“Do you intend to sleep in the library, or shall I shelve that for you?” someone asked, their voice filled with dry amusement.
Gwen bolted upright. One of the book’s pages came with her, affixed to her cheek by the small pool of saliva that had accumulated since she had fallen asleep. She hastily pulled it away and smoothed it back into the book. It looked all right, though the hand-illustrated gryphon illuminating the margins was a little worse for wear. Squinting up in the darkness of the room (why was it dark?), she could barely make out Dorian’s outline.
“What time is it?” she asked, astonishing herself with the hoarseness of her voice.
“Well after dinner,” the mage said. He crooked his mouth in a wry smile. “In fact, I think most everyone has headed to bed.”
Gwen cursed and slammed her book shut. “Why didn’t you wake me up earlier?”
“I did, when you started shouting. You sat up, said something about Darkspawn, and passed out again.” He sat down, tossing the tails of his coat through the back of the chair, and crossed his arms on the table. “What’s wrong, has a certain friend of yours been keeping you up all night?”
“Maker, I wish that was the problem,” she blurted without thinking, making Dorian laugh. Then she remembered that she had never discussed her relationship with Alistair with the mage. “That obvious, are we?”
“Exceptionally. It’s really quite sweet.”
Gwen added her book to the growing “useless” pile at her right elbow. “Well, that’s not my issue. The Calling won’t stop waking me up in the middle of the night. Nightmares, aches—it keeps getting worse,” she admitted.
“It’s very odd, you know,” Dorian said, running his fingers over the spine of a thick tome that was bound in suspicious, oily leather. “I’ve never heard Blackwall complain of such things. The man snores like a saw.”
“The Inquisitor did mention that he seemed to be experiencing it differently—or not at all,” Gwen confirmed. She stood and went to the window. It was indeed late, as evidenced by the inky blackness of Skyhold, broken only by the occasional candle or torch. The keep seemed quiet and uneasy. Down by the barn, where she was told Blackwall usually slept, there was nothing.
She felt more than heard Dorian as he came to stand behind her. “He’s not there. No one’s seen him since before you arrived, as I’m sure you’ve been informed.”
“He was one of the main reasons I came to Skyhold. Not that I regret coming, but it’s frustrating. Can’t the Inquisition keep track of its own people?” Gwen couldn’t help the edge that crept into her voice. She was still barely awake; there would be time for diplomacy later.
Dorian, however, put his hand firmly on her shoulder, and when she turned around his mouth was set in a hard line. “Yes, they can. You know Leliana, and you know that it should be impossible for someone whose face and name we know to get away from Skyhold.” He released her. “You’re not part of the Inquisition. You are a friend and a guest, but do not expect to know every aspect of its workings. If it seems to you that the Inquisitor is not desperately worried about Blackwall being missing—well. That just tells you how good she is at hiding it.”
It was true, of course, and Gwen was wise enough to know that she’d overstepped. She bit back the urge to retort and forced her hands to unclench. “You’re right. Blackwall’s disappearance is more than a personal inconvenience. I have every faith in the Inquisitor; if she is looking for him, he will be found.”
Dorian’s stance softened slightly. “When it comes to these books, I doubt that you will find anything useful. I know little of the Grey Wardens—I am an outsider to you, more so than you are here—but if their actions under Clarel are anything to go by, this Calling is something that strikes terror into their hearts and influences their every action. No cure could be found without at least rumor spreading throughout the order.”
Gwen stepped away from the window, massaging her eyes with the heels of her hands. “Yes, right again. These books have been combed over a hundred times by people looking for the same thing I’m seeking.” She sighed and set about tidying her desk, which was strewn with open books and scratched-out notes. “I’m sorry for wasting your time, you’ve been a great help looking.”
“Oh nonsense. It was an interesting project.” Dorian waved a hand, his hard defensiveness gone so completely that Gwen almost wondered whether she had imagined it. Almost. “What’s your next move? Until Blackwall is located, that is.”
Laughing a little, Gwen rolled her neck, stiff from sleeping on the desk for so long. “My next move is getting some food from the kitchens and trying for a proper night of sleep. I’ll speak to the Inquisitor tomorrow.”
“An excellent plan.”
“And you? What brings you to the library so late? A midnight rendezvous of your own?”
Dorian chuckled, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes. “No, sadly. No, you’re not the only one with demons, Lady Cousland—some of ours are just less literal. Sleep eludes me tonight.”
“Would you like to talk about it?”
“Not tonight, thank you.” Dorian settled in his usual armchair, tucked away between two of the tallest shelves. “A little escapism will do the trick, I think. I usually nod off a few pages into one of Varric’s books.” He peered at Gwen a little guiltily. “Don’t tell him I said that.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dare. Good night, Dorian.”
The only sounds in the castle were Gwen’s footsteps and the furious rumbling of her stomach. As she aged, her Grey Warden appetite had become more of a burden than a boasting point; if she forgot to eat for a few hours—or took an unplanned nap—the hunger would hit her suddenly, so powerful it felt like nausea. The Calling only made it worse. With every step she took, she swore she could feel a clawing, hollow pit expanding in her abdomen, crying out for food. So focused was she on the sensation that she almost missed the passageway she wanted.
To Gwen’s surprise, a fire was crackling in the kitchen’s enormous hearth, and as she entered she saw a shadowy figure bent over the table in the center of the room.
“Hello? I don’t mean to interrupt, I just thought I’d take a piece of bread, or—”
The figure looked up—slow, not at all startled—and Gwen recognized Leliana’s hooded visage.
“Leliana?” Gwen stopped short in the doorway. “Maker’s breath, doesn’t anyone in Skyhold sleep? It’s so dark in here, what are you doing?”
Leliana laughed her low, musical laugh. “An excellent question. I remember many sleepless nights spent around the fire in camp, talking and singing—but we were younger then, no?” She paused for a moment, hands still working over her unseen task, while Gwen brought down a torch from the wall and ignited it in the fire. “Josie has been hoarding a brick of Orlesian chocolate since Empress Celine’s ball. My mind is too full of planning for sleep. I thought I would prepare a treat for tomorrow’s breakfast.”
Under the torch’s light, Gwen could see the pastries Leliana was forming with quick, deft movement: miniature turnovers with crimped edges, filled with layers of glossy red berries and some sort of thick chocolate mixture.
“Lady Montilyet seemed on edge this morning,” Gwen commented as she replaced the torch in its sconce and tore off the end of a fresh loaf of bread resting by the hearth. “I’m sure she and the Inquisitor will appreciate these.”
“The Inquisitor is not here. She and Cullen left for Val Royeaux on urgent business this afternoon.”
Gwen paused, mouth full, as she processed her friend’s words. “She—what?”
Leliana shot her a sidelong glance and set several of the pastries in front of Gwen, demonstrating how to crimp the edges with her fingernails. “I cannot tell you much. You are my friend, but you are not—”
“Part of the Inquisition, I know. I’ve been reminded.” Gwen scowled at the pastry but followed Leliana’s lead, working it gently with the tips of her fingers as she finished chewing her enormous mouthful. “Is there anything you can tell me?”
“It concerns Blackwall.”
“You found him, then?”
A pause. “Potentially.”
Gwen resisted the urge to put her finger through the pastry she was working on out of spite and stepped away to take another bite of bread instead. She knew that everyone was being perfectly reasonable, considering that she had been brought in to consult on a single issue and had no real ranking within the Inquisition. Still, to have hints and scraps of information tossed to her by someone with whom she had once shared the deepest of trusts was infuriating.
They stood in silence for a while, Gwen ravenously tearing into the bread and Leliana forming each tiny dessert into a perfect half-moon shape.
“You know that information is all the Inquisition has,” Leliana said eventually. “We are no great military power; our wealth is limited; we have no treaties. But we have information on Corypheus, and on the rifts, and, yes, on Blackwall. To share everything we know would be to lose our power.”
“I do understand.” Gwen let the flash of anger fade, eyes trained resolutely on the flames trembling in the hearth. She could feel it boiling under her skin, the fury and the desperation that drove her towards any answers about the Calling—that had driven Clarel and those under her command to do unspeakable things alongside Corypheus. She let the feeling bleed into her fingertips and drip caustically to the floor.
She turned back to face Leliana, a tired smile deepening the lines around her mouth. “I’m sorry, Leliana. Forgive the irrationality of an old warrior.”
Leliana snorted and the tension left the room. “You still have a few years before that will be believable, old friend.”
“I may not be old by average standards, but for a Warden, I’m getting along in years.” She felt more than saw the glance that this prompted from Leliana. “But that’s not important right now. I think these are ready for baking. What about yours?”
Gwen helped Leliana ease the pastries into the bread oven alongside the hearth. The smell of them instantly permeated the room, and Gwen indulged in a few deep breaths of chocolate-scented air while she finished the loaf of bread. She felt a little guilty for eating something clearly meant for the next day’s breakfast, but her hunger won out.
Leliana leaned back against the table and watched the iron door of the bread oven. “You should go to bed,” she said softly. “The Inquisitor may be away, but Skyhold’s activity will not cease.”
“You’re right.” But Gwen hesitated; she wanted to say more, to have a real conversation with the woman she had been friends with on the road. Still, there was none of the openness in Leliana’s face to suggest that she was looking to speak, so in the end she left the warmth of the kitchen without another word.
Skyhold was cold, empty, and dark, but for the occasional torch or passing patrol. Gwen strode through the castle and out onto the walkway above the gardens. Past her own door to Alistair’s, under which she could see a warm glow. He was still awake, then.
She reached out her hand towards the doorknob, relieved that, despite everything else that had happened that day, she was moments away from being in Alistair’s embrace. But she stopped when she heard raised voices from within. Lowering her hand, she inched closer, only barely able to identify the two men speaking.
“You’ve neglected your duties for too long,” Teagan hissed. “I can only draw out these negotiations for so many days, Alistair. You must return to Denerim.”
“Oh come on, Teagan, I think I’ve earned a few days of vacation. Just another week—”
“Half of one, then. Maker, can’t you give me that?” Gwen started when something thumped inside the room—a fist on a table perhaps? Alistair’s voice turned pleading. “Teagan, I can’t face this ending. I can’t face going back.”
“I have no control over the matter, Your Majesty. If I did—” a sigh—“my wish is not to drag you back by your ear, but the Crown requires that you return.”
“I’m not a child.”
“Then stop acting like one.”
“I am your King—”
Gwen pushed away from the wall, mouth twisted as though she had tasted something sour. She couldn’t say that she was surprised by what she had overheard, but it served as an unpleasant reminder that she and Alistair were enjoying borrowed time. She walked a few steps towards the door of her own room, then turned and rested her hands on the stone wall opposite instead.
Leaves rustled gently in the garden below. Gwen couldn’t see anything through the inky blackness, but the view was so familiar that she fancied she could make out the shadows of the fruit trees and the path that wound between them. Compared to the frosty nights she had become accustomed to since arriving in the Frostbacks, it was absolutely balmy. Still cool, to be sure, but the breeze was pleasant where it flowed past her flushed cheeks.
Would this guilt never fade? She could forgive Alistair for ending things on the basis of youth and crisis. Could she not forgive herself for putting him on the throne against his protests?
Then again, the two decisions were entirely different. One had been made over the course of a day; the other had been calculated for months, advocated for, defended and engineered and completed with intention. She could plead inexperience and idealism but she could not plead ignorance of the Grey Warden code not to interfere in politics.
She had let her taste for revenge against Loghain and Howe to guide her hand, not reason. Loving Alistair did not guarantee that he could lead a nation, nor did his prowess as a member of the order.
Breathe in. Breathe out. She pretended that she could feel the darkness flowing down her throat and back out through her nose and relaxed hands she hadn’t even realized she had clenched into fists. Forgivable or not, the decision had been made a decade ago.
She turned to see Teagan, hand still on Alistair’s door. She remembered their first meeting—he had been young and jovial, popular among the people of Redcliffe—and she smiled a little sadly. He looked so much older. Alistair stood behind him, still frowning from their argument.
“Arl Teagan, what a pleasant surprise. I was just taking some air.”
He didn’t seem to suspect that she had overheard them, at any rate. Still, he looked uncomfortable, as though he didn’t quite know how to address her after so long.
“Indeed, a pleasure. I hope that you have been well.”
Gwen almost laughed at the stiff formality of it. It’s what he would have said to her if they had met at some social function, him an Arl and her the sister of one. I hope that you have been well, as though the order had not just fallen down around her ears and her own mind were not rebelling against her.
“I have, thank you.” She had opened her mouth, ready with further pleasantries of the sort her parents had taught her and trying not to remember standing back to back with Teagan, their swords cutting through emaciated corpses like straw, when Alistair cleared his throat.
“Thank you for your advice, Teagan. I’ll think over what you’ve told me. In the meantime, however, it is late. I’m sure Lady Cousland is eager to get to sleep, as am I.”
It was a credit to Teagan’s self-discipline that Gwen could not detect even a hint of the retort she was sure rose to his tongue. Instead, he dipped his head to Alistair, then to her, and turned towards the main castle to return to his own quarters.
As soon as he was out of sight, Alistair’s shoulders lost their rigid set and his mouth settled into a crooked smile. “Your timing is perfect. Teagan’s being uptight, as usual. And I missed you after dinner.”
Gwen let herself be enveloped in his arms but sighed. “I heard you arguing. Teagan has a point.”
Alistair’s arms tensed where they were wrapped around her shoulders. “What?”
“Look, I don’t have any leads on a cure. I have no idea when the Inquisitor and I will be leaving for the north. Everything here is uncertain, and Ferelden needs its king.” She twisted her head and kissed his neck, hoping that it would nudge him to relax again. “Its handsome, handsome king.”
That earned a chuckle, albeit a subdued one. “I hate the idea of saying goodbye to you again.”
“As do I, but we’ve already made plans. Things will be different this time.” Gwen pressed her face firmly into his shoulder; the scratchy brocade of his tunic muffled her voice. “A few days now is nothing compared to the time we’ll have together when I join you in Denerim.”
He took a breath as though he was about to speak, but remained silent.
“I just—” He pulled her even closer, then seemed to remember that they were still outside and tugged her back into his room. Gwen watched his face as he shut the door: his eyes shone with emotion, but he tried the shape of several sounds with his lips before he finally completed a word. He wrapped both her hands in his and met her gaze, steady but hesitant. “What if… what if we don’t have much time left? I don’t know how long the Calling takes to run its course, or what happens if a Warden doesn’t go to the Deep Roads before that happens. It’s been months. We’re already on borrowed time.”
“Oh, love.” Now it was Gwen’s turn to wrap her arms tight around him, her heart swelling with emotion. She had been plagued by the same fears since the first strains of the Calling’s eerie song had emerged in her dreams, but hearing Alistair voice them only strengthened her resolve. “Oh, Alistair. I don’t know. None of us do. But we can enjoy the time we have together right now, and then I will continue to devote all of my efforts towards finding a cure.”
They stood like that for a long time, each trying to convince themselves that their fears were in vain. In the end, it was Alistair who pulled away, smiling despite the unshed tears in his eyes, and directed Gwen towards bed. She fell asleep almost as soon as her head touched the pillow.
Before she had the chance to determine whether the recruits were still expecting her aid in training the next morning, Gwen was intercepted by a messenger with a small roll of parchment bearing Leliana’s seal. She glanced over the message—New information on Blackwall, meet in War Room at once—and turned her steps towards the Great Hall.
An elven woman with a staff at her back was gesticulating forcibly when Gwen entered, one hand planted firmly on the War Table. Leliana and Lady Montilyet watched her, their expressions guarded.
“—have always provided an opportunity for people to move beyond their pasts. If this man truly wants to make up for what he has done, then he should be allowed to join the order!”
All three women turned to look at Gwen as the enormous door swung shut behind her. Lady Montilyet hastened to make introductions. “Lady Cousland, this is Grand Enchanter Fiona. She is the leader of the mages who have allied with the Inquisition and a former Grey Warden. Grand Enchanter, this is Lady Cousland, the Hero of Ferelden.”
“The—Lady Cousland!” Fiona inclined her head briefly, and Gwen returned the gesture, impatient to get to the matter of Blackwall but intrigued by the woman.
“Grand Enchanter. May I ask what is meant by ‘former’ Grey Warden?”
“That is…” Fiona shook her head a little, her gaze somewhere over Gwen’s head. “That is a very long story, and not one that is important at the present.” She focused once more on the woman before her. “Nor one that will help you to undo the Joining. It was a fluke.”
Gwen was still curious, but she decided that it could be a conversation for another time. She shrugged. “Very well. Leliana, you told me that you had received news of Blackwall?”
Leliana nodded and crossed her arms. “The Inquisitor sent word that she wishes you to be kept abreast of all updates, so here is what we know: the man that we knew as Blackwall was really named Thom Rainier. He assumed the identity of the real Warden Blackwall after commanding his men to kill a nobleman and his family. Rainier went to Val Royeaux to confess after he received word that one of those men was about to be hanged for his crimes. We will not know more until the Inquisitor’s next missive, but in the meantime Josephine is attempting to secure the favor of some influential families who might assist with Rainier’s release. If all goes according to plan, he will be brought back to Skyhold and tried formally by the Inquisitor.”
All Gwen could do was whistle through her teeth as she settled her weight back a little. “Well, I suppose that explains why he didn’t seem to be experiencing the Calling.” She frowned and pushed away the rush of disappointment—her last viable lead, gone. “What do you think the Inquisitor will decide?”
Leliana shared a look with Lady Montilyet before responding. “I can’t speak to what Lady Trevelyan thinks of the situation, but Bla—Rainier has been a trusted member of her inner circle for months. I expect that she will weigh the matter with all the deliberation it warrants.”
“Lady Cousland, do you not agree that the Wardens should be a place of refuge for those seeking to do penance for their past?” Fiona burst out as though she could contain herself no longer. She turned to Leliana. “My closest friend in the order was conscripted after he killed a Warden during a botched theft. He distinguished himself and became a mentor to many before he died at Ostagar. Do not have this man Rainier executed! Allow him to complete the Joining and find the atonement he clearly seeks.”
Gwen sighed. “I have my own opinions on the matter, Grand Enchanter, but the fact remains that Rainier is under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. If he were a Warden, I would spare him and enlist his help rebuilding the order in the south, but I have no say.”
“Invoke the right of conscription!”
Leliana and Lady Montilyet watched the conversation in silence. Gwen pinched the bridge of her nose; here was yet another case of her plans being overthrown so forcefully that it gave her a headache. She knew nothing of Rainier. If he had been loyal to the Inquisition and was truly regretful of his actions, then his life was worth sparing—but then again, if that were the case, Gwen thought she knew the Inquisitor well enough to know that Lady Trevelyan would make the same choice. On the other hand, if the Inquisitor deemed him fit only for execution, could she really contradict the decision of someone with so much more knowledge of the situation? Invoking the right of conscription would either be unnecessary or inflammatory.
“I will consider it,” she said finally, and when Fiona furrowed her brow and opened her mouth, Gwen held up her hand. “I will consider it,” she said again, “and if the Inquisition is able to secure Rainier’s release, I will discuss the situation with Lady Trevelyan as soon as they return. Otherwise this is Inquisition business.”
Fiona straightened and seemed to compose herself. “Very well. I will leave you all to your business.” And with that, she left the War Room, robes swirling behind her.
“I don’t wish to insert myself into the Inquisition’s proceedings,” Gwen hurried to assure the two women left before her. “I have no intention at this time of invoking the right of conscription, and you will hear of it beforehand if I decide to do so.”
Leliana tilted her head. “There is still much to discuss, if we manage to secure Rainier’s freedom at all. The Inquisitor will have the final say on this.”
“Of course.” Gwen shifted back and forth, the day’s revelations already settling heavy on her shoulders. “Is there anything else I should know?”
Lady Montilyet shook her head. “We will let you know as soon as we hear more from the Inquisitor.”
“Very well, thank you. I will be in the courtyard until this afternoon.” And Gwen, too, left, possessed of a strong urge to swing her sword with all her strength. The target didn’t matter.