CONTENT WARNING: Please be aware that this story contains a number of disturbing themes, including major character death and suicide.
The Deep Roads
Somewhere, far above where Rhianna Cousland now sat, there was a chill in the air and snow on the ground. In cities and villages across Ferelden, little troupes of carolers went from house to house, with flickering candles held in their hands, to sing songs about Andraste and beg for pennies and holiday grog. Gifts were being given, and kisses shared beneath the mistletoe. Puppies raced around the table in search of scraps, and smiles and laughter came easily to everyone's lips. Surely, even the Blight couldn't dampen the spirit of Satinalia throughout the land.
Down in the bowels of the earth, however, Rhianna and her companions had very nearly missed the holiday. It was difficult to keep track of time down here, but over dinner Oghren had happened to mention the date: the thirtieth of Harvestmere.
"Wait a minute," Alistair said. "Doesn't that mean tomorrow is Satinalia?"
"You're right," Leliana exclaimed. "Tomorrow is the anniversary of our beloved Prophet's birth!" She clapped her hands together. "We must do something to celebrate. Zevran, get your guitar, and I will sing songs. Wynne, have you any wine we could share? Surely, we can find a way to make this evening festive in honor of the holiday."
While the others began to organize this makeshift celebration, Rhianna searched through her pack. No doubt, she could find a gift for each of her companions. She already had a few specific things tucked away, and she'd been collecting trinkets to sell when they returned to Orzammar.
Within a few minutes, she'd found something for everyone, and rejoined the others around the campfire they'd built for the evening. Zevran retrieved a flask of rare Antivan brandy from his pack, pulled out the stopper, and sniffed the liquid inside.
"Ah. A hint of passion fruit, perfect for keeping the conversation flowing, as we like to say in Antiva." He took a long draught from the flask, and then passed it around the circle.
Leliana began to sing a holiday carol, her lovely voice echoing off the cavern walls as Zevran accompanied her on the guitar.
Silent night, Satina's night
'Cross the land, she shines bright
On this day when Andraste was named
Born to free those Tevinter enslaved
Maker smiled on her birth
Maker smiled on her birth
Silent night, Satina's night
Her love shines, burning bright
Radiance streamed from Her holy face
Touching all with Andraste's grace
Hail the Maker's bride
Hail the Maker's bride
Silent night, Satina's night
From Her lips, Chant of Light
Raise your voice with abundant praise
That all people in Thedas be saved
Maker smile on us all
Maker smile on us all
When Leliana had finished, Rhianna cleared her throat. "In honor of the holiday, I have a little something for each of you."
"What's this?" Wynne asked, and the others all made similar sounds of surprise. "You can't just decide to give us all gifts, Rhianna! We don't have anything for you."
"That's all right," she replied. "Honestly. Just the fact that you are all here is the best gift you could possibly have given me. I wouldn't have blamed any of you for just . . . leaving. Going back to your homes, to your lives. But that you've all chosen to come with me? Especially, " she glanced around, "so far underground. Well, that's Satinalia enough for the next ten years, as far as I'm concerned."
So, she handed around the gifts. For Wynne, a book Rhianna had found in Orzammar: "The Search for the True Prophet." It was old and tattered, and appeared to have been rescued from a fire at some point, but it was a fascinating read, the parts Rhianna had flipped through anyway. It speculated that Andraste's powers had not come from the Maker, but that she had been a powerful mage.
Sten received a book as well. This one, Rhianna had purchased from a vendor on the surface near the gates of Orzammar. It was written in a strange, spidery script Rhianna was not able to read, but judging by the etchings, the author appeared to have great respect for the dead.
"This . . . this . . ." Sten took book into his hands and turned it over gently, as though it were fragile and he didn't want to damage it. "This is the book of 'Qunari Prayers for the Dead.' A book of funeral rites." He opened the tome, and read from it:
"Shok ebasit hissra. Meraad astaarit, meraad itwasit, aban aqun. Maraas shokra. Anaan esaam Qun."
"What does it mean?" Wynne asked.
"Struggle is an illusion. The tide rises, the tide falls, but the sea is changeless. There is nothing to struggle against. Victory is in the Qun."
"And this is a prayer for the dead?" Leliana asked.
"Yes," Sten confirmed. "This would be said at the burial ceremony." He turned to Rhianna, and looked directly into her eyes. "Thank you. This is beyond anything I could have ever expected, Kadan. You honor us both greatly by giving me such a gift."
"You're welcome." Rhianna's cheeks grew warm from his praise. "I'm glad that you like it."
Leliana's gift was a pair of shoes. They were made of powder blue satin, with gold trim and ribbons around the ankles. Little gold charms shaped like puppies were attached to the ribbons, and Rhianna thought they were a bit silly, but Leliana loved them, as Rhianna had hoped she would, and immediately took off her boots to try them on.
For Daveth, a small silver vial, its metal stamped with a knotwork design. It hung on a pendant and contained an all-purpose antidote to poisons. For Oghren, a hammered gold flask. Dane received a new collar made of metal that had been infused with lyrium, and then braided and hammered flat.
"Those designs look Chasind," Morrigan said as Rhianna strapped the collar around Dane's neck. She caught the dog's eye. "Powerful, proud warriors. A very handsome collar for a warrior such as yourself."
Clearly happy with both the gift and the praise, Dane licked Rhianna's face, but only panted happily at Morrigan; he knew the witch would not appreciate being slobbered upon.
Next, was Zevran, but when she handed him a pair of leather gloves, he frowned softly.
"Zevran? Is something wrong?"
"I . . . no. Nothing is wrong. These are Dalish, are they not?" He ran his finger over the embroidery on the back of one of the gloves. "My mother was Dalish and had a pair very similar to these. The leather was less thick, and it had more embroidery . . . but these are very close. And quite handsome."
"So . . . you like them?"
"Yes, bella," he murmured. "Yes, I like them. Very much."
"Good. I thought . . . well, you seem surprised."
"Do I? Perhaps I am. No one has simply . . . given me a gift before. I appreciate the fact that you even thought of me. Thank you."
Alistair's eyes lit up like those of a child when he saw the dragon Rhianna had for him, carved from black stone, and very nicely detailed.
"Oh, this is wonderful!" He picked it up, and moved it back and forth so it looked like it was walking across the ground. Rhianna bit back a chuckle as she watched him. All he needed was a little knight on horseback, and he could have an epic battle with himself.
Finally, there was only one gift left to give: a mirror Rhianna had found in the marketplace in Orzammar. It was beautiful, its oval-shaped glass perfectly smooth and clear, and on the back a painted scene depicted golden deer and tiny sparrows frolicking in a tree-circled meadow. It reminded Rhianna of the Wilds, which is why she had chosen it for Morrigan.
Morrigan was completely silent as she turned it over again and again in her hands. She did not look at her own reflection, but seemed more interested in the mirror itself - its shape, the way its handle fit in her hand, the illustration on the back.
Finally, she looked up at Rhianna. "Is this truly for me?"
"Yes." But did Morrigan like the gift or not? Rhianna had difficulty reading the other woman's expression. Perhaps it had been a bad choice. After all, what was Morrigan going to do with a mirror, while they spent their days chasing after darkspawn?
"You could not know it," Morrigan began, "but I possessed something very similar, long ago." She looked at the mirror again. "I was quite young, and I happened upon a noblewoman standing beside her carriage. She was adorned in sparkling garments and jewels, and I was dazzled. She seemed to me to be what true wealth and beauty must be. So, I snuck up behind her and stole a hand mirror much like this one from the carriage. I hugged it to my chest with delight as I sped back to the Wilds." She gave a small sigh. "But Flemeth was enraged at my carelessness. I had risked discovery for the sake of a pretty bauble. To teach me a lesson, she destroyed it. Grabbed it right from my hands, and flung it against the wall, where it shattered into countless pieces. I was heartbroken."
"That seems a harsh lesson for a child," Leliana murmured.
"Perhaps, but it was a necessary one. Flemeth was right to break me of my fascination. Beauty and love are fleeting and have no meaning." Morrigan's voice was firm, but it seemed she was trying to convince herself, more than the people listening. "Without that lesson, I would not be here today. Still . . . it is remarkable that you found a mirror so similar to the one that was broken. I am . . . uncertain what to say. I suppose I should say thank you. 'Tis . . . most thoughtful, truly."
"You're welcome. I'm very glad that you like it."
"Oh yes." She held it up, and finally looked at her own face in the glass. "I like it very much."
After the gifts were given, Leliana sang a few more songs, and Zevran's flask was passed around again, and there were jokes and stories. Rhianna smiled and laughed in all the right places, but somehow, she didn't feel the holiday inside of her as she always had in the past. The warmth of Andraste's love; the comfort of having the Maker's blessings. The pleasure of being surrounded by her family, none of whom were here this year, of course. Yes, she'd felt a rush of pleasure at how pleased her companions had been with their gifts, but all too soon the darkness and her awareness of the weight of stone above her head began press in on her again, and now all she felt was exhaustion, a bone-weary tiredness she simply couldn't shake.
She was relieved when the "party" wound down, and she could escape to her bedroll and hope for sleep.
As the others prepared themselves for bed, Morrigan pulled Rhianna aside.
"It . . . it upsets me that you gave a gift to each of us, but received none in return. You should have something. This day is special to you, after all, is it not? You are Andrastian."
"Yes, I suppose it is special, but that really doesn't matter. As I said, it's enough that you stayed with me all this time. I don't require any gift."
"I say you do. Here." Morrigan held out her hand; in her palm lay a silver locket, with intricate scrollwork etched into its surface. "My mother gave this to me, years ago. She always told me that one day I would find a use for it. Now, I have. I should like you to have it."
"That really isn't-"
"Take it," she insisted, and pressed the locket into Rhianna's hand. "It would . . . please me to do something kind for you." Morrigan's brow creased, as though she were unused to speaking such words. "Please. I would like you to have a gift, today of all days."
Rhianna turned the locket over in her hands. It was really quite pretty, and slightly warm to the touch. "Is it magical?"
"I believe it is, but I am afraid I cannot tell you in what way. I was never able to figure out how to use it. Perhaps you will have better luck than I."
"Thank you." Rhianna mustered a smile. "I mean that. Thank you, Morrigan. And happy Satinalia."
The witch nodded, and retreated to the far side of the camp.
Rhianna slid into her bedroll, the locket still held in her hand. She slipped the chain around her neck, and lay on her back.
She closed her eyes, but it seemed sleep intended to elude her on this night.
It was on Satinalia she met Loghain for the very first time. When Thomas Howe pushed her down, and Loghain bandaged her arm. She reached down and ran her fingers across the small scar that could still be felt, just barely raised on the skin below her elbow.
They'd had so many years together, first as friends, and all too briefly, as something more. Days spent riding to the beach, or up into the mountains. Letters written while he was away at sea. Walks in the palace garden. And one night, one beautiful night spent in one another's arms in a room near the top of Fort Drakon. And now he hated her, wanted her dead, as if none of those years had happened.
How different would things have been if her father had never said no to Loghain's proposal? If Cailan, Maker damn him, hadn't gotten it in his head that he wanted to marry Rhianna? If Loghain had fought for her, or her mother had refused to agree to this horrible marriage her husband had arranged?
That was the event that changed everything. The moment when Rhianna's life began to fall apart. Surely, if Rhianna and Loghain had married, none of this would be happening. She wouldn't be underneath the ground, wanting to scream into he darkness that pressed in all around her, and the weight of the rock above her head. She wouldn't be a Grey Warden, with the taint burning in her veins. Her parents would still be alive; surely, Howe would never have dared attack the Couslands if Rhianna was Loghain's wife. And no matter what else had happened - the darkspawn, the Blight - Rhianna and Loghain would have faced it together.
His last letter to her had said he thought he would never be able to make her happy, but that wasn't true. They would have been happy together. She knew it. She knew it. She loved him, and he'd loved her, too. Once. She couldn't have been wrong about that.
If only they could have stayed together somehow, everything would be different, better. Her life wouldn't be this blur of pain and panic and darkspawn. She wouldn't dread the horrors that each new day might bring. She wouldn't wake every morning fighting back the terror of her dreams.
She turned onto her side, and tried to get comfortable. The locket was still in her hand, but strangely, it no longer felt warm. It was chilly now, almost ice cold.
Curious, Rhianna slid her thumbnail under the metal catch. With a soft "hiss," the locket popped open. She expected to see a portrait - isn't that what lockets usually contained? - but there was none. Instead, on the left side there was a mirror, and on the right . . . well, Rhianna wasn't sure what it was. There were colors that swirled and danced: purple and blue and gold and green.
She brought the locket closer to her face, to get a better look. She blinked once, and then again, and then her vision began to blur . . .