“Is it true?” Dagna was shouting the words before she even burst into the heavily guarded tent. She had acted on instinct, and perhaps rashly, at the news that had, by mere chance, reached her ears. Now, she could not stop herself from simply and quite literally running to a reliable source of information.
Immediately and not surprisingly, Dagna found herself clasped about the arms by two royal guards, and the puzzled faces of King Alistair and the Archon staring down at her.
“Is it true that the White Divine launched an Exalted March on Orzammar through the Deep Roads?” She cast a desperate look in the Archon’s direction. “Please, Caesar, I have to know!”
“Let her go,” murmured the Archon with an almost careless waving gesture of one hand. “She can stay.”
The guards withdrew. Dagna did not bother to reorder her rumpled gear, but instead stared, imploringly and silent, toward Ferelden’s king.
She had not yet seen him in person, but she had heard that he was in a state of declining condition. He had lost a great deal of weight; this was evident by the bags of skin hanging on his face and the fact that his highly-detailed golden royal armor seemed to have been made for someone else. Dark rings around his eyes caused his face to appear almost skeletal. He also wore a fisherman’s skull cap on his head, an odd choice and perhaps one made deliberately to cover a bizarre hair loss.
“Good news travels fast,” muttered Alistair. “I wonder what Grey Warden opened his or her mouth.”
“Seneca, likely,” the Archon said with a nod. “Damn elf can’t keep his confidences no matter how much he’s threatened.”
Dagna remembered herself, made a small noise of surprise, and dropped a sharp salute in the Archon’s direction. “Caesar, my family still lives there. Not to mention that if Orlais is attacking Orzammar, they’re in violation –“
“…of several treaties. Yes. I’m quite aware of this, thank you, Lieutenant.” The Archon’s voice sounded tired as he interrupted her. “Before you further waste my time telling me what my spies told me weeks ago, yes, they have the troops to launch such an attack. They’re exclusively using soldiers from the Anderfels, along with Grey Wardens from Weisshaupt itself.”
“But the Anderfels has a standing treaty with the Imperium. And the Grey Wardens…” Dagna began again.
“…are being naughty,” Alistair broke in, a heavy sigh filling his words. “They aren’t maintaining neutrality. Naughtiness at the highest level of the Wardens. Bad. Really bad. If everyone knew, it might cause distrust of and among the Wardens in other kingdoms. So, you get why it’s been made a secret. You get why you need to keep this a secret?”
Dagna nodded her head, biting her tongue in a sheer effort to keep herself silent.
“It’s not a secret anymore, Ferelden.” Something distinctly nasty crept into the Archon’s voice, which was a novelty; usually his tones filled with condescension, even while speaking to the Senators. “Not when it’s become the topic of discussion among the lower-ranked officers. Guard, bring me Seneca, now. I don’t care if he’s sleeping or bathing or shitting. Now.”
“You can’t do that,” Alistair said in a singsong voice, between his teeth. “He’s not under your jurisdiction –“
“Bring him,” snarled the Archon. “Immediately.”
One of the guards that had grabbed Dagna saluted the Archon and quickly made his way out of the tent.
Dagna licked her lips. She had caused a problem without knowing it. She was fond of Seneca, even on his snarkiest days. “Look, I didn’t hear it from him. I heard it from one of the other wardens. Low-ranking, too. Please don’t be hard on him, Caesar. Maybe it didn’t even come from him.”
“Mind your tongue,” the Archon snapped. “Who are you to tell me how to run my Empire? Guards, show the Lieutenant out.”
Dagna had a mere moment to catch the sympathetic expression upon King Alistair’s face before two guards grabbed her arms, turned her around, and unceremoniously and rather roughly dumped her outside of the tent in a heap of flesh and leather.
Standing up, Dagna straightened her uniform, frowned, and headed toward the tent that she used as a private workshop. Her thoughts jumbled with worry about everything in the world – Seneca himself, the way that King Alistair looked, the Wardens, and her parents. Were they still alive? It had been twelve years since she had seen them last.
She spent the next two hours in her workshop alone, uninterrupted, and being far too loud on purpose. She hammered nails with full force, sloshed water on hot gears with a satisfying and mighty hiss of steam, and let the parts of three engines clatter about on her worktable.
It was for that reason that she did not even see nor hear King Alistair enter the tent. She was not even aware of his presence until she turned around, caught sight of him sitting in her chair and studying a slice of cheese and a hunk of bread that she had intended to eat for her afternoon meal, and gasped in surprise. She dropped the box of gears that she had been carrying, and they scattered about the dirt floor with a long series of rattles and clanks.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” Alistair said with what looked like a tired smirk. “It was fun watching you work. Are you going to eat that?” He pointed at the cheese.
“I…no?” Dagna stooped over, scrambling to catch the scattering parts. “No, I’m not hungry. Please. Help yourself.” She fought to keep her voice polite. After all, she was speaking to a King.
“Thanks.” Alistair snatched up the cheese and began tearing off large chunks. He continued to speak as he chewed the chunks one by one. “Been very hungry lately. Must be the legendary Grey Warden appetite. Camp cooks can’t manage to keep up.”
Though every single word had been spoken cheerfully, something in what Alistair said settled into Dagna’s stomach and began to burn. “Um, forgive me if I’m being too familiar,” she said in a quiet voice. “But…it’s the Calling, isn’t it?”
Alistair did not bother to stop chewing, nor did he break eye contact with her, as he nodded his head. “Yeah. It’s obvious, isn’t it? I’ve been trying to hide it from my troops, but I’m just not doing a very good job. Look, don’t spread that around. Let rumors be rumors. We’ve got a war to win, and I don’t want everyone to lose morale.”
Dagna nodded her head. The burning feeling within her stomach rose up and settled as a heavy weight in her chest. “Your secret is safe with me, Majesty.”
“I didn’t come here to talk about that, though. Getting sort of tired of talking about it, really.” Alistair pointed at the bread, raising both eyebrows in a questioning expression. “The constant grumbling in my head makes it worse. I wanted to tell you about what’s going on in Orzammar.”
Dagna waved a hand toward him. “Please. You want some acorn ale? It’s fizzy, not strong.”
Alistair looked delighted for a moment. “That sounds great – if you weren’t going to drink it yourself, of course. Anyway. Orzammar. The Dwarves know that Orlais is coming for them, and they know from where. Legion of the Dead scouts in the Dead Trenches haven’t sighted any of them, and those dwarves are the best that there are. They’d know if the Chantry Troops made it that far.”
Opening the wax seal on the battle with a pop, Dagna extended the bottle toward Alistair. “So you’re saying that Orlais is stuck down there, or dead already. Or both.”
“Pretty much.” Alistair took a sip of the ale, his eyes widening with delight. “This is delicious. Sweeter than I thought it would be. Look, this Exalted March was a terrible mistake on Orlais’s part. Worse for the Anderfels. Now I’m cross with them, the Archon is cross with them, and they probably lost ten thousand men and women down there, along with their Wardens.” He tore off a chunk of bread with his teeth.
“The Archon is cross with everyone,” Dagna said in a soft voice.
“Eh, he likes you and your machines. You caught him with his trousers down. Seneca’s fine, we’re all fine – well, except for the Orlesians and the Anders down in the Deep Roads. That was a mistake.” Alistair chewed the bread, then swallowed. “Anyway, that’s it. I just wanted you to know that Orzammar is safe, and probably is going to stay that way. The Dead Trenches are brutal. I’ve been there. I doubt that the troops will ever get to the Legion’s front lines, let alone to Orzammar.”
Dagna nodded her head. Going back to her table, she placed the box of gears on top of it, then found a short barrel to climb onto. She sat comfortably on the top, her legs dangling.
She knew that this news should have given her comfort, but it didn’t. Orzammar was safe, but Ferelden’s king was dying a horribly slow, painful death. It was a fate that Anders had only half-avoided in his transformation, but one that Sigrun would someday know.
The last thing she wanted to do was to make Alistair feel unwanted in this room, even though the sight of him made Dagna think of Sigrun, and see that smiling, wonderful face so withered and darkened by the Taint.
“Do you want some cakes? I think I want some,” said Dagna, crossing her legs. “They’re in the bag next to the plate over there. I made them with my rations. They’re not too bad.”