A/N: This is the third installment of Leonie Caron's adventures and begins one week after the Architect's death. While it is not necessary to read The Lion of Orlais or The Heart of the Lion, it will help clarify certain aspects of the story.
Friends and Strangers
Covered in soot and dirt, hair a tangled mess, Leonie wearily made her way to her room where a bath awaited. She had spent the entire day helping clear the debris away from the curtain walls so that Voldrik could begin the repairs.
In the week since the attack on the Vigil, they had all worked nonstop to repair the damage to the Keep, but it would be a very long process. And the smell. Andraste's grace, she was tired of the stench of burning darkspawn corpses. The smell permeated everything and no matter how often she washed, she could still smell it in her clothes, feel it on her skin like a thin, slimy layer of ash.
Her muscles let her know she had overdone it. She was tired; down to her bones and spirit, exhausted. As she gratefully lowered her body into the water, a long sigh escaped her. It was not a sound of satisfaction as the warm water began to loosen aching muscles. It was a sound of discontent.
There were so many things to do that she was unable to concentrate on the those things she wanted to do; read the Architect's journal, uncover what might lay dormant in her own blood, rebuild the ranks of the Ferelden Grey. But there was so much to do around the arling, so many people to house and feed that her own wants seem to fall by the wayside.
She slapped at the bath water in frustration. Her whole life had been spent in the company of Grey Wardens. She had wanted to be a Grey Warden from the time she could walk. And now, suddenly, she was questioning her decision. She felt the slow crawl of anger working along her tired muscles, tightening them, coiling them. What other secrets were locked away in the archives at Weisshaupt? Grey Wardens, she had learned, became darkspawn and not the ghouls she had been always been told they became if they didn't go on their Calling early enough. She shivered as she remembered the Architect's chilling words.
In preparing her report to Weisshaupt, she found she was withholding information from them. She hadn't told them about the journal. She hadn't mentioned that it had seemed too easy to kill the Architect. It shouldn't have been that simple, not after so many years of being tormented by him. Was there something she was missing? Something she had failed to understand? Had Svanar Fryklund actually wanted to die? So many questions that she couldn't answer, partly because she was too busy overseeing an arling she was not suited to run, and partly because she was too occupied with rebuilding Amaranthine and Vigil's Keep.
Groaning, she stood up and wrapped her bathsheet around her. Over the past two years everything in her life had changed and there were times when she felt she had somehow lost herself in all the changes. There were times when she looked in the mirror and didn't recognize the stranger looking back at her. Maybe what she was seeing in the mirror was a metamorphosis from arrogant youthfulness to reasoned maturity. Or maybe she saw only a ghost of who she had been, now lost to the responsibilities of being Warden Commander of the Grey of Ferelden or Arlessa Leonie.
Sometimes, and especially when she as both physically and mentally exhausted, she felt like she was caught between her former life and her present one; somehow a stranger to both. Someone who didn't quite belong to either, but drifted between them. Frustrated, Leonie turned away from that stranger in the mirror. There were no answers there, only more questions.
She pulled on a plain amber colored wool dress and tied an equally plain black girdle around her waist. She slipped a folded letter into the pocket of her gown and felt the tug of a smile at her mouth. Trying to figure out who she no longer was orwho she was becoming wouldn't feed her, she reflected wryly. She made her way quickly downstairs and to the dining hall to the sound of her growling stomach.
Her Wardens were gathered around a small table set back from the long trestles where the soldiers sat to eat. That small table was known by all as the Wardens' Roost, reserved only for Wardens by silent agreement. Leonie paused in the doorway feeling almost as though she were a stranger, suddenly nervous to enter, which was ridiculous, she knew. Yet she hesitated. Her eyes fell on the group sitting at the Warden's Roost.
Anders, with his cheerful flirtatiousness and the strange seriousness behind his eyes, the man who had escaped the tower seven times and hid his emotions behind a façade of humor. Handsome and intelligent and every bit the healer Marcus had been. She knew nothing of him, how he had come to the tower, why he was a healer, what he did on his off time. He was special, she could see that in his manner, but she hadn't taken the time to find out what made him special. He was still a mystery, a stranger.
Beside him, giggling at something he was saying, was Sigrun. Every bit as cheerful as Anders but in an innocent, wide eyed way, as if the world was a wonderful new toy and she was still exploring its mysteries. But there were stories hidden in her, stories of a life as a Duster, of a nickname that she no longer used, of a back crisscrossed with the scars of repeated floggings. She and Sigrun were the dead women walking, a strange connection between them that had been immediate and deep, yet Leonie knew so little of Sigrun's past. Another familiar stranger.
Across from Sigrun, wearing his habitual serious expression, was Nathaniel, the Howe who was restoring the honor of his family with his own brand of honor and nobility. Dark and brooding, his pale grey eyes missed nothing and hid everything. She knew no more about him than she did the others even though they were living in his old home. She knew his father, whom he had respected and admired, had died a monster. Had he been a monster to the Howe children? Had Nathaniel suffered at his hands? He was a friend, and yet, unknown to her.
Tamra, the beautiful young knight who had shown such courage in exposing a plot to kill Leonie, sat beside Nathaniel. Now a Warden, soon to be Nathaniel's wife, she was one of the few people who had the power to pull Nathaniel out of his brooding. She had a radiance of spirit, a graceful charm that hid the powerful strength of the warrior inside her. Leonie admired her, enjoyed her company, but knew less about her than any of her Wardens.
Sipping quietly from a mug, Varel was listening to the chatter around him, absorbing it with a quiet dignity that spoke of years of experience and wisdom. He was their honorary Warden, a father to Leonie, a counselor, a solid, steadying presence in her chaotic life. She could not run the arling without his guidance, would not want to even if she could. He was her confidante, her conscience in some ways and almost a part of the very stone of the Keep.
Alistair was not there. He still wasn't comfortable around all of them, especially Loghain. His guilt at killing Vixen, even though he claimed he had only meant to take her horse hostage as a means of punishing Leonie, continued to weigh heavily on him. He said he remembered little of those days and Leonie believed him, he had reeked of alcohol and despair when she had woken up in his hovel. He was still coming to terms with how low he had fallen after he'd walked out on the eve of battling the Archdemon. Someday, she truly hoped, he would find himself, find what Duncan had seen in him, what she had seen as he had fought beside her in the Architect's lair. But grief and betrayal had taken their toll on a young man whose only father figure had been taken away from him too soon. Oddly, she found she knew more about Alistair than her other Wardens, Duncan's legacy, she knew. Perhaps that was why she had been so quick to forgive Alistair, she had known how much Duncan cared for him. She thought sadly that she would have to find a different Warden family for him, as much as she hated the thought. He was a link to Duncan, a part of Duncan's past and she was reluctant to lose that.
And then Loghain, sitting slightly apart from the others, looked up and saw her as she stood poised on the threshold. He had been saving a spot for her; she realized that was why he sat slightly apart from the others. Her heartbeat quickened as their eyes met. Although many would not notice the subtle changes in his demeanor, Leonie did. She saw the softening in his cool blue eyes, saw the tension in his shoulders ease, saw the corners of his lips curl upward almost imperceptibly. The odd sensation of being a stranger faded as a smile curved along her lips and the odd vicissitude, the feeling of being caught between her old life and her new one, was dispelled by the warmth of her friends enveloping her.
"Hey, Lion, we were just talking about you," Anders greeted her with a devilish glint in his eyes.
She settled between Loghain and Varel, sitting close enough to Loghain that she could feel his thigh brush against hers, further anchoring her to this new life of hers.
"Indeed, Anders? Do I wish to know what it is you are discussing?" she asked as she reached for a crusty roll.
"Most definitely not," Nathaniel interjected with a smirk.
"I suspected as much," she replied knowingly, giving Anders a glare that he promptly ignored.
"Oh," she continued, reaching in the pocket of her dress and withdrawing a folded slip of vellum. "I have had word from Weisshaupt on Padric Howe," she continued, handing the vellum to Nathaniel. She watched as he quickly unfolded the letter. His grey eyes scanned the lines and a slow smile lit his somber features.
"Well? What's it say?" Sigrun prodded, elbows propped on the table and chin in hands, as she leaned forward eagerly.
Nathaniel glanced up from the letter and his smile grew. "According to their records, he took his Joining in Cumberland. He survived, but died two days later during a darkspawn raid outside the city. He was responsible for saving a family. They are contacting the Nevarran Wardens to see if they have any other information," he explained, his voice a mixture of pride and wonderment.
"He would be very proud of you, Nathaniel," Leonie told the young man with conviction.
After dinner, she told them all to meet in her office the following morning after breakfast and then asked Varel to make sure Alistair got the message before she excused herself. The melancholy had lifted finally and she found sleep was whispering a soft invitation. Climbing the stairs, she felt Loghain beside her.
"Your bruises appear almost healed, Loghain. Although those that remain are certainly an interesting patchwork. There is one, just along your left cheek, that looks almost like a Mabari," Leonie teased as she turned down the hall towards her bedroom.
"Only a romantic child would see shapes in bruises," he remarked dryly and she gave him an impudent smile. "I suppose you look at clouds to divine animals as well?"
"I am a romantic, I freely admit such. I believe that would be the Orlesian in my blood. It counterbalances your very prosaic Fereldan nature, yes?"
Loghain's huff of laughter was a surprising sound, sweet and low in her ears, as they entered her room. He leaned against the closed door, his brow quirked. A question. Leonie felt disinclined to respond until he gave voice to it. He seemed disinclined to do so.
"The question now becomes, which of us is the more stubborn?" she finally said with a wry smile. "I have been told, by you as I recall, that never a more stubborn creature existed in all of Thedas than Leonie Caron. It would seem you are correct," she concluded, hands on hips.
"That was hardly intended as a compliment, madam," he replied, brow rising.
"Be that as it may, I intend to take it as such," she replied, unwinding the long cords of her girdle and placing them on her vanity table.
Loghain shook his head and pushed himself away from the door, moving slowly toward her. "Definitely not enough discipline as a child," he remarked, his voice deeper as he slanted his mouth over hers. Leonie's wish for him to give voice to his question was driven from her thoughts.
"Stay," she finally whispered when his lips had finished their sweetly devouring pursuit of hers.
There was a smug smirk on Loghain's lips when he stepped back and started removing his shirt. "Although I am sorely tempted to increase the number of your bruises," she added, coming to help him. She reached up and began to unwind his braids, her fingers quick and deft in his dark locks.
"I invite you to try," he challenged, little more than a growl against her neck as he nipped at it.
Leonie forgot everything else, finding a growing need building as her blood was ignited by his wandering lips.
Morning came with a shriek of winds and she jerked awake with an exclamation that was as incoherent as it was loud. Loghain was quietly dressing. He raised a brow at her, not bothering to hide his enjoyment at her expense.
"I need the glazier to come and put in the new window," she grumbled, kicking back the covers and coming to Loghain.
Reaching up, she carefully began to braid his hair and he stopped lacing his shirt, his eyes closed. She watched as his face relaxed. She loved to see him like that, the tight strain around his eyes and mouth washed away by a look of contentment, unguarded moments so infrequent that they were a rare and precious gift.
With a quick meeting of lips, he was gone and she was alone, but no longer feeling like a stranger in her own life.
Leonie quickly strapped into her Warden leathers and hurried downstairs, heading for her office. Aura had learned to have a tray waiting for her because Leonie was invariably late for her own meetings. Her Wardens were filtering in one by one and she wolfed down her breakfast, scalding her tongue on the hot tea.
Before Leonie had a chance to begin the meeting, they heard the watchtower guards announcing travelers approaching the Keep. Varel came in and said, "Ten horsemen and an ox cart, Commander. They are flying the banner of the Grey," he added, his voice unusually restrained.
Grey Wardens? Ten horsemen? That sounded vaguely familiar. She searched her memory and, with a mental groan at her absent mindedness, remembered Didier's letter, received just before they had gone to Amaranthine to bring down Esmerelle. It was still in her desk drawer. With a growing dread, she realized she had never told anyone that Orlesian Wardens were on their way. Maker, Loghain would be furious and Varel was no doubt hurt to have not been told.
The Wardens were filing out of her office and she followed them, trying to catch up to Loghain. They gathered at the bottom of the steps. She opened her mouth to speak to Loghain but was interrupted by the newly arrived Wardens.
"The Grey Wardens of Orlais have heard their sister's call! We bring assistance and greetings from Warden Commander Didier of the Grey of Orlais!"
Leonie's heart began a steady banging in her chest and tears began to run, unchecked and unnoticed. Her friends, her former colleagues had traveled overland to bring her aid.
"The Grey Wardens of Ferelden greet their brothers from Orlais and bid them welcome!" she returned the standard greeting formally but her voice shook in her excitement. Her mind and heart were torn. She needed to say something to Loghain, she wanted to run to old comrades, a swell of homesickness nearly robbing her of breath.
"Lion! Come give your beloved a kiss!" a teasing voice, a beloved voice, was shouting and her heart leapt in her throat.
"Laurent!" she cried in response, moving to greet him. He pulled her to him, bending her back in a dancer's embrace.
"Shall we give these provincials a show?" he whispered and she laughed, slapping at him to let her up.
"Maker, Laurent! It is good to see you, my old friend," she said in a voice thickened by memories of a life nearly forgotten.
"You don't remember me, I'm sure," Teodar said, swinging down from his saddle with a faint smile lurking in his steady grey eyes. Her tears still streaming, she clasped him to her and he blushed, as quiet as ever.
"Greetings, Commander," Shaniel said with a wave. She smiled up at the young elf mage with his ever seeking violet eyes, still looking around his new surroundings with the wonder of a newly released tower mage.
"Shaniel, do you still whistle?" she couldn't help but ask, bowing to him. He grinned and whistled an old Orlesian folk song. Tears continued their descent down her cheeks.
"Lady Leonie," Astrid greeted, climbing down from an ox cart.
"Maker's mercy! Oh Astrid, still you call me Lady Leonie!" Leonie admonished and went to hug her former maid. The young woman smiled in delight. Leonie was nearly overcome by the shock of seeing so many from her old life.
"It seems Ferelden suits you, Lady Leonie. You are looking quite happy despite your tears," Astrid greeted shyly, bobbying a curtsy.
Her Wardens were slowly making their way down the steps to greet their fellow Wardens. Except Loghain, who was standing apart, stiff and cold, his eyes an accusation that cut right through Leonie like a sharpened blade. She went up the stairs to him and met his look.
"I am sorry, Loghain. In all the excitement, I forgot to mention this," she said quietly, her voice even but she was silently entreating him to overlook it, to take her arm and walk her down so he could meet her old Warden family.
"An odd greeting for a Warden. I will assume that is an Orlesian greeting," he replied coldly and moved stiffly down the stairs, every bit the military general. Leonie felt the need to both stamp her foot and shake her head. Instead, she found herself equally stiff and straight as she made her way to her Wardens.
The introductions were a loud and boisterous event until Leonie moved to introduce Loghain. Then it became entirely too quiet.
"The is Warden Loghain, my Second," she began and the silence was broken only by the sound of impatient hooves stamping at the ground.
"Loghain Mac Tir?" Laurent asked, a wicked gleam in his eye.
Leonie felt anger begin to seep in, replacing both her joy at seeing old friends and her contrition at having hurt Loghain. She would have to choose her words very carefully, she knew. If Loghain suspected she was defending him, or her decision to make him her Second, he would be further incensed. As it was she wasn't sure how long he would be angry at her, she only knew he was. Very.
"Laurent, as a Warden of long years, you know very well we do not mention last names or pasts if they are not offered," she chastised. Laurent shot her a glance full of surprise and then a knowing gleam came into his eyes. He then looked at Loghain, his eyes traveling up and down Loghain's tall frame. Sizing him up, Leonie thought in disgust. Typical male behavior that was beneath her old friend. Loghain did not help, his look of utter disdain so haughty and arrogant it made Leonie's teeth ache and hands itch to pull both men aside by their ears and give them a scolding.
"As you say, Commander. Forgive my…impertinence," Laurent said with a cheeky smile at her.
She inclined her head. "You are forgiven Laurent," she replied softly but there was no mistaking the edge in her voice, the warning.
Varel was directing soldiers in the unloading of the supplies and Teodar was staring around, curious but not speaking. His eyes met hers and she saw in them a warm approval and she felt the tension begin to ease from her.
"Come inside, all of you, and we shall catch up," she invited, ushering them up the steps to the great hall.
"But Lion, you're forgetting Warden customs," Laurent chided, shaking his head with another bold grin.
Leonie stiffened, swallowing an urge to let her growing hysteria out in a scream of frustration. Her morning had started out so perfectly and now it was just continuing to slide into an unholy morass. She gave Laurent a chastising glare, which he ignored.
The Grey Warden custom he could only be referring to was known as the Challenge of Brothers, a series of duels and field maneuvers called whenever Grey Wardens of different nations gathered. An old and barbaric custom, in Leonie's estimation. One that would no doubt give her a massive headache. Or two, she thought sourly, looking at Loghain, who was still staring at Laurent with icy disdain in his eyes. Her eyes moved to Laurent, who was looking triumphant and rather smug. She bit back a sigh that was building deep in her stomach.
"Maker's mercy, Laurent, you have only just arrived. There will be time for such foolish barbarism tomorrow," she finally said caustically, having no choice but to accept the visiting country's declaration of intent.
She stood watching as her Wardens and the Orlesian Wardens continued mingling, strangers slowly becoming friends. Except for two very proud and very different men.
Leonie wondered if she could slink upstairs, crawl into bed, and start her day again.