Hi, and welcome to Part Five of Old Roads! For those of you just joining us, this is a pretty good place to hop on if you don't feel like reading two novels' worth of story. (The first four installments of Old Roads are available on my profile, if you'd like to catch up.) There will be action, politics, and quite possibly some smut. Fair warning: the rating is likely to go up to M sometime within the first four chapters.
For those just tuning in, Old Roads is a slightly AU series about what happens to heroes after all the cheering is done. It's also about why demons act the way they do, having to live with the consequences of your actions, and the very messy business of living in a world where few can decide whether you're a savior or a devil...including some of those you were once very close to.
Kathil Amell vanished a few months after killing the Archdemon and reappeared years later, scarred and changed. Now, two years after her reappearance, she is traveling to Vigil's Keep to take over the Fereldan Wardens from the Orlesians-most of whom have died in the battle between the Architect and the Mother. She brings with her a loyal warhound, an elven assassin, a blood mage, a former Templar...and her infant daughter.
Warden Amell is about to be at the center of a firestorm. For even as she secures her place at Vigil's Keep, there are forces at work in the world that mean her-and Ferelden-no good whatsoever. And like it or not, every last one of Kathil's demons are about to come home to roost.
True tests never end.
My daughter was a thousand-petaled rose,
a wheel with spoked hands! A rain
of music, shimmering gold in the eternal
light and darkness of our world.
She cleaved to my body, oh! in those days
before sorrow, before grief.
In those days before grief, my daughter was my delight,
as all daughters are to grateful mothers.
Spirit of my spirit, substance of my form,
mortal-named Elpis, Hope, the Last and Most Formidable!
Oh my mountain-born daughter,
your hands bringing the sky into being!
Oh my thousand-petaled daughter,
a thousand thousand songs nestled within your stamens!
-from the Canticle of Demons, stanza 2: of the Voice
Cloudreach, 9:35 Dragon
If any district in the Fade could be said to have weather, Forever-winter was it. The crumbling district was filled with surging cold, its presence nearly physical. Chilled mist wreathed around soulspires and the broken images dreamers left behind. Above Wynne's head, half of a rowboat floated, serenely upended.
She had been through Forever-winter a few times before, but it had never been so empty. The citizen of the Fade who had anchored this space and tied it to the mortal world was gone, and with it all of her attendants. The still lake that was at the center of the district was fading into colorlessness, crumbling from the inside out.
Still. That could be remedied.
Some obscure impulse had brought Wynne here. Perhaps it was the scent that the spirit who called himself Justice had left behind, a trail that was clearly imprinted on the fading stones of Forever-winter. Perhaps it was some remnant of knowledge from her former life, that what was on this side the district of Forever-winter was in the mortal world called the Blackmarsh. Even though the wounds in the Veil had been sealed-the imprint of Justice was strong on those scars-this was still an old road. It could be held, with a will strong enough. As she began to accept who and what she was once again, she knew that she had that will.
The old road was half-awake, but the presence of the citizen who'd held it had not tolerated many of the old things that usually lived in these places. Some were still present, but bound.
There was, for lack of a better term, a vacancy.
She touched a stone whose edges were fading into nothingness, and beneath her hand its edges sharpened, its texture became rough. Forever-winter's chill seeped into her. She could warm this district. She'd never liked winter, and if she took this place for her own it would shape herself to her desires. Wynne, when she had been mortal, had hated being cold. It was the something she found difficult about living at the Tower, how her hands would chill and stiffen in the winter.
She paused, considering. This had been a good place, once. Or at least, not a bad one. She trusted herself with the temptations of the mortal world. It was odd, though. Usually, when a place like this became abandoned, the lesser citizens of the Fade started creeping in the moment they were sure that it was vacant. A stable place like this was rarely unguarded.
She took a breath-long mortal habit-and the hairs on the back of her neck rose.
Perhaps it is not empty after all.
The presence was a wisp of mist, writhing and wreathing, expanding into a familiar form. "You are far from home, little Faith," Moros murmured as she solidified. She wore her favorite form, Andraste as she was just before she was betrayed, her face lined and her clothes shabby. "As much as one like you might have a home. Though I suppose the release of the Harrowed destroyed your ground as well as mine."
"It was not mine," Wynne replied, primly. "You established your ground in Noctis Aeterna, Moros. What are you doing here?"
"I merely take my pets for a walk. They do get so restless, confined." She lifted her hand, hiding her smile behind it, and something with too many wings and far too many heads passed overhead silently as an owl. "You have been following me, little Faith."
"My name is Wynne." She favored Moros with a penetrating look. Though humans named her Despair, perhaps a better translation of her nature would be Suffering, or Inevitability. Wynne had never gotten along with her in any of her incarnations. "I am one of many, you know."
"And yet the only one with such an interest in mortals." Moros shifted where she stood, and her visage rippled. Now she was a child, wide-eyed and with freckles spilling over her cheeks.
Moros was guessing. She could not penetrate the minds of other citizens as she could mortals. But Wynne had spent time as a mortal, and Moros had gotten a little bit too close for comfort to one of the apprentices who had died under her mentorship. She kept her expression neutral; it did not do to let Moros know when she'd pricked you. "I merely thought that since this ground was so recently vacated, I might investigate taking it for myself."
"Such a pity, that. She was promising, and she had some skills without equal." Moros sounded almost regretful. "If you believe you can hold her ground, by all means, take it."
"Are you going to challenge me for it?" Wynne asked, keeping her voice even.
"I have my ground. And we are friends, are we not?"
No, we are not.
But there were a few things one didn't say to Moros. Wynne weighed her options. Leave, and lose the only unoccupied old road that she'd found in the last while as well as any possibility of influencing the mortals who would come here to live, once the memory of what Blackmarsh had become faded. Stay, and have Moros as a visitor.
The Circle Tower was closed to her now, and she missed touching the mortal world.
Moros shifted and changed again, and Wynne did start as she saw that she wore Kathil's face, her scars rendered in exacting detail. Moros' voice, emerging from the Warden-mage's twisted mouth, was a jarring contrast. "You enjoyed the company of this mortal, didn't you? I can smell your influence on her, you know. She travels to Vigil's Keep, and she brings with her your granddaughter." That smile, and the light in her eyes, wouldn't be out of place on the true Kathil's face, but Wynne shuddered to see it anyway. "As much granddaughter as you'll have, in the ways mortals reckon these things. Stay, little Faith. I do so love a challenge."
Wynne's whole body rang with alarm. Granddaughter? Challenge? "Perhaps," she said, her voice guarded.
Beside them, the vaguely draconic form of the leader of the Unwilling appeared. It settled back on its haunches, regarding Wynne with an unblinking green gaze. "Ah, my pet, have you finished your hunt?" Moros asked. The Unwilling dipped its head. "Good, good." She transferred her attention back to Wynne, letting the guise of Kathil slip and re-assuming Andraste's form. "She is mine," Moros said quietly. "And I will assist her as she needs, for I need her hands in the mortal world."
"Your help never ends well for mortals." Wynne swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. Had she been gone so long? After Moros had taken the Tower-time in the far reaches of the Fade flowed so strangely.
"Does it not?" She shrugged, carelessly. "No matter. Come, pet. We will go home." And she and the Unwilling were gone, and the old road was empty of everything but the lingering prickle of their presence.
Wynne breathed in, and began to make the old road hers.
The box was made out of a deep red wood, the whorls of the grain polished smooth under her hands. Kathil traced the edges of the carving that Jowan had put into the lid, a stylized Grey Warden griffin surrounded by decorative knotting. He had gotten the box from the master craftsman of the Dalish tribe they had stayed with for a few days, and they had scavenged the lock from a box they'd found in Little Oakford. Every night, Jowan would sit by the fire and carve while they talked and took care of the newest member of their little company.
Said infant was sleeping cradled in Cullen's breastplate, near the fire that drove the spring chill from the room. It had been a long walk north, but they were near Soldier's Peak at last, and from there they would go to Vigil's Keep. The merchant who had offered to shelter them for the night was out with his sons, walking the fenceline. There would be no better time to do this.
Cullen and Zevran had pulled up chairs close to her, and she looked up from the box that rested on her lap at them. "Are you two ready?" she asked. Cullen was solemn; Zevran had just the faintest smile lurking at the corners of his mouth. Both of them nodded. "You first," she told Cullen.
He raked his hair out of his eyes and then pulled from the pack next to him a sheathed dagger. It was small, the hilt not quite long enough for him to comfortably grip with his large hands, and it bore the blade and flame symbol of the chantry on the hilt and tooled into the leather of the sheath. "This was the first steel that I was given after I went into Templar training," he said. "Funny. It seemed a lot bigger, back then. Then again, pretty much everything did." Kathil lifted the lid of the box, and he laid the dagger in the bottom with something akin to reverence.
Zevran stirred, and from somewhere on his person he produced a pair of gloves. They were well-worn, Dalish embroidery still visible through the old blood stains. He said nothing, only glanced at Kathil and laid them in the box, on top of the dagger. "You still carried those around with you?" Kathil asked, surprised.
Zevran gave her a half-smile. "I have never claimed not to be sentimental, no?"
She sniffed at him, but something within her twisted. "Now, my turn," she said. She leaned over and picked up a pouch from beside her chair. From the depths of it, she produced two things: one a thin coin with a frilled flower stamped into it, and the other a chain from which hung a steel amulet. "This is for Leliana," she said, holding up the coin, then laying it in the box. "It might not be what she'd have chosen to put in, but it was the only thing I could think of. And this..." She held up the amulet, which spun idly on its chain. On the smooth surface of the back, shadows moved. "This was a gift, from the Gauntlet. It's named Reflection."
"The spirit you saw," Zevran said. "The one you would tell no one of."
"Indeed. It took the form of Jowan, but it wasn't him. It was someone-something-else." She considered the amulet, taking a deep breath in, then laid it atop the rest. Beside her was a pile of folded papers, wax-sealed. She set those in the box, as well.
Cullen asked, "What are those?"
"Letters." She glanced down; on the top letter, she had written For Cerys above the seal. "Some for Cerys, some for others. A long and very stern letter for Alistair." Kathil closed the box. The key was small and made of iron, and if made a metallic click as the box closed. She murmured a few soft words, feeling a little bit of power leak out of her fingertips and into the lock. "There. That's done." She handed the key that she held to Zevran. He closed his hand around it and gave her a questioning look. "Keep it for now, and give it to her when she's old enough to understand," Kathil said. "I'll send the box to Alistair for safekeeping. It's her inheritance, after all."
Cullen's jaw went hard. "Why give the key to Zevran?" he asked. "Why not keep it?"
"You and I are both Grey Wardens." Kathil glanced over at Cerys, still sleeping. How to explain it, this sense of urgency, this knowledge that whatever happened, she had to do what she could to make sure that Cerys was taken care of?
How could I have known?
"We have thirty years," Cullen said. "That's long enough."
"Twenty-five, in my case," she corrected gently. "We're difficult to kill, Cullen, but I'm as mortal as anyone else, and I put myself in danger on a daily basis-as do you. Zevran is likely to outlive the both of us."
"He puts himself in danger as well-"
"I believe what our fair Warden is trying to tell us is that she is going to start trying to spare me at least some of the fighting from now on," Zevran said. He was threading the key onto the cord he wore around his neck, letting it clink against the amulet he had on. "Though I do not know if she will succeed." He gave Kathil a slow, dangerous smile.
The fingers of her left hand curled closed. "Zev, I..." She kept her voice under control with an effort of will. "Cullen, could you excuse us for a few moments? See if Jowan needs some help with dinner."
Cullen looked between the two of them, and evidently decided that prudence was the better part of valor. He was up and out, and though he gave a backward glance at the two of them, he didn't pause. Kathil turned her attention to Zevran, who was arching an eyebrow at her. "You had something you wished to say to me?" he asked.
Her fingers ran over the pitted and scratched metal of her Warden's Oath. Five years since she'd been handed it after her Joining. Five years a Warden, and for a long time it had been all she was. "If it comes down to a choice between protecting Cerys and protecting me-"
"It will not." His voice was flat, and all amusement had left his features. "Do not ask."
Kathil swallowed, her throat tight. "I have Cullen," she said, keeping her voice under control. "When it comes down to it, he's always going to protect me. But you and me...we protect Cerys. No matter what."
They had not talked about the multitude of what ifs before. They had silently agreed to let this subject lie, before Cerys had been born, and after they had been too busy traveling to really talk about much of anything. Kathil found herself asleep whenever she sat down for more than a few minutes. Useful, since she was woken several times a night, but not conducive to important discussions.
But now the question that they hadn't spoken before hung in the air between them. "And if you fall?" Zevran asked, finally.
Not if. When. Her mouth was dry. "Get the box, distribute the letters, and get her out of Ferelden." She drew a long, shaking breath. "I won't have her...used as some sort of game piece in anyone's politics. And if she's a mage, I don't want the Chantry getting its hands on her. I'm going to be making some arrangements at Soldier's Peak to keep enough coin in reserve to keep the two of you for years, if need be."
He considered her, outwardly calm except for the hand that was fidgeting towards where she knew he kept a hidden blade. "You've thought about this."
Kathil's breath snagged in her throat. "And you haven't? I have to be realistic, Zev. I'm not going to get my four score and ten and die in my sleep." Her voice broke, and she forced it steady once more. "I don't like it, but I have to plan for what happens to Cerys when I'm gone. If we're lucky, I'll get my full twenty-five years and it won't be a problem. But I'd rather plan for the worst while still hoping for the best."
Because this was her life, and it was safe to assume that the worst was going to happen.
Very rarely did she see Zevran's expression as open as it was now, emotions flickering across it, understanding dawning in his eyes. Had he truly not thought about this? Had he not known?
For a moment, she thought he was going to say something. After a moment, though, he moved to perch on the edge of her chair and pull her into a hard embrace, holding onto her. "I will not lose you," he said, his warm breath in her hair.
And that was all he said. But he didn't move, didn't let go, and she closed her eyes and leaned into him. "I'll do my best to survive, if you do the same."
"I will, mi alma, I will." He let go of her, and the moment seemed to have passed. Kathil felt what was between them settle into a delicate kind of peace. She glanced up at him, and saw that he was looking at Cerys, in the breastplate that had doubled as a cradle while they were on the road.
Kathil slid her hand into Zevran's, curled her fingers around his. He was always so warm, as if somewhere inside of him was a feverish, unquenchable flame. "There's a Revered Sister at Soldier's Peak. Jacinthe, I think her name is." She kept her voice soft. "I met her, a few years ago. It's a hard posting, but she was determined to make it work. I got the impression that her home chantry wasn't very fond of her views. If she's the only Sister at the fortress, she's officially the Revered Mother. And she is well-disposed towards Wardens. Maybe enough to overlook a few customs." She blew a breath out. "Leliana will never forgive me for getting married without her there."
Zevran chuckled. "In Antiva, a highly-placed couple will often have three or four weddings, in different parts of the country. The marriage is registered weeks before the wedding, of course. But weddings are one of the few occasions that peace generally reigns, even in the middle of a feud between families. The more, the better. Perhaps we could do the same."
"It's an idea, and it might keep Leliana from strangling me outright when she finds out I've deprived her of hours of helping seamstresses poke me with pins. I'd prefer that this be official before we walk into Vigil's Keep, angry bards or no. I don't know what's waiting for us there, but I don't want anyone to have an excuse to part us." She stopped, and drew in a breath. "If you haven't changed your mind, that is."
"Mmm." He shifted, bent his head down. For a moment, she thought he was going to kiss her, but he only rested his forehead against hers. "No. I have not changed my mind."
And in the silence then there was so much that they did not say, that they never said. How many of those words were frozen deep within her, locked away somewhere inside of him?
But they confessed what they were to each other in every heartbeat, every action. I have not changed my mind meant I am yours until I die.
She kissed him, lips and tongue lingering, her hand slipping up his spine. She imagined she could feel the ridges of scar through his shirt, souvenirs of the Tower. If I believe in nothing else in this life, I believe in this.
Then Cerys stirred, and Jowan was clearing his throat from the doorway, and it was time for supper. The merchant and his sons were back, along with the Mabari who had gone with them, and the small house was filled to the rafters with voices.
Murena trotted along beside her as they approached the gates of Castle Redcliffe. She silently took in everything around them without asking a single question. The questions, Leliana knew, would wait until the safety of the night had arrived and the girl was curled in her blankets, huddled in on herself, expression avid. Murena spoke a bit of Fereldan now, but heavily accented, and she lapsed into her Half-Deep cant if she got excited.
Leliana had meant to wait another few weeks to set foot in Ferelden, but the dreams had started again after only ten days in Cumberland. There were still patches of snow in the ground, and where the roads weren't frozen they were ankle-deep in mud. Spring in Ferelden was, if anything, even worse than winter.
They reached the outer bailey of the castle, and came to a stop on front of a bored-looking guard. "Greetings," she said, and smiled.
"Your business?" He looked the two of them over, taking in their travel-stained clothing and muddy boots. "You two look like you've traveled a piece."
"I am here to pay my respects to the Arl," she said. "I am a friend of the Wardens."
She'd expected anything from a relieved welcome to suspicion. What she hadn't expected was a blink of incomprehension. "The Wardens?"
"Wardens Kathil and Cullen," she said, frowning. "They were here for the winter, yes?"
But the guard was shaking his head. "We have had a Warden pass through, but that was about midwinter, and I think the fellow's name was...Pete, Piers, something like that? Orlesian blighter. No others. Haven't had much for darkspawn activity, Ostagar seems to be doing its job now."
Uneasiness tightened Leliana's stomach. "Well. I am sure the Arl will wish to see me, anyway. I met him a few years ago, during the Blight."
The guard snorted. "Didn't everyone? Go on up, then." He waved them off, and she and Murena walked into the bailey and then the courtyard.
Murena's face was pinched with worry. "N'Warden here, massime?"
"I am sure Teagan will explain," she said in Tevinter. The girl fell silent, and they climbed the stairs to the gates of the castle proper. The guard on the door remembered Leliana, as did Gerard, Teagan's castellan.
Teagan was down in the village, but his wife Kaitlyn was at home. "Sit, sit," Kaitlyn said after Gerard showed the two of them into her bower. It was not nearly as elaborate as the Queen's bower in the palace in Denerim, but it was quite a bit cozier. Kaitlyn herself was a pretty woman, a bit younger than Leliana, and heavily pregnant. "It's been some time-since the Blight, yes? And who is this?" She cocked her head at Murena.
"Indeed it has," Leliana said. "This is Murena, my ward. We were traveling to meet the Wardens Kathil and Cullen here, but it seems as though they never arrived-or perhaps they have been and gone?"
Kaitlyn was shaking her head. "We only had the one Warden, and he only stayed a day or two. Perhaps they went to Amaranthine? We've had terrible news from there. The whole town, burned!"
"I know they were going south from Denerim, not north," she said. Worry was beginning to curdle into fear and frustration. "I did hear about Amaranthine, but..."
But her friends had been safely in Redcliffe, and had nothing to do with whatever had happened in Amaranthine. So I thought.
"It was that Orlesian Warden," Kaitlyn said, leaning forward a bit. "There was a darkspawn attack of some kind, and he ordered the city locked up tight and burned. At least, they say there was a darkspawn attack. Who knows what truly happened?"
Leliana took a breath, and then glanced over at Murena. "Feet on the floor," she murmured, and gave the girl a significant look. She'd curled up in the chair, tucking her feet under her and for certain getting dried mud all over. Murena wrinkled her nose, but unfolded her legs. Leliana returned her attention to Kaitlyn. "And nobody has even heard from Kathil?"
The Arlessa's eyebrows went up. Leliana remembered meeting her in the chantry, that terrible day they had arrived in Redcliffe to find it under attack not by darkspawn but by the dead that walked. "No, we haven't heard a thing. I remember her well-how is she?"
"Missing, it seems." Leliana shook her head.
The door banged open and Teagan strode into the room, a gangly young man trailing in his footsteps. "I heard we had visitors-ah!"
Leliana stood, and smiled at the Arl of Redcliffe. His hair and beard were going to steel, and care had worn deep lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth, but other than that he was still as handsome as the day she'd met him. "Teagan. It is a pleasure to see you again."
"And you." He smiled at her with genuine warmth. "I didn't believe it when Gerard told me you were here. I thought you had left us for good."
"I was supposed to meet Warden Kathil here, come spring." She brushed dried mud from her trousers and came to take Teagan's hand, squeezing it briefly and inclining her head. "I had imagined that she and Zevran and the other Warden she is traveling with had been driving you mad all winter. They were to go to the Tower, and then winter in Redcliffe. I am most worried to find that she never came here."
"Hm. I may have some information for you, come to think of it." He let go of Leliana's hand, and glanced at the young man next to him, who was staring at Leliana with something somewhat akin to worship. "Bevin. Would you take our guests' packs to Gerard, and tell him to give them one of the good guest rooms?"
Leliana smiled. "Bevin-ah, the Arlessa's brother! The brave one, with the sword. You seem to have grown a bit, yes? Would you do me a very great favor, and show Murena here the castle? I do not believe she has ever been anywhere quite so grand. She does not speak much Fereldan, but she can make herself understood."
Murena, for her part, perked up at Leliana's words. She was ten to Bevin's fourteen, but she had spent most of her life in the company of other children, and Leliana knew she missed them. Bevin glanced at Murena as if he hadn't even noticed her before. "I...sure." He glanced at Teagan. "Can I?"
"Go, the two of you. Be at supper." Teagan inclined his head toward the door, and in moments the two children had vanished with the packs, and the door was swinging closed. "And the girl is?" he asked Leliana.
"My ward, and my apprentice," she said. "She has joined me on my travels, to learn the trade of bards." True enough, though the entire story behind it (the Bone Queen and the Daughter of Silence and the midwinter sun in Minrathous) was one that was not for these ears. "So. You have news?"
Teagan nodded, and went to kiss his wife. Leliana took her seat once more, watching the two of them. There was genuine love between the two of them, and it was good to see them happy. Teagan pulled a chair over and settled down next to Kaitlyn. "We had some news from the Tower, earlier this winter," he told Leliana. "Seems there was some sort of trouble there. Which isn't anything new, but the fact that they were sending Templars away from the Tower was. Usually they're asking for men to replenish their numbers. We had two come to spend the winter in Redcliffe; they're down with the rest, if you want to talk to them. I'm not sure how much you'll be able to get out of them. They...just don't talk much."
"I think I will need to. Perhaps they know something." She glanced around, and sighed. "Though I must admit I am not eager to move at the moment. There is a positive sea of mud on the roads."
Kaitlyn laughed. "I am friends with the Revered Mother-well, as much as anyone can be friends with Hannah who isn't a Sister. I think, if I send her a message, she would send the Templars to join us at supper. Perhaps you can pry more information out of them than I could."
Unfortunately, such did not prove to be the case. The two Templars were a sallow-skinned fellow called Royce with a habit of starting at shadows, and a young man with dark hair who said his name was Mathias but would not open his mouth otherwise. Murena, as she always did, fell on her food with a single-minded appetite. According to Bevin, she had taken him on a headlong run around the castle, occasionally stopping dead to point at something and ask, "Wha' s'at?"
"I think," the young man had said glumly, "that I've named everything in the castle for her. I had to go get one of the stewards to explain the difference between a well and a cistern, and why you build one and not the other. And then she wanted me to name all the different kinds of stone used in the castle. And then she wanted to know why we keep three kinds of chickens. I think that's what she wanted to know, anyway, otherwise she was asking me what all of their names are, and I don't think most of them have names."
"She has been in a city most of her life, a very long way from here," Leliana said gently. "She's never seen anything like a castle. You're showing her a part of the world that she'd never get to see otherwise, yes? You are her guide."
The boy thought about that for a moment, and then puffed up slightly. "Maybe we can go down to the village tomorrow," he said to Murena. She had stopped eating for a moment, all of her attention focused on Bevin. "There's a windmill, and if we're really lucky Teagan will let us take the ponies out."
"Only if you remember to groom and blanket them when you bring them back." Teagan speared a piece of meat with his knife and smiled at his young brother-in-law. "But, yes. The ponies could use some exercise. Mind they don't throw you, they're probably fractious. Been a long winter."
Murena grinned at Bevin, who grinned back. Leliana turned her attention to the Templar seated on her right, the one who was named Mathias. They were in the small family dining room, away from the bustle of the great hall, and both of the men apparently were anticipating interrogation. Mathias was pushing his food around his plate, his spoon scraping softly against metal.
Leliana considered him and his companion who, if anything, had an even longer face. Well. Perhaps if I ask a direct question...
"Tell me, what brings you to Redcliffe from the Tower?" she asked, smiling at Mathias. "Greagoir does not usually let his own get too far away from him, yes?"
Both of the Templars stiffened. She was paying a particular kind of attention to them in that moment, using the bardic talent of absorbing everything about a person, noting and cataloging it for later. The way Royce's hand clenched slightly on his spoon. The flinch of Mathias's shoulders as he glanced down at his plate.
The hungry look that briefly showed in his eyes, before it extinguished.
Mathias wanted to talk, and was forbidden. Royce would never speak. "We don't question orders," Royce said. "Greagoir wanted us to join the garrison here. We didn't ask why."
Leliana would lay her life on that being the truth, at least part of it. She also rather suspected that they hadn't questioned orders because they already knew why. She gave Royce a brilliant smile and watched his attention slide away from her like water. She changed the subject, and let it lie.
Later, though, she watched the garrison at practice. Mathias was quick, and he sparred like he had something to prove. Wounded pride, she thought. He'd suffered a defeat recently, one that gnawed at him. The garrison's salle was lit with lamplight, and among those fighting only Mathias seemed to have caught on to the idea that he could use the light and shadow to hide his true intent from his opponent.
When he finished his bout-slamming his opponent off his feet with his shield and putting his sword to the other man's throat-he came and dropped down on a bench at the edge of the salle, mopping his face with a cloth. Leliana came to sit down beside him. He started, but got his reactions under control reasonably quickly. "Ma'am."
"Oh, don't call me that, I am not so very ancient." She cocked her head at him. "Ser Mathias, yes? I had some questions for you."
He looked at her, visibly weighing his options. "You're going to get answers out of me no matter what I do, aren't you?" he asked, a bit plaintively.
"Likely." She smiled at him. "Would it not be easier to simply talk? You seem to be a man with a burdened soul, and I was a lay Sister for a number of years. Perhaps we can help each other."
At the mention of her sisterhood, the Templar visibly brightened. "Not here," he said. "Come on." He rose, racked his practice sword and shield, and led her out into the cold darkness of the early spring night. The castle's chapel was deserted at this hour, the sisters away at their own supper. He waved her to one of the pews, and sat on one across the aisle from her. The edges of his armor scraped against the wood as he sat, leather straps creaking.
"You're persistent," the Templar said. "I'll give you that. What did you want to know?"
"What happened in the Tower?" Leliana asked. "I have a friend who was supposed to arrive there in the autumn and then travel here, and she is nowhere to be found."
Mathias blinked in surprise, and then his expression settled into resigned suspicion. "Your friend. She's not a Grey Warden, is she?"
"The Warden Kathil, yes. Which tells me that she did arrive. What happened?"
He let out a heavy sigh, and rested his forehead briefly in one mailed hand. "Well, Ser Cullen-sorry, I suppose it's Warden Cullen now-and the elf arrived first. Cullen was lyrium-sick, and mad into the bargain. And something arrived with him. Evil is the only word that describes it. Ser Greagoir said that it was there before they arrived, but it was only when the Wardens got there that we could all start to feel it." He shook his head, looking ill. "The Veil in the Harrowing Chamber was torn, and...something was resident. What, nobody knows. All I know is that the Wardens and their friends fought it, and we Templars managed to close the tear. Not before it managed to do damage, though. There are...not many mages in the Tower, now."
Leliana forced a breath inward. "And then?"
"Cullen got better. Then they left. Greagoir sent all of the Templars who were in the Harrowing Chamber out of the Tower. We might get rotated back in-he was talking about starting to replace a third of the Templars every year-but for the moment I'm here. In Redcliffe." And I hate it here, said that look of misery. "Anyway, we had an escapee from the Tower the day after the Wardens left. It was Anders, he's escaped a thousand times before, but everyone knew it had something to do with her. He was going to be executed, this time. Finally."
"Do you know where the Warden went?" she asked, her heart clenching.
Mathias snorted. "No idea. Follow the trouble, I suppose. Every time the Warden comes to the Tower she brings trouble with her, I hear."
"It seems to be what Wardens are for, yes?" She surveyed Mathias. "You truly have no idea where they might have gone."
"No, and I don't care, really. Out of my sight. The rumors about her and Cullen-I can't believe that Carroll was sympathetic. If they weren't Wardens we'd probably have executed them both, that's just..." He looked nearly ill.
"What rumors?" There was something here. Mathias was holding his jaw tensely, and his hands were curled.
"That they were...involved." He spat the last word out with some effort.
"But was there any evidence for it?" Had Kathil been so very foolish?
But Mathias was shaking his head. "Nothing. Everything. She was just there, with the elf. Waiting. And she-" He shut his mouth. "No. That's not relevant."
"Isn't it?" She propped her chin on the heel of her hand, her elbow on her thigh. "It might not be relevant to where my friend is, but it may be relevant to whatever you carry within you. I know the Warden, Mathias. She is a difficult woman in many ways, yes? Strange. Challenging. Perhaps even unnatural, however you define the term."
For a few moments, Mathias did not answer. He was staring at the stone between his feet, nearly lost in the shadows between the pews. "We sparred," he said to the floor, slowly. "Probably my own fault that she picked me out, because I said...something...when she first arrived." He shook his head. "She won the match, without magic. A mage." There was bitterness in his tone, and beneath that disgust. "I wasn't surprised to be sent away, if a mage armed with only a sword could manage to beat me. I mean, for a while I thought that she had to have cheated, but...nobody saw how. No magic. Nobody felt the Veil tear, even a little bit."
Ah, and here they approached the central tangle. A Templar questioning his worth, resenting the mage who had made him question it, seeking to blame her and finding no way. "And so you turn your anger inward," she said. "Did she spar with anyone else?"
"Greagoir." Leliana's eyebrows went up; Kathil, after all these years, was still afraid of the Knight-Commander. "He won. Pasted the floor with her, really. He is a true Templar. Me...not really."
"Mmm." She chewed briefly on her thumbnail. "Tell me, Mathias, have you ever met a mage who was not very good at being a mage?"
The young man thought for a moment. "A few. Mostly, they get made Tranquil. One of the apprentices can barely light a candle, much less do anything else. Why?"
"I want you to consider that we are born with talents, not all of which we use. I am very good at making candles, but I am neither castellane nor chandler, so I have had no opportunity to use that skill in years. The same is true of you, yes?"
He considered the question, brow furrowed. "I'm pretty good at driving oxen, but I don't get much of a chance to these days."
"The Maker blesses us with talents, but we are not defined by them. Then, take mages. From the moment they show the talent, they are mages-and that is all they ever are. They are not bakers, or farmers, or hostlers. They are expected to fight, when they do, with staves and with magic. Think of it as if, when you were very young, someone looked at you and said you could only ever use a crossbow when you fought."
The Templar was looking suspicious now. "And? What does that have to do with anything? Mages are mages."
She tried not to let her sigh escape her. "Because Kathil, had she not been born with mage talent, would have gone into Cailan's army. She has had the benefit of training with several of the finest fighters I have ever met, and more battle experience than you will hopefully ever see."
Mathias blinked. "But...she doesn't even come up to my shoulder. She's little. And a mage."
"She is the same height as many Dalish men, and they are known for their prowess in battle, yes? And she is a Grey Warden. They chose her for a reason." She surveyed Mathias. He seemed to be at least considering the idea. "Do not think that because you lost a sparring match with her that you are not fit to be a Templar. She has won matches against a qunari two feet taller and half again her weight." Though not often. She made a moue with her mouth. "You said that she lost to Greagoir; I think the good Knight-Commander has more fighting experience than she does. Without her magic, she will lose to a determined opponent with the ability to anticipate her moves. You are young, Mathias. I will guess that what lost you the match was inexperience. Something that you can remedy, with work."
"I still don't like it," he said, slowly. "A mage who can use a sword is an apostate that the Templars will have a harder time taking down."
"Then learn how to use your own sword better. Know that it is a possibility, and work to be ready for the day it happens." Giving encouraging talks to Templars. Kathil would have your head.
"Why did Greagoir send me away, then?" Mathias asked. His expression was open now, and lost. "I've always wanted to be a Templar at the Tower, it's the most important posting we have. And I liked it there. I hadn't been there long, but it was already home. Though...it wasn't just me, was it? He sent away everyone who was in the Harrowing Chamber while that...thing..." He trailed off, then firmed his mouth. "It has to be something to do with that."
"You would have to ask him, I think." She leaned over and patted the Templar on his pauldron. "Perhaps you should write a letter? Let him know that you miss the Tower." Mathias nodded shallowly, distracted. He stared off into the middle distance, thinking. Leliana rose. "Thank you, Mathias. You have been most helpful."
She left the Templar in the chapel, motionless in the dim. She had a clearer idea now what had happened in the Tower, but still not much idea where her friend was now. The darkened halls of Redcliffe castle pressed in on her. Where are you, dearest?
She could almost hear Marjolaine chuckle. Does it matter? You know where she will be. Mathias's voice. Follow the trouble, I suppose.
The Grey Wardens had burned Amaranthine.
Leliana stopped in the center of the hall, a shiver in her shoulders. If Kathil had heard about Amaranthine...
She was going to Vigil's Keep.
The next morning, she told Teagan that they would be leaving for Vigil's Keep the next day. "If you can spare a few days, I am planning to send some men to Amaranthine," Teagan said. "I would go myself, but I have responsibilities here. I am staying close to home until the babe is born." He gave Kaitlyn, sitting next to him, a fond look.
"I do not know how long I can delay," Leliana said. "Ah, Murena, put that down!"
The girl set down the small vase she had picked up with a hollow thump, her eyes wide. Leliana hadn't bothered to braid the girl's mop of hair this morning, and she looked like a little wild thing. Bevin had not yet appeared to take her down to the village-he had chores in the morning-and she had been wandering around Teagan's study, poking at things with curious fingers. She was also, Leliana knew from experience, listening to every single word the adults said.
"You will travel faster if you wait, since my men will be mounted," Teagan said. "And I would feel a sight better if I knew you had protection on the road. It is obvious you can take care of yourself, my lady, but the roads become very dangerous this time of year. The bandits come out in force."
And, it went without saying, the accommodations would be a bit more comfortable. Leliana considered the idea of riding north, able to ask hospitality from the banns along the way, in contrast to slogging through the mud and sleeping in whatever inns or barns had room. They would make up the time easily enough. "In that case, it is a very generous offer, and I will be happy to accept."
Murena was at her elbow, tugging on Leliana's sleeve. Her hair was in her eyes. "Horses?" she asked in an eager voice. "There will be horses?" Though her accent was atrocious, her Fereldan was fully-formed and correct.
Leliana laughed. "You will be very tired of horses by the time we reach Vigil's Keep. But, yes, there will be some riding to do." The girl squeaked with excitement. It was good to see her eyes shining through her rumpled hair, her mouth stretched in a crooked-toothed grin. Murena was altogether too grave, as if every breath she took were a test that it was very important she pass.
And as if to add to Murena's joy, Bevin came bounding into the study. After several admonitions from the adults to be careful and stay out of trouble, he escorted the girl out of the room, looking pleased as punch. "He has a chivalrous streak a league wide, that one does," Leliana said. "Will he be a knight, do you think?"
"He'll squire out in another year," Kaitlyn said. "I'd like him to go to Denerim, but Teagan wants to send him to Rainesfere. I say that Bevin is going to spend most of his life in Rainesfere, best to get him out into the world a bit before he takes over the bannorn."
They sat and talked for a time. It was going to be a pleasant few days, Leliana decided. Such were precious as gems, to be hoarded for later.
Time enough to borrow trouble when she got to Vigil's Keep, after all.
His Warden strode into the kitchen of the fortress, led by Lorn and wearing-
"What is that?" Jowan asked, looking a bit disturbed.
"Hm? Oh. I was trying on some of my old robes when Lorn came to get me. Here." She held out her arms, and Cullen deposited an inconsolable Cerys into her arms. "Hungry, are you?" She dropped down into a nearby chair and bared a breast. At this point, they were used to the utter lack of modesty that Kathil displayed, especially when it came to feeding their daughter.
Those robes, though...
"I do not believe I have ever seen those before," Zevran said. "They are quite fetching." They looked like they had been sewn together out of scrap leather. A very little bit of scrap leather, except for the boots, which ran up to mid-thigh. With her hair unbound and rumpled, she looked as much like a Witch of the Wilds as Morrigan ever had. Beside him, Cullen looked like he was having trouble taking the outfit in.
"There you go." Cerys quieted as she latched onto a nipple. "I must have lost track of time. And yes, everyone spent a lot of time not knowing exactly where to look when I was wearing them. I had to remind Alistair a number of times that my eyes were not on my chest." She grinned with savage humor. "I was a little angry, and I wanted to give everyone an excuse to stare at me like I was some sort of dangerous creature, I think. Of course, I didn't exactly have the figure to carry it off back then, but I didn't care. I switched to those Tevinter robes only a few days before I met you, Zevran."
"And that is surely a pity," he said. "You look even more like a barbarian than usual. It suits you."
"And it seems to have been made for women with babies." She glanced down at Cerys, and smiled. Lorn lay down at her feet with a groan, and closed his eyes. "At least, that's the only excuse I can think of for this neckline. I don't think I'll wear it tomorrow, though. I managed to find an actual dress without bloodstains on it, wonder of wonders. I think I wore it for one of the coronation parties. Best to give it some good memories to go with the rotten, I think."
Because the Revered Mother of Soldier's Peak was indeed kindly disposed towards Wardens and had unconventional opinions, and tomorrow they would speak words that would make official what had existed in fact for over a year. The actual ritual doesn't take long, Mother Jacinthe had told them. It's all the folderol around weddings that makes them take an age and a half. So on the morrow, he and Kathil would marry, and the next day they would start for Vigil's Keep.
They passed the evening thus, in quiet company. The dogs snored on the rug; there had been little enough hunting on the way north, and once they arrived at the fortress that had eaten most of a sheep between them and then gone to sleep. They'd woken only to go outside, beg for table scraps, have a drink of water, and fetch Kathil when Cerys woke them up. The rest of them were much the same. Though they'd had little trouble with darkspawn on the road, bandits were another matter entirely. Both of their mages were worn thin, and the rest of them were not much better.
Once Cerys was settled and asleep once more, Kathil retreated to the bedroom that had once been Sophia Dryden's with the baby; Jowan took himself off to what had once been a barracks. That left Zevran, Cullen, and the Mabari in the kitchen. Cullen was reading some book he'd found in the scorched library of Soldier's Peak. Zevran was working on his blades, using a whetstone to smooth the nicks out of the edges.
After some time, Cullen cleared his throat. "So."
Zevran stroked the stone along the edge of the blade, steel whispering. He glanced over at the Templar. "Yes?"
"About the, er, wedding..." Cullen seemed to be dragging the words out of himself, syllable by suffering syllable. "What does it mean for you and me?"
And there was a question that had no clear answer.
Cullen and Kathil had been playing a long game of approach and retreat over the winter. Kathil, once burned by Cullen's madness, was twice shy; Cullen was unwilling to push her. While it had been initially amusing to watch, it had gone on for altogether too long now. And over the winter, what was between Zevran and Cullen had taken on a life of its own, a life entirely independent of whatever relationships they respectively had with their mage.
On one hand, Zevran rather doubted that Kathil expected anything to change. The wedding was an additional safeguard against those who would wish to part them, a formalization of who Zevran was to their daughter. It changes nothing, she'd said. Not much, anyway.
"I think," he said, and cursed his voice as it became briefly unsteady, "that the tying of one knot does not have to mean the untying of another."
Cullen was silent for a moment, shadowed eyes distant and considering. "I had to ask," he said, and when he returned his gaze to Zevran, there was a smile lingering on his lips. "All right."
Then there were no words, for a time. Tomorrow night was to be Kathil's. Tonight, Zevran and Cullen sought to reassure themselves; they were alive for the moment, if about to walk into a cave where metaphorical dragons roiled in restless sleep.
Later, when he slipped into bed beside Kathil without waking her, he bent his body around her curled form. Even as thin as she was-nursing an infant plus a month of walking through mud had melted any extra padding she'd garnered during her pregnancy, and then some-they fit together nearly perfectly.
It was a good thing that he had never spent much time anticipating where his life was to take him next. It seemed that the Maker, should He exist, was bent on surprising him.
To the morrow, my Warden. And to all the morrows after that.
Finally, some of the stuff I've been working on in the background is coming to the fore. I've got a lot of loose ends to tie up here, and a lot of consequences to surface. Something fun that's been going on beneath the story is that I'm taking bits of Dragon Age lore and letting a bit of Greek mythology slip into them. It's pretty obvious that the Bioware writers were influenced by classical mythology when they considered the Fade, and I've been pulling on those threads. Virtue spirits are definitely Greek mythology-flavored, if not pulled directly from the texts.
Thus, the despair demon is known as Moros, which is a spirit of what we would consider Fate-Moros is the force that drives humans to the ends of their lives, and is the only power greater than any of the gods. Elpis, aka Hope (the Voice that Andraste carried), was the spirit that Pandora managed to keep within the jar of human evils she so foolishly opened. Keep in mind that to the ancient Greeks, hope was not necessarily a good thing (thus its location in the evil jar).
Elpis could also be translated as Expectation-one of the human traits that leads humans to struggle against their fates. Who better, after all, to change the world?
Enough with the neeping. I'm glad to be back!