her veins hotter and faster by the day, a twisted knot of pain and compulsion. It is the crushing weight of twenty-five years of recruiting young men and women for bad compromises and bitter duty and loss of every good friend bar the last.
Alistair Theirin is dead, fallen from his horse three weeks before his eldest daughter's nineteenth birthday. Rowen Theirin is queen in Ferelden now, young and golden and painfully like her father to the eye. Wynne is dead much longer, so much longer that her features are like mist in the memory. Zevran Arainai is lost to the Crows in Antiva: she had word of his death a month after Alistair's, though he had been dead a year longer, a twin to the first blow that fell like a hammer on the bloody anvil of her soul. Nathaniel Howe, dead of a cave-in in the Deep Roads beside Oghren in the plague-ridden spring of 9:44 Dragon, a year that carried off Anders as well despite all they could do, and Sigrun gone early to Orzammar and the taint's final revenge.
And now the last loss, and the most painful. Twenty-six years of love and comradeship and the Commander of the Grey in Ferelden will go to Orzammar alone and unaccompanied, leaving only a letter in her wake.
I hope you will forgive me for this, dear Leliana. But you have said too often since Alistair's death that you will not let me go to Orzammar alone for me to disbelieve you, and if you demanded it to my face I could not leave you behind.
It is your right to choose, you might say. I have been your friend for years and honoured thereby; your lover, almost as long, and by your regard doubly blessed. You would come because you cannot bear that anyone should go into that darkness to die alone. And perhaps because you believe in miracles.
It is a fate I do not welcome, death. Still less in the Deep Roads. But I had one miracle more than I dared hope for in surviving the Blight, and more blessing than I ever deserved in your company through these long years. They were good years, I hope. I look back on them now and weep for the joys that lived between - alongside! - our struggles. A happy weeping, dear bard: I would not trade those years for anything on the face of this earth.
Do not come with me into the dark, I beg. Live on in the light and remember. We are yet young, and for you, I hope - I pray, Leliana, and well you know how long it is since I prayed in earnest - there are more good years and joys to come.
I do not reckon it beyond your abilities to follow me to Orzammar. Indeed, I account it entirely possible I may arrive and find you there before me, for I will dispatch this letter to you in Denerim before I leave, and though I make all speed, I know your determination as well as I know my own. I may be a coward at heart, dear bard. I am tired of making bitter choices. I pray you, forgive me. Forgive me, and say me farewell.
I will love you unto the bitter end.
Yours, while light and life remain,
In the royal study in Denerim, the blood-orange glow of sunset lances through tall windows, illuminating the parchment in red where it lies on a broad, cluttered desk. The two women present exchange near-identical glances.
"It's lucky you anticipated this." The younger woman blows a strand of fair hair out of her eyes and leans her palms against the desk. The shoulders that flex under her fine white silk shirt have the powerful breadth that comes of exercise with sword and shield. She is a little older, perhaps, than twenty, but her brown eyes are those of someone used to hard choices. As they should be: the Queen of Ferelden has grown up hard in the two years since her father's death, and it shows.
The elder woman shrugs expressively. She is more than twice the young queen's age, but slender yet, the long braid of her red-gold hair liberally streaked with grey. The crows-feet that crinkle the corners of her faded blue-green eyes are the kind that come with laughter and exposure to all kinds of weather, and a pale white scar the length of her jaw pulls the corner of her mouth up into a permanent half-smile. "I have known the Warden Commander a very long time, Your Majesty," she says, the edges of her speech softened by the faint traces of an Orlesian accent. "A very long time, as these things go, and I have not seen her dreams so troubled since the Blight." Her voice is half amusement, and all sorrow. "She has never been good at lying to me. I knew, when I left Vigil's Keep. I knew."
"Please don't 'Your Majesty' me in private, Aunt Leli," Rowen Theirin says quietly. "For my father's sake if not my own, I believe King Bhelen will do as he has pledged and delay the Commander of the Grey as long as he can. But you will need to travel quickly."
"I have a good horse."
"No," the queen says to Ferelden's most famous bard and one of the last of its great heroes still living. "No," Alistair's daughter says to her adoptive aunt. "You have a writ from the Queen of Ferelden to use the royal post. And if the post should fail, to commandeer what mounts you please."
"I would not have asked for that," Leliana says, her words soft with gratitude.
"I know." Rowen's lips do something painful and complicated. "But Father -" She shakes her head. "He told me about his promise. And Ferelden owes you - both of you - more than this." Her eyes are dark and searching: Ferelden's queen holds the woman in front of her in the affection of family. "Leliana, are you sure you wish to do this?"
"I cannot do otherwise," Leliana says simply, and does not flinch when the queen grasps her hands between her own with fierce and desperate pressure.
"Then may Andraste guide your steps," Rowen Theirin says, after a long moment, and if there is grief in her voice no one will ever mention it. "And the Maker light your way."
Orzammar is much changed from the Warden-Commander's first visit. She has returned twice in the intervening years, and found the creep of the taint in the rock calling to her blood with oppressive insistence: ancient stone beneath the mountain and the bustle of a city learning to look outward a bare distraction from the humming in her veins.
The king himself greets her in the Hall of Heroes. Bhelen Aeducan, his eldest son and second a younger mirror at his shoulder. He has survived civil war and political upheaval and more assassination attempts than any mortal should, and even now she cannot bring herself to like him. She respects him still, and for the sake of the order she responds politely to his speech of welcome. For the sake of the Grey Wardens - for the sake of her duty, which in twenty-six years she has never once laid aside - she sits through three days of feasting and fighting in her honour and the honour of the order; writes letters of recommendation to Vigil's Keep on behalf of the young men and women who approach her to join the Wardens (one, she instructs, is to be turned away: even on short acquaintance she can tell that if he survived the Joining he'd be a disaster waiting to happen, but two others she recommends should be nudged towards leadership positions, if they live); and inspects the two Grey Wardens who make up the order's permanent detachment at the Aeducan court.
There is an order to all things. Even dying. And despite the gnawing buzz in her veins, she will not go until all the proprieties have been observed.
Even now, she will not fail in her duty.
It is the morning of the fourth day, inasmuch as dwarves measure morning, when the Commander of the Grey arms herself for the final time. Dragonscale hauberk, greaves, boots, helm, gauntlets: a familiar weight of leather and metal, settling on her shoulders like a second skin. Her sword at her hip. Her shield on her back. A dagger in each boot.
She pauses. Takes a twist of powder from her beltpouch and swallows it dry: she has learned something of poisons over the years. This one is slow-acting: she has a week, now, before her heart will stop. Four days until she is too weak to move. She does not expect to live that long, but if she does - well, the 'spawn will make no broodmothers from her.
She will make sure of that.
Leliana finds her at the gate to the Deep Roads.
"I told you not to come," the Warden-Commander of Ferelden says, and her glance is bleak.
"I know." The former Orlesian bard is armed and armoured. Eight Dead Legionnaires stand at her back. Her expression is somewhere between grieving and grim, but there is forgiveness in her eyes. "Did you think I would let you go without saying goodbye?"
There are duties and duties, and this is Leliana's.
To stand and say farewell and I love you and Maker help her, die well without breaking: to kiss her Warden's cheek and clasp her hand and send her for the last time into the dark. Send her into the dark, and stand and not follow though her soul aches to go.
It has been a good life. And she will honour her Warden's wish, and not leave it yet.
And when her Warden disappears into the darkness of the tunnel with the Dead Legionaires, when Leliana's heart breaks in her chest - not for the first time, but now, perhaps, for the last - and the tears she cannot yet shed burn in her eyes -
Then, and only then, does she turn away.
Atrasta nal tunsha, my Warden. May we find our way again, after the dark.