The Journey Forth
"Denerim?" Aveline frowned. "I don't think that's a good idea, Hawke."
Sara raised an eyebrow at her old friend, who explained:
"The templars are going to be looking for you – strolling into the middle of Denerim is hardly inconspicuous. Walking into the king's court is even less so…"
"Nobody in Denerim knows what I look like," Hawke muttered, dismissively.
"What if some of the templars from Kirkwall travelled here?" the guardswoman persisted. "Or what if they gave your description to the Knight-Commander? This is dangerous, Hawke."
"I know…" she admitted, with a sigh. "But I don't really have much choice, do I? I can't say no to the king."
"I suppose not…"
Aveline's face was wrinkled up in that disapproving frown she so often wore, but evidently, she had decided to put the matter to rest, because she spoke no more of it. Instead, the two of them wandered out across the courtyard towards the north gate in pensive silence, as Hawke became aware of the sun dipping lower in the sky, signalling the day's descent into night…
"We shouldn't be gone more than a day or two," Sara announced, breaking the silence after a minute or two, "but just in case… I want you to look after the others while I'm gone."
"Look after them?" Aveline scowled. "I think they can look after themselves, Hawke…"
"Perhaps. All the same, I'd feel better knowing you were in charge. Carver's in his element, he's one of them" – she jerked her head at a passing Warden to make her point – "but the others are shaken up, even if they won't admit it. Even if they don't realise it. I want you to keep Varric and Merrill safe, and I want you to keep Isabela out of trouble."
"I think that last one's a little beyond me," her friend laughed, mirthlessly, "but I'll do my best…"
"You always do. Now, I suppose I should get moving. Don't want to tick off the Warden-Commander…"
"No, you really don't," Aveline murmured, half joking, and half… not.
"You're in charge of the keep while I'm gone, Nathaniel."
"Alright. I'll try to make sure it's still standing when you get back from the ball…"
"This is serious," the Warden-Commander frowned, and secretly, he couldn't believe he was the one saying that, for once.
"Maker, you're actually worried, aren't you?" Nathaniel murmured, scrutinising his commander's face. He paused a moment, then added, with a hint of sarcasm: "That's new."
"Alistair wouldn't send me an urgent summons just to come to some court occasion…" Tyran sighed. "But the templar situation's getting worse, and if, as I suspect, he wants to discuss it with me… then it means he's as worried as I am."
"So if Alistair's worried, we're all in trouble…"
"What about the girl? Hawke?" his second frowned, checking over his shoulder to make sure 'the girl' wasn't approaching. "What do you think he wants with her?"
"I honestly don't know. Maybe he wants to issue an ultimatum. Maybe he just wants to ask about Kirkwall. I can never tell these days…"
"If things are so grim," Nathaniel muttered, "should the two of you really be going alone? I'd feel more comfortable if I was accompanying you, and Varel can hold the fort here."
"I did consider bringing a guard…" Tyran replied, uneasily, "but it would just slow us down, make us more conspicuous."
"You're right, you're right… and you can handle yourself. I'm more worried for her. You realise she's a wanted woman?"
"Only in the Free Marches," the Warden-Commander rumbled.
"For now," Nathaniel retorted.
"The templars are getting bolder, I'll grant you, but they're not that bold yet. Still…"
As the commander trailed off in thought, his second straightened up slightly, waiting on his words.
"Our business should be concluded in the course of tomorrow," Tyran continued, after a while. "I don't expect the templars to try anything, but if we haven't returned two nights from now, bring a company of Wardens to Denerim. If you find no trace of us there, travel on to Highever – we'll take refuge with my brother should the worst happen and the road back to Amaranthine be blocked."
Nathaniel didn't get chance to reply – he nodded in understanding, and opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, he was cut off by the clatter of metal boots on the path behind them.
"Ready to go, Warden-Commander?" Sara called, as she strode through the open gates.
"Ready when you are," Tyran replied, with an affected air of gruff disapproval. "You took long enough…"
"I was saying goodbye to my friends," she replied, coolly. "I appreciate you giving me the chance to, this time…"
Nathaniel looked from one to the other, as awkward silence filled the air, and Sara Hawke closed the distance to join them.
"I'll… leave you to it," he murmured.
"You do that," Hawke scowled, as he made off towards the inner gate.
There was a moment's pause, and she turned back to the Warden-Commander - he met her with a raised eyebrow and crossed arms, as she challenged him with a smirk and a stare.
"Think what you will of me," Tyran rumbled, finally, "but don't take your frustrations out on my men."
"Or what? You'll exile me too?"
"Don't be ridiculous… do you have all you need?"
"My armour and my staff," she shrugged. "What else would I need?"
"Food, water, tinder?" he muttered, wryly.
"How long are you planning to ride for?" Hawke frowned.
"Long enough that we should be prepared. Can you ride, Hawke? We'll move faster on two horses than one weighed down by the both of us."
"It's… been a while," the mage admitted.
The Warden-Commander just smirked a little at her, and nodded towards one of the horses tethered by the gatehouse.
"I'll give you a hand up."
She shuffled over, awkwardly, and the commander knelt down, holding out one armoured glove. Sara planted her boot in it, and paused as if waiting for the other hand - to her apparent surprise, however, he hoisted her into the air with one only, and held her there until she swung her other leg across the horse's back. The beast shuddered a little, and stamped its feet, but a few shushing noises from the Warden-Commander settled it, allowing Sara to slide her feet into the stirrups.
"Hey…" Hawke murmured, noticing something for the first time. "What's this tied to my saddle? Food?"
"Finery," he smirked. "The king summoned us to court, 'my lady'. And that armour is hardly what you'd call discrete."
"You're not serious…"
"I'm afraid I am," the Warden-Commander muttered, mounting his own horse with ease. Slipping his armoured boots into the stirrups, he added: "If we ride hard, we should be through the Wending Wood and on to the outskirts of Denerim by nightfall."
"The Wending Wood? Great…"
"Oh, it's not so bad. Not since we cleared the sylvans out."
A clatter of hooves on the road out of Vigil's Keep was Nathaniel's only indication that the Warden-Commander and Hawke had gone on their way. He just ignored it, and continued on his patrol around the keep - between his duties as arl and his loyalties to the king, Tyran disappeared often enough to make it regular, leaving Varel or Nathaniel himself in charge of the Vigil. It was just... normal now, even though the nature of his departure was a little more urgent than usual.
What wasn't normal, however, was the chink of metal on the practice range. The guard weren't running archery drills today, so who was?
He rounded the corner onto the range with no small amount of curiosity, to see one of Hawke's companions by the furthest target. The Rivaini… what was her name? Isadora? No, Isabela! Maker, that could have been awkward. As he approached, she yanked a pair of daggers out of the target, gave them a quick twirl, and walked away… then spun on her heel and sent one of them spinning back at the board, burying it with a little thud.
"You should keep your arm straight on the release," Nathaniel called. "It'll fly straighter."
"I'm sure that's good advice when you're slinging arrows at someone," she retorted, casually flipping the other dagger between her fingers. "But me? I prefer a flourish."
"Suit yourself…" he shrugged. "I'm just trying to give you some advice."
"Well, thank you. If I ever want a lesson in how to look stoic and broody, I'll be sure to come and talk to you."
A small, awkward silence.
"You're not too friendly, are you?" Nathaniel frowned.
"Not to noblemen, no…"
"It's the voice."
"Huh… you realise Tyran's a nobleman too? In fact, he's far more noble than I am."
The Rivaini just shot him a sideways look, and raised an eyebrow.
"That… came out wrong," he muttered.
"You didn't answer my question."
"You didn't ask a question."
"Why do you trust him? For that matter, why does he trust you?"
"We're kindred spirits," Isabela smirked, twirling her other dagger absent-mindedly before slinging that one at the target too, skewering it.
"A pirate and a nobleman?"
"A pirate and a Grey Warden. Your commander might be a landlubber, but he knows the value of an open ocean's opportunity," she muttered, pacing over to the practice dummy before leaning over, grinning a little, and adding: "… and a firm hand on the rudder."
"Oh, Maker…" Nathaniel groaned. "You didn't?"
"We did…" the pirate smiled, in a sing-song voice.
The Warden just sighed, and buried his face in one palm.
"What?" the Rivaini scowled. "You don't like the image? I'm almost insulted…"
"I'm just remembering how close that man came to marrying my sister."
"Ooh. Sounds kinky."
"Sounds like my sister, so kindly shut your trap."
"Your wish is my command," Isabela purred. As she did, she turned on her heel, shut one eye to peer down at the target, and pulled her blade back behind her head.
The travellers had long since gone forth as the sun dipped down towards the horizon, but Varric maintained his vigil nonetheless. The turret he was currently occupying had a fine view. On one side, the road north, with the Wending Wood sprawling out for some way and the lights of Amaranthine just barely visible on the horizon. On the other, an ocean vista which still turned his stomach, and thus was best avoided.
He looked up with a grunt, as a barely familiar voice echoed up from the stairwell beneath him.
"Mister Tethras?" the voice called again, clearer this time.
A round face appeared over the top of the staircase as he turned around, complete with dark tattoos and cheery smile.
"Are you alright up here?" the dwarf Warden asked. "Your friend was worried about you."
"Which friend?" he muttered, absent-mindedly.
"The tall one."
"They're all tall."
"Okay, the bossy one."
"They're all bossy," he grinned. "Were they a man or a woman?"
"A woman… I think."
"Ah. Aveline. Well, nice to know she cares… tell her we're fine."
"We?" the Warden frowned.
"Me and Bianca," he half-explained, turning back to the forest vista.
"Who's Bianca?" she asked, joining him at the ramparts - and standing on tip-toes to peer over them into the courtyard below, he noticed.
"This, my girl, is Bianca… my girl," Varric grinned, patting the crossbow propped up against the wall beside him.
"It's… a crossbow."
"She's a crossbow. Important distinction."
"Does it- does Bianca make for good conversation?" the Warden smirked, clearly teasing him now.
"No, not really…" he sighed. "But she sings quite beautifully, given the chance…"
"… you're a bit weird."
"You're a Legionnaire, so I'd say you're not one to talk."
The Warden started a little in surprise at that, and leant back from the wall, turning to stare at him.
"How did you…?"
Varric just gestured to his own face, wordlessly.
"Oh. Right…" she nodded, rubbing the serpentine tattoo on her cheek absent-mindedly.
"What's your name?" Varric muttered, glancing sideways at her.
"Sigrun," the girl replied, shortly.
"I'm guessing you're not with the guard…" he continued, turning to lean sideways on the wall with his arms folded, "so how does a girl from the Legion end up a Grey Warden?"
"The same way she ends up a Legionnaire. She gets a second chance."
"Ooh, cryptic… is that a job requirement these days? With a dash of mystery on the side?"
"You should meet Oghren when he gets back," Sigrun chuckled. "The only thing mysterious about him is the smell…"
Varric couldn't help but laugh a little at that, whoever Oghren was. As he turned back to the wall, however, the Warden showed no signs of leaving - instead, she slumped down at the base of the ramparts, toying idly with her bootstrap and peering at Bianca for a moment or two.
"So, how does a surfacer end up a wanted man?" she asked, echoing his own question with a little smirk.
"He goes into business," Varric grinned.
"And he ends up with the Champion of Kirkwall…?"
"By recognising a good investment when he sees it."
"That 'investment' put you on the run from templars," Sigrun pointed out.
"And? I'm a member of the Merchants' Guild. I've been on the run from the Carta, the Coterie and the other families for most of my life. Besides which, that woman got me out of the whole mess alive, and that wasn't exactly guaranteed."
"Yeah, well… if I'd had chance, I would have made him a partner too…"
Sigrun just laughed at that, and stood up, pushing off from the wall with her curiosity satisfied for the time being.
"Do you need anything?" she asked casually, making for the stairs. "Food, water…?"
"I wouldn't say no to an ale," Varric muttered. "You know, for Bianca."
"Of course…" the Warden grinned. "For Bianca."
With a clatter of boots on stone, Sigrun set off down the stairs without another word. Varric just turned back to his vigil, patting Bianca fondly with a free hand and setting his eyes back to the glimmer of Amaranthine, off on the horizon. On any other day, he would have been happy to chatter all day with the Legionnaire, maybe extract a good story, or spin one in his customary manner. Today, however, there was an odd sensation in the pit of his gut, a sense of foreboding that he had long ago learnt to trust. Hawke and the Warden-Commander did indeed make a fine pair, and as a veteran of the chaos that followed Hawke from day to day, that thought terrified him.