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Reunion

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Gwen was much too late for breakfast with the Inquisitor, so she made a sandwich of some bread and cheese from the Great Hall and ate it while she put on her armor. She tried to pretend that she wasn’t watching herself in the mirror, admiring how Alistair’s deep red shirt looked under her bright chestplate. Aside from the fact that it was a distinctly royal garment—and therefore indisputably his—she hadn’t owned any clothing this nice since she lived at Highever. She never would have guessed that she missed the finery, but the color was so different from the dusty blue of the Warden uniform that she found her eyes drawn back to it over and over.

Eventually she managed to get all her armor buckled on, and she crammed the rest of her sandwich into her mouth while she swiped at her hair with a brush and braided it. She belted her sword at her hip and hefted her shield onto her back and, with one last glance at herself in the mirror, strode down to the courtyard to meet the Inquisitor.

Rena stood in their normal meeting place by the sparring dummies in the courtyard, but the usual crowd of mages and footsoldiers was absent. Instead, she was surrounded by a group of the Inquisition’s inner circle, many of whom Gwen had come to know (at least in passing) in the last week. Unusually, however, all seemed dressed for training: Dorian and Vivienne were wearing light armor over outfits more practical than their usual attire; Josephine had swapped out her golden dress for neat dark blue trousers and a ruffled blouse, and her hair was pinned tight at the back of her head; Varric looked much like he always did, but he had his crossbow cradled easily in his arms and an array of wicked-looking bolts strapped to his back. Cullen and Leliana stood off to the side, looking their typical formidable selves.

“Good morning, Gwen,” Rena greeted her as she approached. “Just in time. Cullen and I agreed to give the recruits the day off, so today we’re going to work with my inner circle in preparation for our journey to the Storm Coast.”

“You wish to learn to fight, Lady Montilyet?” Gwen asked, a little surprised. The Antivan woman had always struck her as the type who preferred arranging words and flowers to the sword. “I assumed that you would be staying behind at Skyhold—is the entire inner circle accompanying us?”

Josephine and Rena shared a slightly amused look. “Not learning, Lady Cousland—practicing,” Josephine corrected her, perhaps with slightly more smugness than was proper for a diplomat. “I may be more familiar with the pen than with the daggers these days, but Corypheus seems to have no qualms when it comes to targeting non-soldiers. Besides, as we saw at Halamshiral, the nobles themselves are not above a little violence—though I have no intention of returning to my previous trade, I would like to feel confident that I may defend myself should the need arise. But you are correct, I will be remaining at Skyhold for the time being.”

“Of course,” Gwen deferred. “But—” she hefted her sword and shield—“if your proficiency is with daggers, wouldn’t you rather spar with someone who wields the same?”

“I doubt our enemies will be so courteous.”

“Fair.”

Cullen, who had been watching the exchange with a perfectly neutral expression, spoke up. “Josephine, you needn’t to worry about an attack on Skyhold. My men—”

“Are not always here in large numbers,” the diplomat cut smoothly over him. “And one day, when you and the Inquisitor are off laying siege to some fortress and Corypheus decides it’s time to strike—when the last of us here are barricaded in the dungeon—”

If that happens, Josie, you won’t be here alone.” Varric’s voice was soft, reassuring.

A few other members of the Inquisition nodded their agreement—Dorian and the Iron Bull shared a significant glance—and Gwen was suddenly an outsider again. Any romantic ideas about some permanent home at Skyhold fluttered away, but the moment held no melancholy. Now that she had another home waiting for her, it was just sweet to observe the Inquisition’s camaraderie.

“Very well,” Gwen agreed. “I shall do my best to fight like a Darkspawn, should anyone be interested in learning how to fight one.”

The moment broke and the Inquisitor and her comrades looked back at the Grey Warden before them.

“I shall go first,” Josephine volunteered. She pulled two daggers from the belt at her hip and smiled eagerly. “I think I have something to prove, now.”

“Very well. Dorian with Bull, Leliana with Varric, if you please, and Vivienne with Cassandra—Cullen, you’re with Sera, and I’ll spar with Cole.” Rena partnered everyone off with a few sharp gestures. “Remember, the point of this exercise is to push yourself beyond your usual fighting style. Play nice, everyone. We’ll rotate in a few minutes. Begin!”

The partners shuffled off to different areas of the sparring ground, some looking more pleased with their assignments than others. Josephine looked back at the others and sniffed. “I wonder when the Inquisitor will realize that she doesn’t need to try and push Bull and Dorian together. That’s going to happen regardless.”

Gwen laughed. “I wouldn’t know. Do you think so?”

“Oh, of course.” Josephine took a defensive stance, daggers held up before her. “Ready, Lady Cousland?”

“Ready.”

Josephine turned out to be a formidable adversary. She was noticeably out of practice, to be sure, but she pulled a few ingenious twirls that almost landed strikes around Gwen’s shield. Gwen tried to take it easy on her at first, but in the end that proved impossible. On the other hand, it was also inconceivable to use the full force of her sword and shield against someone wielding daggers, so Gwen settled for blocking with her sword and shoving with her shield. Not exactly Darkspawn tactics, but still an exercise in adaptation for both of them.

After a brisk and refreshing match with Josephine, Gwen was paired with Cullen, who fought just like every other Templar she’d met: sturdy, strong, and cautious. His guard was impeccable. Neither of them landed a hit until Gwen mimicked one of Josephine’s spins and lashed at his legs; when it came time to rotate again, she suggested that he try his hand against the Inquisition’s ambassador.

She made her way through most of the Inquisition’s inner circle in these quick matches. She fought Vivienne (classically trained mage), Dorian (impeccable form with a slight flair), the Iron Bull (nothing less than a force of nature), and Sera (quick-moving archer, too prone to taunting for her own good). By afternoon, she was aching but exhilarated by the challenge of being thoroughly trained rather than just training recruits.

In contrast, the evening spent in the library seemed especially unbearable. The first of the books Dorian had helped her send away for had started to arrive, but she still didn’t have a single lead. By the time dinnertime came, Gwen was all too ready to push aside her books, take a brisk walk around the battlements to stretch out the soreness from her legs, and head to meet Alistair for a quick meal before falling into bed with laughter and kisses.


 

Rough stone. Cool against bare feet. Fingers trailing through the dampness of the walls. Step. Step. Step. Drawn forward as though by a string. Threads, stitched behind her eyes and in the beds of her nails. Tugging. Sliding. Reaching for something, reaching, reaching. Skin mottled, rotting, peeling back from her bones as it blackens and melts—

Gwen jolted awake with a gasp. Something lay across her chest and she pushed it off, rolled away—there were blankets wrapped around her legs, and she fell headfirst off the bed, landing hard on her forearms.

“Gwen?” Alistair’s groggy, concerned voice reminded her of where she was as she slithered the rest of the way onto the floor.

“Yeah. I’m fine.” She lay on the cold stone for a moment in the dark and let her sweat turn clammy and her racing heart calm. “Just a nightmare.”

There was a muffled curse and the sound of fumbling, then a match struck. Alistair lit a taper and held it up, illuminating Gwen’s sprawling position. They looked at each other for a minute.

“The Calling?” Alistair asked eventually.

“Yes.”

He sighed and kneaded his eyes with his free hand. “Me too. Every night.”

Gwen pushed herself into a seated position and then stood, wincing when she moved her bruised arms. “If it was like it was during the Blight—those flashes of the Archdemon, even the pain—I don’t know, I think I could handle that. These dreams are just bits and pieces of me walking through the Deep Roads, and I always want to be there. I always want to keep walking.”

“Me too. It’s disturbing, is what it is.”

Alistair shuffled over and rearranged the blankets so that Gwen could climb comfortably back into bed, but she remained standing. “Actually, I think I need a quick walk. That was a bad one.”

Nodding sympathetically, Alistair passed her the candle so she could find enough clothes to make herself decent. “Do you want company?”

“No, I’m all right. Just a little fresh air. Maybe some water.” Gwen paused her rummaging to throw him a tight smile. “Try to go back to sleep, all right? I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“All right…” Alistair ran his hands over the hem of the blanket, his mouth pressed into a thin line. “Will you wake me up when you come back?”

“You’re sure?”

He looked at her, and in his eyes she could see the same simple honesty and affection that made her fall in love with him ten years ago. “I’m sure.”

Gwen took a deep breath and let her face relax into a genuine smile as she exhaled. “Then yes, I’ll wake you up. I love you.”

“I love you too.” Alistair burrowed back down under the covers, half-lidded eyes still watching as she finished getting dressed and slipped outside.

The night was the coldest Gwen had felt since she had arrived at Skyhold, and the stars weren’t even visible to offer comfort. Instead, a low, dense mist had settled over the walls of the keep, as though it had been snagged on its way past and was now caught on the battlements. It lent a dampness to the air that cut right through every layer of clothing, even through skin and flesh, to chill one’s bones. It was difficult to see anything; Gwen could just make out the perpetual candlelight of the guard tower that kept watch over the garden, but in the direction of the main courtyard, all that was visible was a shifting grey mass. She pulled her vest tighter around her and wished for gloves and a scarf.

She didn’t really have an idea of where she wanted to go, so she let her feet take the most familiar path—towards the Great Hall. The massive room was not as deserted as Gwen would have guessed for whatever unholy hour it was. A few soldiers sat around by the low fires, apparently enjoying the warm space now that it had been vacated by nobles for the night. One dwarven figure was hunched over a table near the main entrance to the hall: Varric.

He looked up and set down his quill when he heard her approaching footsteps. “Lady Cousland. You’re up late.”

“You don’t have to call me Lady Cousland,” Gwen deflected. “I’m not much one for titles.”

“Ah, just Cousland then. You know, most of the people who ‘aren’t much one for titles’ are the ones who have never had to experience life without one.”

His tone was not unkind, so Gwen smiled. “A fair point. Perhaps I should say instead that I don’t feel very connected to my title since the death of my parents—my brother is Arl, now, and I haven’t been back to Highever in years.”

“Understandable.” Varric sat back slightly, and Gwen had the unnerving sense that she had just been given a test; whether or not she had passed was questionable, but Varric gestured to the bench across from himself, so she sat. “I’m sorry about your parents.”

“Thank you. It was years ago—the beginning of the Blight. Not a fresh wound by any means.”

“Sometimes it’s the older aches that surprise us when they do flare up.” He picked up his quill and began scribbling again, and for a few seconds it was as though he had forgotten she was there. Gwen took the opportunity to glance around her. Shadows crept up the walls of the hall and pooled on the ceiling, diluted only by the dim starlight that filtered through the massive round window high above the Inquisitor’s throne. The last few gossiping soldiers seemed to be falling asleep before the embers, and one of them was trying to convince her companions to leave for bed.

When the scratching stopped, Gwen looked back to Varric, who was examining her. He pointed with the tip of his quill. “Nice shirt, by the way.”

There was no question of his meaning. “Thank you. You’re the first one to notice.”

“The first person to say anything, you mean,” Varric corrected her with a snort. “I guarantee Vivienne and Dorian noticed it was a men’s shirt. Josie definitely recognized it exactly. The Inquisitor’s a sharp one, but she wouldn’t say anything in front of the group—even Curly’s not dim.”

Gwen picked at the embroidered collar. “And the writer, of course, notices everything.”

“You bet.”

“Well, I hope I haven’t offended anyone’s sensibilities.”

Varric snorted again. “I doubt it. That would take a lot, and besides—your history together is Thedas’s worst-kept secret.”

“Oh, so I hear.” Gwen’s mouth quirked into a smile at the memory of a particularly bawdy tavern song that was a favorite in Denerim’s seedier establishments. “The things we allegedly did together are enough to make anyone blush.”

“You’re lucky to have a second chance,” Varric said, running his fingers over the cramped lines of ink on the parchment before him. “Some people don’t get that.”

Gwen watched the muscles in his jaw shift has he closed his mouth hard on any further speech. Had he lost someone? Or was this someone else’s story, perhaps from his years in Kirkwall? “Varric?”

“Hm?”

“Is there—do you have a story? About someone not getting a second chance?”

He chuckled. “I always have a story.”

She waited for a moment, but he seemed to have no intention of saying anything further. His eyes were focused behind her, somewhere in the shadowy emptiness of the room—behind both of them, somewhere in the years that clung to their feet like cobwebs.

“I’d like to hear it, if you’re willing,” she prompted eventually. The memory was clearly heavy on his shoulders, and Gwen remembered the catharsis of pouring out her heart to people on the road she’d never see again. She and Varric were on good terms, but she wouldn’t call them friends. Perhaps there were things that he couldn’t tell the Inquisitor now that they were close.

Varric focused back on her, mouth thin but not angry. “Tell you what, Cousland. You go first. Give me a story I can use—something worth writing about, or adapting into one of my books—and I’ll tell you my story about missed chances.”

“All right.” She settled back on her bench and wracked her memory for something weighty enough to balance Varric’s story of loss. “All right,” she said again as the words settled heavy on her tongue. “I think I have one.”

Varric nodded, set down his quill, and laced his fingers together in preparation.

“I was only at Ostagar for two days before the battle. I only knew Alistair and the Warden who recruited me, plus two other recruits who died right away. All through the Blight, it was just me and Alistair—we met one other Warden at the final battle in Denerim, but he perished fighting the Archdemon.

“I never had the chance to work with other Wardens until after the coronation.” Gwen trailed her finger through a few drops of water on the table; they sank into the grain as she dragged them along. “Then, a few senior Wardens were sent from Orlais and the Free Marches. We had to rebuild the order in Ferelden. And there weren’t enough of us, so we had to recruit new warriors.”

“What’s that process like?”

Gwen shrugged. “Lots of traveling around, looking for young people of the right age who survived the Blight. There weren’t many, as I’m sure you can imagine, and most of those didn’t have the combat skills we needed. There were a few in Redcliffe, and some to the North—anyplace where there weren’t as many Darkspawn.”

“And how does one become a Grey Warden?”

Coughing up blood, choking on it, burning in the stomach like dragonfire—eyes rolled back to stare into the blackness of the skull—convulsing muscles contorting the body into impossible arrangements—

“You know I can’t tell you that.”

Varric chuckled. “It was worth a try.”

“Anyway, we found a few people. An apostate or two, some street thieves in the cities, swordsmen whose hometowns had been destroyed while they were off fighting—the usual desperate bunch who are attracted to the Wardens. One young man was apprenticed to me.

“He was a mage. His family kicked him out when they realized, when he was just eight. He’d been begging on the streets of Denerim for years. The battle scared him out and we found him half-starved in the woods along the road. He didn’t want to talk. He’d seen too much, I think. We understood each other though. I didn’t want to recruit him, actually. It’s a—” Gwen’s eyes flickered around, looking for an explanation—“a strenuous process, let’s say. I thought it would break him. But he was a powerful mage and he… did well in the Joining.

“The two of us left to clear out some lingering Darkspawn from the Korcari Wilds. The rest of the group continued North to find more recruits. He was just a couple of years younger than me—we were friends. He was the most comforting thing I had after I… after my companions and I went separate ways.”

“Did you love him?” Varric’s question, spoken in a soft, prompting voice, seemed natural in the late-night darkness of the hall.

Gwen shook her head slowly, then stopped. Her gaze focused on the uneven stone of the wall behind Varric. “He reminded me of my brother.”

She cleared her throat. “Anyway, we struck camp one morning, and there was this deep fog all throughout the marshes. It was impossible to see. But we were having a fantastic time—collecting rocks from the edge of the water, comparing the shades of blue and green and grey—like we were children. And then we found Darkspawn tracks.

We followed them up a hill. It was a gentle slope, right up into the fog, and he climbed ahead of me. His armor was much lighter than mine. We got to the top, and someone had stacked a pile of stones, one on top of the other. They were precarious. They looked like they should have fallen, but there they were.” Gwen laughed darkly. “He pointed at them, and he said ‘Look.’ The only word he’d ever said out loud.

“And then he screamed, because he had found what the stones were marking: a sheer drop, thirty feet down directly onto the rocks below.” Gwen sighed, too used to the memory for it to bring tears to her eyes, but the image was vivid all the same. “I ran back down and around but I was too late. He’d dashed out his brains out on the rocks when he fell. Probably died as soon as he hit.”

Slimy and wet, a wall of stone like the one from her dream, rusty stains across its face from where he’d bumped his way down, and the contents of his head already seeping into the spongy earth.

Varric sucked in a quick breath through his teeth. “That’s awful.”

“Yeah.” Gwen picked at a tiny splinter at the edge of the table. “Years of nightmares, let me tell you. It really made me reconsider a lot of things.” Varric gave her an inquiring look, so she shrugged. “You know the Warden motto, I’m sure: in war, victory; in peace, vigilance; in death sacrifice. Well, he hadn’t found any victory in war—just hardship. Peace brought hypervigilance because he was in danger every moment of the day and night. And his death held no sacrifice. It was meaningless, and sudden, and much, much too early.” She shook her head. “I was such an idealist when I was young. Even during the Blight, I thought I’d die in glory, saving lives or even battling the Archdemon. After that moment, I realized that death can find anyone at any second. At the end of a good life, or just as you’re getting back on your feet to really get started—a misstep, a sudden illness, a cliff in the fog—you’re gone.”

“Hm,” Varric agreed. “It’s a roll of the dice.”

“And more than that, I was responsible for him. I was supposed to be training him, of course, but I was also supposed to safeguard him until he was powerful enough to hold his own.” She bit her lip—not quite hard enough to draw blood, but close. “It was a waste.”

“Did you find them?”

Gwen glanced up. “What?”

“The Darkspawn you were tracking. Did you find them?”

“Oh. Yes.” She squeezed her eyes shut, struggling to remember. “About a dozen, just wandering. No direction after the Archdemon was dead. I slit their throats. Then I built a cairn. And then I traveled North, alone, to rejoin the other Wardens. Actually, you’re the first person to hear that story.” She smiled, but she didn’t need a mirror to tell that it looked haunted. “I told the other Wardens that we were surprised and he died saving my neck. That he did well, that he—”

“Sacrificed himself.”

“Yeah.”

They both sat in silence for a while. Gwen had been trying for years not to remember—it had been the final, perhaps the deepest wound just a few months after the Archdemon’s defeat, and it had left her hollow and emotionless for months more. But there was something now about telling the story that eased the weight. The narrative was no longer hers. It would show up in one of Varric’s adventure novels, perhaps as a tragic backstory for one of his heroes—the spark of a revenge plot.

And for the first time, she allowed herself to picture the long mound of rocks that still sat somewhere in the Wilds. It would be covered in mosses and vines, now, and probably settled over the decaying body it held. Perhaps it bore flowers in the spring. Perhaps birds nested in the gaps between the stones. He would have liked that, she thought, and a single unbidden tear fell onto her hand.

“All right, Cousland, that’s payment enough for my story,” Varric said, startling her out of her reflection. “Well, not my story. Hawke’s, and—others’.”

Gwen shook her head. “If you don’t want to tell me, Varric, you don’t have to.”

“No, you trusted me with a valuable story. I can do the same.” He cleared his throat, shifted a little in his seat. “It probably starts even before I met Hawke. She told me she was always the one to take care of her siblings. Twins—Bethany and Carver. They fled Lothering when the Blight took it, and Carver died on the road. But she got Bethany and her mother to Kirkwall, and she carved out a living for them.

“She was used to gathering people around her and then fighting with everything she had to keep them safe. She collected us, really—rescued us from nighttime skirmishes, followed the rumors to people who needed protecting—and everyone got a hell of a lot of second chances. Anything she could do for us, she did. And for the most part, we paid her back however we could.

“Things started changing, though. Tensions rose. Things got more complicated. Secrets came to light.” It was Varric’s turn to sigh. “There was an elf we picked up named Fenris. Escaped from slavery in Tevinter, and determined to get revenge on his former master. He’d traced him to Kirkwall, and Hawke fell for him as soon as she saw him. I think they balanced each other in a lot of ways—she made sure he took care of himself, he taught her that it was okay to get angry. How to use her anger to get shit done.

“He didn’t love her like she loved him, though. I don’t know all the details, but I know he’d been through some horrible things, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he spooked as soon as she got close. Some of the people in the group started fighting among themselves, and he and this mage Anders were constantly at each other’s throats.”

The name pricked at Gwen’s recognition, but instead she said, “His former master was a magister?”

“Exactly. Fenris wasn’t a fan of any mage, but Anders couldn’t talk about anything besides the injustice of the Circles. Said some nasty things about Fenris once or twice too. Not that he was a bad person—but everyone around Hawke was an outcast, and they all had some pretty strong ideas about who to blame for putting them in their situations. Fenris and Anders constantly clashed over that and I think it wore Hawke out.

“Fenris started distancing himself. I watched Hawke try to reach out, but no matter what she did, he saw it as an insult. Didn’t want her help, even as we all still depended on her in a lot of ways.” Varric barked a laugh. “And Hawke knew. She saw everyone keeping behind her sword and then sneaking off to make bad choices when she wasn’t there. And everyone ran back to her as soon as things backfired. She started withdrawing, too.

“Everything came down to the night the Chantry was destroyed, of course. We had to decide who to side with. In the end, Hawke hated to write off the Templars, but she couldn’t justify allying with Meredith in her insanity. And we all knew that the mages were being taken advantage of.

“Fenris wasn’t having it. He told Hawke he’d never fight alongside the mages. She let him go—Maker, I’ll never forget her face. And she sent Anders away. And then she gathered the rest of us together, because even if we’d never done anything but get her into trouble she still thought of us as family. And we all made our stand, battling against Templars and blood mages alike.”

Varric’s voice trailed off as he described the carnage, but suddenly his gaze snapped back to Gwen, who was listening with rapt attention. She knew the rumors about the role Hawke had played in Kirkwall, she’d heard the songs, but this was more than she’d ever known about the woman.

“We cleared out one massive room as we were heading towards the Gallows for the last stand, but before we could make it to the door, Fenris appeared. He told Hawke he couldn’t let her keep going—that it was her or him, and he wouldn’t let her fight alongside the mages.”

Varric wet his lips. “He was scared, but he was good at hiding it. Even when she begged. And Maker, she begged. She threw down her sword and refused. She cried. We didn’t know what to do, so we just watched.

“She didn’t move until he rushed her. Then she dodged, and dodged again—it was a long time before she picked up her sword. Even then, it was only to block. Aveline tried to step in once, but Hawke shouted her down. In the end, we just stood there and watched her plead while he kept slashing at her. He didn’t say a word.

“I can’t say exactly how it ended, but from where I was standing…” Varric picked up his quill, turned it over as he became engrossed in examining it to avoid eye contact. “It looked like he ran right onto her sword. One clean drive right through his ribs, and then he was just hanging there.

“She tipped her sword down and he slid to the ground. And then she looked back at us, and down at him again. None of us could see his face, but we all knew he was dead. And she turned and walked out, and we went with her.”

Gwen shook her head, shocked. “Varric, I’m so sorry. That must have—Maker—”

“She hasn’t been the same after that,” he murmured. “Even when she was here, she was pretty empty.”

“It’s—it’s hard to feel that you’ve lost a friend when they’re still alive,” Gwen said tentatively.

Varric laughed a short laugh, too loud in the now empty hall. The soldiers must have gone to bed at last. “No kidding, Cousland. No kidding. Ah, well.” He looked up at her and flashed an empty smile. “There’s my story. Like I said: you’re lucky to have a second chance.”

Gwen thought back to Alistair, nestled alone in the blankets just a few hundred yards away. She thought of the caresses of his hands in the past few days, and of the kisses they had shared in hidden corners of Skyhold.

“Yes, I am,” she said softly. “Varric?”

“Hm.”

“Thank you.”

He smiled a little more genuinely this time. “A story for a story—that’s a fair trade.” He stirred his ink with his quill and blotted it on a piece of paper he had set off to the side, apparently expressly for that purpose. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I feel my writer’s block receding. And you’re probably tired.”

She wasn’t, but she stood anyway. “I’ll let you get back to work. Goodnight, Varric.”

“Goodnight Cousland.”

Gwen turned and meandered her way back out of the hall. She had thought before that she might go to the kitchens and get a hot drink, but Varric’s story made her long to be back with Alistair as soon as possible. Back through the chill night air, back along the walkway above the courtyard, back through the doorway into the warmth and dim light of the fire, and Alistair sat up in bed as soon as she entered the room. She smiled, her heart full.

“You didn’t go back to sleep?”

“’S waiting for you. I wanted to make sure that you came back to bed.”

Gwen shucked her vest and shoes and crawled up next to him; he sighed happily, laughing when she ran her cold fingers over his neck, and curled up so that she could hug him from behind as they lay. She kissed the bumps of his vertebrae up the back of his neck. “That’s sweet of you.”

“Ready to go back to sleep?”

“I don’t think so,” she murmured into his skin. “’M not tired yet. But I wanted to come back and be with you.”

“Ew,” Alistair said, and by the sound of his voice Gwen could tell that he was already falling asleep. “Cheesy.”

“I know.” She felt him breathe in her arms, warm and steady.

Her sword grating against his ribs, blood pouring out of the wound, and his body slowly becoming dead weight as it sank to the ground—crown falling to roll across the floor—

Gwen jolted awake. She didn’t remember falling asleep, but suddenly the dream had been there: an all-too-vivid nightmare that didn’t feel like it stemmed from the Calling at all.

Alistair was still asleep in her arms. He still breathed, and his heartbeat still tapped softly within his ribcage. Gwen could feel it where her chest was pressed against his back.

She sighed again, exhaustion pulling at the corners of her eyes, and settled in for a night of poor sleep.