Author's note: This chapter contains the broad strokes of the plot of Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening, so beware of spoilers.
The Blight Companions, as Leliana's many ballads and poems termed them, did not last long as a cohesive group once their raison d'etre had ceased to be. The Sten boarded his ship that very night, bound for the tropical Northern island-nation of Seheron, from whence he'd come. Shale and First Enchanter Irving decamped not long after, bound for Kinlock Hold and whatever arcane secrets might lead to her shedding stone and reclaiming flesh. Zevran, Oghren, and Leliana remained stationed in the capitol, but in far different capacities than they'd served during their year of wandering at Athadra's behest. The assassin and the bard both fell into more familiar roles of subterfuge and stealth on the king's behalf, while the dwarf strained under the weight of leading units of men.
The months following Alistair's coronation saw some measure of order return to Ferelden, though it was something of a compromise between the time before the Blight and that of the Blight itself; much of the bannorn returned to their traditional bickering, while large bands of darkspawn still roved, especially through the South and the Northeast, where a significant splinter of the Archdemon's horde had fled to. Strangely, activity seemed greatest around the arling and port city of Amaranthine itself, where Athadra set to work rebuilding the Fereldan Grey Wardens. For her part, the Commander took out her grief for losing Garahel and Morrigan by slaughtering dozens of the fiends every day. She had a handful of seasoned Orlesian Wardens to advise her in her capacity as Commander of the Grey, as well as some Ander administrators with strong ties to the Order in Weisshaupt which helped her to govern Amaranthine. The foreign Wardens did not seem troubled by the stubbornness of the darkspawn which remained, counseling that the monsters would likely raid for years to come in smaller and smaller groups, during what the Wardens had come to call the Thaw.
Thus, at least for a time, good will for Athadra's warriors remained high. Avernus elected to remain at Soldier's Peak in solitude, the better to continue his research. That was where the Commander stored the bulk of the Archdemon's blood, collected diligently under Alistair's direction during her convalescence-a few conversations with Riordan over the course of the headlong march to Denerim convinced them of the need, and though they did not reveal the reason why, Arl Eamon gladly helped his saviors in their endeavor. Over time, representatives from the differing Grey Warden orders throughout Thedas came to replenish their stores, and Athadra was content to let the lion's share of it drain away. She and Avernus worked together in secret on what blood remained, eventually purifying and offsetting it in a manner similar to the alchemist's original research on Warden blood. Athadra absorbed as much of the concentrated taint into her veins as Avernus thought wise, and over the course of weeks they crafted a version of the Joining ritual which would use her own lifeblood in lieu of the tainted god's. That way, she did not have to jealously conserve her store of Archdemon blood for future generations.
After three months of proceeding in this manner, her time split between governing an arling, killing darkspawn with her Orlesian comrades, and deepening her understanding of tainted blood, Athadra felt she could put off recruitment no longer. If the Grey Wardens were to maintain their presence in Ferelden, she would need to populate her ranks with Fereldans...and that meant testing her and Avernus' concoction upon a civilian. Friga, still Connor's private tutor, was nevertheless adamant that she wished to become a Grey Warden in fact as well as in name, and so Athadra chose the Avvar mage for the first trial-run of the concoction. It worked better than the Commander could have hoped, and Friga returned to Redcliffe with Athadra's blood mingled with her own.
Not long after, the Commander went to Denerim on a true scouting mission. Stroud, her Orlesian second-in-command, returned to Jader in Orlais to make a formal report on the Order's progress in Ferelden; the Warden Kristoff took it upon himself to investigate some strange darkspawn activity in Amaranthine's reputedly-haunted Blackmarsh while the Commander was away. Thus the two men were spared when, just before Athadra's return to the fortress of Vigil's Keep where she'd made her headquarters, a highly-organized group of darkspawn attacked and massacred or kidnapped the six Orlesian Wardens who'd remained.
Athadra's visit to Denerim was profitable enough; Alistair had called a tourney, from which the Commander selected the two most promising fighters-an accomplished female knight named Mhairi, who seemed even more idealistic about the Grey Wardens than Alistair had been, as well as a man Athadra suspected of being her lover, called Rowland. Halfway back up the road to Amaranthine, the trio were also joined by Oghren, who'd chafed too long amongst the human lords and generals and wanted to recommit his life to slaying darkspawn once more. He did not offer any information about Felsi's thoughts on the matter, but neither did the Commander ask.
When the small party arrived to find the Vigil under siege from within, both Athadra and Oghren took to battle eagerly, reliving their former glories with sword and axe and tainted blood. The two humans did not fare quite so well; Rowland, while possessed of decent skill upon a well-governed melee ground, had obviously never faced an opponent determined to kill him. He became grievously injured, beyond Athadra's ability to heal; instead, the Commander shattered Mhairi's illusions of Grey Warden nobility when she opened the man's throat herself. Not long after, they picked up a jaunty apostate mage who called himself Anders, and who'd almost certainly murdered his templar gaolers mere moments before the Commander and her companions followed the darkspawn into the Vigil's brig. He tried to blame the tin-tops' deaths on the tainted monsters, but Athadra gave him the credit anyway, and bid the man follow her at least until her home had been secured.
After hours of fighting, Athadra reached the very top of Vigil's Keep, where a group of darkspawn held the Fereldan seneschal, Varel, hostage. The Commander managed to save him, but not before one of the darkspawn shocked them all by talking. Its words were simple, not much more sophisticated than those of an older child, but it could clearly reason and seemed to be working on someone's-or something's-orders. After she slew the fiend, Athadra worried that her bargain with Morrigan had already turned sour...but over the coming days, the Commander learnt of something far more sinister than the vanished witch's magic rite.
An intelligent darkspawn who styled himself the Architect had spent years working in the Deep Roads amongst his brethren, tirelessly attempting to free them from the irresistible call of the Old Gods and the worst effects of their own corruption. From what she could piece together later, Athadra surmised that the Architect had come up with something fairly similar to Avernus' innovation-taking blood from Grey Wardens in a ritual not unlike the Joining appeared to awaken some nascent consciousness in the darkspawn, almost like the Lady of the Forest had worked on her beloved werewolves. The Architect even claimed responsibility for finding and tainting the Old God Urthemiel, and thus triggering the Fifth Blight. At some point, the Architect had also awakened a human broodmother, who bore clutches of darkspawn already-awakened as well. The monster's circumstance had driven her mad, however, and she rebelled against the Architect's plan to bring accord between darkspawn and the other races of Thedas.
In this way, Athadra found herself being played like a pawn in something of a civil war between the two factions of darkspawn, led respectively by the Architect and the Mother. Along the way, she recruited Anders and eventually helped him kill a squadron of templars sent to execute him despite his status as a Grey Warden. That earned the Commander his loyalty, at least for a time. Also in the weeks which followed retaking Vigil's Keep from the Architect's forces, Athadra replaced the Orlesians who'd perished or been abducted. Unfortunately for Mhairi, the amended Joining ritual cooked up by Athadra and Avernus proved at least occasionally fatal, despite the recruit's aspirations.
Luckily, however, Athadra managed to spread her blood several more times with greater success. Aside from Anders and Oghren, the Commander recruited another dwarf, a casteless woman called Sigrun who'd survived in a detachment of the Legion of the Dead; a Dalish mage who styled herself Velanna; and, perhaps strangest of all, Nathaniel Howe-the second son of Rendon Howe himself, and the dispossessed heir of the arling of Amaranthine. The man had nearly bested four of the Orlesian Wardens on the eve of the darkspawn assault at the Vigil; that, along with his skills with a bow and unlocking doors, told Athadra that she should either kill him or keep him under her watchful eye. Owing to the desperate circumstances thrust upon her, the Commander sided against executing the rogue. Nathaniel had also been a squire in the Free Marches for years before the Blight, and so had been ignorant of all of his father's machinations-when he rediscovered his long-lost sister, Delilah, in the city of Amaranthine, the newly-minted Grey Warden calmed significantly and Athadra rested a bit more easily. She still slept with a shanker under her pillow, but at least she could close both eyes from then on.
When the Commander's investigation of the Architect and the Mother brought her to the Blackmarsh, she even regained Kristoff, after a fashion. The man had been killed, but one of the Mother's disciples lay in wait for Athadra's party, and used powerful magic to send them all into the Fade. Oghren nearly lost his mind at first, but eventually Athadra and Anders guided Oghren and Nathaniel through the land of dreams. When they emerged from the Fade, a spirit embodying the human virtue of justice was pulled through the Veil with them, latching onto the relatively-fresh corpse. Thereafter, Justice followed the Grey Wardens as they came to grips with the struggle between the Mother and the Architect. The spirit did not truly want to be there, in a rotting body with a stranger's memories, but it used Kristoff's skills to slaughter many darkspawn to avenge the slain Warden's murder. Anders also grew closer to the spirit, and occasionally Athadra caught them conversing about the unjust plight of mages in Ferelden and most of Thedas more generally. Alistair's promised committee had yet to materialize, despite the king's honest efforts; he had his own troubles to contend with, presiding over the great-great-grandchildren of Alamarri barbarians who never seemed to forget their disputatious heritage.
Autumn came and went while the Grey Wardens sought to clarify their position regarding the conflict between the two different factions of darkspawn. In that time, along with the recruits Athadra gathered, Stroud returned with three more Orlesian Wardens to help bolster Amaranthine's defences. Under threat from the holdover of the Blight, the Commander allowed human politics to largely devolve to Varel, who'd dealt with many of the banns under Amaranthine's jurisdiction for a number of years during the last Arl Howe's tenure. Nevertheless, Howe had cultivated allies amongst his underlings, and on more than one occasion Athadra had to involve herself in their machinations-at one point, foiling an assassination attempt by the Antivan Crows, who'd been duped into the contract without realizing that the Arlessa of Amaranthine and the Commander of the Grey were one in the same. Shortly thereafter, Athadra had to defuse a half-baked 'revolution' of peasants against her rule. The Commander managed to scare the peasants into going back home, only to be confronted by Bann Esmerelle of Amaranthine City and a group of conspirators against the Grey Wardens' rule. Another Crow very nearly killed the Commander, but Varel took the arrow in his forearm instead. Athadra took the bann alive, and that's how she was hung by her ankles, naked, from the front gate of the Vigil.
As snow gripped even the Northern coastline of Ferelden, the two warring tribes of sentient darkspawn brought their conflict to a bloody resolution. Over the past few years, the Mother had bred herself a vast army, and she looked to use those numbers to force Athadra's hand against the elusive Architect. When the Commander refused the mad broodmother's envoy, the Mother launched a two-pronged assault upon Vigil's Keep and the port city of Amaranthine itself, and Athadra had to choose which her Wardens would defend. Still feeling resentful over Esmerelle's bad faith, the Commander let the city burn to the ground. Velanna disappeared in the battle for the Vigil, while Varel and two of the Orlesians lost their lives and Kristoff's body was destroyed. Stroud himself nearly died, but Anders' healing skills were a match even for Friga, and the mage was able to pull the Orlesian back from the brink of death. The Mother's army broke and fled from the battlefield. Not long after, Athadra led her Wardens to raid the Mother's lair and end the threat she posed, once and for all. Along the way, the Commander made something of an alliance with the Architect, agreeing to occasionally supply him with Grey Warden blood in exchange for his promise never to kidnap any more of her troops. Stroud and Oghren both registered their objections to the arrangement, but after the Mother's bloated corpse lay cooling in its cave, the Commander convinced her subordinates that she would deal with the Architect eventually.
By Wintersend, it became clear that King Alistair's experiment in letting the Grey Wardens rule Amaranthine was a failure. In truth he had doomed it from the start, the moment he'd taken Arl Howe's life; that, coupled with Athadra's mistakes, had set much of the arling's nobility against her. The decision to sacrifice the valuable trading centre of Amaranthine City in place of the landlocked fortress of Vigil's Keep was enough to turn the populace against the Commander as well-rumours abounded that it was her presence which had caused the darkspawn to concentrate in the arling, while much of the rest of the country was already well on the way to recovering from the Blight. Athadra could not even be certain that the rumours were false. Thus, in the springtime of 9:32 Dragon, the Commander of the Grey conceded her title and claim on Amaranthine back to the crown. At her and Nathaniel's recommendation, Alistair granted Delilah Howe the title of arlessa, while the Wardens relocated to Denerim for a time.
The First Warden communicated his regrets that the Commander could not hold onto the territory, and requested that Athadra voyage to Weisshaupt in person to give an accounting of the months spent there, as well as the phenomenon of the Architect and its conflict with the Mother. Before setting off on this journey, however, Athadra took advantage of her closer proximity to both King Alistair and Arl Eamon. The older man had remained in the capitol as an advisor to the king, letting his brother rule in his stead; since Connor was Eamon's only other heir, and could not inherit by the curse of magic, Teagan was very likely to become the next Arl of Redcliffe officially. Yet the Commander still enjoyed great popularity within the village and surrounding countryside, and answered to 'Champion' as easily as to her Grey Warden title. Just before she departed to the Anderfels, Athadra enlisted Leliana's aid in planting the seed of an alternative in Arl Eamon's thoughts-the tantalizing possibility that Connor might one day inherit the arl's lands after all, and possibly even a higher title than his father had.
For in truth, the political realities in Ferelden had been indelibly altered by the Blight and the concurrent civil war. After Calenhad had united the myriad of teyrnirs, the ancient king had divided the nation into two: the Teyrnir of Highever, whose capitol lay on the Northern Waking Sea, and the Teyrnir of Gwaren, based out of a village on the country's Southeastern coast. Thus power had traditionally been divided along an axis, running Northeast from Denerim to Honnleath in the Southwest. Yet now the Southern and Western parts of the country both lay in ruins, whereas the North and East, save for Denerim itself and Amaranthine, had largely been spared the great scourge of the Blight. Now that the business between the Architect and the Mother had been dealt with, the Thaw's greatest threats still lay in the Hinterlands and the Western shore of Lake Calenhad.
Taking that in mind, Leliana slowly coaxed Arl Eamon and King Alistair into thinking they'd come up with Athadra's idea themselves. In short, while Athadra was away in Weisshaupt attending to Grey Warden matters, Alistair busied himself with realigning the political framework of Ferelden. A Landsmeet was called which lasted for two whole months, but by the end of it, he'd gotten Anora to agree to give up her title of Teyrna of Gwaren-and at a stroke, he abolished the domain, creating the Teyrnir of Redcliffe in its stead. Ferelden still had one king and two teyrns, like Calenhad had designed; now, however, the country's main political axis ran from Gwaren to Lothering, and from there to Kinloch Hold. All of the banns and arls to the West owed fealty to Redcliffe, while all those East were pledged to Highever. For his part, the newly-made Teyrn Eamon passed a decree in which the Commander of the Grey would inherit his lands and titles upon Eamon's death or renunciation. The Grey Wardens would be stationed where Ferelden's need was most dire, and they would see the land recovered from the worst ravages of the Blight. Not far from the old man's mind was the insinuation, passed through Leliana, that Connor might well succeed Athadra as Commander of the Grey if the boy decided to take up the griffon emblem once he came of age to take the Joining.
While absent in far-away Weisshaupt, Athadra's attentions were not entirely devoted to Fereldan intrigue. She'd left Oghren to command in her stead, and she'd sent Stroud to scout out the possibility of establishing an outpost in the Southern Free Marches. Though he tried to keep it a secret, Athadra also knew that Anders had let Justice take up residence within him-after Kristoff's corpse had become unusable, the mage did not want his friend to have to steal another, or to resort to possessing someone against their will. The Commander was further aware that the Chantry sought to discredit the Grey Wardens in Ferelden, since King Alistair had also managed to establish his promised committee to investigate the Fereldan Circle. Thus it was not entirely a coincidence when Oghren, under secret instruction, allowed a group of ill-disguised templars to partake in the Joining ritual. It was certainly not a coincidence when those templars attempted to murder Anders for being an abomination, and instead died for their trouble; Athadra was not surprised, either, when she heard from Stroud that the renegade mage had sought refuge from Ferelden's templars in Kirkwall of all places. The city should have been an odd choice for Anders-it was the largest of the Southern Free Marches, second perhaps only to Starkhaven to its North, and it held the greatest concentration of templars anywhere outside of Orlais. Yet Athadra sought to reverse the fortunes both of the Grey Wardens and the templar order in Kirkwall, even if the project took years; Anders would have his part to play in that, even if he was officially estranged from the Wardens.
After six months in the Anderfels, where she not only traded war stories and forged friendships with the First Warden and his lieutenants, but deepened her skills at diplomacy and proved her valour in the country's perennially-darkspawn-infested Blight Lands, Athadra could no longer resist the call of duty and of her homeland. She had not forgotten her vow to Shale, to hunt for Morrigan even if it took the rest of her life, but her private passions could not overmatch the responsibilities of her hard-won station. Nevertheless, the Commander kept her eyes and ears open on her journey from Weisshaupt, through Nevarra and the Free Marches. She heard little more than rumour of a different Witch of the Wilds altogether, however, and by the time she reached Cumberland to take ship to Highever, Athadra contented herself with taking up the search another time. Of her family she'd also heard nothing, though she privately held out hope that they'd somehow found refuge from the darkspawn and the treachery of human lords. Yet when the Champion of Redcliffe arrived in the village she'd saved and then helped to elevate to a teyrnir, she found an unexpected surprise from her past waiting for her there, which proved enough to abate the melancholy of her solitude.
That tale will have its telling, along with many others touched by the Commander's schemes. Those stories all have their foundations here, in the chronicle of Athadra Surana. Born an elven mage in a world hostile to elves and magic, irreligious in a land all but ruled by priests, saddled with a curse in her blood, she refused to succumb to her fate. Tainted she may be, but she will never surrender.
Personal note: I want to thank everyone who's read this story, and especially those who've reviewed it. Special thanks goes to clafount for her tenacity in reviewing nearly every chapter, even as they were rapid-fire published on a daily basis, and to Wyolake who gave me my first encouraging review. It's certainly been an interesting journey writing this tome of 170K+ words, and while there are many tales more epic, I'm still proud to have finished and published it all. Until next time, then!
If you enjoyed this story but want something a little different, I recommend Middle of Nowhere by Wyolake. It's a fascinating journal-style AU where a modern man gets sucked into the DA 'verse Life On Mars-style, and has to figure out how to survive amidst the crazy. It's incredibly detailed and long, but very easy (and fun!) to read.
If you're looking to get in 'on the ground floor' of an excellent walkthrough, you should check out Poison and Wine by clafount. It follows a brilliant Cousland who's a less-than-stellar fighter but must make the best of what fate has in store. It's really great already, and promises to get even better.
Lastly, if you enjoyed this story and want more, please check out my profile for the sequel! It's called Birds of Prey, and it's shaping up to be even more epic than Tainted. Thanks again!