The mist hung heavily across the bay. Denerim sat upon the southwestern shore, a shadowy smudge upon the horizon. A small ship made its way with a slow steadiness to the north, heading for a peninsula of cliffside that helped to protect a major gateway into Ferelden. The sails were white and plain. No flag hung from mast or prow. Its shape was vaguely Antivan in profile but with curious openings cut along the middle deck hull. The figures that moved about on board were as silent as the fog about them.
But this was no stealth mission. Some of these souls were seeking a new place to call home, guided by the tides and new allies. A few looked at it as a return to a home they had long lost and were overwhelmed with emotion to see again.
Marian Hawke stood at the rail, her green eyes fixed upon their destination with a sort of hopeful sadness. Once, she'd hoped to bring her mother and siblings back here when all threat of Blight was long past. The hand fate dealt was quite different. Swoop, the loyal family mabari, was still with her, but her family had grown exponentially despite her losses. She had more brothers and sisters, all of whom would die for her as readily as she would for them. She had a full heart for the first time since her father's death. And she had a son to whom she could pass her wisdom—even though the rules of family were no longer so exclusive. She knew he was of her blood even if he never would. And that was all that mattered.
"It's rather foreboding, isn't it?"
The willowy elven woman was at Marian's side like a ghost. Merrill...an unexpected companion on this journey but nonetheless welcome. She'd promised no blood magic. Despite this, she'd been assigned an Arvaraad, and he stood not five paces off seeming to appear disinterested. A delicate ploy. Even Marian approved of the caution.
Merrill gestured out into the shadowy mists. "The weather. The shore. The knowledge that the only place the banns saw fit to let us live was an old Tevinter ruin. Well, to let the Qunari live. I'm sure the rest of us can go wherever. Don't you think?"
"I am Qunari, Merrill."
"Oh, right," came the sheepish reply. "I keep forgetting about that. You just...don't look like they do. Being shem and all. And redheaded. And hornless. And shem."
Marian sighed. She'd learned quickly that there were some things impossible to explain. Still, she was glad for Merrill's company. It gave her someone to talk to with Varric and Isabela off on some secret mission. It involved King Alistair. That was all she knew. Isabela had been excited about it well enough, and Marian made Varric promise he would write all of it down, even if the rest of the world could never know. Even with her new place in life, or perhaps due to it, Marian wanted little more than to be with the friends who had seen her to Par Vollen and back. Fenris was about somewhere, but his place was with the soldiers on a ship yet to follow.
For a time, they watched the far shore draw closer in silence. The ship moved up the estuary along the eastern shoreline, and it was not much longer before a shadow as imposing as the spires of Denerim appeared through the fog like the parting of a veil. An old lighthouse stood crumbling and dark at the very perimeter of a massive structure. Walls several spans high rose into the air, encasing arched buttresses and a fortress of gray stone that had watched Ages pass by without a thought for it. Where Soldier's Peak had been avoided for its ghosts and demons, Viricum had been shunned for its inhospitable terrain and proximity to the Brecilian Forest. No noble in his right mind had wanted to reclaim it.
Marian couldn't help but feel like they'd been had. Alistair had taken his leave of the country long before deliberations on a home for the Qunari had been completed. He had put his trust in Bann Teagan. Teagan had laid it at the feet of those lesser, and it was only when the Warden-Commander stepped in that anything came to fruition. She had been fair in allowing Kithshok to choose something that would be easily defensible while still catering to the skittish population that—despite Sten's heroism—preferred to keep Qunari out of sight and out of mind. Merrill said she knew the area from when her clan still wandered the woods. It would have to do.
A wind blew in from off the sea. Winter was fast upon them, and the chill had become an unfamiliar thing after Par Vollen. The former Champion of Kirkwall hugged her arms tightly to her, cursing that the crimson fibers of her shift were not thicker or spun of wool. Seasons in the tropics were merely dry or wet. There was no break from the heat. Here, she was surprised she could not see her breath and clenched her jaws together to keep her teeth from chattering.
A weight fell about her shoulders like a warm embrace, a light trim of fur tickling her neck where it was exposed from her hair being bound up. Marian spun about in surprised but quickly eased when her gaze traveled up the line of a broad chest until it met a face returning a barely perceptible smile.
"You forgot your cloak below, kadan." It was Kithshok...Aqunan...that part of her soul she could never be without. His asala sash from his days as Taarbas she wore always about her waist. Her Amell family shield he bore as his own for the same reasons. In so many ways were they bound, but it was a confinement in which they were beyond content.
She felt a blush when his fingers grazed her cheek. Merrill was looking on in wonder, used to only seeing the great kossith male from a distance and avoiding him whenever she could. She avoided all of them, her Arvaraad intimidating enough. Marian forgot that some were not so used to their presence being a benign thing as others.
"The healer is nice enough," the elf had told her once when they were still visitors in Denerim. "She reminds me a bit of Anders."
"Asari?" Marian had scoffed. "How could she possibly remind you of Anders?"
"It's in her eyes, I think. It's like she has seen far more than any mortal soul should be able to bear...and still sees it...as if even blinking can't make it go away."
Tender though he was toward Marian, Kithshok did not trust Merrill. She was a saarebas and had spent far too long in the corruption of Kirkwall. He made no effort to conceal this point. Marian did not interfere, did not attempt to be a buffer or a mediator. She did not try to make anyone friends with anyone else. She understood matters far too well to even bother.
But her mind wasn't thinking at all of Merrill's shock or puzzling through how to alleviate the discomfort of a friend. Her whole world had become the existence of two people and the smell of the sea. It was half a breath of time captured in that light and accidental touch. If her sense were not stronger, Marian would have thought the clouds to have parted, the fog to have lifted, and the sun to have come to bathe them all in a warm and golden light.
The chill still held on. The damp still permeated every fiber and thickened every breath. Kithshok's hands were back at his sides, and Marian was left to shrug her cloak better about her to stay warm. A call came out from the crow's nest above to signal that an appropriate landing site was within view. Arvaraad stepped forward and said something lowly for Kithshok's ears only, and the Qunari general nodded.
"I recommend you get below with the other women," he said, his eyes on Marian while addressing them both. "We don't know what might be waiting."
"It's a gift with teeth," Marian commented with a glance over her shoulder. They were fully in the shadow of the fortress, its crumbling, ancient stone close enough to see rivulets of moisture glittering upon the surface, coursing downward along cracks and growths of brown moss.
"Perhaps, but our duty is clear. We preserve what we can and rebuild what we must. We are here to fulfill a demand of the Qun, kadan, and this is not the first time any of us have been handed a prison in which to live freely."
The woman's stomach clenched at those particular memories of Kirkwall, the Qunari soldiers shoved like cattle into a sequestered area of the docks, a firetrap of a warehouse for a home. The shadow of Viricum grew all the darker and colder for the very thought that her own people, her own native Ferelden, could be so ignorant as a city whose history is long-steeped in slavery and dark magics. But she remembered how she had felt about Sten when he was imprisoned in Lothering, her sister's nightmares, her brother's ferocity at defending his family. If the Blight hadn't come and nothing had changed, she doubted she would have been any different than the fear-addled banns.
And that made her feel worse.
But she was not the same. She had grown past the closeted ignorance, had experienced the cosmopolitan wisdom of a people who knew the worth of learning everything just to know that what was simplest was best. She had been Ben-Hassrath, a guardian. She was now Basarigena, and it would be up to her to ensure that the society she had come to love would continue to function with utmost efficiency.
We are here to fulfill a demand of the Qun.
And this was only the beginning.