For What Binds Us
Chapter Eleven: Beneath The Surface
In the daylight, the ravaging of the keep seemed less extensive. Without the shadows of nighttime casting all in a sinister light, and with the extensive efforts to clean the carnage that had been smeared throughout the keep, the cold stone had taken on some warmth, some life again. Many of the survivors now milled about freely, grateful for the release from their terror and for the sun on their faces. Others had trickled in from the roads, having been on their way either by request of the Warden-Commander or by virtue of interest in starting business in the new home of the Grey Wardens.
As Loghain stalked away from the gate that had been brutalized by the ogre the night before, having inspected the damage, ordered repairs, and signed paperwork to get the project started- he grumbled about the cost of the repairs, but reasoned that Evelyn would agree that fortifying the keep against further attack was more important than preserving their stores of sovereigns- he passed by some oddly familiar merchants setting up stalls. After a moment of staring, trying to recall where he'd seen the duo before (much to their obvious discomfort), he flashed on the name, "Wade's Emporium", and nodded his acknowledgement.
He turned to head back inside the main keep itself, only to stagger to avoid walking straight into the woman he was slowly dubbing in his head 'My Redheaded Shadow".
"There you are!" Siobhan exclaimed, her hands going to her hips in reprimand.
"And there I go, Arlessa; please excuse me." Loghain nodded to her, hoping that she wouldn't have the chance to rope him into whatever conversation she was clearly determined to have.
"Now wait a moment, Loghain!" Before he could escape her, her arms slid around his elbow, catching him and holding him fast. Mind you, he could have easily kept going and simply dragged the arlessa along behind him, but the propriety of such a thing was dubious at best.
He looked back to her, with every exasperation written in his expression. "Siobhan, I am once again plagued by duty. I have a host of projects that need to be addressed in a timely manner, particularly as we are expecting nobility to arrive within a day's time to greet their new 'Arlessa' in Evelyn. You know as well as I do that if we are not up to standard by then, such an affair will have disastrous consequences for Evelyn. I suspect you do not wish this for your friend, so can you. Please. Leave me to my job?"
Siobhan sighed, recognizing the truth of Loghain's words; if the keep weren't clean enough for the nobility of the region, they would condemn Evelyn and maneuver to claim the arling from under her. Such was the nature of politics, as both she and Loghain- who endured as a Teyrn in such a court for longer than she'd been alive- knew well.
"Yes, Loghain, I will do so." She brightened. "I only wished to let you know that I have received word from Gwaren."
"How unusual, to be contacted by your sister."
"Well, she's not normally so chatty, this is true." If Siobhan caught his sarcasm, she blatantly ignored it. "Normally, I know that this wouldn't interest you, but it does actually involve you this time."
"Even more remarkable; your sister has mentioned me in one of her letters to you."
"Oh, I know, right?" Her eyes glinted with mischief. "She does make a habit of harassing me about you when you aren't replying to her correspondence. Strange, isn't it?" She pulled out a parchment from the collar of her gown, surprising Loghain at where she'd stored it. "Anyway, she asks after Evelyn, having heard that she and Alistair were in Highever. Apparently, she's curious as to why I wasn't with them, and if they brought any word from Fergus."
"I can see how this is urgent to tell me, yes." Loghain crossed his arms, leaning to one foot impatiently.
"Yes, yes, I'm getting to it. Just be patient!" Siobhan scanned the letter, grinning. "Okay, alright. So, after inquiring after my health and wellbeing, the various would-be suitors in both of our lives, and if I remembered to take Mother's shield from Highever from my last visit, she asked after you again."
"I know, but this time, it was because I mentioned in my last letter to her that we were all on our way to Vigil's Keep. It seems that she has sent you several letters both about her business with your former Teyrnir as well as personal inquiries, wanting to keep in touch after your experiences together during the Blight."
At this, Loghain's eyes flickered, apprehensive. "I have received her letters, but as I assure you and everyone else in all of Thedas, I have been busy. There is much that falls to me, and taking time to write instructions to a woman who is fully capable of running a terynir on her own does not fall high on my list of priorities."
"I understand that, Loghain, and that's why I'm here!" She beamed broadly. "Since you don't have the time to do this, I'm going to help you! After all, I'm certain Rhia would just like some acknowledgement that you have, at least, received her letters. So, just tell me what you would like to have passed on to my dear sister, and I'll write it down for you!"
"I shudder to think what you might improvise in my name, Arlessa." Loghain growled.
"No improvisation, no creativity- she'd never believe me if I injected anything 'creative' into whatever I send in your name. I just want her to be happy and to relieve you of one of your many tasks." Siobhan pouted. "But I don't want to outright lie, so tell me what you want her to hear!"
Loghain rolled his gaze up to the sky, pleading internally for the Maker to spare him. Finally, he sighed, and shot Siobhan a stern look. "Very well. Tell her that I am well, that I appreciate her concern over my affairs, but that they are well under control. Tell her that Gwaren seems to be just fine under her guidance, that every report I've seen has shown major improvements, especially in recovery from the Blight. That I am glad that my Teyrnir is in her capable hands."
Siobhan's eyes nearly sparkled with her delight. "Do you really mean all of that?"
Loghain grunted. "Do you really believe I would lie? Your sister desires, as you put it, acknowledgement for her work. And what I said is the truth; she does an excellent job as Teyrna in my absence."
"She will be glad to hear so," Siobhan conceded with a shrug. "But don't you think she might want to hear something else from you? Something more... personal?"
"I do not believe your sister to seek sentiment over a practical assessment," Loghain replied with a raised eyebrow. "I've found that to be more your purview, speaking plainly. Now, unless you have more reason to pester me while I'm exceedingly busy...?"
"Ser, if you have a moment?" A woman who carried herself with discipline and serious intent approached Loghain, bowing faintly in respect. Glancing back up at a mildly irritated Siobhan, she straightened. "Oh, My Lady! I am sorry, I did not mean to interrupt."
Siobhan pouted, then broke into the dazzling smile the Couslands were so well known for. "You weren't interrupting. I was actually about to depart; so if you have business with Loghain, please, please let him know. In excruciating detail."
As Siobhan turned on her heel and glided off back towards the main hall of the Keep, Loghain sent her one last glower. Finally, he put his attention to the woman who had approached, recognizing her as Sergeant Maverlies on closer look.
"I, uh... I don't mean to alarm you, Ser, but it's possible there are still darkspawn in the Vigil." The woman caught the sharp look that crossed his features, and quickly explained, "You recall those explosions during the siege last night, no? Some of the deep cellars caved in. I suspect there may be pockets of darkspawn below, trapped."
"There may be pockets of darkspawn still within the grounds of the keep?" Loghain demanded, his full attention on the sergeant. Then, the deeper implication of her words struck him hard enough to force him a pace backwards. The attack from the night before... the only accounts they could get out of survivors was how the darkspawn seemed to come out of the very darkness, with no visible sign of entry. He glanced towards the broken gate; the ogre had broken it down from the inside.
He snapped his attention to the nearest guard, flagging him down immediately. "You! Gather the rest of the guards around the keep, and have them posted at every door that leads to a cellar in the keep, on my orders!"
The guard saluted."Y-yes, Ser! Any other instructions?"
"Just do it, and quickly!" Loghain turned back on a rather confused Maverlies, and scowled. "If they are trapped underneath us, it's only a matter of time before those bastards dig their way back to the surface- like they did last night!"
The day had passed rather peacefully for Oghren. Well, peacefully by the standards he was accustomed to. No one harassed him, no one nagged at him, he even got to sample many of the wines held in the specially crafted cellar. He scoffed at the wine rack- the selection was pitiful, fancy surfacer stuff brewed for a weak constitution. Still, it was cleaner, and tasted sweeter than he was used to. He couldn't get drunk off the stuff, but it'd do in a pinch.
After exploring the grounds, scandalizing the poor servants tending to the affairs of the keep with a leer or a cackle, he headed to check out the Pipsqueak's new office. She'd left the door unlocked, and she'd never expressly forbid him from going in, either. Besides, he was curious to see what all she'd had sent there. So, with a quick glance down the hallway, Oghren entered Evelyn's office.
Immediately, the orderliness of the room struck him. He grinned. "Well, of course Pipsqueak's personal room is clean as a whistle."
He didn't even bother looking at the books- he didn't need to examine the bookshelves to know that the lass was big on reading- and the lyrium displays reminded him too much of Orzammar to keep his interest long. What held his attention was the display of tokens, trinkets, and gifts sent to the Hero of Ferelden. Shiny, perhaps, but even more so, he couldn't remember a time he'd seen someone so celebrated by their people.
Even at his peak, Oghren had only seen a handful of ceremonies, maybe some decoration, and the honoring of his ancestors. Evelyn, on the other hand, had the gratitude of nobility and the lowest commoners alike. They'd sent her lockets, or coin, or heirlooms, and she very carefully and proudly displayed them. His eyes roamed over these gifts, sorrow seeping in underneath his pride for his new Commander.
"The tiny lass always did have a soft-spot for sentiment," he muttered to himself, his fingers brushing over an engraved necklace, a bracelet, a set of rings, before withdrawing. It was then that something glimmered in the corner of his eye.
Sitting on the shelf, right beside her literature on dwarven culture, was the bottle of ale he'd given her during their long march to Denerim. The lass had been out of her mind with terror at what awaited her, and he'd wanted to help her to calm down. She'd declined, at first.
"No, Oghren, I really can't," She'd insisted. "I have to keep my head clear."
"Yer goin' to bed for the evening, and I've seen how you try to sleep lately. Nothing's helping you. This'll knock you right out, and help you get plenty of rest!" He'd replied with a grin.
After a moment of regarding him uncertainly, she'd smirked. "And wake up with a massive headache and a churning stomach... but I suppose that is my default as of late, anyway. Very well; worth the risk, I say."
Her fingers had curled around the bottle, and he never asked for it back, preferring to see her have one bit of fun in the sea of frustration and demands being put on her. As he peered closer now, he realized that he hadn't thought twice about that brew, but she'd held onto it all this time. Empty, now. Whether she finished the bottle, or emptied it and simply held onto it, he couldn't tell.
Before he realized it, he was sniffing. Here, among the gifts and treasures, among her robes and armor, among her precious books, she counted his bottle as important enough to display. She stuck up for him time and again, even when the others mocked him, even when he mocked himself. She'd taught him the strength of his grip again around an axe, the backbone of a fighter (even if she fell short of being a warrior herself), brought him back to his feet and gave him a chance to be great again.
She'd even gone out of her way to help him find Felsi, the only girl he'd seen himself going for after Branka. She had encouraged him to find his own way, called him a friend. Was it really any surprise that when things slowed down far too much for his liking again, he went to the one person he knew could put him back in the front lines?
Damn this stupid surfacer air. It was too dry, making his eyes water. He gave one last long sniff, turning it into a snort, and glanced around the rest of the office. Now, though, a big chunk of the curiosity had waned, and he felt all the more like he'd been intruding. He hurried out of the room, closing the door behind him.
He'd have to find a way to show his appreciation to Evelyn that she'd let him join her Grey Wardens. After a few rounds of ale.
For just the moment, a brief moment, Evelyn was free.
Standing in front of the Chantry doors, the sun warming her face, the breeze tugging her curls to the west, her eyes closed as she basked in just this moment of freedom, she smiled. She wasn't the Warden-Commander of the skies, or the Grey Warden of the Chantry, or anything but herself. Evelyn Amell, former tower mage, was floating on this suspended moment, frozen in time. Her responsibilities waited for her when she landed, when she returned, but for now, she relived the joy she'd felt when Duncan had lead her from Kinloch Hold long over a year ago.
A gust of wind brought her back to the present, her feet sensing the ground beneath them, the weight of her bladed staff against her back and the armor draped around her. She sighed, still contented that for now, she had space. Her report to Anora had been well-received, and she'd even been lauded for her recruitment efforts. The news of her engagement had raised an eyebrow, but Anora hadn't disapproved of the match. Her only stipulation had been that Evelyn not let it distract her from her duties.
She descended down the staircase, watching the street below for any sign of her men. The city itself was bustling, wrapped in its own importance, with merchants just around the way calling out to passers-by about their wares. Chickens clucked, and when she reached the bottom of the staircase, she heard the distant meowing of a small cat. Glancing around, she realized she didn't have any idea where anything was in this city; she'd never been this far in before, only having skirted the place while passing by.
"Where would they have run off to?" She wondered, crossing her arms. She'd half-expected them to have been standing right outside the chantry, waiting for her. Alistair wasn't known for straying very far from her side, especially when he was upset with her. She smirked at the oddness of such behavior, but understood it perfectly; like herself, if there was an argument between them, he wanted to resolve it as soon as possible.
Nearby... what was nearby? Her eyes immediately fell on the sign pointing out the Crown and Lion inn, which was placed only yards from where she stood now. She nearly laughed at herself; what a perfect spot for the three men to wait for her. Not so far as to raise Alistair's anxiety about her, but a place equipped with drink and a place to sit. She strolled over; even if they weren't inside, it was as good a place to start as any.
The moment she set foot inside, however, she was greeted by a young man who'd been wandering near the entrance. He swayed a bit on his feet to recognize her, his eyes widening. "Heeey! Look! It's that woman who's the Hero of Ferelden!"
"No she's not!" His friend chimed in pessimistically. "She's too small. You're just too drunk to see properly!"
"Yes she is! L-lookit her, I done seen her when she was helpin' out me family in Denerim after the darkspawn left! Hello, Hero of Ferelden!" He waved hugely towards her.
She grinned, flattered but unnerved by the attention. Whatever perks there were to being well-known, they were far outweighed by having attention drawn to her all the more easily. "Ah- hello, Ser. Thank you. And there's no need to address me so formally; you can call me Evelyn."
"You hear that!?" The first man called to his friend. "She wants me to call her Evelyn! She's a good'un, jus' like I said!"
The commotion drew the attention of the trio of Grey Wardens gathered at the bar. While Alistair smiled faintly, unsure if she was still unhappy with him, Anders brightened and started towards her with a wave.
"Hey, Lynnie! So, is the queen still human? Does she have kitty ears yet?" He went to wrap her in a hug, but was immediately stopped by her hand to his chest, keeping him at arm's length with a sharp look.
"Anora yet retains her resplendent human shape, Anders. And she better not be sprouting any kitty ears, or you're going to have a lot to answer for." With that, she dropped her arm and proceeded towards Alistair and Nathaniel.
"That certainly did not take you very long at all," Nathaniel remarked, leaning back against the bar with a smirk. "Was there not much to report?"
"Oh, there was plenty." Evelyn grinned. "I'm just very good at being concise and well-organized."
Alistair shifted uncomfortably. "Evelyn, I... want to apologize for..."
Evelyn's gaze fell on him, and he found himself unable to finish even his apology at the sadness in her eyes. "Alistair, I'm not entirely sure you're apologizing for the right reasons. But this is not the place to have this discussion. We'll chat when we're back at Vigil's Keep."
"Yeah, Alistair, you need to learn some decorum!" Anders scolded, coming up beside Evelyn.
Darkness stirred the golden color of Alistair's eyes, and his jaw clenched as he fought to keep the deliberate provocation from working. Catching the mood shift, Evelyn glanced between both men, and maneuvered herself between them. She'd seen that look in Alistair's eyes before, and it hadn't ended well.
"Let's find something else to do in town. I am eager to see the rest of the city, to know what we will be residing nearby," she suggested amicably. "In fact, I would like to see the markets in particular; I'd like to replenish some supplies. What do you say, boys?"
"I say that you will likely find plenty to bargain with in the merchant square, and not all of it will be the wares you seek." Nathaniel shrugged. "I would recommend keeping an eye on your pouches."
"That's not a bad idea, Nathaniel. Thank you," Evelyn smiled to him sincerely. "Do you have any recommendations for places to visit while we're in town? You are, after all, much more familiar with the city than I am."
"I certainly am." He smirked. "I suppose that once we're done with the merchants, I might have a few suggestions in mind."
"Excellent! I think we are long overdue for some down time. I think we're a bit on edge, especially after the events of last night. So if any of you have suggestions for something fun to do, let me know. Today, it's on me!" Evelyn clapped her hands together, beaming. Despite her exhaustion, she genuinely looked forward to having a short tour of the city. She needed the break, the freedom to stroll through a city with no other obligations tying her to her post as Commander.
Unfortunately for her lofty ambitions for the afternoon, little did she know, her general was on his way to Amaranthine with dark tidings at his heels.