"You there. Bard. Give us a story."
The woman raised her head, glaring at the speaker across the crowded, makeshift tavern.
"Saw the lute when you came in. Hard to miss, that."
She sighed, nudging her packs further beneath the table as she swirled the wine in her glass. It was funny, she supposed; when last she had visited Haven, the people would barely meet a stranger's eye. But its population had swelled, the frigid passes of the deep mountains providing one of the last refuges in all of Denerim. There were half a dozen dialects in this cramped room, grown discordant and keening with the flow of cheap ale. Funny, too, that even at the end of the world, men would find a place to drink.
At first, many had come with hope in their hearts. Word had spread of the Urn, of course; tales always sprung up in the wake of Her adventures. But the halls of the temple had proved impassable, they said. Yet the people had remained, huddled against the cold. There was nowhere else to go.
"You might want to indulge them. These refugee types, they do love a happy ending."
With a start, Leliana's head jerked up. The man was tall, his smile easy as he pulled up a chair and plopped down opposite her. His hair was pulled into a tight, blonde ponytail, his face scrubbed free of the filth that marked most of the town's inhabitants. As he dandled an ankle on his knee, she caught a glimpse of pale calf but he adjusted his robes with a smirk.
"Uh, uh, uh. Buy me a drink first."
She turned her face away, but not from embarrassment. There was something to his features – the lazy and crooked grin – that reminded her forcibly of another. But he was gone now, disappeared to Maker knows where. "I—"
"Quiet type, huh? Ooh, wouldn't have thought that in a bard."
"If you would let me finish..." She did her best to glare, but a bitter chuckle escaped her. "I have nothing to offer them. There are no songs of comfort for times such as these. There are no more happy endings."
The stranger shrugged, raising his hand to signal for a drink. "You're the expert. But I don't suppose you could – you know – make something up? Maybe something about a dashing, hero cat and his adventures. People like animal stories."
"Cul d'Andraste!" Leliana sank back in her chair with a growl. "Which one would you have me tell? The Folly of King Loghain? The Fall of Denerim? The Death of..." She could not finish the words.
"You've been to Denerim." Finally his voice grew hushed, eyes never leaving hers even as the harried serving girl set a second mug on the table. Once she was out of earshot, he leaned low across the table. "I didn't take you for a refugee."
Leliana blinked. "How did you—?"
"Too pretty, for one." He smiled over the rim of his mug. "But I assumed you were fresh from Orlais. Not Denerim."
"I could say the same of you."
"Aw, you think I'm pretty."
She snorted. "I merely meant that you are no refugee."
"Am I not? We're all here to hide from something." He winked.
They sat in silence for a time, broken only when Leliana took a long pull from her cup and set it empty on the wood between them.
"The way I hear it, not many escaped the city alive." He was watching her again, watching the slight sway as she sat forward in her chair. "Don't think of it as stories; think of it as news."
With a heavy sigh, Leliana acquiesced. "Denerim burns." She did not notice how quiet the room had become, the whispered shuffle of boots sliding closer as silence settled.
"The fire is black, all-consuming and inextinguishable. Never does it need stoking, making tinder of palace and hovel, crumbling stone as easily as wood. Crumbling flesh. Crumbling hope. But it was not always so."
"They gathered beneath an ancient banner, human and dwarf and elf marching as one. It was a Grey Warden that led them, a Grey Warden that breached the city walls. At her side marched the villain Loghain, pardoned and finding purpose anew beneath Her mercy."
There was a quiet hiss at that. Leliana, too, felt the words threatening to choke her, hiding her grimace as the girl came to refill her cup. There was more to the tale, but it did not matter now.
"Through market and Alienage they fought, making for the tall and terrible fort at the city's center. That place, too, she sought to redeem, choosing it as the location for their final stand. It was at its gates that Loghain fell, sacrificing himself so that the last Warden might live. Beset on all sides by darkspawn he was, but it was a stray arrow that took him down. The smallest thing to bring down the man who would have made himself king, a simple hurlock to fell the Hero of the River Dane."
Leliana pushed the mug aside, finding the rhythm now.
"And so the Warden and her companions pushed on. She had gathered them to her, outcasts and survivors, those who would atone and those who would prove themselves. But they had realized her intent now, the reason that it takes a Grey Warden to end a Blight. She meant to sacrifice herself, had confided her plan to a dear friend on the eve of battle. But the friend saw no fear in her eyes, saw only a hard and resigned certainty. And so... and so she held her tongue..."
"But the Warden had not told her lover. He too could read the new sternness in her, the unwavering focus. They argued at the feet of the archdemon itself, dodging flame and rubble as he pleaded with her. It was with great pain that she drew on him, turning her blades from the battle to press them to his throat... And, like Loghain, it took only the merest of blows. An errant swipe of the beast's tail and she was falling, landing at the feet of that tower, a small and broken thing... the world's only hope."
There was no ending to the tale. She sat back, eyes on her glass as the listeners realized that it was over, shaking themselves as they shuffled away. Across from her, the stranger drummed his fingers on the table. "Wow. That was really depressing."
She began to retort, but there was a hand on her shoulder. The man was elderly, with a kind and quiet smile. "Thank you. It's been too long since we've had news."
Leliana bowed her head. "You are welcome. I only wish that I had better news to bring."
"Nonsense." He chuckled. "But you seem tired, traveler. Do you have a place to stay?"
"No, I... I had not thought much about it."
"Haven is crowded these days, but I would like to offer you my barn. I don't normally allow it. Had a drunk sneak in there some weeks back, you see. Horrible stench. Mad too. Claimed he was one of your Grey Wardens... and a prince to boot!" He laughed.
It was a moment before she remembered to breathe. "...a prince?"
"Yeh. Had some stolen armor that was nice enough, but I've never seen a prince all skin and bones. Madded smile, too. 'Jus' like her,' he kept saying as I threw him out. 'Jus' like her.'"
Leliana pushed back from the table, her chair toppling crashing to the floor. "Where did he go?"
The old man shrugged. "Don't rightly know."
"But you saw which way he went, yes?"
"Back down the mountain. This is Haven, girl. One way in, one way out."
For the first time in weeks, Leliana found herself smiling. She took the man's hand hers, shaking it quickly and earnestly as she bent to scoop up her packs. "Thank you, Monsieur. Thank you more than you know."
Ignoring the stares of the onlookers, she made for the door, stopping only when she felt a hand on her arm. The stranger was looking down at her with a bemused expression, his own pack slung over his shoulder.
Leliana blinked. "What are you doing?"
"Coming with you, of course."
"Why? I do not even know your name."
The stranger inclined his head. "I am Anders, mage and wanted apostate. And I'm assuming from your sudden excitement, dear lady, that you are headed for trouble. Or at least something more exciting than this place. Either way, you could use my help."
"Apostate?" Leliana stifled a sudden chuckle as she smirked up at him. "Come then, my friend. We have a templar to find."