Thanks to ShebasDawn, Bloodsong 13T, mille libri, ventisquear and Aritha for your interest in a story that is updated much too seldom.
Just for the record, one of the things I hate most about DAII is the conclusion of Merrill's story arc. Isn't it wonderful that you can fix things in fanfic? Consider this the first part of my meddling with DAII continuity.
Keeper Marethari was old, and did not need much sleep any more. It was a rare night when she got more than three or four hours. So in the small hours of the night, when the party to welcome Clan Sabrae's legendary prodigal son had died down and all save the sentries had gone to bed, she was still awake, pacing through the camp between the banked campfires, watching the moon and the stars take their courses across the sky.
The Mahariel aravel was currently being used by a newly married couple. They'd offered to give it up in favor of the Hero, but Lhaine had refused, and had bedded down with Master Ilen for the night. His friend was in Variel's aravel, getting a first-hand introduction to Dalish culture, most particularly sexual practices.
The shemlen who had accompanied Lhaine were quiet in their own camp. It was such a strange thing to contemplate, that a shemlen king had told off a dozen of his own to guard a Dalish! And that they not only complied without complaint, but considered it an honor! All sorts of strange things were afoot in the world these days. Certainly Asha'bellanar seemed to think so, and that was cause for worry indeed.
And Lhaine himself had changed, had changed from a promising young hunter who had deferred to his elders with grace, to someone of great self-possession, who commanded effortlessly and to whom respect was given without question. He had grown, but he had also diminished in other ways. There was obviously something haunting him.
As if her thoughts had summoned him, Marethari saw the door to Ilen's aravel open, and Lhaine slip out. He was barefoot, his hair loose, in shirt and breeches with a cloak thrown over all. Moving to the nearest campfire, he tossed a couple of pieces of wood on, seated himself upon the log closest to the embers, bent his back and rubbed his bare shins with his hands, his face troubled. Marethari moved quietly over to him.
"Are you well, Lhaine? Did you take some injury in the fight? You should have told me."
He moved to get up, was stopped by her gesture, then nodded respectfully. "Keeper. No, I wasn't injured. These are old wounds."
Marethari turned her inner sight upon him then, and gasped. The healed damage to his legs and hands and body was visible to her, as well as a hint of the Taint that she'd tried so hard to eliminate before Duncan took him away.
"You are still Tainted! Duncan said that becoming a Grey Warden would heal you, save you!"
The corner of Lhaine's mouth curled up wryly. "It did, in a sense of the word. It bought me time. Wardens take the Taint into themselves when they Join. They live about thirty years after that, before it begins to overtake them and turn them into ghouls. People who have been Tainted before they Join get the same span of life. Shemlen Wardens traditionally go down into Orzammar to fight the darkspawn until they are killed when that happens, but I don't want to die in the dark."
He looked up at her, his expression bleak. "The Keepers at Halamshiral know this already, but you should too and I would appreciate it if you would pass it to any Keepers you meet. When the time comes, I'll come back to my people to be ended. My body needs to be burned, not buried whole. You can bury the ashes later."
"Oh, Lhaine, what have I done to you!"
He shrugged. "What needed to be done, for the good of the clan. We don't waste anything. It is better that I lived to fight against the Blight, than that I had died then as I wished to."
"You have taken so many injuries!"
"There was a lot of fighting to be done. And at one point, Alistair and I were taken to Fort Drakon. I was put to the question."
"You were…what exactly does that mean?"
Lhaine drew in a deep, careful breath. "It means that I was tortured, for information."
Shock and anger flooded into Marethari, so much so that she actually had to take a moment to calm and collect herself. "And this Alistair?" she asked eventually. "Was he tortured as well?"
"No, though they made him listen while it happened. We were good friends and he was the last son of the King, after all. I think that Loghain wanted to hurt him emotionally, break him, so that he would be a malleable puppet. Loghain was probably hoping to marry him to his daughter."
"How did you escape?"
"Our friends came in after us and broke us out. And healed me, though it was a near thing." Again, that wry smile. "Shemlen mending what shemlen marred. It was…symmetrical, if nothing else. And enabled me to fight the Archdemon, in the end." He moved his feet even closer to the fire, huddled into the cloak and sighed.
"You've got darkspawn here, somewhere on the mountain. I can feel them. It's why I couldn't sleep."
"You can feel them?"
"Yes. Grey Wardens can. It helps us find them to hunt them. And I probably should hunt them, if I'm going to stay here any length of time. Because they can feel me too. And they might come after me into the camp. If you're willing to lend me some hunters for the cause, I'll see if my guard is up for hunting them too, and we'll get rid of them. My guard have all faced darkspawn before."
"Your guard would be willing to fight to defend the Dalish?"
"If I tell them to. I saved Ferelden for them, it only seems fair."
Yes, Lhaine had definitely changed. This cool cynicism was new to Marethari.
"I will find some hunters for you in the morning."
"Thank you. I'd like to borrow Merrill if I might, as well. She's pretty good in a fight. I'll look after her."
"I do not know if that would be such a good idea, hahren. The hunters might not wish to fight with Merrill at their side."
Marethari suddenly found herself the subject of penetrating green gaze that even she found difficult to withstand.
"Yes. I meant to ask about that, Keeper. I'd noticed that everyone seems very displeased with Merrill. What has she done?"
Zevran awoke to the sound of shouting. Lhaine's voice shouting, he realized after a moment. Rolling out of bed, he reached for his clothes, Variel stirring behind him.
"What is going on? Is that the Mahariel?"
"It is. Let me go see what is going on."
Unlike Lhaine, he'd not been living in Ostagar all winter, so despite his worry, he took the time to pull his boots on, as well as all of his layers. Variel was getting dressed as well. They both finished at the same time and hastened out of her aravel to find the camp in an uproar, with elvhen pouring out of their aravels, grabbing up weapons as they went.
Close by the central campfire, which was now blazing brightly again, Lhaine was standing nose-to-nose with the slender, dark-haired elvhen girl Zevran had seen earlier with the Keeper. She was in her night-clothes and he was snarling at her as Zevran had never seen him do to anyone before. "Are you mad, Merrill? Where is it? What have you done with it? Bring me the mirror NOW!"
The mirror? Surely not the mirror? Zevran had heard the tale of Tamlen and Lhaine's corruption. The girl could not have been that foolish, could she?
But Variel confirmed Zevran's fears. "It's about time!" she said with satisfaction. "The First has been mucking about with a piece of the mirror that spread the corruption in the Brecilian Forest. Marethari couldn't convince her to stop. She's been dealing with demons as well, doing blood magic. The Mahariel will sort her out. They were friends once."
Lhaine did not look particularly friendly now. In fact, Zevran had never seen him so enraged, and that was worrying, for he was not sure that this was entirely about Merrill. It might very well be that, on what was a close to home turf as he got, Lhaine was finally feeling safe enough to vent some of that anger that had built up in him because of Drakon. Judging from the eager, anticipatory looks directed towards the Warden and Merrill, the little First's actions had made her very unpopular, and Zevran doubted that any of the clan would question anything Lhaine might do to the girl, up to and including killing her.
Confronted with the disgust and anger of one who had been one of her closest friends, Merrill was weeping. The Keeper, damn her eyes, looked disinclined to interfere. Basta, it's up to me!
Cautiously, Zevran approached, his hands held open and low.
"Lhaine? Mio amico, what do you do here?"
Lhaine's head snapped around, his eyes green flame, his pale hair lifting from his shoulders in the chilly, moist night air. He looked the very personification of that elvhen god of vengeance of his. What is his name? Algernon?
For just a moment, Zevran thought that Lhaine might actually strike him for interfering. Then the Dalish's gaze connected with his. Thankfully, some of the rage cooled and awareness returned. Lhaine took a deep breath and made a visible effort to relax. His left hand made the Crow signal for I'm all right. Zevran relaxed a little and let out a breath of his own.
"Merrill has endangered the clan by keeping a part of the mirror that Tainted Tamlen and myself," Lhaine said, his voice roughened from the shouting. "As a Grey Warden, it's my duty to deal with matters pertaining to the Taint. I have demanded that she give the shard to me."
"But it's not Tainted any more!" the First protested, sniffling. With a decided lack of anything resembling a sense of self-preservation, she added, "the demon gave me the ritual to purify it and it worked!" Angry mutters rose from the elves standing around them.
"Which demon was this?" Lhaine inquired, his voice gone from fire to ice.
"The…the old one that is imprisoned on Sundermount." She lifted her huge green eyes to Lhaine, and hope blossomed suddenly in them. "You're a Warden! Of all people, you can see that it's safe! I'll go get it!" Scrambling away, Merrill ran towards the Keeper's aravel.
Harshal, who was on duty at the entrance to the camp, came up then.
"Lhaine, that shemlen captain of yours is out here, wanting to know if you are well. He heard the shouting."
"Oh. I'm sorry, Harshal. Tell him I'm fine. It's just a clan dispute."
The hunter shook his head. "He insists on seeing you, in person. You'd best come before he tries to fight his way in here."
Lhaine nodded, and he and Zevran followed the hunter to the entrance. Aldwyn and four of his men were there, fully armed and armored.
"Are you well, sir? We heard shouting."
"I apologize for that, captain. I was having a…difference of opinion with an old friend. A family quarrel, if you will."
Aldwyn took in Lhaine's disheveled appearance, and frowned. "Are you certain, sir?"
"I'm certain. It's just words, not blows. Thank you for your care of me."
"It's hardly care when we're out here and you're in there," Aldwyn grumbled. "But as you wish, Warden. A good night to you. Or good morning, as the case may be."
"And to you as well, Captain." Lhaine inclined his head politely and went back inside to the campfire.
As he was returning, Merrill was coming back, the elves drawing back in disgust to allow her passage as if she herself were corrupted. She was carrying a piece of glass cupped carefully in her hands. It seemed to glow.
Zevran saw Lhaine's face pale, even in the red firelight. The Warden swallowed hard, his nostrils flaring. Then he said in his customary quiet tone, "give it to me, Merrill."
The First handed the glass to him. Zevran could only imagine what it cost Lhaine to take it, this remnant of the thing that had ripped him away from all he loved and set him on the path to becoming the Hero. The Warden turned it over in his hands for a moment, his face intent. Then he looked up. "No, there is no sign of Taint."
Astonished muttering broke out around him. Merrill chirped, "See? I told you it was safe!"
The muttering turned angry. Lhaine held up his hand for silence.
"That doesn't mean it's safe, Merrill." He sighed, looking incredibly weary of a sudden. "The last thing that Tamlen said to me before the mirror took him was, 'I see an underground city!' What do you think the mirrors did?"
"The eluvians were supposed to communicate with one another. You were supposed to be able to see the other cities where they were, talk to people there. The Elders may have even been able to travel through the mirrors."
"'Travel through the mirrors', you say. You don't think that might be something of interest to an ancient demon looking to find its way out of its ages-old prison? Demons don't ever help anyone unless there is something in it for themselves."
Merrill frowned. "I am a mage, Lhaine. I think I know more of spirits than you do."
"I wouldn't make a sizeable wager on that were I you, Merrill. I've killed more demons and abominations in the last year than most mages ever meet in their lives. I spent more time in the Beyond than Circle mages do when they're being Harrowed. I fought my way through Ferelden's Circle when it was being held by demons and abominations and I met them elsewhere, in the Deep Roads, in Denerim, all sorts of places. I've killed every kind of demon there is. And I've seen the sorts of bargains they make and what happens to the people who make them. It isn't pretty."
The certainty with which he spoke caused doubt to settle over the First's face. "I do know that you have to be careful, Lhaine. It's not safe to trust."
"Trusting or not, any bargain opens the door to possession, Merrill." There was angry agreement from the crowd. His voice, which had been calm and level, gentled even further. "Why did you want to rebuild the mirror in the first place?"
"To find Tamlen! There was never any sign of him! I thought he might have been taken into the mirror, and if I could re-build it, we could get him back!"
"Tamlen is dead."
"You don't know that!"
"Actually, I do." Lhaine's expression grew bleak. Zevran knew that Tamlen had been a former lover of Lhaine's and what his fate had been. The Antivan wanted to shake the obtuse little First for making Lhaine recount what had happened. "One night while my companions and I were camping, our camp was attacked by shrieks. There was a ghoul with them, an elf. To my amazement, it addressed me as lethallin, said that it was Tamlen. He begged me to kill him before he hurt me or anyone else, so I did." Murmurs of shock and dismay rose from Lhaine's clan-mates. "Killed him and burned him. I buried the ashes beneath a sapling and said the words for him. I can only hope that Falon'Din came for him and took him home." He gave Merrill a pitying look. "So Tamlen is accounted for, and I'm standing right in front of you. There's no need for the mirror, Merrill."
"But we could learn so much!"
"Could we? Duncan thought that the mirror was Tevinter in origin because the frame it had been set in was Tevinter. Who knows-perhaps the mirror was corrupted because the magisters had used it to see into, or even go to the Golden City. They stole so much from us that it wouldn't surprise me. It's true that your shard is not corrupted now. But I suspect that if you were to complete a working mirror, it would only connect itself to the source of the corruption and be tainted again anew."
"You don't know that, Lhaine."
"No, I don't. But is it worth risking your clan," he gestured around at the others, "to find out? Yes, Firsts and Keepers preserve the old knowledge. But first and foremost, they also make the wise decisions that preserve the clan. And sometimes that means knowing when to let the past go."
Approval and agreement rose around them. Then Harethlan growled, "We do not wish Merrill as our First in any event. We don't trust her." Several elves chimed in with similar sentiments. "She was willing to let us all be corrupted, just to possibly find out some of the Ancestors' secrets!" Ineria exclaimed. "Dealing with demons, then coming back into the camp, among our children!"
Well. This is not good, Zevran thought. We've got the next best thing to a lynch mob here.Had his preternaturally lucky friend finally set something in motion that he couldn't handle? Ironically enough, among his own people?
"Some of her behavior could be being influenced by the demon," Lhaine said, in an effort to reason with his clan-mates. "The Merrill I grew up with would not wish to put the clan in danger."
"That doesn't make it better!" Terath called.
"No, it doesn't. But if the demon is removed, then perhaps she'll be herself again."
"And the next time a demon offers her something she wants?" came the hunter's mocking question. "What do we do then? She has already proven she can be tempted. How many times do we forgive her?" Cries of agreement came from the onlookers.
"From the look of things, you've not forgiven her once yet."
"Lhaine, that demon is a very ancient, powerful one," Marethari warned, her brow wrinkled in concern. "What the shemlen call a pride demon. I could not overcome it myself."
"If a Keeper or First falls to a demon, there is only one thing to be done," Hahren Paivel said. "And you know it, Lhaine." As if only just now becoming aware of her peril, Merrill gave Paivel a wide-eyed look.
"Really? If that is the case, if Merrill is such a danger, then why have you not done so already?" Lhaine's gaze, stern now, raked the crowd. "Were you too afraid of what Merrill might do if you confronted her?"
Some sheepish looks met his, but Ilen lifted his head proudly and declared, "It is the Keeper's place to determine when her First is no longer acceptable. Marethari had not declared it yet."
"And why is that, Keeper?"
The Keeper frowned, and her voice was chilly when she answered. "It is not for you to question my decisions, Lhaine. Firsts and Keepers have their own tests that they must pass to achieve their status, even as Hunters do. I have argued long with Merrill in vain, trying to turn her from this path, but I do still believe her salvageable as a Dalish if not as First."
But the hunter who had faced down an Archdemon was not daunted by Marethari's ire. "And I am Hahren and Hunter, charged with the protection of the clan. The divisiveness I see here is every bit as dangerous to us as the darkspawn on the mountain, or the rogue shemlen I cleared from your gate." Lhaine looked around at his clan-mates.
"Therefore, I am going to decide what is to be done here. The first thing that is going to happen is that Merrill is going to destroy the mirror shard, now, tonight."
"Lhaine!" came her cry of protest, quickly silenced when he looked at her.
"The second thing that is going to happen is that Merrill and I will go up Sundermount. She will show me where her demon friend is laired, summon it up, and then she and I will kill it. After that is done, we will discuss Merrill's status in the clan."
Zevran was appalled. This was becoming less and less the pleasure journey to a family reunion and more and more business as usual. First the raiders, now a pride demon? And Lhaine mentioned darkspawn. He'll be hunting those as well, it is certain! Basta!
Lhaine was continuing, with a firm surety that could not be questioned. "Merrill, we'll do this outside the camp. Master Ilen, would you please bring me Starfang? That's the blue sword." The craftmaster hastened off to his aravel, and Lhaine turned his attention back to the First. "I don't know what spells you've learned since I've been gone. Fire is always best for things that are Tainted, though this isn't now. Do you have any fire spells?"
"No, Lhaine. I do elemental spells, mostly. Lightning and earth." She was weeping again, quietly, tears pouring down her gamine face. Zevran almost felt sorry for her, despite her foolishness.
"Then those will have to serve." Master Ilen was returning with Lhaine's whole sword harness and both swords.
"I did not wish to draw it, hahren."
Lhaine shrugged the harness on. "I have no problem with you handling my blades, Master Ilen, but thank you." He took Merrill's elbow, gently but firmly. "Come, Merrill, let's get this done."
It was an odd procession that filed out of the camp, under the diffuse moonlight that percolated through Sundermount's almost perpetual cloud cover. Two elves in what looked like night clothes, armed with sword and staff (Marethari had had Merrill's staff brought to her), followed by a procession of other armed elves, some in their night clothes, others fully dressed. The two men standing guard at Aldwyn's camp were undoubtedly amused. Or bemused, more like.
Lhaine led them to one of the rock outcroppings at the head of the trail, well away from both the Dalish and shemlen camps. A large, flat rock was there, almost altar-like, a remnant of what looked to be very ancient ruins. There was a break in the clouds and moonlight poured down upon it. Lhaine laid the shard down upon the stone, and spoke some words in Dalish.
"Mythal. Tu elvhen reth." At just that moment, the moonlight intensified, seeming to cast a glow upon his pale hair and clothes. A murmur came from the watchers.
Then Starfang and Topsider were drawn and lashed out simultaneously, the movement almost too quick to be seen, the flats of the blades impacting with the shard. There were was a loud cracking sound, much louder than a regular piece of glass of that size would have made. Merrill bit her knuckle, stifling a cry. A smell of ozone filled the air.
"Now, Merrill." There was no denying the command in that voice, but Merrill looked as if she'd like to for a moment, her gentle expression actually rebellious. Then lightning lashed out from her staff, crackling over the pieces of glass on the stone.
"Again. Keep it coming." The First obediently threw stone and lightning alternately at the pieces of the shard, until they were crumbled almost to dust and fused by the heat of the lightning to the stone itself, a scatter of silvery speckles across grey rock.
Fire lashed across the rock then, from Marethari's hands, and was repeated several more times.
"It is my duty to help as well, hahren," she said in answer to Lhaine's inquiring look. "Since she is my First and I could not dissuade her. What is to be done now?"
Lhaine looked over at Merrill, who stood despondently, her staff lax in her hand, oblivious to the stares of those about her.
"I think it best if she not sleep again until the demon is killed. The quicker this is done, the better."
"That was true, what you said to Merrill of the demons you've faced. You do indeed have knowledge of these things."
"More than I wish I had, Keeper."
"What may we do to help?"
Get some of your hunters off their asses to go with us, Zevran was thinking, but Lhaine's wishes were much more modest. "I'd really like some breakfast before we go. Wardens learn to substitute food for sleep."
Marethari nodded. "Mages work better on a full stomach as well. Let us see if we can coax Merrill to eat something."
Zevran found it all very surreal, the way the Dalish all returned to camp and set about cooking an early breakfast as if nothing extraordinary was going to happen. But that didn't keep him from getting his own helping of hot, honeyed porridge and seating himself on a log beside Lhaine. He was not particularly hungry, but at the very least, the heat of the bowl helped to keep his hands warm in the damp chill of the early morning mountain air.
"I do not think this is what Alistair had in mind when he sent you to bring your clan back, Lhaine," he remarked after eating a couple of mouthfuls of porridge. "Not that I was privy to the discussions between the two of you on the matter, of course. But I'm betting that killing very ancient pride demons didn't come up at all."
Though his eyes were shadowed and bruised-looking, Lhaine's smile was genuine enough. "You would be right about that, Zev. But this needs to be done. Merrill and Tamlen and I-we were very close when we were growing up. I know that he'd want me to help her."
"Are you going to tell Captain Aldwyn about this?"
"Of course not. His men are good, but I don't think they're up to facing a demon."
"I will point out that you don't have your usual back-up. Not Sten, nor Oghren, nor Alistair nor Daveth. Not even Dagger, for that matter. Which requires that I armor up and go with you."
"You don't have to do that, Zev. That's a bit above and beyond the call of duty."
"Not when there is a life-debt between us, my friend. Which you might keep in mind the next time you get one of these hare-brained ideas of yours when it's just the two of us traveling."
Lhaine set his spoon in his bowl and his bowl on his knee. His free arm slipped about Zevran's shoulders, pulling him close. "I will try in future to do just that. But in the meantime, thank you."
And because it was Lhaine, oddly enough that was more than enough reward for going to what was most likely a gruesome death beneath a pride demon's warty feet.
Oh how far the Crow has fallen, reflected Zevran, before he smiled and hugged Lhaine back.
I've been pretty remiss in putting translations down for the Dalish. I'll try to do better in future.
Mythal. Tu elvhen reth is my feeble attempt at invoking Mythal's protection. According to the Wiki, tu is "to make or cause", elvhen is of course The People or elves and
reth is "safety". "Make or keep the people safe" is what I was trying for.