"Why are we here, if not to seek the aid of the dwarves?" Sten says, crossing his arms and staring down at her. "I do not understand the way you lead."
"I just- I can't go in there," Lunde Brosca mutters, kicking at the snow-covered stone. She had thought she was ready. She had thought she could do this, stride in with her head held high, grab King Endrin by the beard, and force him to honor the treaties. She had thought she could see what has become of Rica. But now that she's here, staring across the platform and up the stairs to the gates, she knows she can't do it. She's not ready. "We'll go later. Let's just finish these errands and get out of here."
"Terminating the employment of mages is hardly worthy of being called an errand."
"I'm also going to get your sword back, remember? That fucker Faryn should be around here." Her mabari, Duncan, barks his agreement and moves in the direction of a set of stalls. "And we killed that Blackstone deserter, as well."
"We have climbed into the mountains for errands." He glares, and she glares right back.
He sighs and shakes his head, but follows when she makes her way to Faryn, pushing anybody who gets in her path aside.
The errand is over quickly, with threats of violence that Sten is happy to back up. Redcliffe, she thinks, frowning as she sends Wynne to deliver the letter to the apprentice across the way. She sits down on the ground, Dun settling behind her to provide a backrest. She leans against his warm, comforting bulk, and stares at her hands.
It grows colder, and she glances up to see Sten towering over her. "We will go in to see the dwarves," he pronounces.
"No," Lunde says, and her voice is far steadier than it was before, because she knows Sten and knows he'll back down if she's firm enough. "We will not."
"I'm an exile. They might not even let me in."
"We should still try. We have come too far to retreat. The Blight will not wait for us to bring every home in Ferelden trinkets and cakes, Warden." As he speaks, Lunde fingers her brand, nails scraping her dark skin and darker mark, as if to abrade it away. "Would they turn away the Grey Warden?"
"The casteless Grey Warden? I don't think that last bit would stop them. Sten, we are going to leave this place, and we are going to go to Redcliffe to find your sword and beg this Arl Eamon's help. If you object, you can just wait here until we come back." She's learned not to trust people to stay, and while she's come to depend on his sword, she knows better than to expect loyalty.
But Sten grunts, then sits down beside her, large hand coming to rest on Dun's head. "No. You will end up dead if left on your own. And it is far too cold up here to spend a winter waiting."
Lunde stares for a moment, surprised and vaguely happy that he's chosen to stay, even if it comes with a barbed comment on her fighting skills. Then she snorts and closes her eyes, pointedly ignoring the soft footfalls of Wynne's return, determined to take a moment before they begin their long trek back east.
They're beset by bandits on the long road that snakes towards Redcliffe, a path of crumbling, blinding white stone, stained with dirt and blood.
The only reason that Lunde holds up a hand to keep Sten and Dun at bay, the only reason that she doesn't crouch low and maneuver behind them to strike with her dagger, is that they're running low on poultice and lyrium, and Wynne's exhausted already from facing a darkspawn band five miles ago. To fight would be foolish; the bandits outnumber them three to one. On a good day, it wouldn't be a problem, but, so far, this day hasn't even qualified as mediocre.
So Lunde attempts to bargain.
"What is it you want?" She crosses her long arms over her chest, staring them down.
"Oh, you know how it is," the lead bandit says with a grin. "Hard times and all. We're running a bit low on cash, aren't we, boys?" There are some grunts of affirmation, and a snicker.
"Yeah, you and the rest of Ferelden." But they really can't fight, and even though they're covered in the foul-smelling blood of darkspawn, she's uncertain that they could intimidate their way past this bunch. These bandits aren't like the ragtag operation outside of Lothering; these men remind her more of her own colleagues back in Dust Town. There's a certain set to their jaws, a certain spark to the dark humor in their eyes, and the way one of them is toying with his dagger makes her back down and look to her companions.
Behind the vanguard of herself, Sten, and Duncan, the rest of the team waits nervously. Alistair looks uncertain of if he should join her, or if he should stay back, and Shale is pointedly ignoring the confrontation, likely so it can mock Lunde later about whatever choice she makes.
She catches Leliana's gaze, and Leliana comes close. She bends down and Lunde whispers, "How much can we afford these asses?"
Leliana purses her lips, and is just parting her lips to speak when the lead bandit whistles appreciatively. The height difference between Leliana and Lunde is enough to give the men quite a few of the curve of Leliana's back and hips, and they're watching quite intently.
"If you're a bit hard up for cash," the lead bandit says, slowly, lips curling and words slowing to a drawl, "we can always take your pretty friend here for a turn. 's been a while, boys, right?"
Lunde steps immediately in front of Leliana, growling protectively, and Dun joins her. She knows that Leliana can protect herself, has seen her skill with bow and dagger, but she'd grown up protecting her sister from the advances of men who wanted to edge in on Beraht's property and plans. She'd grown up protecting her sister for her sister's sake, as well.
Down in Dust Town, she'd been laughed at until she'd crushed a man's skull in a bar fight at Tapster's. She'd learned early on that it was Rica the men wanted, and that she was the unwanted bonus. They'd leer at Rica and snarl at Lunde. Her mother might have told her that she only had her cunt to barter with, but it hadn't been accepted currency.
But that was below ground, and human men probably have lower standards than dwarf men. And human men don't understand the brand on her face.
"I'll help the lot of you out," she says, voice low. "But you leave my friend alone."
She knows, vaguely, that women seduce men with soft words and canted hips, lowered lashes and pursed lips, but she's not them, and she can only manage to lessen the proud jut of her jaw.
He stares at her, then begins laughing. "You? What the hell are you, anyway? Some dark, fucked up gnome? Look, boys, she thinks she's people!"
"I've got all the right parts in the right places. You want a warm hole, you have to take this one."
He laughs harder, and one of the men behind him looks positively disgusted, though a few seem interested in the barest thought of sex. She can feel the stares of her companions on her back, but she ignores them. She does what she must, and she takes a step forward.
"No offense, but we're not interested in fucking an animal. We can do that in any pasture we come acr-"
That's when Sten interrupts. "This is unnecessary. We do not need to negotiate," he says, stepping up beside her and hefting his sword. Lunde sighs and nods, then lunges forward and smashes the bandit's groin with her mace. He screams and goes down, and Dun descends upon him in a roar of claws and teeth, and then there's screaming and running and Lunde doesn't have the choice to hold back or go forward anymore, because the time for negotiation is done. They're set into motion, and all there's left to do is fight like she means it.
She relishes the crunch of bone far more than the thought of hands on her skin, and when they pull out on the other side, they're amazingly whole and well, with all their gold still safe in their purses.
"I don't understand," Sten says as he crouches, lighting the campfire for the night.
"What now?" Lunde asks from where she's driving stakes into the ground to hold her tent. The others are off bringing water or setting up their own tents for the night. Duncan is digging in the corner of the clearing, looking for rabbits, or perhaps a passage into the Deep Roads.
"You look like a woman."
She snorts. "I'm aware."
Sten hesitates, at a loss for words for a moment. That apparently was not the response he was expecting. Lunde pauses, sitting back on her haunches and watching him.
"... Are you a woman?" he finally asks.
"In body, maybe." Lunde shrugs at the searching look he gives her. "I have the usual bits, yeah. So I guess I am. I've never really thought of myself like that, though- and you heard those bandits, they seemed to share my opinion."
Sten frowns, his hands also stilling, no longer adding tinder to the growing flame. "... I do not understand," he finally says, with something like frustration in his voice. "If your body is female, you are female. How can it be otherwise?"
"Sure, I'm female. But I'm not a woman.¹"
"Then what are you? Are you trying to be a man?"
"Never thought of myself like that, either." She goes back to work, unable to stay still under his heavy gaze. "Never really thought about it at all. My sister, Rica? She's a woman. So's my mom. So's Leliana and Morrigan and Wynne. But me? No. I'm- something else. I'm just me."
He watches her, then comes over to join her crouching to work beside her. "So you are neither male nor female."
"Then what is there for you to do?" He frowns, staring at her. "Men and women have specific jobs. Men are warriors, merchants. Women administrators, artisans. If you are neither, then what are you meant for?"
"Nothing." She shrugs. "Thought that was obvious." She thumbs her brand. "I just do what I have to, and things work out."
He shakes his head, and she can hear the soft tapping of his braids on his armor. "... I do not understand."
"Don't worry about it. I'm the only one like me I've ever met, and this mission's probably going to kill me. You won't have to understand, then."
This doesn't seem to sit well with him, though, and he leaves his task and comes closer still, looming over her again. He does that, she's realized, when she's upset him in some way. "If you are neither," he says, slowly, "then what will happen when it comes time for you to mate?"
"I don't- mate, Sten. I don't fuck."
"You offered yourself to the bandits."
"Yeah. That's pretty much all fucking's good for - controlling other people. Getting what you want. Leliana talks of great loves and passions, and I say- nugshit. Fucking and love aren't the same thing. Ever. Or at least, I've never seen it. So it's never going to 'come time'."
He nods after a moment, and seems to relax. "At least we are agreed on one thing. The two are different. We mate to produce children. We love to love. They are separate."
It's the dead of night and the air is filled with the stench of rotting flesh, the tang of blood. Redcliffe is silent around them, in the lull between waves of staggering flesh.
Sten stands beside her, his gauntleted fingers caressing Asala's newly recovered steel idly. When he speaks, it startles her; he's been largely silent all night, focused on the onslaught. "I have been mistaken."
"What do you mean?" She looks up at him, taking a long drink of water from the skin she wears at her hip.
"You are a soldier worthy to stand among the Beresaad. I did not think so when we first met."
"I'm not really a soldier, you know."
"I know. You missed your destiny. But... it is not an entirely bad thing."
Lunde frowns, leaning back on one of the barricades to ease the strain of looking up at him. "Oh?"
He glances aside, considering his answer. "... I do not agree with the dwarven methods. Their reasoning is inherently flawed, designating an entire lineage of people as worthless. All people have worth; assigning worthlessness to a population that can only grow is not only folly, it is dangerous. In addition, somebody like you- who is clearly meant to be a soldier- would have been assigned to the military regardless of your lineage if the tamassrans had been present."
Sten falls silent again, his purple eyes sliding back to her. His brow is furrowed, though it's hard to see from the angle and the low lighting of the defensive circle.
She opens her mouth, but he shakes his head, and she closes it again.
"However," he begins, after another long stretch of thought that she feels sure another wave of the walking dead will interrupt, "had you been properly assigned to the warrior caste, you may not grown as... uniquely strong as you are, and you may not have become a Grey Warden. There are many things you may not have been. And then you would not be you. Do you understand?"
Lunde nods, suddenly unable to find words. Sometimes, when Sten speaks - like whenever he calls her kadan, which is new to today but now commonplace in every conversation they have - she feels her heart jump just a little bit, the same way it had when her mother would, sober for a brief period, whisper I'm so sorry, you've done such a good job, protect Rica. The same way it had when her sister would embrace her and kiss her hair. The same way it had when Duncan, the original Duncan, had treated her like a person instead of a smudge on the stone. And when her heart jumps and flutters, she falls quiet, lest she embarrass herself.
She isn't soft, and she doesn't know how to handle these moments of weakness. She doesn't know how to handle him respecting her. She doesn't know how to handle him understanding her, even if he claims he does not at every opportunity.
"Kadan," he says, voice dropping low. "I will tell you something I have told only one other creature in all of Ferelden." She looks up at him expectantly, questioningly, and he does something that might- might be a smile. "You are a true warrior, and worthy of respect."
Lunde can't help but laugh, even as her heart threatens to beat itself dull from how hard it thuds.
And then the walking dead are upon them again, and they return to their calling.
"Kadan," Sten growls, crossing the battlefield to her in fast, large strides and catching her by the upper arm. He lifts enough to leave her strained to stand on her toes, and he leans down, bringing his face close to hers. "You have a death wish. Stop."
It's mid-day and they're surrounded by the bodies of wolves, the remnants of traps she's broken. Her head is still swimming from battle and too much blood loss and the lingering rush of healing magic, and she squints up at him. "I don't have a-"
"You continue to place yourself in the thick of battle, and then draw attention to yourself with your antics. It is unnecessary. It will get you killed. I will not allow it."
Lunde tries to pull away, but she can't find purchase. So she swings out a leg and kicks him hard in the shins. He grunts, but doesn't let go, so she does it again. Dun is somewhere afield, searching for tidbits, and he doesn't come when she whistles for him.
"You must keep to the sides, kadan. Or somebody will step on you and crush you, if they don't behead you first."
"Are you calling me short?" she asks, voice incredulous, eyes narrow.
In place of words, he simply lifts her, his other arm wrapping around her waist. He's become more physical since she brought him Asala, pulling her out of the downward path of blades and touching her shoulder to get her attention, but it's still surprising and unfamiliar and unwelcome, because Lunde doesn't like being immobilized. She doesn't appreciate being overpowered. But his meaning is clear, because when he hoists her so that their noses are touching, her broad and flat one to his strong, hooked one, her feet dangle just above his knees.
He sets her down.
"I barely noticed the weight of you, kadan. You are small compared to what we face."
"I'm not going to fucking get stepped on-"
"No, because you will stay on the periphery and allow myself and the mabari to take the brunt of the attack. You will do what you are best at- sneaking up behind people and bludgeoning them. And I will do what I am best at."
"Taking hits until you fall down?"
"I do not fall down, kadan," he grumbles, but she smirks and he turns away.
"Kadan, we need to talk."
Lunde looks up from where she sits, keeping the first watch, leaning against Dun. She's barely staying awake, exhausted from the day's journey; they're running still more errands, little bits here and there, and it's making the journey towards Haven slow and winding.
"Why do you let them do this to you?"
"Who do what?" she asks, then stifles a yawn.
"These errands. All of these... random people we meet on the road. We should be defeating the archdemon, not picking up the wash."
"Mm," she hums, watching him through half-closed eyes as he sits down by her and offers his hand to the mabari. Dun gives him a few welcoming licks, then settles his head back on his paws and whuffs. "It's my calling, I guess."
"Your calling is to be a warrior, kadan."
"No, it's to be a sword." She shifts, stretching out her foot, bare to let it air out and rest before another long day of marching, to nudge his leg. He looks at the offending appendage curiously.
"I would beg to differ."
"Yeah, well. You didn't grow up like me." She prods him again, playfully, trying to dispel whatever irritated mood he's in. Playfulness is something first learned to cheer up Rica, but it's been much developed on the road, courtesy of Alistair and Leliana and Dun, and by now brief physical contact is something normal, expected, and comforting, like the wall of mabari to her back. "I'm a sword, to be directed and used. That's all I've ever been; that's all I'm comfortable being. I know Alistair and Leliana keep trying to convince you that people should be able to change their lot... but I know changing isn't that easy. No, I'm a tool. I don't mind."
"Perhaps," Sten says, finally grabbing her ankle as she nudges him again, "but some of us do. You regard yourself in much the same way that Shale does, at times."
"What?" She looks to where his fingers encircle her, and wiggle her toes experimentally. He doesn't let go.
"I will say what I said to Shale the other day." He leans in, bringing his face as close to hers as he had the day he'd lectured her against drawing the attention of the enemy. "You speak like a living person, but act like a possession. I told it then that I did not understand. I still do not. But I do know that I do not approve. I certainly mind."
Lunde tilts her head, and the movement causes their noses to brush. "Why?"
"Because you lead us into battle. Because it is a nonsensical belief. Because you are kadan."
"What does that word mean?" she asks, and there's a new, strange little lump in her throat. She's stopped feeling butterflies at every utterance of the word - several weeks of it being said in place of Warden or Lunde or Commander has made it feel normal - but she's also stopped wondering at its meaning. To ask means to know, if Sten doesn't simply let go of her ankle, stand up, and walk away.
He keeps hold.
"It means..." He frowns, considering. "It means where the heart lies. I think that is the closest translation. The center of the chest. Something highly valued."
"Huh," Lunde breathes, and suddenly, they're far too close. His skin burns on hers. She's too aware of him, but unlike the clumsy, pawing dwarven men she's seen with women in their laps in Tapster's, he doesn't lean in to kiss her or reach to pull her closer. He just watches her. His touch burns less. It grows comforting again, warm and solid.
"And so, kadan," he says, voice low and firm, "I do not approve of you viewing yourself as a blade. I value Asala highly; I named her after my soul. But as much as I cannot live without her, she is not a creature of her own. She is not a complex, living person. You are. I would not call Asala kadan."
He keeps her gaze locked into his a moment longer, then lets go of her ankle and stands. "These are fool's errands."
"Then I am a fool. A fool," she says, with a small, knowing smile, "that you value highly."
As Lunde disengages from a thoroughly frustrating and pointless conversation with the guard outside Haven, Sten grabs her wrist and pulls her aside. She lets him, but looks up at him with only exasperation.
He frowns down at her, then releases her wrist. When he speaks, his words are dry, sarcastic. "Interesting strategy. Tell me: Do you intend to keep going north until it becomes south, and attack the archdemon from the rear?"
Lunde sighs, not looking forward to having this conversation again. Every few weeks, it comes back to this. Errands. Pointless journeys. But this, this is different. "This is necessary."
"Is it? I see. I was mistaken, then. It seemed to me that we were climbing a mountain in the middle of nowhere on some frivolous whim of yours."
A strange thing has happened between them, since that night he held her ankle and leaned in close and told her what kadan meant. He's begun to tease her. She didn't think it was quite possible. At first, she'd thought that she had to be imagining it. But he'd kept up, slipping in comments that were beyond wry and into sarcastic a few times a day. Sometimes, it was in response to her helping somebody new. Sometimes, it was said with the faintest of smiles and she would snicker in response.
Not right now, though. She shakes her head.
"Arl Eamon is ill. That's why we're here."
He presses on. "How will this help him?"
She presses back. "You already know this, Sten."
Wynne and Leliana are watching the exchange while the rest of the group complains about mountains being too tall and too cold, asking each other why they had to come up. The two women are exchanging knowing looks, though exactly what they think they know, Lunde can only guess at.
Sten crosses his arms over the polished metal of his breastplate, which reflects almost blindingly bright between the high winter sun and the blanket of snow beneath their feet.
"No, I do not. The archdemon is our goal. And we are heading away from it. To find the charred remnants of a dead woman." His expression flickers to something like- disappointment? She frowns and straightens. "You haven't thought this through."
"There's nothing else we can do," she growls, and he quirks a brow, a habit he's picked up from Morrigan, of all people. "We have to try something. And before you say anything, no, this doesn't count as an errand."
"There is always another path." Sten shakes his head, breaking his harsh, evaluating gaze. "I trust you with my life. But this is not my life at risk. It is our goal."
Her own angry expression softens, and she murmurs, "I know. I don't intend to fail, Sten."
"Be careful, kadan."
Dun is whining and pawing at the ground. She hears the scratching of claws on stone only distantly, but when Sten's voice rocks the very stone around her with a growled, "Kadan!" she twitches. She opens eyes that have been drifting closed into a blissful dark and mumbles something she thinks are words.
"Atrast vala," she says, but it comes out more like, "Atresnvelum."
"You can't stay in there," Sten says, reaching in with a cold, gauntleted hand. But the crevice Lunde has wedged herself into is narrow and she's settled in tight. Sten's fingers can only barely find purchase on an elbow.
Lunde squints in the dim light over at the qunari, then tenses and yelps as Sten tugs. "I'll- fall up-" The fear is overwhelming, and she remembers it now, remembers running from the sky and wriggling into the stone. The Stone, which will protect her, and which stopped her shivering-
Sten frowns and pulls harder, finally managing to get his fingers around Lunde's arm. Lunde slides from the crevice even as her numb, leaden limbs scramble for purchase. She finds none, and soon Sten has her held tight against his chest, keeping her immobile with one arm wrapped around her upper body. Lunde's feet dangle, and with a grunt, Sten hoists her over one shoulder.
Lunde squirms, but moving is hard. Every inch of her refuses to respond, and her eyelids are heavy and drifting down again. Her breathing is slow but her heart hammers. Her head swims. The light of day, bright and strong on top of the mountain, makes her whimper and turn away, burying her face in the fur of Sten's cloak. The sky is pulling her. It's pulling her-
Sten sets her down in front of a fire then turns away to begin pulling off his armor. Wynne is hovering over her in an instant, touching her frigid face and whispering small curses at how puffy and blue-tinted Lunde's skin has become, at the dark black patches on her nose and ears. Lunde laughs, the sound creaky and too-loud, because Wynne doesn't swear. She doesn't. She looks affronted when Lunde complains about how the darkspawn are all blighted nugfuckers, and here she is cursing over Lunde when the real danger is the open sky.
Lunde is trying to bury herself against Dun, who's come up close to her side, when Sten sits down beside her and pulls her into his lap. Lunde fights again, but Sten locks his arms down and draws his cloak around them. She can feel the warmth radiating from him now that his metal armor is gone, and it stings and burns, making her howl wordlessly.
"Kadan," he says, voice low, head bent to whisper warm against Lunde's ear, "you are too cold. If we do not warm you up, you will die. Stay close to me. Do you understand?"
Lunde mumbles sounds, and Sten pulls her closer, then reaches a hand outside of the cloak. Wynne hands him something before turning her attention back to the fire, tending it, controlling its burn with small motions of her hands.
"Kadan, Lunde, here." He's offering her something and she frowns, trying to focus on the object he's holding to her lips. It's round, about the size of her palm, and a dark brown color. "Eat. It will keep you awake, and give your body something to make heat from. Open your mouth, kadan."
She does as she's told, thinking that this is quite possibly the strangest job she's ever been given. Eating something? While the sky is so wide and empty above?
He breaks the cookie in two and places the smaller half in her mouth.
"Chew," he says, and she does, after a moment where she forgets what the word means. The cookie is sweet and rich and very, very stale. It takes work to break it into small enough pieces to swallow, but as she does, she remembers that she has a stomach. And a body, a body that tingles and aches. She groans and the arm that Sten has wrapped around her beneath the cloak tightens again.
He feeds her the other half of the cookie, then touches her chin, tilting her face up to his.
"I told you to be careful, kadan," he says, and beyond the frustration, she thinks she hears fear. "And yet you disappeared and nearly let yourself freeze to death. You are small, Lunde². You keep forgetting this."
"'m not short."
"Of course not, kadan," Sten sighs. "Here, speak to me. It will keep you awake."
She frowns and tries to burrow against him. He lets her, but then clears his throat. She starts speaking, the words still heavy and hard to find, but with each word they flow just a little more.
"'s not cold in Orzammar. The lava. I was really cold for a while when Du- Duncan first brought me up. Hah, Duncan- he was the first person... who ever treated me like I was a person, too. Instead of just a piece of shit."
She pauses, then mumbles, "I mean, first person after my sister. He just- he had no fuckin' clue what I was. And he pulled me out of that hellhole instead of leaving me to die and he took me on the surface and told me that it was okay, that I wouldn't fall up-"
Lunde stops, then frowns again. She doesn't know why she's saying all of this, and she doesn't know why she's close to tears, except that when she thinks Duncan, she sometimes feels exactly the way she does when Sten says kadan and places a hand on her shoulder.
"You will not fall up now, either," Sten says, voice firm, and reaches out to Wynne again. This time she passes him a tin cup of steaming water, which he holds to her lips. She sips. It scalds going down, but then she can feel the heat spreading out, meeting the heat that's coming in from outside, from Sten. She sighs, and drinks more deeply.
When she's finished, Sten leans forward to place the cup on the ground. While bent over her, he murmurs, "Kadan, if you wish to honor Duncan's memory, you will start to protect yourself. You listened to me on the battlefield. Do it again."
She whines, softly, and he shakes his head, then presses his cheek against her temple. She leans into it. She's slowly begun to crave his touch, platonic and warm and strong, over the last several weeks, and now, with the cold all around them, it's become her entire world.
He seems to feel the same way, because he's cradling her in his arms more closely and more gently than he strictly has to.
"A tool does not need to preserve itself; its owner does that for it. But you are not a tool, kadan. And so it is your duty to preserve yourself until your goal is achieved. And your goal is to defeat the archdemon."
Lunde tries to think back to before the crevice, to the hike up, and she remembers telling herself just another step, just another step while Sten and Wynne grew more and more distant in front of her. "So I can't freeze on a mountaintop because we need to make good time?"
"This is not making good time, kadan, and we would have made worse time if we had to carry your frozen body back down the mountain."
She laughs, the sound weak and thin. "Thought you said you trusted me with your life."
"I do. I do not, however, trust you with your own yet."
"Fair enough," Lunde mumbles, and she turns to smile up at him. Her body is only slowly thawing out and her smile is uneven and sluggish. He quirks his brow, staring down at her, but then one corner of his lips tugs up. "Guess I'll just have to be more careful."
The bluntness of that simple utterance makes her laugh again, this time the sound full and loud, and it echoes across the ravines and dips and crags.
Returning to Orzammar is exactly how she had expected it to be, from the angry, distrusting looks to the actual flight of some of the nobles when they see her coming. She supposes that she should feel powerful, vindictive, triumphant... but she just feels like a fraud. They let her in, after all; no casteless would be brought back after being exiled.
The only thing she doesn't expect is finding her old home deserted. She stands in the door frowning at the empty, dirty interior. Squatters, though nobody's there now. Squatters, and no signs of home.
It's Nadezda who tells her where Rica's gone, and it's with a surge of relief that Lunde sits down next to her, sneaks coin into her hand, and catches up. It feels like home, to sit in the squalor. It's disgusting and worse than she remembered, and even Dun doesn't seem comfortable (let alone Wynne, who's almost afraid to stand on the stone, and Sten, who looks around with the most sour and disapproving face she's ever seen on him), but it's home. It's where she belongs. And it's only reluctantly that she pulls herself up again and makes her way to the Diamond Quarter.
Prince Bhelen's concubine - she can hardly believe it.
And it's the most joyous reunion she could have hoped for, and of course she supports Bhelen in the battle for the throne. Her sister, her beautiful, strong sister, deserves every inch of gold and gem she's given. She ignores the feeling that Bhelen's just manipulating all of them, because it doesn't matter. They’re dusters. Being manipulated by kings is almost too good to be true. To not be manipulated at all- well. That would be more worrying than anything else.
The only thing she didn't expect was to find her sister happy and healthy, not to mention with a child (has it really been that long since she's left? The time has passed so quickly-). Part of her wants to be surprised at her mother, too, but that part of her is lying.
She had known that her mother would be just the same, no matter what had happened.
"Well, look at you all fancied up. You find some princeling to give you pretty clothes while he sticks it to you, like your sister?" Her breath is thick and heavy with booze, her words slurred, and Lunde doesn't flinch at all under the onslaught. They’re in the sumptuous chambers that Bhelen has given Rica. Her mother is freshly bathed and dressed in good, clean clothes, and still as drunk as a sodding nugrunner, as hateful as she's ever been.
Lunde simply stands before her and responds, "I've missed you, too."
Kalah laughs, and the sound is just as bitter as Lunde remembers it. "Why would I miss you? What'd you ever do but make me fat and old and ugly? Running off to the surface, just like your father... Never thought to share a little of that fortune with your mother?"
The insults wash over her. They're familiar. Painful, but well-known and well-trodden. She's used to being blamed for everything. She can handle being blamed.
But to be accused of withholding from her family- that's her breaking point. Fortune- what fortune does Lunde have to speak of? A few sovereigns, yes, but it all goes to the march, to their food, their equipment, little trinkets to keep morale up. She's crossed Ferelden running errands, and here her mother is living in luxury, her daughter raised up high and made happy.
She snaps, "You're living in a fucking palace, mom!"
"I've seen how they look at me. Think I'm gutter trash. Not one of them would let me step foot here if it wasn't for Rica! Precious Rica and her precious little brat! If he chokes on that gold rattle, we'd both be on the street!"
Her mother is right, but Lunde refuses to let her abuse Rica again. She can feel the eyes of her companions on her, and Dun is whining and growling, held back only by Sten's firm hand on his collar.
"Don't- Rica's happy. Don't you dare ruin that," Lunde growls dangerously, and it's all she can do not to advance on her mother. It's all she can do to remember that this is the woman who gave up everything for her, just like Lunde gave up everything for Rica, just like everybody in Dust Town has always done for the few people they love.
"Oh, precious Rica. What's she ever done besides getting herself knocked up?" Kalah snorts, shaking her head. "I had two worthless brats and no one ever gave me the time of day for it. I deserve what she got! And more! And don't you tell me any different, you little two bit whore-"
"Enough," Sten says, stepping up to stand beside Lunde, focusing his looming presence on Kalah. He has been silent this whole trip, ever since they stepped into Orzammar, watching and listening. She felt the absence of his voice, but it had been overwhelmed by home. Now, though, it's both welcome and enraging.
"This isn't your problem," she snaps at him.
"And who's this?" her mother asks, slurring and wrinkling her nose. "This your princeling? He's a big fucker, ain't he? Bet he has a cock like-"
Lunde growls and finally advances, and her mother staggers backwards until the backs of her legs hit one of the low, upholstered couches and she falls into it.
"Stop," she says, voice low and dangerous, staring Kalah in the eye.
And her mother just looks away and whispers, "Get out."
So Lunde does.
Sten doesn't speak to her again until she's sitting with her head in her hands in the Commons, back against one of the low walls ringing the lava flow. Leske is echoing through her head. His blood is still barely dry on her armor, and she's not ready yet to face Rica, to face Bhelen, to face the new life she has that doesn't include much of the old at all anymore.
He sits down next to her. Duncan settles on her other side. Wynne is off discussing something with a young girl interested in magic, and it's almost like she's still alone. She just has the warm presence of both of her closest allies on either side, and the warmth of the stone at her back.
But she's not alone, and Sten is tense in that particular way that means he has something to say.
"What is it?" she asks, lifting her head to look at him.
He looks right back. "... That was family," he attempts, slowly.
"Your mother. She is the one who gave birth to you, and raised you."
"The Qunari do not raise their own children. Not the way you do. The tamassrans do, not the parents. We do not have... the same families."
He frowns, thinking. "Our families," he continues, after a moment, "are our friends and coworkers. Those we are meant to be around. Those we... choose, in a way. We are not tied to another person simply because they bore us."
"What are you trying to say?"
"... I do not like your mother, and I do not think you should interact with her. You do not owe her enough to subject yourself to such... abuse."
"She raised me," Lunde says, shaking her head. "... That's enough. I mean, she could've just let me die. She didn't."
"That is not enough of a reason." He takes hold of her shoulder. "And this Leske- you saw him as family, as well, and he, too, has only hurt you."
Lunde flinches, tugging against his grip. He doesn't give in. "Things change. We do what we have to. Mom needs to drink because life was shit to her. Leske needed to- jump into bed with Jarvia to stay alive. It's not like I was here or anything."
"He did not hesitate in trying to kill you."
That fight had been difficult. She had been reeling from the sense of betrayal and the sense that she had no reason to feel betrayed, because of course she had left him. Everything he'd said had been right. He and Jarvia had nearly skewered her several times, but Duncan had been there, Sten had been there, even Wynne had detonated a few of the oil drums. And Lunde had fallen into practiced feints and dodges drilled into her by Sten, as well as brutal parries and low blows she had learned on the streets. She ached, though, in her muscles and bones and heart.
Rica was happy, but nothing else had changed.
"He was like a brother to me."
"These are not true family," Sten insists, bending down so that their noses are close. He does this often now, whenever he wants her to listen. Sometimes, he does it simply because he wants to. It's a kiss between lovers. "They are associations of obligation, and obligation only. Your true family are those who stand beside you no matter the circumstances and those who value you, kadan."
Duncan barks as if to agree, squirming against Lunde's back to nudge her closer to Sten, to draw the three of them together.
"... Like you?" Lunde asks, voice almost a whisper with sudden nervousness and fear and hope. Kadan means a lot of things, and when Sten says it these days, when he's not frustrated and lecturing, he gets a sort of far-away look, as if he's thinking of tea and cinnamon and the jungle, but it's focused on her. She doesn't understand him, as much as he doesn't understand her, and these moments when they put things into words- they're few and far between, but too precious to comprehend, sometimes.
"Like me," he agrees, voice soft, and he bows his head.
Lunde laughs and leans against him, and his arm finds its way around her shoulders as Dun climbs into their laps like he's a trained nug.
Lunde always knew she was going to die on this quest.
It's strange, though, knowing how close the moment is. Riordan has left her and Alistair to process, and while Alistair is pale and drawn and shaking, Lunde is only quiet and determined. She tells him not to worry. She tells him that she's ready, if Riordan fails. She tells him that this is her purpose, and he stares at her like he's never seen her before.
"But you'll die," he says, helplessly.
"I know," she responds, and then she leaves him to mourn them all in peace.
She sends Morrigan away without a thought, because there is no other way. This is the way it should be, after all, and it satisfies her conception of herself. She would have died in that cell if she hadn't been able to pick the lock, and she would've been executed if Duncan hadn't conscripted her. She has owed him and the Wardens her life ever since that moment. And she has been honed as a weapon for others to direct since the day she was old enough to begin running errands for her mother.
She is sitting by the fire, stroking Dun's head, when Sten enters. He's out of his armor just like she is, and he settles beside her without a word. She shifts to lean against him and he wraps an arm around her. It's become a ritual, since Orzammar. Even in Denerim, at Arl Eamon's estate, she would come out from planning sessions that stretched late into the night to find him by one of the hearths waiting for her.
"To kill the archdemon, a Grey Warden has to die," she says after a long, silent stretch spent staring at the fire.
Sten nods, slowly. "I had begun to gather as much."
"It's going to be me."
Sten nods again.
Lunde laughs, quietly, when he remains quiet. "What, not going to tell me I'm not a tool? Not going to lecture me about death wishes?"
"No, kadan. This is your calling. I do not... object to your death as much as I object to your death being pointless. To stop the Blight, that is honorable, and it is your duty." He pauses, bowing his head forward. "It is better to live well than to live. There is value in life... but only if it is used. Do you understand? To have died too soon, that would have been a waste. To have risked yourself and slowed our progression towards our goal only because you viewed yourself as something to be used, that was a waste. But this..."
There's something in his voice, though, and Lunde sits up as tall as she can and uses one hand to turn his face towards hers. She touches their noses together.
"You don't want me to die."
"For selfish reasons."
She smiles, laughs quietly. "Same reason I don't want to die, yeah? Just getting started. But it's been a good run, I think. Oghren thinks they might make me a paragon, you know."
"I had not heard that. It is appropriate."
Lunde closes her eyes, then thinks back to their earlier discussions. Thinks back to every time they have spoken of duty, of pain, of honor. She whispers, "Why do we fight, Sten?"
"Because we must, kadan," he responds.
"To protect that which we love," she adds.
Fighting the Tal'Vasoth doesn't seem so pointless and painful with all the ground they have crossed since he’d told her those tales. At the time, she had questioned killing people simply because they had turned from the Qun - akin to killing dwarves because they took up faith in the Maker. But now, she understands it the way he does: a threat to home, a threat to family.
This Blight threatens everything.
They fight because they have to.
She loves because she is no longer a tool without feelings.
The wind is loud and cold on the roof of Fort Drakon. The world burns below and all around her. The dying cry out and crawl for safety. She's alone at the top of the world, and her destiny lies before her, dark-scaled and gasping for each breath. The archdemon is dying.
She's alone until Sten and Dun come to her side. Dun nuzzles her hand and she bends to kiss him, mindless of the blood. She whispers, "Good boy," and feels tears in her eyes, because he's given her unconditional love from the beginning, been a warm bulwark before she even knew she needed one. It takes all her willpower to rise up from him and turn to Sten.
Sten holds the hilt of Asala towards her.
"Kadan," he breathes, and when she reaches out to grasp the sword, his fingers curl over hers. He guides Asala into her hands, carefully situating the two together. His arms wrap around her and hold her tight to his chest, even though she only comes up to the bottom of his ribcage. She can't feel his warmth through metal and leather and the chill wind, but he's all around her. He kneels and presses a kiss to the top of her head.
"I'm not a soldier, you know," she says. "Or a woman. Or a tool. Or so many other things."
"Perhaps not," Sten replies. "But you are kadan. And you are Lunde. You are the slayer of the Blight."
"Well, about to be," she laughs, and he nods.
"And you," he adds, "are the most confusing, unique, and precious thing that I have found in all of Ferelden. It has been an honor, kadan."
"I love you," she whispers, and turns to place her nose against his.
"As do I," he breathes back, their air the same for one last moment. Then he rises, and nods to the slowly fading dragon. "To your calling, kadan."
"Safe travels, Sten. You better drink a shitload of tea for me when you get back to Seheron."
He nods, and the faint smile on his lips is the last thing she sees before she turns and with one last, deep breath, rushes the archdemon with Asala singing in her hands.