Author's Note: For those wondering at the reason for the length of time between the last chapter and this, first I decided to take time off writing. Then I got a lot of extra work down at the local cube farm. Also, I don't usually do this but this chapter goes out to MelindaOz who, after searching through the now 6000 plus other stories in the Dragon Age fandom, took the time to actually review. Rock on.
5. Letters Home
"So then Hawke kicks in the door," Varric said. The audience members within The Hanged Man leaned forward expectantly, hanging on his every word. What do you get out of telling these tall tales? Hawke had asked him once. Were the human here now, Varric would have nodded to the audience, pointed out the rapt expressions on peoples' faces be they human, dwarf or elf. Everybody enjoyed a good story and in Varric's own opinion at least, his stories were pretty good. Everybody enjoys a good story? He questioned himself. Well probably not the qunari he answered himself after a moment; in all likelihood, telling stories didn't satisfy a demand of the qun.
The dwarven merchant leaned forward in his seat. "The Coterie leader looks up, startled and demands 'By Andraste's pyre! Who are you?' To which Hawke replies, 'I'm the party pooper.'"
Varric looked up, past the tavern's retinue of regulars as the door opened and Hawke strode in, easily weaving a path through the early evening crowd despite his size. The human clutched parchments in his gauntleted hand, a smile bringing a spark to his eyes absent since the deep roads expedition months past.
A cry of "What happened then?" brought Varric's attention back to the crowd, by now shifting impatiently as they waited for him to continue. Though it pained him greatly, Varric raised his hands and apologised. "I'm afraid the rest of this story will have to wait." The disappointed patrons dispersed, voicing their displeasure in low mutters. Varric caught Edwina's eye and signalled for her to fetch a round of drinks for the crowd. The merchant rose from his rough-hewn wooden seat as his companion arrived. "What news, Hawke?"
The Ferelden handed Varric the parchments. The documents bore the seal of the grey wardens in red wax and possessed the crumpled look that spoke of having passed through several couriers before arriving in Kirkwall. "She's alive!" Hawke announced, relief evident in his voice. "Varric, Bethany's alive!"
Varric's face broke into a grin rivalling Hawke's. "Great ancestors! That's wonderful news."
Casting his gaze downward, Varric silently read the first letter, marvelling as always at the stark contrast between Sunshine's neat, flowing script and her brother's chicken scratches.
It's official – I'm a grey warden though I'm still coming to terms with what that all means. At first I had the most awful dreams but they're steadily becoming less frequent, thank the Maker. Life among the wardens can be tough and their training regimen is brutal, so much so that Stroud told me he's glad to have a healer among them.
Garrett, I know you must be worried about me but please don't blame yourself for what happened in the deep roads. I wanted to come on the expedition and somehow, remaining in Kirkwall seemed like a very bad idea. The group I'm travelling with looks after one another so please believe me when I say I'm doing well.
One of the wardens in Stroud's group fought the darkspawn during the Blight in Ferelden and we've become good friends but I shouldn't say more than that. She can be a bit touchy on that topic.
Please give my love to Mother, Uncle Gamlen and our friends and tell them not to worry. I will write again when I can.
All my love,
Varric looked up at Hawke and smiled. "After seeing how close she was to death in the deep roads, I can't imagine how good it must feel, knowing she's alive."
"Mother can't contain her joy," Hawke answered. "She hasn't been happier since we came to Kirkwall." Nodding at the unread letter in his friend's hand, he added. "Read the second one."
You do not know me but I am a warden and friend to your sister.
I write to assure you that Bethany is well and I will do all I can to safeguard her and provide what guidance I can regarding life as a warden. I fear I am not the best of role models for her, however.
We will be moving on to other parts of the Free Marches soon but before we do I hope to visit Kirkwall with Bethany.
Kalli of the Wardens
"What do you make of that, Varric?"
Handing the letters back, Varric replied, "That's from the Ferelden warden, I take it?"
Varric rubbed his chin with a gloved hand. "Hmmm," he mused. "The only Ferelden grey wardens we know of are Blondie and that poor sod claiming to be the son of King Maric." Varric paused, eyes narrowing. "You don't think..."
"Think what, Varric?" Hawke asked, leaning his weight against the table.
"This sounds crazy even to me, but I think Sunshine's warden friend may well be the Hero of Ferelden."
Hawke nodded. After a moment he replied, "You're right, Varric. It does sound crazy."
Kalli, you're my cousin and I love you but if I ever see you again, I will kill you. So thought Shianni as she stormed from Anora's audience chamber. Or as Shianni privately referred to Ferelden's ruler, 'Queen Bitch' or 'She Who Must Be Obeyed.'
She Who Must Be Obeyed had summoned the bann of the Denerim alienage and Shianni had no choice but to comply – mostly because the 'summons' had arrived in the form of a richly-clothed shem quill pusher and a pair of armed guards. "Her Ladyship, the Good Queen Anora requests the presence of the bann of the alienage." Not even a please. It was typical of the sanctimonious bitch Shianni's dear cousin had placed on the throne. Soris, always the more level-headed of the family counselled patience and temperance in dealing with Queen Bitch.
"Just smile and nod and please try not to offend her too much," were Soris' parting words as Shianni departed with the quill pusher.
Somehow, despite waiting in a draughty antechamber for much of the morning before Queen Bitch deigned to greet her in person, Shianni managed to keep her temper. Somehow, Shianni managed to emulate Soris' level-headedness as she outlined her people's concerns – among them limited access to clean water and the exorbitant prices shemlen merchants charged for fresh fruit and vegetables. She Who Must Be Obeyed listened throughout, nodded in all the right places and even asked a few pertinent questions before concluding the meeting with assurances that 'the concerns of the alienage merited proper consideration in due course.'
About the same time the dwarves placed a nug on the throne of Orzammar in other words. It was then that Shianni's control lapsed and she spat a volley of curses in elvish before turning on her heel and walking out of the room, chin up, hands fisted by her sides.
The bann's anger evaporated over the course of her walk home, leaving in its place a feeling of dull emptiness. Was this really all there was? All she could do? Represent the interests of her people only to have the policy makers of the land mouth empty promises in return?
Some days she felt like screaming, felt like all she could do was scale the structurally unsound walls of her home to the roof and scream to the heavens, "An elf ended the Blight and saved your worthless lives!"
She knew she wouldn't though; what would it accomplish, after all? Besides, with her luck, the loose cobbles on the roof would slide out from underfoot, landing her head-first in a ditch.
With a heavy sigh, Shianni entered her home. Maker but she needed a drink. Her head snapped up as Soris spoke, "I've a surprise for you." Her brother held a loosely rolled parchment in one hand.
"What is it?"
He smiled impishly at her, an insouciant gleam in his eye. "Guess."
Fixing a fake smile on her face she replied. "Brother, hand me the parchment or you'll be returning to your wife with a few less teeth."
Soris sighed theatrically as he surrendered the paper. "You used to be fun."
Shianni snorted as she unrolled the parchment, eyes widening as she took in the grey warden seal and their cousin's spiky handwriting.
Dear Shianni and Soris,
Hoping you and the family are well.
Apologies for the recent lack of letters. You would not believe how hard it is to find a reliable courier service in the Marches.
Since my last letter, I've joined a group of wardens including a young woman hailing from Lothering.
Shianni stopped reading, looked up at Soris. "Another shem from Lothering?"
When Soris shrugged mutely, she returned her attention to the letter.
And no, it isn't what I know you're thinking, Shianni. She has been a better friend to me than I deserve and I shall do what I can to guide her through her new life as a warden.
Please give my regards to the alienage and Shianni, please try not to get yourself tried and executed because you lost your temper with the Queen.
Despite the feelings of tired anger and impotence, a smile brought new life to Shianni's face as she re-read the last line. "You know me too well, cousin," she murmured.
Another night spent around a camp fire followed another day of tracking and slaying darkspawn. Somewhat perversely, finding entrances into the deep roads and clearing the passages was beginning to feel almost...routine. Bethany shook her head at the thought. The young warden lay on her back, hands laced together on her stomach as she studied the stars. Of her companions, Redmond had the first watch, his outline visible against the star-studded sky; Josef and Stroud sat by the fire, the former playing his pipe, the latter using a whetstone to hone the edge of his longsword.
Kalli too was in the midst of sharpening her array of blades, the skreet skreet of steel on whetstone competing with the notes from Josef's pipe. Bethany turned her head to the right as Kalli tested the edge of a dagger on the ball of her thumb. Apparently satisfied with her work, the elf sheathed the blade. Aware now of Bethany's gaze, Kalli faced her, eyebrow raised in a silent enquiry.
"When was the last time you spoke with her?" Bethany asked.
Kalli blinked. "Spoke with who about what?"
Bethany frowned as she levered herself up on her elbows. "Leliana," she clarified.
The elven warden bit her lip as she returned to her weapons. "Not since I left for Amaranthine."
"You miss her, don't you?" Bethany pressed on, lowering her voice.
Kalli flicked the wrist holding the blade, embedding it to the hilt in the grassy earth. "What do you want me to say, Beth?" she snapped, suddenly angry. "That I cry myself to sleep at night? That I visit every Chantry in every town and village hoping for just a glance of her?"
Asleep by the fire, Circus' ears twitched in response to his mistress' raised voice. After a moment the mabari settled. Kalli rose to her feet, pulled the errant blade from the earth and left without another word, quickly disappearing into the deeper shadows beyond the reach of the firelight. Bethany too stood, uncertain of what she should do. Grass-muted footfalls brought her around as Josef joined her, pipe in hand. He nodded in the direction Kalli had taken. "It might be best to leave her be for now," he said quietly.
Coming to decision, Bethany shook her head. "No. I need to apologise."
Josef tapped the pipe against the palm of his hand for a moment as he looked from the point where Kalli had exited the camp to Bethany and back. "I could come with you, if you wished."
Bethany noted the concern in the man's eyes, wondered if it was merely concern for the welfare of a fellow warden...or concern for Bethany as a person. She shook her head; that was a matter for another time. "Thank you but no."
Josef nodded in acceptance of her decision, his eyes following Bethany until the shadows seemed to consume her as well.
"if you were attempting to sneak up on me, you were doing a poor job of it," Kalli spoke without looking around as Bethany joined her beneath the limbs of an old, sturdy pine. The elf reached a hand up and snapped off a twig from the branch above her; somewhere nearby an owl hooted, perhaps responding to the small crack perhaps not. Kalli studied the twig as she rotated it between her fingers. After a moment she sighed, letting it fall from her grasp. She was acting foolishly – again – abandoning camp and her friend.
I thought I was done with this she told herself. That last night before I left Denerim, Leliana and I agreed letting each other go was for the best. It was different while we both lived in the same place but I had no right to leave her behind with my return an uncertainty at best. She deserved somebody who could be forever at her side. So why do I feel as though part of myself is missing?
"I have been paying attention to your lessons in stealth and subterfuge, you know," Bethany replied, a smile tugging the edges of her mouth upward.
Kalli laughed softy, finally turning to face the taller woman. "Oh? So you're saying if you wanted to, you could take me by surprise?" Kalli paused a moment, breath seeming to catch in her chest. Her hair, the way it seems to almost drink in the moonlight. Kalli bit down hard on her lower lip and winced. "I'm sorry," she said after a moment, breath coming more easily now as she directed her gaze over her friend's shoulder. "I had no right to snap at you. Especially since you only pointed out the truth."
Bethany shook her head, refusing to let herself dodge blame that easily. "It isn't my place to intrude on such matters."
Kalli forced herself to meet Bethany's soft brown eyes even as she silenced the voice from within her own mind, She's beautiful. And deserves better than you. "Friends sometimes tell each other things, even if they don't want to hear them," she answered.
Bethany pulled in a lungful of cool night air. "Very well," she began. "Perhaps you should visit the Chantry in Kirkwall – they may be able to send a message to Denerim or even know where Leliana went after the Blight." The mage waited, tensing herself against another outburst but none came.
Instead Kalli nodded, dark hair spilling over her face, momentarily obscuring her features before she absently pushed it aside with a hand. She tilted her head in the direction of the camp. "We need a way to convince Stroud to visit the city."
"Sundermount is perhaps a three day hike from here," Bethany pointed out. "Last time my brother and I were in that area, the Dalish warned us about darkspawn."
Kalli swallowed, mouth suddenly dry as she contemplated facing Leliana once more and counselled herself against getting her hopes up. In all likelihood, the Chantry's archivists in Kirkwall would have no information but if they did...she felt her pulse beat harder in her throat and tried to distract herself. "Supplies," she said, quietly impressed at how little her voice shook. "We'll need replenish our supplies before we leave the Marches, and Kirkwall's a shorter journey from here than Starkhaven." Kalli nodded to herself. "Stroud is a practical man, surely he'll appreciate Kirkwall as the better option."
In the darkness alongside her friend, Bethany smiled. "I'm sure he will."