Chapter One of what I hope will evolve into a full-length fanfic chronicling the journey of Jaiden Tabris from alienage elf to the Hero of Ferelden. I don't have a beta reader (if anybody wants to volunteer, please message me!), so forgive any errors I've missed. This will be Fem!Tabris/Leliana, so consider fair warning given. There will be no graphic smut, unless I rip off Snafu1000 and do bonus chapters, but it may get a bit gory. Well, it's Dragon Age, after all :)
Disclaimer: Anything you recognise is Bioware's, save the odd literary quote I might throw in. Jaiden Tabris is (tenuously) mine. Hope you all enjoy.
The guards lay dead at her feet. Blood splattered her, gore dripped from the weapons she had somehow effectively wielded in her blind fear. Soris was saying something to her, but she dropped the sword and dagger to the floor, the clanging drowning him out, as she began to frantically scrub her hands against her dress. She had taken a life…oh Maker, she was a murderer, she would never get out of this place alive…Soris was trying to calm her, but the alarm in his eyes bought the realisation home, and she looked again at their butchered corpses. She had flown into a frenzy, hacking wildly, terrified. Soris had not had a chance to fire his crossbow. She was a monster, she had erased their existence and enjoyed it…she spun around and threw up in the corner.
Jaiden Tabris shifted in her bedroll, moaning. Her fists were clenched and by the dying embers of the fire Duncan could see sweat standing out on her forehead.
She stepped forward into another unfamiliar corridor, praying she was heading the right way. The armour she had stolen seemed to weigh a ton and she sounded dreadfully loud. What if they were heading away from her cousin? She picked up the pace, becoming careless. Barrelling through a door, something clicked beneath her foot, and she just had time to register it before Soris threw himself into her back and knocked her to the floor. The fireball she had activated flew over their heads, smashing in an explosion of embers against the doorpost. This was swiftly followed by the sound of clanking feet, and a tall human came running from the room at the end of the hall. He was large, and strong, and he crashed into her with enough force to knock her to the ground. He raised his sword and bought it down. She blocked late, the blow meant to break her head open instead tearing a long cut down the side of her face. She screeched, swinging upwards, her sword somehow finding the gap between gorget and helmet. The body fell across her and she screamed until Soris pulled her free and slapped her out of her hysterics.
Duncan wondered at the trials Jaiden had undergone in the arl's palace. She had not been violated, he knew that much, but she had had to fight her way through a lot of men stronger and more experienced than her in her desperate search for the others, and the fear must have been the only thing keeping her going until the end. Speaking privately with her cousin once she had gone to bid goodbye to Shianni, Duncan had discovered that Jaiden had spent most of the battles emitting noises a banshee would envy. She had been trained to fight, but not how to deal with taking a life, and he could only hope that the righteousness of what she had done cancelled out the horror she felt.
They burst in. Her eyes were instantly drawn to Shianni, lying prone on the floor. She was bruised and bloody, her clothes no more than tattered rags hanging off her. Vaughn's men were still fully clothed and armed, and the arl's son stood, slowly tugging up his breeches without any visible concern at the interruption. He leered at her as he spoke, calmly attempting to negotiate, his voice drowned out by the roar in her ears. They were too late. She was too late. Soris was speaking to her, wondering at the money Vaughn had offered them. His desperation to escape the alienage had been stronger than she had guessed at. She gave him a pithy answer, and Vaughn charged. More blood, more screaming, more of the foul smell that humans emit when they die. She rushed to help her cousin. There was accusation in Shianni's eyes. Why couldn't she had been faster? Why didn't she fight more? Why? She turned on Vaughn's corpse as Soris let the other elves out of the back room and lifted Shianni into his arms. The corpse opened its eyes, looking at her and laughing, hands reaching up to encircle her neck. The other men were rising, pulling at her clothes, as Soris and the others fled, and she struggled but the dead men held on tight and there was pain and horror and blood everywhere so much blood Maker help me Maker –
Jaiden was woken by her own terrified shout, still feeling the grips of the arl and his friends upon her. She sat up, breathing too fast, and felt nausea rise in her throat. Her vision went fuzzy and then a gentle hand was on her back, pushing her head between her knees, telling her in a soothing voice to relax and breathe more steadily. After a few moments, her eyes began to clear, and the tension seeped from her shoulders, although she was still shaking. She slowly straightened up and shifted her sitting position until she could look around. Duncan sat by her, a hand still on her back, his deep brown eyes looking at her without judgement. She sat like that for a few seconds, recollecting where they were, and sighed, rubbing her eyes.
"I'm sorry, Duncan," she started, but the Warden-Commander held up his hand to silence her.
"You would not be the first recruit to suffer from bad dreams," he said. "We try to take the best we can, but most have some dark area of their past that they are haunted by. I have my own such memories, although I am in far better control of them now. As you will be." Jaiden was sceptical. The fighting, the pain in Shianni's eyes, and the violent touches of the men, had all felt so real, her imagination playing on her memories to make it worse than it ever could have been. It was her fear of what would have happened if Soris had never arrived that wove its way into her sleeping thoughts.
That and the killing. Maker help her, she had enjoyed it at the time. Even as Shianni lay on the floor, she had felt Vaughn's blood spray hot against her face, and she had grinned. It was savage and disgusting…and she wanted more. She had spent the first few hours she had ever spent outside Denerim on the first steps of a road towards a full-scale battle, and been praying for bandits to attack them, just so that she could impose Vaughn's face on them and watch him die again…and again…and again.
I'm no better than he was.
The thought made her feel sick. Duncan watched her thoughtfully for a few moments, examining the expressions that flittered across her face. "Do not think yourself as bad as the man you slew," he said, firmly. "He delighted in prolonging pain, and thought your race lower than animals. If he had survived to become the arl of Denerim, a great many people would have suffered. He was but one stepping stone on your path to making Thedas a better place to live." Jaiden shook his head.
"For what he did to my cousin, I would gladly have tortured him," she said. Her eyes did not meet his and her voice lacked conviction.
"No, you would have not done it gladly," Duncan countered. "You would have done it because you felt it was the right response, under the circumstances, but you would have gained no pleasure from it. Only when you beat him, and quickly finished him, did you feel satisfaction."
"I went back to his body," Jaiden said. She looked up at him Duncan realised that she was praying for him to argue her every point, to prove to her that she was not the monster Vaughn had been. "I…wanted to keep chopping. I was so full of rage, I was ready to hack his body to unrecognisable pieces if we hadn't had to get the others out quickly." She fingered the long gash that Vaughn's bodyguard had cut in her face. Valendrian had given her an ointment to counteract infection, but it was going to leave a pretty visible scar, and Duncan caught her wrist and lowered it to her side, shaking his head at her.
"But you did not give into the temptation," he said firmly. "You put what mattered first over your own desire, despite its strength, and then you went one further and sacrificed yourself for the sake of every other elf in your alienage. If I had not been there, you would have died, slowly and painfully. These are good things to have in a Grey Warden. Loyalty, duty, bravery. Trust me," he caught her chin and forced her to meet his eyes; "you are a good person. You know this. You were thrust into a situation you could not escape without bloodshed, and you did what had to be done to save those you cared about. You could have run after Soris freed you, but you stuck with him all the way through the estate. You could have taken the money and left your cousin and bridesmaids to their fate, but you didn't." Jaiden's fearful expression was softening, a little, as he spoke. "You may have had bloody thoughts, but you chose not to act on them. You are no monster."
Jaiden was silent. She reached out, catching Duncan's hand and squeezing it lightly in thanks, before curling back into her bedroll and falling asleep again – this time, peacefully. The Warden looked down at his charge, some of his trepidation dissolving. She would not be a hardened warrior by the morning, but his words seemed to have sunk in, and he settled into his own blankets. He would have to train her a great deal along the road to Ostagar, it would seem, but not nearly so much as he had feared.
It took around two weeks to reach Ostagar. Along the way, Jaiden had turned out to have a knack for stealthy fighting. When they had left Denerim, she carried a small pouch at her side, and it had been a couple of days before Duncan discovered its purpose. When the bandits attacked them Jaiden had blended into the background so successfully that Duncan had lost sight of her. She then reappeared, right in front of the leader, and flung a powder in his eyes. The man screamed, tearing at his face, and Jaiden cut a neat line along his neck before twisting to meet her next opponent. She also had a great deal of skill in lock-picking, although she was terrible at detecting traps and had tripped on a number of wires laid along the road. Duncan strongly suspected that her skills were not innate talent, but had been honed through years of evading trouble from the humans while trying to find enough to eat. She was proving a worthwhile choice.
Jaiden was still torn by the consequences of her actions in Denerim. It was highly possible that the arl would simply lash out at the alienage. True, she was proving a better fighter than she ever thought she could be. Precise moves meant shorter combat, and Duncan was a brilliant distraction while she snuck around and took out whoever was running the raid. It was certainly easier than the mindless rage that threatened to cloud her mind every time she thought of Vaughn's sneering face. She had been no saint in her former life; what had to be done to survive had to be done, but she had never killed before that day.
As they reached their destination, Jaiden's mouth dropped open. Ostagar was vast, far bigger than her mind could comprehend. White towers, battered by years of standing against wind, rain, and heavy siege machines, stretched into the sky, as though defying the Maker Himself. The ground around was still rough – Ostagar was built on the edge of the Wilds, after all – but the men moving around were heavily armoured, in magnificent suits of plate that put even the Templars to shame. Not that Jaiden had much to go on, as far as the Templars went. They usually stayed out of the alienage.
While she was still looking about gawping, a blonde-haired man strode up to them, clad in the most spectacular suit of armour Jaiden had ever seen. It was gold, with what appeared to be a wolf inscribed on the breast plate, and probably weighed more than she did. His knee guards were in the shape of stars, for the Maker's sake. Duncan started, offering a hasty bow.
"King Cailan? I was not expecting a-" Jaiden froze. This was the king. He looked so young! Surely not more than a couple of years older than her. He was handsome for a shem, that was certain, but Jaiden was having trouble trying not to be distracted by the sunlight shining off his armour and blinding her. Besides, this was the man who was currently letting the city elves suffer in his alienage. She pulled herself upright, determined not to bow, scowling.
"A royal welcome?" Cailan laughed. "I was beginning to think you would miss all the fun." There was a laugh in his voice that sat at odds with his military bearing, and Jaiden blinked at him.
"Not if I could help it, your majesty." Duncan, too, seemed amused. The two men obviously knew each other well enough to relax a little. Duncan had been kind to her, but also stoic and firm, drilling her relentlessly every day on how to maintain her armour and weapons, fixing arrows, the skills of scouting, and some sparring. He also seemed preoccupied a lot of the time, and it had been a gradual realisation that told Jaiden what a daunting task the man had ahead of him.
"Then I will have the mighty Duncan at my side in battle after all. Glorious." The king looked upwards, smiling as though he could already see the battlefield strewn with fallen darkspawn. He then looked directly at her, which Jaiden was not expecting. "I received your missive about the new recruit. I take it this is she?"
"Allow me to introduce you two, Your Majesty," Duncan began, but Cailan waved a hand dismissively.
"No need to be so formal, Duncan. We'll be shedding blood together after all." He was standing directly in front of her, smiling in a welcoming fashion, apparently not the least concerned that she was an elf. "Ho, there, friend. Might I know your name?"
"I-I am Jaiden, Your Highness," the elf said, struggling to control her stutter. The King of Ferelden was speaking to her like an equal. She couldn't afford to look cowed, but all the same – she should be dying by inches in the dungeons of Fort Drakon right now. This was surreal. The king said a few more words of welcome, and then, to her surprise, asked her a more personal question.
"Tell me, how are the alienages? My guards all but forbid me from going there." Jaiden knew the right response at this point was a pithy comment about how life was hard and the elves could use more help. Instead, what came out of her mouth was, "I murdered an arl's son for raping my friend." She knew from Duncan's groan and the startled reactions of the guards that she had made a massive faux pas, but it was almost worth it for Cailan's sagging jaw. "You – what?"
"Your Majesty, I would not have put it so bluntly," Duncan said, shooting Jaiden a warning glance. "There are events in Denerim that you should be aware of, however."
"Apparently so," Cailan muttered. He was giving Jaiden a strange look, and it took the elf a few moments to recognise it as respect. What? He waved a hand. "I need to return to my tent. Loghain awaits to bore me with his strategies." Duncan began speaking, mentioning something about a Redcliff lord, while Jaiden spaced out. She had got the shocked reaction she had been going for, but what on earth had qualified her for that second expression? As she mused, her ears caught the word 'Blight' and she tried to pay attention. Her feet hurt and her shoulders ached, and all she wanted right now was a hot meal and a doze before they went about doing whatever was next. There was so much going on, without being thrown into confusion by royalty as well.
"I'd hoped for a war like in the tales! A king riding with the fabled Grey Wardens against a tainted god – but I suppose this will have to do." From military, to friendly, to boyish dreams of heroism. The King of Ferelden seemed far too immature to be leading such an important battle – but there was a confidence and enthusiasm in his words that Jaiden couldn't fault. He appeared to regard the coming darkspawn horde as an inconvenience, to be swatted out of the way until the archdemon showed up for him to have his moment of glory. Jaiden's mother had taught her the importance of keeping spirits up in the face of discord. Every elf in the alienages knew how to do that. So perhaps his cheerful morale was not so bad.
Cailan took his leave and Jaiden looked after him, still frowning in thought. Duncan tapped her shoulder to get her attention again. "What the king said is true. They've won several battles against the darkspawn here." His body language was still strong and unshakeable, but Jaiden saw some trepidation in his eyes. She wasn't sure if she felt better about the fact that her commander was more cautious about the upcoming battle than the king – or worse.
They began walking towards the main area of Ostagar, Duncan talking about the successful battles so far and informing her of a ritual that needed to be performed. Somehow, Jaiden didn't think that the Grey Wardens went in for pointless ceremony. Duncan was not telling her everything, and before she could attempt to get more answers out of him he was gone, walking across the bridge towards the Warden encampment.
Jaiden leant on the stone and stared down. Oh Maker, it was a long way down…she'd never been higher than partway up the vhenadahl tree in the alienage before, and this was many, many times higher than that. Her stomach flipped and she lurched away before she threw up on some unsuspecting soldier's head.
Quickly, she scuttled across the bridge, still tensing automatically every time she walked past a soldier, having to cover her surprised response as she was greeted with friendly cries of 'Hail!' and 'Welcome to the Wardens!'. A man standing guard at the main encampment called to her, asking if she wanted to know her way around. She asked tentatively after the Warden she was supposed to be seeking out, a human called Alistair. He pointed in the direction of a ruined temple to the north of the encampment, and gave her a salute as she walked away. It was surreal.
She knew she should be going straight to Alistair, but curiosity kicked in and she started to wander around, listening in on the commanders and the priests, generally trying to gather as much useful information as she could. Overhearing a sergeant showing the corpse of a genlock to his unit, she crept to the edge of the group, caught off guard again as nobody seemed to mind her presence. It was borderline unnerving, and after a few minutes she attempted to slink away, only to walk straight into another lord, nearly falling over. She apologised and turned to run off, but he stopped her.
"You're Duncan's new Grey Warden, I assume," the man said, looking her up and down. He was wearing a far dingier suit of plate than the king had been wearing, but it was obvious from the reactions of those around her that he was powerful. She heard the sergeant gasp behind her.
"Teryn Loghain!" The rest f the group bowed, and Jaiden quickly followed suit, remembering the king's passing reference to his strategist.
"I'm not a Grey Warden yet," she muttered. There was something about the way Loghain was examining her that made her feel really uncomfortable. It wasn't lecherous – she was used to those sorts of stares – but she couldn't place it. Loghain sniffed, brushing a piece of dirt from his shoulder pauldrons.
"You impressed His Majesty nonetheless. He could not be more excited over your meeting." Jaiden tried to conceal a frown. But I told him I was a murderer…she chose not to share this with the Teryn. "I don't suppose you'll be riding into the thick of battle with your fellows, will you?"
Jaiden chewed her lip, nibbling at a piece of loose skin. "I don't know," she said, nervously. "I mean, I'm new to all this…" Loghain put a hand on her shoulder.
"Every soldier starts somewhere," he said. His face was as forbidding as ever, yet Jaiden felt herself relax a little; he was evidentially accustomed to calming panicked boys and girls before their first battles, choosing just the right tone to encourage them. His next words surprised her. "You're pretty for a Grey Warden," he observed. Once again, there was no lechery or admiration in his tone; it was a simple statement of fact. "Don't let anybody tell you that you don't belong. One of the first Wardens Maric bought to Ferelden was a woman; finest warrior I've ever seen."
"T-Thank you, ser," Jaiden said hesitantly, meaning the words for perhaps the first time in her life. Loghain removed his hand from her shoulder.
"I must get back to my tent. Pray our king proves amenable to wisdom."
"And if he doesn't?" Jaiden ventured, cautiously. From what she had heard in her wanderings, the teryn and the king had clashed a lot lately, but they were also in-laws, and she didn't particularly want this man as an enemy. He didn't look the type to let an insult lie. To her relief, he gave her a shrewd look, but there was no malice or anger in his eyes.
"Then simply, pray." He turned away and Jaiden could hear the soldiers gossiping behind her about the teryn in awed voices. She still felt a little dizzy and it was with a whirl of confusion, as well as a sense of gratification that she could not damp down, that she went to find Alistair.
Alistair had a thumping headache, and was busy chewing some willow bark in an attempt to alleviate the pain. It had been a horrible day so far, crawling out of his tent in the pouring rain to attend to latrine duty, coming back to discover that a roaming mabari had filched his breakfast, and having to run around the camp conversing with the mages – none of whom made any sort of effort to make his job easier – to help get the Joining ritual ready. He had just sat down with a spot of lunch when the Reverend Mother had collared him and sent him with a message to one of the senior enchanters. He had realised a second too late that he had been purposefully chosen because his presence would be taken as an insult, and he had just about endured the mage's anger through flippancy, resisting the urge to drain the man's magic temporarily. Because that'll improve the reputation of the Templars sooooo much, he groused to himself.
As he and the mage traded barbs, he was aware of an armoured woman walking close to them, stopping when she realised that they were arguing, and withdrawing to a respectful distance. As the mage stormed off huffing angrily, Alistair pulled the bark out of his mouth and tried to summon a smile. He didn't realise until he turned that she was an elf, and he struggled to remember if there was any formal greeting he could offer, but the dull throbbing in his temples clouded his thinking and in the end he attempted to open with a joke.
"You know…one good thing about the Blight is that it brings us all together." The woman stared at him quizzically, and he was just wondering if the comment had flown over her head when she smiled.
"I know exactly what you mean," she replied, as the smile became a smirk. She then winced, her skin pulled tight across the scar tissue running down the left side of her face. It was a nasty wound, and looked fairly recent, but Alistair didn't think it was any of his business to ask how she got it. For all he knew, she picked it up on the way to Ostagar. What mattered to Alistair was that the elf had a wonderfully cheeky expression, and he breathed a sigh of relief. At least the day wasn't going to get worse. Unless….
"You're not a mage, are you?" the elf lifted an eyebrow at his question, crossing her arms and looking down at her suit of light leather armour. Alistair rubbed his eyes, wondering what the day had against him that demanded he kept rubbing people up the wrong way.
Something sparked in his memory and he examined the woman – although she could barely be called a woman, he thought. Even in the armour she looked barely out of her teens. "I think I know you. Are you Duncan's newest recruit? From Denerim?" She nodded, looking a little surprised. She had a rather expressive face and Alistair found he liked that. Being surrounded by stoic warriors all day could become a bit wearing if you had a habit of cracking jokes to relieve tension. "I'm Alistair, the new Grey Warden. I'll be accompanying you as you prepare for your Joining."
"I'm Jaiden. Pleased to meet you," she said, smiling. Scar aside, she was very pretty, Alistair thought. Her dark red hair was scraped back into a pony tail, with various errant strands coming loose that he doubted she would ever be able to tame. Her eyes were a very light shade or green, almost translucent, with a dark ring around the iris. She had a scattering of freckles against skin that was stubbornly pale in the sun's watery light. Despite this, Alistair's eyes kept being drawn to that scar. It was obviously a slash mark, nicking the very end of her eyebrow and crossing her cheek to the side of her chin, broadening at the jawline, and it was plain that whatever had caused it had narrowly avoided blinding her.
Alistair was not a fool. He knew elves lived hard lives in the alienages, and there were frequent fights with people who decided it would be fun to go in and kick them around a bit. Nonetheless, he could not help that feel that the scar had something to do with why the girl was here now.
He came back to the present to realise that Jaiden was staring at him, no longer smiling. He had been openly gawping and felt a rush of shame. "Sorry," he muttered.
"Don't worry about it," Jaiden said gently. "I know it looks messy right now – I'm hoping it'll heal without too much trouble. I can't seem to stop poking it, though. Duncan had to keep swatting my hand away while it was still open." Alistair did his best not to wince, and attempted to change the subject.
"You know, it occurs to me that there have never been many women in the Grey Wardens. I wonder why that is?" His tone of voice invited her to comment, but she tipped her head to one side and batted another question back at him.
"You think there should be more women in the Wardens?"
"Would that be so terrible?" It wasn't until the words were out of his mouth that he realised how bad his voice sounded, and Jaiden's lips tightened a little. "Not that I'm some…drooling lecher…" Jaiden narrowed her eyes, but despite her uninviting facial expression she didn't seem to be that annoyed. "…please stop looking at me like that." Jaiden relaxed, and Alistair breathed a sigh of relief. He did not want to be wandering around the Korcari Wilds with an angry elf in tow. Nonetheless, he decided that today was a day that opening his mouth was interpreted by his foot as an invitation, and the best course of action was to be quiet. "Anyway, we should probably get back to Duncan."
As they began walking down to the main fire, a man ran over from the quarter-master's area and before Alistair could react, he had grabbed Jaiden by the ear and pinched, hard. "What have you done with my armour, elf?" he snapped. He glanced at the studded leather she wore and his angry expression reformed into puzzlement. "And why are you dressed so preposterously?" Alistair was about to step in to intervene, but Jaiden's fist got there first, landing squarely in the man's nose. There was an audible crunching noise and he let go of her, cursing and clutching at his face in an attempt to stem the flow of blood.
"I'm not a servant," Jaiden spat. "I'm here to become a Grey Warden, you stupid shem!"
"Ugh…I'm…sorry…" the quartermaster said thickly, padding at his face. "You look like a girl who's supposed to be-"
"Maybe you should treat our kind with better respect," Jaiden interrupted, eyes narrowed.
"I will," the quartermaster assured her, holding the hand not clamped over his nose up defensively. "Please don't tell your commander I grabbed you…"
"As if you were worthy of his time," Jaiden sneered, turning on her heel and walking away. Alistair had been frozen, unable to contribute anything to the confrontation, and as he caught up to her he feared that she would become surly now. To his amazement, a grin was spreading over her face as she massaged the knuckles of the hand that had struck. "Maker forgive me," she laughed, "but that felt good."
Alistair stared down at her and she pulled an apologetic expression.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I've just had to endure humans grabbing me like that ever since I could walk and it suddenly occurred to me that I don't have to put up with that it more. I didn't cross a line or anything, did I?" Alistair summoned up an encouraging grin.
"To be fair, I think he deserved that," he said, truthfully. The man hadn't even bothered to check if it was the right elf; he'd just lashed out. Jaiden shook her hand out.
"Ow. I think I need to be more careful about giving bare-handed punches to men built like brick outhouses." Duncan hailed them as they approached and Jaiden leaned in to Alistair. "Please don't tell him about that, though."
"My lips are sealed," Alistair smiled. His first impressions of his new companion were of a woman of contrasts, but at least she promised to be interesting.