The dawn does not wake her as it usually does. In fact, the sun has crawled halfway up the sky before she emerges from her chambers, groggy and disheveled but awake and dressed. She makes her way to the dining hall and finds her three Wardens. Oghren is a mess.
"Is he... still drunk?" she asks tentatively, and Nathaniel turns, a thin smile on his lips as he shakes his head.
"Honestly? We've given up trying to tell."
Anders chuckles, still watching the dwarf belch his way through a bowl of porridge. "I'm still taking bets on how many bowls he can eat before he throws up, if you're interested. We're up to five." The men both talk at once.
"Speaking of food, I was quite surprised this morning..."
"Actually, I wanted to ask. I had this really weird nightmare last night..."
She puts her hands up in defence. "One at a time, and none until I have had some tea. I admit I have not been forthcoming with information. I am sorry." The men glance at each other before turning to sit at the table.
Oghren belches loudly, the sound echoing around the room, before patting his stomach. "Aye, that'll do me," he decides. His eyes find the commander as she sits at the head of the table. "So what's all this about? The blood and everything."
Serra opens her mouth to answer, but an elf appears at her shoulder, tea and porridge in hand. He places them in front of the commander without a word, and she feels distinctly awkward. As he leaves she picks up the cup, taking a tentative sip before answering. "The Joining is a ceremony that has been performed since the first Grey Wardens. As you know, you take the taint inside you – part darkspawn blood, part archdemon blood, and part-magic, and then you fight for your life. Some people live. Some people die. It is the way of the Wardens."
"Why do they die? Is it simply strength that preserves you? Will of the spirit?" Nathaniel leans in, brow furrowed. "Was Mhairi simply wea-"
"I will not permit you to insult the memory of Mhairi." Varel's voice cracks across them like a whip, and Anders and Oghren physically reel back. Serra does not bat an eyelid, sipping at her drink again. Nathaniel looks up, eyes narrowing. The man holds his ground. "She was a Warden, regardless of her death. I would ask you to respect that, Master Howe." Something flashes in Nathaniel's eyes for a moment before he nods brusquely. Serra barely acknowledges the exchange, putting her cup down calmly before continuing.
"The taint becomes part of you. It will still kill you, however. Eventually you will hear what is known as the Call. The older Wardens... they would speak of it as if it were a lover." She shivers slightly. "When that time comes, tradition dictates that you will walk into the darkness and fight until you are slain. You do not have to choose this, of course. You can choose to ignore it... for a time. But it is... a good way to die."
Anders looks sick. "How... how long?"
"Thirty years. It is not that accurate, I admit, but it is rarely longer." She tilts her head, considering him. "You seem uneasy at this prospect."
"Uneasy?" He laughs, though it is hollow. "You've just told me how long I have left to live. Kind of takes the fun out of it."
"And yet yesterday you were facing execution," she observes. "This is not better? Thirty years to protect this world from the darkspawn, to live a half-life as a Grey Warden. You will still live and love and fight and feel. Surely this is better than a single day?"
"Yes, but... I don't know, it's pretty final. Just saying."
Oghren grunts. "Better'n nothin' if you ask me." He belches, before swinging his legs around and standing up. "Sometimes it's better to know that death waits fer you, see." The following laugh is almost a bark, and entirely devoid of humour. "Worse things than death that can find a man." With that cryptic message, he staggers off, the effect lost with his less-than-dramatic waddle brought on by the alcohol. Anders and Nathaniel share an uneasy glance, before turning back to their stout-hearted commander. She smiles thinly.
"I would personally venture that the darkspawn are a much worse fate than death," she says simply. As Varel hands her a stack of papers, she waves the pair off with a dismissive gesture. Work to be done, as ever.
"So... you're a Howe."
Nathaniel looks up at him. "What's your point, mage?"
"Hey, I'm fond of the Howes. I'm also fond of the Whys, the Whos and the Whats." His voice can barely contain his glee. Serra stops, a frown marring her brow.
"How clever," drawls the rogue, clearly unimpressed.
Anders chuckles. "Oh, it's shameful how long it took me to come up with that, it really is..." Both men realise that they have now passed their commander, and turn to look. She is still frowning, looking between the men for a long moment before her eyes widen and she smiles.
"Oh! I get it!" And quite suddenly, she laughs – a strange sort of wheezing sound, patting them both on the back as she starts to walk again. Anders glances at Nathaniel, who simply quirks up an eyebrow before falling in line behind her. The mage shakes his head slightly, following.
The sound of two men bickering filters across the courtyard, and the trio are drawn to them. Serra notes the forge and anvil. Ah, the armourer and his lover. Varel had written about their hesitance to come to the Vigil in his notes, but there was no explanation as to why. She smiles, stopping just short of their hushed argument.
One turns, performing a double-take and smiling broadly. "Oh, you must be the commander! Terribly glad you showed up, that mess with the darkspawn was just dreadful... anyway! I'm Herren, and this is-"
"What I am is bloody freezing!" whines the other man, standing closer to the forge and outright pouting. "Why are we here and not in the city where it's warm?"
"We were sent by the king," Herren reminds him, in a tone that speaks of infinite patience. "By special request, to fit the Wardens and their soldiers with the finest armour possible. You were there when he asked, remember?"
"All I remember is that Warden chap who broke the last sword I made for him," he says with a sniff. "It was a good sword. I had so much fun making it."
"Well, he is the king now..."
"Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremo-"
"It was the Landsmeet, Wade. The Landsmeet appointed him king. We watched the whole scene play out."
"Oh, but if I went around saying I was Emperor of Orlais just because some moistened bint lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away..." He is clearly no longer listening, but muttering to himself about how Denerim was a silly place.
Herren lets out the smallest of sighs before turning back to the bemused commander with a smile that is only slightly brittle. "I do apologise, Commander. He was reading some strange books on the journey over here, I knew I should have stopped him when he started raving about birds and coconuts, but once he's gotten his teeth into something..."
"No need to apologise," she says simply, smiling and reaching to pat his shoulder. "I have the utmost faith in the two of you, and I am very pleased to have you with us." The sharpness falls from his face, his smile genuine at her gesture, and she waves Nathaniel forward to get equipped with some basics for now. Turning to face the courtyard again, she takes stock of the people walking through – the few soldiers left behind by the king patrol the grounds, and the remaining workers often stop to regard the task ahead of them, all with some trepidation in their hearts. She cannot blame them.
In the corner of her vision, a sergeant stands straighter, waving her over. With the mage at her back, she crosses the courtyard, smiling kindly.
"Sergeant Maverlies, oui?" she asks.
"Yes, Commander. I have some pressing business to bring to your attention. The darkspawn may still be inside the keep, ma'am." Behind her, Anders swears very quietly.
"Where?" There is no question of how or why – that will come later, when the problem is dealt with. Mavelies recognises this and opens the door behind her.
"Down in the basement. The cave-ins blocked the way down, but some of my men reported hearing noises as they cleared the rubble."
Serra considers this, before turning to Anders. "Retrieve Monsieur Oghren. I will see to Nathaniel." The mage sweeps away quickly, and she turns to look over at the armourers, but the rogue is nowhere to be seen. She curses briefly before scouting the courtyard.
He is smiling, miracle of miracles – a true and genuine shape on his lips that stops her in her tracks. The man he converses with is elderly, and she wonders if he is one of the old staff, that this is a link to his past that he is for once happy to see. Waving her over, he sounds almost joyous.
"Commander, this is Samuel! He was the groundskeeper here when I was a boy – well, still is. He says -"
She holds up a single hand, silencing him. "We have a situation. There are darkspawn trapped in the lower levels. Mes apologies, Samuel, but this will have to wait." The man regards her with narrowed eyes before turning away wordlessly, and the rogue beside him watches him leave with something similar to surprise.
"I understand. But might I be permitted to make a formal request?" He turns to face her again. "After this is dealt with, I would like to be allowed to make a trip to the city."
"Amaranthine? Whatever for?"
"That's... personal, commander." He straightens, his defences back up. She considers him.
"I am afraid that I cannot spare you at the moment. However," she adds before he can reply, "we may have a pressing need to attend to the city in person. Should that be the case, I am sure that there will be time enough for any personal business you may have, Nathaniel. Is this agreeable?" He nods curtly, a flash of something – thanks? - in his eyes for a moment before he turns his attention to the problem at hand.
She smiles wryly. "Indeed. Welcome to the Grey Wardens."