Chapter 1: Chapter I
Gwendolyn Cousland was tired.
She had braved the Frostback Mountains before, over ten years ago during the Blight, but only as far as Orzammar. She wasn’t used to the steeper snow-covered slopes deep within the range. For what felt like the fiftieth time that morning, she squinted at the roughly sketched map Leliana had sent her. That line there—was it a valley she was supposed to walk down, or a ridge to follow? If only the blighted sun would stop glaring off the ice, maybe she could see. Then again, she supposed she was lucky it was sunny and not snowing.
The scenery, at least, was incredible: jagged peaks stood out against a sky bluer than any she had ever seen. Long parallel ridges of snow ran down the mountains, leaving them looking as though they were cupped by gigantic hands. There was a lake down in the valley below her, frozen and thawed and frozen again until it was almost opaque with fissures and bubbles.
Gwen was accustomed to traveling light, but crossing the Frostbacks alone made precautions necessary. She dragged a sledge loaded with furs and provisions in addition to the gear she carried on her back. Her Warden plate armor was wrapped in oiled skins on the sledge to protect it from the weather; instead, she was swaddled in layers of hide and thin chain which kept her warm but made movement difficult.
She stopped a moment to look back at the long tracks behind her. They trailed into the distance, eventually lost in the glare of the snow. Somewhere back along those tracks was the cave she had dug to shelter last night, and farther yet would be the one from the night before.
It was inconvenient that she was traveling alone—inconvenient, but necessary. Haste made it impossible for her to summon any of her trusted companions, and stealth prevented her from taking the main road on horseback. It would not do to have the Hero of Ferelden appear at the gates of the Inquisition, sword drawn and armor gleaming; no, she was here in an unofficial capacity, and if anyone inquired, she wasn’t here at all.
She tucked the map into her pocket and gave a mighty tug on the sledge. For the most part, it was easy to drag it across the surface of the snow, but more and more it had been sinking into the powder and getting lodged. Gwen longed for the days when, even on desperate treks across the entirety of Ferelden, she was accompanied by half a dozen trusted fighters and a supply wagon. There had been much less danger of breaking a leg and freezing to death, unnoticed by the stoic mountains. Besides, a helping pair of hands would have been nice.
The sledge sprang free and immediately lost its grip on the steep mountainside. It teetered, time frozen as Gwen tried to steady it, and then toppled down the long, smooth stretch of snow to her right.
Gwen was still wrapped in the ropes.
She fell, pulled by the loop around her shoulder, snow filling her nose and mouth in a spray of powder, trying to shield her head with her arms but finding that it was impossible to hold any one position as she alternately slid and bounced after the sledge. White and blue flashed in her vision as the sky and mountains wheeled about her until her face was greeted by the burning cold of a snowbank and she had to shut her eyes.
It took her a moment to realize that she had stopped falling; she felt both weightless and battered, pressed into the inescapable presence of the snow against her face and chest.
When her head had stopped spinning, Gwen hauled herself into a sitting position, gasping in an enormous breath. The pain that accompanied the motion suggested that her shoulder had been dislocated by the weight of the sledge pulling her down the mountainside. Her eyes burned, her lungs burned, her fingers—tinged concerningly with blue—burned. The sledge was upside down and half-buried a few feet away and provisions were scattered up the slope.
And down the valley stood Skyhold, its crenellations gleaming in the sun, only visible from the valley she had tumbled into. She would have gone right past it.
Standing up was its own feat, but one accomplished with some degree of success after a few tries. Gwen only waited long enough to pick out a few scraps of cloth from the wreckage of her sledge before she staggered towards the castle, binding her hands as she went. Her shoulder throbbed with every step and her arm tingled and ached.
It took her the rest of the afternoon, but finally she was limping across the long stone bridge approaching Skyhold. The mountains were bathed in lavender and soft rose. In the distance, she could see the dark spot of her sledge against the side of the valley.
“Approaching traveler!” bellowed a sentinel atop the wall. The call was echoed along the battlements, though there was no responding lull in the evening activity she could hear on the other side.
Gwen was numb with cold and fatigue, and the only thought she could hold onto was that she hoped Leliana was expecting her today. If not, she might be shuffled into the barracks or the refugee tents without being able to make her presence known to any of the Inquisition’s advisors. She clutched her arm to her chest and watched the gate grind upwards.
There, hooded and cloaked, one hand on her hip, stood Leliana. She looked remarkably similar as when Gwen had last seen her, just before Alistair’s coronation: short-chopped red hair with a single narrow braid down one side, a sharp expression and eyes that knew too much. Something was missing, though—Gwen realized that she had rarely seen Leliana out of her brightly-colored Chantry robes. Yet here she stood, clothed in grey and blue and purple, looking every inch the spy.
“Warden Cousland!” She greeted her old friend, stepping forward into the shadow of the walls. “I hope that your passage through the mountains was—Maker’s breath, what happened to you?”
Years. Gwen had spent years wishing to stand before any of her companions again, to catch up with them. Long nights spent camping alone in damp caves and windblown fields, wishing for the easy companionship she had shared around the campfire during the most frightening months of her life—and coming to terms with the idea of never seeing any of them again. Now Leliana stood before her, once a trusted ally, now nearly a stranger. Where to even begin?
“I need healing,” Gwen found herself blurting through clenched teeth. “And a fire. I lost control of my sledge there, on that ridge.” She started to gesture and hissed when her shoulder flashed with pain.
“Of course. You need to rest.” Leliana made a sharp gesture to several men behind her, who nodded and began a flurry of activity. She came to Gwen’s side to support her and they made their way into the courtyard together. “This is a rather inhospitable place, is it not?”
“Yes,” Gwen agreed. It was warmer within the walls, somehow, but otherwise she was in no state to be observing her surroundings. “Leliana, I feel—I’m not very—” Her vision narrowed as she turned to look at the Orlesian so that all she could see was the concerned turn of Leliana’s mouth. “I feel a bit faint,” she finally admitted.
Leliana said something that she could not hear or understand. She felt herself being pulled along, up a flight of stairs—grass under her feet—stone, more stairs, more stone—a carpet—a pause to open a door—and finally the soft surface of a bed, more welcome, Gwen thought, than it had ever been in her life. Even the persistent throb of her shoulder couldn’t prevent her from falling immediately into a deep sleep.
Gwen awoke to the soft glow of firelight and morning sun. She felt stiff, as though she was slowly thawing from an eternity spent in ice—but why? Where was she? Pain was radiating from her shoulder across her chest. Once her eyes adjusted, she could see the frayed edges of the blankets under which she rested.
“Hello?” she croaked.
“Ah, she is awake.” The lilting, strangely-formal voice made Gwen jolt upright, then double over as every muscle in her body protested. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
“Morrigan?” Gwen gasped. No, this was wrong, that was years ago, and she was in Skyhold, or she had been—
“Yes, yes, it is I. Lie down before you do damage something more difficult to fix than a dislocated shoulder.”
Gwen obeyed and watched warily as Morrigan entered her field of view. The witch looked nearly identical as she had when she had disappeared into the night in Denerim a decade before. She carried a bubbling golden potion, which she held to Gwen’s lips. “Drink.”
Gwen drank. Warmth spread throughout her body, unknotting her muscles. Her fingers suddenly felt pinched and too warm; on closer inspection, the tips had turned black with frostbite, but the discoloration was receding as hot blood was forced back into the dead flesh. Without this kind of magical healing, she would have been dead a hundred times over throughout her life, but there was always something unsettling about her body knitting itself back together to hide the evidence of whatever hardships it had endured.
Eventually, she found that she could breathe without wincing, and she sighed with relief as Morrigan began to prod her shoulder. “What are you doing here?”
“I was asked to join the Inquisition.”
“The Inquisitor, of course. We met at Empress Celine’s ball.”
“Why were you at the Orlesian court?”
Morrigan gave her a stern expression, and Gwen felt a shadow of the unease the mage had instilled in her when they had traveled together. Still, many years had passed, and she found herself meeting Morrigan’s gaze without shuddering. She wasn’t a girl of twenty anymore. She could handle her companion’s attitude.
“I will not be interrogated by you. I have healed your shoulder and softened your rest, at Leliana’s request, and now you are free to conduct whatever business brought you here.” She started to leave, empty bottle in hand, but turned back just as she reached the door. “I would ask that you leave me to conduct mine.”
Before the door swung shut, Gwen caught a glimpse of a stone walkway, a pair of patrolling soldiers, and bright yellow sunlight gleaming on the tops of several trees. She stretched and looked around her own room. Aside from the bed, there was a small table with a basin and a chip of polished metal that would work well enough as a mirror. The contents of her sledge were piled against the wall, excepting the rations, which had no doubt been taken to the barracks so as not to waste them. Rubbing the lingering aches from her arms, looking at her sword leaning against the wall and with Morrigan’s voice still echoing in her head, Gwen was almost reminded of waking up after the battle of Ostagar.
But she was not at Ostagar. She was in Skyhold. The walls were not the spongy wood of the wilds; they were stone, solid if worn, hung with fraying tapestries to keep in the meager warmth of the fireplace against the opposite wall. Someone had changed her out of her grimy hide armor and into a plain white night slip.
Still, there was something bittersweet in the memory of that morning. What wouldn’t she give to wake up again, her adventures barely begun, her parents’ faces still fresh in her mind and Alistair waiting for her outside?
As the thought crossed her mind, she thought for a moment that she heard his voice—was sure enough to dart to the door, to open it a crack and peer out, only to be disappointed when it was only the laughter of some unknown man down in the courtyard below. She breathed a shaky laugh and stepped out of the door, nightdress fluttering in the chill wind, to rest her hands on the edge of the walkway. It was her exhaustion playing tricks on her after all.
Her embarrassment was swept away as she took in the castle courtyard. It was lined with several trees, all bold in their autumn finery. Walkways wound between the trunks. Elfroot grew in several large pots directly below her room. Several women in Chantry robes milled about, tending to the plants or conversing with each other on stone benches. Gwen thought she could see a second, larger courtyard beyond, with several stately towers lining the battlements. For what had been described as a rather haphazard military base, Skyhold was beautiful, exposed scaffolding and all.
She had had her doubts about coming. Surely it was her duty to her fellow Wardens to continue her search for a cure for the Calling? But the Inquisition had more resources than the Wardens, and Gwen had received a long letter detailing Darkspawn attacks in regions she didn’t even have scouts. Leliana had encouraged her to come, promising resources to seek the cure and parties of trained men to wipe out Darkspawn, and asked in exchange that Gwen offer her knowledge and experience to the soldiers. Besides, the Inquisitor had added in a short postscript, they had a Grey Warden among them—Blackwall—who was apparently immune to the Calling, though he disliked the topic of conversation. Perhaps he had some information to offer.
Now, looking out over Skyhold, breathing the sharp, woodsmoke-scented air, Gwen had to admit that she was glad to be here. Even Morrigan brought a welcome familiarity to the place. She had people to contact and informants to probe, and where better to do that than from the greatest independent stronghold of resources still standing through the civil war?
With renewed strength came a renewal of the itching sensation at the back of her mind. That eternal song, heard faintly since her Joining and growing ever stronger in the past months, still tugged her down towards the Deep Roads and the Old Gods, sickly sweet in its allure. Gwen took another deep breath of mountain air to clear her head. Yes, perhaps this was the best place to be, surrounded by those unaffected by the Calling, the better to ignore it.
She looked down at the sound of her name and saw Leliana standing in the courtyard. “Leliana! Thank you for the welcome last night. I fear I was short with you in my exhaustion.”
“No apology necessary. I am pleased you have come! When you are ready, Lady Trevelyan would like to see you in the War Room with her other advisors.”
Gwen looked down at her shift, modest enough but hardly appropriate to meet with the Herald of Andraste. “Thank you! I’ll get ready and meet you there.”
The longer she was awake, the more quickly Gwen’s heaviness fell away from her. It was quick work to splash away the grime of her journey with water from the basin. She plaited her hair down over one shoulder, but after strapping on the lighter components of her Grey Warden armor, she examined her reflection and undid the braid. How was it she had worn her hair during the Blight? Pulled straight back from her face, she thought, and yes, the soft, short hairs at her forehead came loose at once to frame her face. If she ignored the soft creases age and battle had pressed into her skin, she almost thought she might be looking back through the mirror to the Gwendolyn who had strapped on her new ill-fitting armor and strode out to meet the Witch of the Wilds, propped up on nothing more than righteousness, tenacity, and a week of ill sleep. That girl had been halfway between the untried warrior anxious to prove herself at Highever and the seasoned Warden who stood in her place now. In retrospect, Gwen thought with some amusement, it was a miracle that she had survived the Blight intact.
More or less.
No, it was better to be the Gwen she was now. This Gwen wouldn’t be intimidated by Morrigan’s glare, wouldn’t cry herself to sleep in her first solitary camp after the coronation, wouldn’t be so hasty to tangle herself in the running of a country because she thought it was her duty to fix everything wrong in Thedas. This Gwen was prepared to do only her duty to the Grey Wardens and to Ferelden.
And this Gwen was late enough already without standing in front of the mirror daydreaming.
With a laugh and one last look at her reflection, she strapped her sword at her waist and stepped out into the courtyard once more. It was even more pleasant now that she wore more than a thin nightgown. Unfortunately, she remembered that Leliana had not actually told her where the War Room was, so she struck out to the left.
Eventually, after asking directions twice and getting more than a few odd looks, Gwen found herself in a crumbling hallway leading to an enormous oaken door. She could hear the sound of murmuring voices just beyond. The War Room, then.
With a deep breath, she stepped forward and pushed the doors open.
The occupants of the room fell silent and turned towards her. There was Leliana, still wearing her hood despite the warmth of the room, and a pretty, brown-skinned woman in a gold dress of the Antivan fashion, quill at the ready, who must have been Josephine Montilyet. Beside them was a pale, stubbled man Gwen barely recognized as Cullen, one of the Templars she had encountered at the Circle. He nodded in acknowledgement when he saw her—she suspected that neither of them wished to dwell on the terror of their first meeting.
Before them all was the Inquisitor herself: Lady Rena Trevelyan, a young woman in her mid-20s who had been hastily described by Leliana in one of her letters. Her figure was slight, almost sickly, and her face was blanched with lack of sleep. She wore her dark hair chopped short—it looked as though she had cut it herself, possibly with her own blade, and it hung about her face at a startlingly sharp angle. Her left hand sparked with bright green energy. Her eyes glowed unsettlingly with the same color, but they were clear, and she held herself with authority. So this was the woman who likely held the reins of all of Thedas.
“Lady Inquisitor,” Gwen greeted her, bowing slightly in acknowledgement. Trevelyan mirrored the gesture and allowed herself a weary smile. The expression put a new light over her face, somehow, and Gwen fancied she caught a glimpse of a kind heart behind the tired exterior.
“Lady Cousland. It’s a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance. I look forward to your insight going forward, and I hope that we will be able to offer you some assistance as well.”
“I hope so too.” Gwen looked past the Inquisitor and her advisors to a War Table littered with blocks, markers, two daggers, an apple core, and a pile of bread crumbs that might have held some significance or might have been incidental. “Shall we begin?”
“Just as soon as our other guest arrives.” Leliana spoke as though the words held some significance beyond their obvious meaning; Gwen cocked her head.
Leliana actually laughed to herself. “Yes and no. They arrived later than you last night, so you did not have the chance to meet, but they are expected any moment.”
As though on cue, footsteps sounded in the corridor outside.
Another Warden? Yes and no. Gwen’s heart leapt at the possibility—no, not a possibility, an impossibility, a daydream—but who else—?
“Sorry I’m late,” a familiar voice said from the doorway, and Gwen had to shut her eyes before she saw him. It was too much. “I had, er, kingly business.”
“I heard you arguing with Morrigan in the gardens,” Leliana responded a little accusingly. “I hardly call that ‘kingly business’.”
“Ah, yes, well. Some things don’t change, I suppose. Anyway, I’m here now, and—Gwen?”
She could pretend no longer. Gwen opened her eyes to see Alistair standing before her, and Maker, he had changed so much and not at all. The slight roundness to his face was gone, replaced with a gentle hollowness of his cheeks and a pointed chin. But that nose, still, and his jaw slack with that ridiculous expression of surprise he had always made, replaced quickly with a single raised eyebrow—he was thinking the same of her, she was sure, as his eyes swept over her matured face and the scarring on her ear that belligerently refused to be healed by any potion.
“Alistair. I had no idea you would be here. I haven’t seen you since the coronation.”
He grunted. “That hardly counts, considering that you left before I could get the chance to speak with you.”
How could she think long enough to respond to anything he said? He had done something to his hair, succeeded somehow in combing it down where before it had always stood up in the front, and he wore an expensive leather jerkin with clasps only a king could afford, and it settled on his shoulders so much better than that crown had when it had been lowered onto his boyish head. It was impressive, yes, but also sad, and for a moment Gwen lost sight of him in the ache for the younger man she had traveled with years ago.
The man she had loved.
But then he was there again, in that grin coming through to hide his discomfort with the conversation. “Well, I don’t suppose it matters. We’re both here for the same reason.”
“Indeed,” Leliana interjected, breaking the spell. Gwen caught the ends of everyone’s stares as they looked quickly away. “Let us discuss strategy.”
Gwen nodded and stepped towards the War Table, trying not to be aware of the man—the king—standing at her shoulder.
Chapter 2: Chapter II
I had a stomach bug this week and I'm absolutely dead tired, but I wanted to post another chapter before any more time passed. This is still just the beginning for these two goofs! I'd love to hear which parts you like or don't like.
Fortunately, the solemnity of their business drew Gwen back to herself before long, even with Alistair shifting awkwardly beside her.
Leliana gestured to a band of land across the Storm Coast. “We’ve received reports of Darkspawn in this area. We sent a company of soldiers to deal with them, but as they approached the place they must be coming from—somewhere around here—they met too large a group to risk confronting. And we lost two good men to the Taint.”
Gwen grimaced but shook her head. “I’m sorry about your men, but I’m not sure where I come in. Surely a larger company could handle the situation?”
“And do what?” Cullen interjected. “Once we find the entrance to the Deep Roads, or wherever else they’re coming from, there will only be a larger horde. We can’t afford to keep throwing men at this problem without knowing what we’re sending them into.”
“I didn’t mean to suggest that your men are expendable, Commander,” Gwen said calmly. She wondered why the Inquisitor had yet to speak; Lady Trevelyan stood shoulder to shoulder with her advisors, silently observing the proceedings with those striking green eyes. “I was only wondering what you were hoping to accomplish with a single Grey Warden that you could not do with a company of trained men.”
“Our greatest problem by far is that most of our soldiers don’t know the best strategy to use against Darkspawn,” the Inquisitor explained, finally speaking. “I know that you have investigations you wish to pursue using the resources available to you at Skyhold. My hope is that you would consent to train the Inquisition forces using the experience you have gained as a Grey Warden. In several weeks, when I travel to the Storm Coast for other business, I would appreciate your presence as I scout the origins of the Darkspawn, and then we may discuss our next steps.”
All three advisors looked sharply to their leader, but Cullen was the first to protest. “Inquisitor, surely you don’t mean to risk yourself on such a mission. Let Warden Cousland go with a small number of men, or even a few of your inner circle.”
“I won’t put my men into a situation I haven’t evaluated myself. You know that, Cullen.”
Alistair made a small noise of approval—his first contribution to the conversation. “And where do I come in with all of this?”
“Of course we would never ask you to travel to the Storm Coast to fight Darkspawn, your Majesty,” Lady Montilyet interjected. “We understand that your position is… delicate. As King of Ferelden, you can’t be seen allying directly with the Inquisition. In fact we, er, rather thought you would be sending a representative.”
“I see.” Alistair cleared his throat, but it turned into a chuckle halfway. “Well, it’s good to get away from Denerim sometimes. Anyway, I thought I had better meet you all in person, considering the kind of impact you’ve been having across Thedas.”
Guilt stabbed through Gwen. After all these years, she thought she had forgiven herself for the decisions she made when she was young, but seeing the lines on Alistair’s forehead and hearing his excuses for leaving the castle only reminded her of how reluctantly he had taken the throne. He had practically begged her not to support him at the Landsmeet, but she had anyway—then disappeared after the coronation when she should have been helping to ease his transition into power.
“And we are very thankful to have you,” Josephine said, pushing Gwen’s thoughts to the back of her mind. “We mostly wanted to discuss operations along the Fereldan Border. With our soldiers pulling north to hold the Storm Coast and seek out rogue Magisters, we find ourselves spread thin just West of the Frostbacks. We were hoping to coordinate the movements of our troops—subtly, of course—to minimize any flare-ups of fighting in our absence.”
The meeting continued well into the morning. Gwen tried to focus on the War Table and the advisors’ plans, but soon realized that she was distressingly out of touch with the situation in Thedas. She had ventured far South into the Korcari Wilds in the previous month. It was difficult to keep up with events when she was hiking through swamps searching for rare herbs and flowers. Besides, she hadn’t eaten anything since the previous morning, and her shoulder, though returned to its place, still ached fitfully. The sickly sweet song of the Calling lurked at the back of her mind.
Her role was simple enough, wasn’t it? Kill Darkspawn, teach others how to kill Darkspawn, and continue searching for a cure throughout. She could discuss the details with Lady Trevelyan later.
She settled for watching Alistair’s face instead of the proceedings. He had one eyebrow arched slightly, eyes on the War Table as he nodded along with whatever troop movements Cullen was explaining. Gwen tried to pinpoint exactly what looked different about him. She decided that he had lost some of the softness of expression that always used to make her smile.
His eyes flickered up, caught her looking—he looked back at the War Table, ears tinged with pink, but the damage was done. He knew she had been staring. Something clenched in Gwen’s chest and she looked down too.
“…think that Redcliffe is fairly secure, now that the mages have been brought here,” Cullen was saying. “The most we should have to worry about there is some of the townspeople picking sides and going looking for nearby trouble, but I don’t think anyone is going to be looking to bring the fight to the town anytime soon.”
“Yes, very well, I trust Teagan to keep order among his own people.” Alistair tapped his fingers on the edge of the table. “I can spare two small companies of men to supplement your troops, but no more. I can’t have it look like we’ve coordinated our movements.”
The Inquisitor stepped forward. “Your Highness, Lady Cousland; we thank you for your time. If you will excuse us, my advisors and I have other business to discuss, and I’m sure you’re both tired after your journeys. You can find food in the hall.”
“And if you require anything more,” Lady Montilyet added, “please let us know. Anything to make your stay more comfortable.”
“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Alistair said, smiling, as Gwen murmured her thanks. Leliana held the door for them. Her expression told Gwen that they would be speaking later.
Gwen found herself standing in the empty, crumbling hallway, shoulder to shoulder with Alistair. If she wasn’t so tired, she might have been overwhelmed by the emotion of it, but in the moment, she found that words came easily enough. “Let’s go find that food.”
“Hm, good idea. I’m starved. It was kind of Lady Josephine to offer more beyond whatever their soldiers are eating, but I think she underestimates how little I care what I’m eating when I’m hungry.”
Laughing a little as they set off down the corridor, Gwen risked a glance across at Alistair. His expression was easy enough, but his ears were still pink. How interesting. “Do you remember the things we used to eat on the road during the Blight?”
“Nugs until Leliana made us stop, beetles on more than one occasion, if I remember correctly,” Alistair listed, ticking each item off on his fingers, “and that last night in the Frostbacks, just before we reached Orzammar, we had nothing left but potions.” He laughed. “And I doubt the Inquisition is sustaining itself on potions and beetles.”
Down a flight of stairs, through Lady Montilyet’s office, past a heavy oaken door, and they found themselves in the clamor of the hall. Light flooded through a stained glass window above the Inquisitor’s incongruously small throne, bathing long tables laden with food in rainbows. Cozy fires flickered around the perimeter of the room. Tapestries hung from the ceiling, and, despite the Inquisition’s neutrality, several Fereldan Mabari statues stood between the tables. She wondered if they had been brought in for Alistair’s visit or if the Inquisitor had some kind of fascination with Fereldan culture.
After being jostled around a bit by the crowd of soldiers and messengers trying to get food, Gwen and Alistair found themselves sitting together, more or less wedged into the corner by one of the fires. No one gave their King a second look—Gwen realized that, for many of these people, Alistair wasn’t their King, and they had no reason to know his face.
Watching him bend over his plate, hungrily eating bread and cheese, it was hard not to visualize him as a youth of twenty, hunched on a log by the fire, wolfing down whatever they had that was hot and filling. More often than not that was plain porridge, or bread toasted over the fire, or even the beetles he remembered. Things had gotten better when Zevran joined them and insisted that they start saving a few of their coppers for spices, but even then, any food was scarce across Ferelden that year. They ate what they had.
“So what kind of food does a king eat?” Gwen found herself asking. “Roasted meat for every meal? Pastries? Orlesian cheeses?”
“You never did let me forget that cheese comment,” Alistair said. He flushed. “Er, I have to admit that I do eat rather well. I hope that you’ve had enough, wherever you’ve been,” he added, deflecting.
“It’s all right, Alistair. You’re a king. I won’t fault you for eating like one.”
“Still. Every meal, I wish I could share it with you.” When Gwen looked up sharply, he hurried to clarify. “I mean that I do remember how we ate on the road, and, yes, I have pastries often, and I can’t help but think of you out somewhere in the mire, surviving on stale bread or elfroot. Or any of them,” he added. “Us. Maker knows where Zevran has been, but I know he would have appreciated a few good palace meals.”
They were edging around uncomfortable topics, the ones Gwen knew they would have to address eventually if they were both residing at Skyhold: she had left him, and for all he knew she had never looked back. Never made contact. Never acted as liaison between the Wardens and the throne. Never thanked him for all he had done. Instead, she had left angry and betrayed, too young and too emotional to reconcile.
“I’ve been well enough,” she said. “I’m happy to know that you have too.”
And he smiled, and she thought her heart would break.
Why did the bastard have to be so damn nice. And handsome.
“And for the other things that come with being King? How have you found those?” she forced herself to ask.
“You mean politics? Our first conversation in ten years and you want to talk politics?” He looked skeptical, but a little amused.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what we should be talking about.”
“Well, you know where I’ve been, more or less. What about you?”
“Where have I been?” Alistair nodded, taking another bite of bread. “Well, most recently, the Korcari Wilds. Before that, I was in central Ferelden, near what used to be Lothering… I was in Kirkwall for a while… Orlais…” Gwen shrugged. “All over the place. Since Corypheus’s reappearance, I’ve been looking for a cure.”
She didn’t have to say what the cure was for. Alistair nodded again, his eyes on something behind her, and in them she saw reflected the same maddening song that haunted her.
“Do you have any leads.”
“A few. Nothing definite.”
Without any pause, Alistair held up a piece of greasy meat from his plate. “What do you think this is?”
“I—what? Is that a trick question?” The response plucked at a memory, and before Gwen quite knew what she was saying, she added, “It certainly doesn’t look like a rose.” The rest of the memory flooded back—a younger Alistair standing awkwardly before her, the battered rose outstretched—and she dropped her head into her hands.
To her surprise, after a moment, Alistair chuckled. “You’ve got me there. No, I mean what kind of meat is this? Does the Inquisition keep livestock?”
Gwen looked up from between her fingers. Hot as her face was, it was a little gratifying to see that his ears were pink again, however nonchalant he was acting. “I don’t know. It looks like it might be goat.”
“Ah.” Alistair popped it into his mouth and made exaggerated chewing motions until she raised her head and laughed too. “Forgive me for saying so, but I always remembered that I was the awkward one.”
“I do seem to remember that.”
“And look at you now. It seems all that diplomacy has done you some good.”
“Don’t you dare.”
They laughed a little more and finished eating in silence that was more companionable than awkward. When they were both scraping their plates with their bread crusts, Gwen couldn’t hold back a yawn.
“You should get some rest,” Alistair said. “Morrigan told me the state you arrived in.”
“I can’t believe you and Morrigan are both here at the same time,” said Gwen sleepily. “I thought I never had to hear you fighting again.”
She scrubbed at her eyes with her hands, suddenly sure that none of this was real. If she went to sleep, he’d be gone. She’d be back in the wilds. This was impossible, and Maker, she was so tired.
When she opened her eyes, Alistair was watching her with concern. “You got here later than I did. You should rest too.”
“An excellent idea.”
Neither of them moved. There were still so many things to talk about. The words were heavy on Gwen’s tongue. “Alistair?”
She could only sigh. “It’s good to see you. I missed you.”
He smiled. “I missed you, too. And I look forward to speaking with you more at dinner.”
“Dinner. Of course.” She forced herself to stand on legs that were suddenly very aware of all the miles they had walked. “I’ll speak to you then.”
“Speak to you then.”
Gwen’s mind was too deadened with sleep to think over their conversation much as she wandered her way back to her room. His smile was still there, making her smile as she recalled it, but underneath still ran the doubt. He had ended things. There was nothing between them anymore. And she had left him in Denerim.
Still… still. That smile. If he could forgive her enough to talk like that, awkward though they were after so many years apart, then maybe he could forgive her enough for friendship. That’s more than she ever could have hoped for.
Even the early afternoon light streaming through the window couldn’t keep her awake once she found her way back to her bed. She fell into the warm, clean sheets without removing her armor, limp with the exhaustion she had been holding off all morning. The Calling hummed and ebbed within her skull, but not enough to disturb her. Pressing her face to the pillow, she fell asleep smiling, barely allowing herself to feel hope for something she thought she had left behind.
Chapter 3: Chapter III
Ayy here it is, 3k miles and 4k words later. The reason this took so long is that I wrote like half of it and then scrapped it and started over, but in my defense, this version is really much better. Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
For the first time in months, Gwendolyn Cousland was not tired.
What she was was too warm. Late afternoon sunlight glowed from the courtyard outside, edging everything in the room with radiant gold—and warming Gwen’s body, which she had apparently managed to half cover with her quilt during her coma-like nap. As she sat up, mouth dry and eyes still gummed mostly shut, she remembered her armor when the creases it had pressed into her skin made themselves known.
It took her a few minutes to feel alive again, mostly through the process of splashing her face with water, removing a few pieces of armor, and repeating the process. At least she felt more well rested than she had since she had struck out on her own to look for the cure.
Gwen wavered over whether to take a minute to stretch and then put her armor back on or change into something else. The blue and grey vest and griffon-emblazoned plate mail were an important uniform, meant to remind all who beheld it—or wore it—of the dignity and strength of the Wardens. On the other hand, she had been asleep in it for hours, so its dignity might have rubbed off slightly. Besides, she was more or less undercover while she was here, and her official meetings were over for the day. It might be better to don something more subtle.
Her mind made up, Gwen began the laborious process of digging through the luggage she had hauled in on the sledge. Since it had been retrieved from the mountainside after her fall, it was less fastidious than when she had first packed it. Her good breeches were tangled up with a length of rope and a small cooking pot. A shirt proved even more difficult to find; in the end, she settled for an old, patchwork vest over a large shirt that she had intended to take in weeks ago. The ensemble would have benefitted from the touch of a tailor, or at least a belt and a sturdy pair of shoes, but with luck it would help people’s eyes pass over her in the courtyard or the hall. She returned her hair to its customary braid and stepped outside with a refreshing confidence.
It didn’t seem late enough for dinner, judging by the slant of the light and the continued activity around Skyhold, but Gwen had no idea what to do until then. She found herself wondering where Alistair was staying. Would the Inquisition have put him in another of the small rooms along her balcony, or was he somewhere deep within the castle, enjoying some massive suite?
Suddenly, Alistair’s laugh rang distinctly through the general clamor, and this time Gwen was sure it wasn’t an echo of her dreams. The sound seemed to come from the larger courtyard she had glimpsed beyond the one onto which her rooms entered. Had she walked through it when she arrived? She had no way of knowing—Leliana had practically dragged her unconscious body to bed.
Gwen found her way to the hall with some measure of surety, but beyond that she wasn’t sure where to turn. In the end she decided to follow the sounds of sparring, which came from beyond the massive doors at the head of the room. As if in confirmation, a pair of young soldiers entered, talking animatedly to each other, and she caught a glimpse of someone’s armor flashing in the failing afternoon light.
She crept through the space between the doors and found herself at the top of a stone staircase which descended into an oddly-shaped courtyard filled with soldiers. They sparred in pairs; they stabbed at straw dummies; they shot arrows at wooden targets; in the case of a few, they leaned against a wall until Cullen gave them a pointed look, at which point they shot guiltily to their feet.
The Inquisitor was engaged in combat with a stern-looking woman with a scar on her jaw. Gwen had expected Lady Trevelyan to fight with daggers, wiry as she was, but she hefted a massive shield on one arm and lashed out with a sword with the other. Her scarred face was evidence of past injuries, but watching her now, Gwen was surprised that any opponent had managed to land a hit. The Inquisitor’s style was cautious, sturdy—right up until she would dart forward, bashing with her shield or swinging her sword in an efficient arc, then dance back to crouch behind her shield and watch her opponent once more.
It took Gwen a moment to recognize Alistair; he had traded in his fine jerkin from earlier for a plain set of mail and a battered helmet. He shifted his weight forward and back as he dodged the jabs of a man in Grey Warden armor—this must be Blackwall, the Warden Lady Trevelyan had mentioned in her postscript. The man was clearly more in practice than Alistair was, though Alistair was his match or better when it came to sheer force. Gwen watched for a while as they found their rhythm. Alistair was using a borrowed shield, apparently, for it noticeably got in his way more than once. In the end, the other Warden caught him off balance and knocked him backwards onto his rear.
There—the laugh again as Alistair tugged off his helmet and waved away his opponent’s offered hand. Gwen was too far away to hear exactly what he said. The other man nodded, dipped into a shallow bow, and strode away.
It didn’t take Gwen long to pick her way across the training ground to Alistair. He wasn’t making any effort to stand; he had rocked his weight back, supported by his hands behind him, and tipped his head up to face the sun. His eyes were closed, and the clash of swords around them was loud enough that he apparently didn’t hear Gwen’s approach. From this proximity, she could see a shiny silver scar stretching from his jaw down his throat.
“Feeling a little bruised?”
Alistair started and opened his eyes. “Wh—no! I’m fine.” He heaved himself forward into a crouch and stood. “Why, did you see me embarrass myself?”
“Hey!” He grinned crookedly. “All right, that’s fair. In my defense, this shield wasn’t helping.”
Gwen snorted. “It doesn’t sound like it was in your defense.”
“Oh, that was terrible.”
“And you, Your Majesty, are terrible at adapting to unfamiliar equipment. What happened to the Alistair who could fight off Darkspawn with whatever shield we found in a bandit camp?” Gwen noticed a pile of wooden swords and shields for training leaning against the wall nearby. She hefted one of the swords while Alistair spluttered.
“You know, fighting off Darkspawn hasn’t exactly been in my job description lately.”
“Shame.” Gwen tossed him the sword—he barely caught it, dropping his helmet in the process—and selected a sword and shield for herself. “Well, no time like the present to refresh old skills.”
“Merciful Andraste, Gwen, you’re not wearing armor! Besides, there were about two weeks after we met where I could best you, and it’s been years since I’ve practiced properly. I’d rather not have my arse handed to me a second time today.”
“Then it’s a good thing you’re wearing armor and I’m not.”
Alistair’s mouth worked furiously for a moment before he shrugged, defeated. Gwen knew he’d try to go easy on her, if she let him. She certainly hadn’t intended to spar today—she hadn’t stretched, she wasn’t even wearing leather pads—but she was full of energy. The mountain air and the sounds of battle around them were almost electrifying. Besides, conversation during training was necessarily sparse, so this would give her a chance to ease into things. Less chance to stumble over her words when she was focused on not stumbling over her feet.
“Ready?” she asked.
Gwen lunged, aiming a jab past his shield. Alistair grunted and barely knocked it out of the way, but hesitated with the wooden training sword, which gave her the chance for an immediate second swing. This one landed solidly against his ribs.
“Oh, come on.”
Grinning, Gwen sank back, shield raised in position once again. “Ready?”
Yelling at the top of her lungs, Gwen charged forward, shield up, and knocked Alistair back. He staggered a few steps—she thought she heard him curse—and as he swung his shield back to try and regain his balance, she gently pressed the point of her sword against his chest and pushed him over backwards.
“Andraste’s flaming—what did I say?”
Gwen managed to control her laughter long enough to speak. “What do you mean?”
“You’re clearly angry about something. It’s not—” Alistair shook his head, climbing to his feet. “If it’s that I, you know…” He trailed off, looking a little helpless, and Gwen had no idea what he meant. They’d had barely one conversation since his arrival. What was he worrying about? She thought back to how anxious he had been, sometimes, when they spoke, and realized he was probably agonizing over something small he had said.
“I don’t think,” she started, but he cut over her.
“I am sorry. It’s—it was what I thought was right. At the time.”
“Wait, what are we—oh.”
I have a duty as the King. I love you. More than I ever thought possible. But I have to face what this means—I can’t run away from it anymore.
“Oh.” Gwen cleared her throat. “Oh, no, not that. No. I understand. Understood. You—we—were young. It was, um.” She stopped, took a breath, tried not to look at Alistair’s softened expression. So much for not stumbling over her words. When she spoke again her voice was firmer. “I’m sorry if I was a bit aggressive, but this isn’t some kind of decade-old revenge. I have missed sparring with you.”
“Hm.” Alistair watched her a moment, pensive, then raised his shield. “Ready?”
This time, Alistair took the immediate offensive: he took a large step forward, sword swinging down from above in a wide arc, and Gwen had to duck completely under her shield to save her head. Her teeth shivered with the force of the blow. Shaken and a little slow, she barely dodged his second jab, but by the time she had knocked it away with her sword, she had regained her bearings. She drove him back with a series of quick slashes, their feet dancing almost synchronously. She landed one light blow on his arm, but he quickly threw her blade aside and retaliated.
They pushed and retreated like this for a few minutes. Fighting without the weight of her armor was freeing for Gwen, but it also meant that she had to be especially cautious; even the lightest jab to her shoulder or graze of her hip could leave bruises and scratches, even with the dull wooden swords they were using.
“Good!” she called when Alistair landed an especially hard blow against her shield.
He laughed breathlessly and raised his own shield to block her blade. “You’re training me now?”
“You need it.”
“That hurts!” He jabbed at her stomach—missed. “It’s true, but it hurts.”
Exercise and focus had cleared Gwen’s head once more. Her lungs burned in the thin air, and she was quickly discovering that her shoulder was not as completely healed as she would like, but this half-battle, half-dance was invigorating. Worry sank to the back of her mind in deference to the sensation of her own strength.
“Higher!” she yelled when his blade glanced low off her shield, leaving him open.
Alistair grunted. “Oh, save it for the recruits.” He took a quick step forward—they were already so close Gwen couldn’t maneuver her sword—he heaved his shield against hers, copying her earlier strike—she tried to keep her core covered as she fell, but her sword arm flailed in an attempt to catch herself on something—Alistair swung at the sword, meaning to knock it out of her hand—his blade grazed her forearm instead, sending it swinging backwards as Gwen landed hard on her back.
All she could do for a moment was open and close her mouth, her lungs having forgotten how to draw breath. She saw Alistair drop his sword and shield and kneel beside her, but it was like watching him through water, slow and distant. Suddenly, air flooded into her chest with a ravaging fire, and she had to shut her eyes and cough. When she opened them again, he was still at her side, his expression horrified.
Flexing the fingers of her right hand, Gwen sighed in relief, which inspired another fit of coughing. She dragged herself into a sitting position with some effort and pushed up her sleeve. Her arm would be bruised, and it had a shallow gash down it—possibly from a splinter in the wood—but the damage was mild.
“I’m sorry, I meant to hit your sword!”
“It’s all right, Alistair.” She flexed her hand once more for good measure. A bead of blood formed on her broken skin and ran down towards her wrist. “Armor would have been a good idea after all, I think.”
“I shouldn’t have sparred you without it.”
Gwen snorted. “I convinced you. Not your fault.” She held up her arm to show that it wasn’t serious. “I’ve had worse.”
They were very close, she noticed suddenly. And he was still looking at her with that ridiculous expression of concern. His brow was furrowed, forming a small wrinkle between his eyebrows. He raised a hand and grasped her arm, gently, then pulled it away to tug off his glove with his teeth so that he could feel the skin properly. Gwen hissed a breath when he prodded at the place around the cut—she could only imagine the bruise she’d have tomorrow—but she couldn’t deny that the touch of his warm, calloused fingers was pleasant.
“You’re lucky I didn’t hit you straight on. It’s not broken.”
Gwen squinted up to see Commander Cullen looking down at them, bemused. She realized they were sitting in the middle of his training field, probably obstructing whatever last exercises he was running before they broke for dinner. “Ah, Commander. Sorry. We’re moving.”
Casting them one last doubtful look, Cullen made his way over to a group of soldiers, apparently with the purpose of critiquing their grips on their swords.
“I can’t believe that’s the same man as the one we found cowering in the Circle,” Alistair said, helping Gwen to her feet. She tried not to focus too long on the press of his hand against her arm, her back.
“He’s come a long way,” she agreed. “If what I heard of Kirkwall is true, he went through hell there. No doubt he’s grateful for the opportunity the Inquisition has given him to start over.”
“And I suspect he’s grateful for the Inquisitor, too.”
Gwen frowned as she stacked their swords back against the wall, adjacent to where Alistair was laying her shield. “Well, yes, I’d imagine that she had some say in making him Commander, but I think it was that Seeker who actually recruited him.”
“No, I mean, I’d imagine he’s very grateful for Lady Trevelyan.”
“Alistair, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He raised one eyebrow, smirking. “Did you miss how protective he was of her at the War Table? She’s a capable woman, I’m sure, but the thought of her striking out for the Storm Coast to battle Darkspawn seemed… upsetting to him.”
“Ah.” The pieces clicked into place. “Well, good for them, I suppose.” They began a wandering path back across the training ground to the staircase that led to the great hall. “That seems dangerous, though. Becoming romantically involved with the leader of the whole thing.”
Alistair started to say something, but coughed instead.
Gwen realized how hungry she was when they caught a whiff of baking bread and her stomach growled. She chuckled. “Do you think it’s time for dinner yet? I’m starved.”
“Don’t you think you should take care of your arm first?”
“It’s fine. I just need a hot meal.”
Alistair stopped just as they passed through the doors. “Why don’t you just let me wrap it for you? I have bandages. Besides, I asked for dinner in my quarters—we can eat there.”
“How luxurious,” Gwen joked, studiously ignoring a nagging memory that had appeared when he invited her to his quarters. “I think I could tolerate that.”
“Thank the Maker,” Alistair said dryly. “And here I thought I was going to have to knock you out properly before you’d take care of yourself.”
She followed him up a flight of stairs that looked familiar, then down a corridor, and it wasn’t until he opened a door onto the balcony walkway that she realized they were near her room. They walked right past it. Alistair opened the next door and gestured her inside—a little nervously, she thought.
Not a suite, then: just a cozy room a little larger than her own, with a fireplace against the right wall that must share a chimney with hers. His bed was draped with furs. A desk, crammed into the corner, was littered with correspondence, and a crown perched haphazardly on a stack of letters. The promised dinner was on a tray at the foot of the bed: a loaf of fresh bread, a bowl of some hardy berries that must have been coaxed into growing in the garden below them, a plate of meat and boiled vegetables and a carafe of wine. One corner of the desk had been cleared to make room for a pitcher of water and a steaming bowl of what smelled like elfroot tea.
“That looks wonderful,” Gwen said emphatically.
“The tea will do you good,” Alistair said, unstrapping his gauntlets and tossing them into an open chest at their left. He bent over to rummage around inside it.
Gwen cast her eyes over the room again while she waited. It was untidy in a way that she found endearing—this was the man who had helped defeat the Fifth Blight but who had always managed to pack his socks in his bedroll and become convinced he had lost them: strong but forgetful, sarcastic but sensitive.
It was getting dim in the room as dusk fell outside. The fire had burned down to embers, so Gwen took it upon herself to stack more wood from the pile on top. She located a poker and nudged it around until it caught. Behind her, she heard Alistair swear softly as he hit his head on the lid of the trunk.
“Everything all right?”
“Er, yes. I found the bandages.”
She settled in front of the fire while he crouched beside her, first dabbing at her arm with a cloth and then binding it. Every motion was deliberate and gentle. It was hard to fight down the smile that rose as she watched him scowl at his handiwork, adjusting the smallest fold in the bandage. When it was tied off and he was still fidgeting with it, she waved him off.
“That’s fine, Alistair. Let’s eat.”
“Right.” He hesitated for a second, then twisted around to retrieve the tray from the bed and set it before them in front of the fire. “Oh, the tea—that will help your arm. I have cups.”
He came back a moment later with two battered metal mugs that looked like they might well have survived the Blight themselves. Only after bringing the water and tea from the desk did he sit down with a heavy sigh and allow himself to lean back against the bedpost.
“You should take your armor off,” Gwen suggested.
Alistair waggled his eyebrows. “Are you propositioning me, Gwendolyn? It’s a bit early in the evening for that.”
Gwen scowled. “You know what I mean.” Her flush was from the warmth of the fire, she told herself, and started on the food while he began loosening buckles and straps to follow her advice.
The bread was just as delicious as it had smelled: light, airy, and free of the insects she sometimes had to pick from her rations when she travelled. When she finished devouring her piece, Alistair pushed a hot mug of tea into her hands, which flooded warmth through her as she drank it. The herbal concoction did indeed ease the ache in her arm, bitter and grassy though it was. They tackled the plate of meat together, but Alistair relinquished the berries when he deemed them “too sour” and started on the vegetables instead.
As they ate, they talked at great length about nothing at all. The market in Denerim—how had it changed? Had Gwen traveled anywhere near Flemeth’s cottage? Neither of them had heard anything of the witch in years, but both were convinced she was still at large. The crops near Lothering were starting to grow back in earnest. Redcliffe was thankful for the Inquisitor’s visit, as was Crestwood, where a chronic problem with the undead had been eliminated by draining the lake—both were fuzzy on the details.
The wine disappeared little by little, though they alternated it with cups of water and tea. Gwen found herself laughing more freely as the conversation went on—nothing to do, of course, with Alistair’s pleased, tipsy flush when he made her laugh.
“You know what? I’ve really missed this,” he said finally.
“Eating on the ground.” Gwen laughed, but this time he frowned. “No, I’m serious! It’s so much easier to talk when you’re sitting on the ground in front of a fire. Have—have you ever tried maintaining a conversation across a massive table? And servants, and dignitaries, and you’re not supposed to make jokes.” He looked into the fire for a moment, his gaze unfocused. “It was nice. Not all of it, but that part. It was—it was really nice.” He turned back to Gwen, something in his expression begging for understanding, for empathy.
“I know what you mean,” she agreed. “I mean, I eat on the ground by a fire most nights, but alone. And that’s not quite the same either.”
They fell into silence for a while, both mesmerized by the dancing of the flames before them. Gwen stretched out her legs to enjoy the warmth. He was right: leaning against a bedframe, seated on the hard stone floor, it wasn’t comfortable, exactly, but it was familiar, warm, and safe.
“You should finish the tea,” Alistair said after great length.
“Will you please stop fussing about my arm,” Gwen insisted. “It really wasn’t your fault.”
Alistair groaned and slid down until he was lying on his back on the floor. Time had kept running, Gwen realized, and the room behind them was now inky black beyond the reach of the fire’s glow. Outside the window, she could see a spray of stars, cold and blue-white where they lay scattered across the sky.
“Look,” she said, pointing.
Alistair turned his head to look, then looked back at the fire. “’S pretty.”
And Maker, when did this stop being difficult? They were sitting side by side, warm and full and sore from the day’s exertions, but it was easy. Gwen had stopped worrying about tripping over painful memories and was instead enjoying the conversation’s meandering path.
She sighed and lay down, too, letting the fire’s crackling music lull her further into her sense of peace.
While you're waiting for the next chapter, I made a separate fic for bonus content from this one! It can be found in the same series as this fic and includes deleted scenes, first drafts, and possibly more exciting stuff later. Happy reading!
Chapter 4: Chapter IV
Aaand back 3k miles across the country again. I've started my summer internship and I'm just so damn tired, so sorry if the dialogue gets a little choppy at the end, but I promised Emma a new chapter tonight. I may clean it up tomorrow and/or when I post the next chapter, which was originally going to be part of this one but it got long and it's late. Enjoy!
Gwen must have dozed for a while, because when she next came back to herself, she was stiff from laying on the floor and the wine’s humming had drained from her veins. She rolled over, careful not to kick the mug by her foot, to see that Alistair was lying on his side, watching her. He glanced quickly back at the fire.
“How long was I asleep?”
“I’m not sure, I think I slept too.” Alistair sat up, stretching with a groan. “We probably drank too much.”
“Probably.” Gwen tucked her arm under her head, still too sleepy to sit up, and looked past Alistair to the window. Stars still studded the sky above the castle walls. They were distant and cold, but if she squinted, it almost looked like they hovered throughout the keep like the glimmering insects she had seen in southern Orlais.
When she didn’t move for several long moments, Alistair leaned down to follow her gaze. Her eyes flicked down to his shirt where it exposed a stretch of freckled skin above his hip, then back to the window.
“The stars?” he asked.
“They look gorgeous from here,” Gwen said. “Between trees and snow, it’s been a while since I’ve seen them.”
Alistair used the bed post to pull himself into a standing position—Gwen heard his knee pop. “I bet we could see them better from out on the battlements.”
“Come on!” Alistair was grinning, pulling her to her feet before she could ask questions. For a moment, his hand was wrapped around hers, warm and calloused, but once she found her balance he dropped it and turned away to open the door. Gwen smiled a little at the easy touch, remembering the affection-wary Chantry boy she had travelled with—the Alistair who had asked permission to hold her hand even once they were sharing a tent, who had apologized for an impulsive kiss on the cheek after battle.
The night outside was bitterly cold, as Alistair and Gwen quickly realized when they stepped out onto the walkway above the garden. Gwen tugged her vest down and crossed her arms over her chest. Alistair was right: the stars were even more vivid out here. Skyhold was gilded in their silver light.
“Wow,” Gwen breathed. The leaves just below them in the courtyard shivered and gleamed. Candlelight flickered from one window in the sentry tower at their right; a guard, perhaps, or a diplomat answering urgent correspondence. There was no way to tell how long was left before dawn.
Alistair called softly from down the walkway. “There’s a staircase here. I think it leads up to the battlements.”
Tread soft in her leather-soled shoes, Gwen crept after him. The stairs dipped in the middle from the wear of hundreds of feet, with the exception of the occasional fresh-cut stone. The Inquisition certainly hadn’t been skimping on Skyhold’s upkeep.
They climbed up the castle’s outer wall, then doubled back at a landing to go higher still, until suddenly they found themselves standing atop the walls of the keep. Swaths of fresh snow were visible between the crenellations, and an icy river cut through them, shining in the starlight. The horizon was knife-sharp—jagged white peaks harsh against the inky sky—and it was a refreshing change from the hazy, dense forests of southern Ferelden. A painfully cold wind whistled through the notched walls. And still, above them, stars winked like popping sparks from a fire.
Both were knocked breathless with the sight of it. How appropriate, Gwen thought, that Skyhold stood as a bastion of warmth in this desolate landscape. For the first time, she thought of the castle as something alive—sleeping, but alive—perched on the hill, curled protectively around the woman who had returned fire and fertility to her dormant stone belly. Gwen wondered if the castle felt the starlight pouring over her like molten lyrium. How little effort it would be to shrug her shoulders and shed the tired Warden and the reluctant King from her back, insignificant as fleas on a mabari. The image had caught her so strongly that Gwen paused her steps for a moment, waiting for a rumbling below her, but the only sound that came was the contented sigh of the trees.
She followed Alistair along the narrow battlements. They passed through the guard tower, then onto another stretch of wall, from which they could look down into the larger courtyard where they had sparred that afternoon. A few drunk soldiers sat outside what must have been the tavern, but its lights were dark. It must have been later than she thought.
“Where are we going?”
Alistair looked back, slowing his long stride to fall in beside her. “We can see the lake from that corner there.” He pointed. “I thought it might be nice.”
They passed through another tower, this one deserted. As they turned and approached the door to their left, they heard footsteps on the other side.
“Guards,” Gwen murmured. “Should we be here?”
“I don’t know.”
Gwen grabbed Alistair’s forearm and pulled him into the shadows beside the door. Her feet knocked against a pile of rubble, sending a rock skittering across the floor, and she sank back against the wall as the door opened.
“—worry about me, I’ll have good fighters with me. I’ve dealt with worse.” Gwen gripped Alistair’s arm harder at the Inquisitor’s voice.
“I know you have, I just wish you didn’t have to.” Commander Cullen’s voice, now, and embarrassment hit Gwen like a physical blow. “I just keep thinking of you appearing out of the snow at Haven, collapsing at the edge of the lamplight. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more frightened.”
“I know that’s not true.”
They were just silhouettes in the dim light filtering through the broken floorboards above. Gwen watched as their steps slowed, then stopped, and by the subtle movement of Alistair’s arm she thought he was shaking his head.
“I wish I could come with you.”
“Even if you can’t bring yourself to trust Dorian or Bull, you know Varric will have my back.”
Cullen sighed. “If you trust them, I trust them.”
“Besides, I can’t be worrying about you.”
“You don’t need to—”
“In a lyrium mine, Cullen?”
“Ah.” There was a moment of quiet shifting. “If you get to worry, I get to worry.”
The Inquisitor laughed, quiet but genuine. “Deal.”
The two figures leaned in, and Gwen froze when she realized that they were kissing. She didn’t even resist Alistair when he pulled his arm from her hand, or stop him when he stepped in front of her in the darkness. The insistent press of his hand guided her to dart around the doorframe and outside, where they were able to make their quiet way down the battlements without attracting the attention of the pair behind them.
Neither of them spoke until they had passed through another empty tower and Cullen’s office, which Rena was only able to identify by the Templar-crested shield leaning against the wall behind his desk. Finally they found themselves on an open stretch of wall which looked down on a sunken portion of the courtyard. Fires still flickered below them, illuminating a low circle of tents and a few merchant carts, cleared of their wares for the night.
“Look,” Alistair said.
Gwen followed his pointed finger over the wall to the frozen lake cradled between two slopes. It was the culmination of the river they had seen earlier, cracked and uneven and radiant as it reflected the sky.
“It’s gorgeous,” Gwen breathed.
Alistair took a few steps forward, crossing his arms and resting them on the crenellation closest to him. “It’s kind of funny, isn’t it? If it was perfectly flat, it would just show the sky like a mirror. It’s the cracks that make it beautiful. Look how they capture the light.”
Joining him at the wall, Gwen couldn’t help but be aware of how close they were standing. The easy companionship made it all too easy to imagine that things were just as they were before the Landsmeet—but they weren’t. To rest her hand on his shoulder, to lean into his side—to kiss him in the darkness, like the Inquisitor had kissed Cullen—these things were forbidden her by time and circumstance.
He was right about the lake, though, so she cast her gaze back to its frozen surface. Indeed, the fissures and bubbles in the ice bent the light in strange ways, casting an unearthly glow over the scene. It almost looked like its own kind of Rift—one through which one might pass in a dream, or after an honorable death, through the spiderwebs of light into the comforting blackness beyond.
Gwen suppressed a shudder, half from the image before her and half from the cold. If she had thought she had slept off all the effects of the wine, her poetic musings told her otherwise.
Alistair seemed to break from his own reverie with a start. “Cold?” he asked, turning towards her.
Gwen shrugged. “I’d be lying if I said I was warm. I don’t want to go back in, though,” she hurried to add. “I’m still enjoying the stars.”
Alistair looked out over the raised stone bridge that was the only approach to Skyhold. After a long moment, he turned back to her, the shadow of a smile on his face. “I have an idea. Wait here a few minutes?”
She watched him break into a grin and stride away, but not back the way they had come; instead, his feet carried him around another corner to the left and back towards a part of the castle Gwen was unfamiliar with. She wondered when he had found so much time to explore Skyhold. She wondered where he was going. She wondered why these midnight outings and dinners before the fire if he was just going to ride back to Denerim in a few days, breaking her heart all over again with his companionable smile and easy laugh and the way he forced her to settle into her own skin.
She gripped the stone before her until her fingers turned white.
It wasn’t fair. She had tried to do the right thing, putting him on the throne over Anora. She thought she knew better than him when he protested. That was always her problem, wasn’t it: she needed to solve everyone else’s problems, and she was sure she knew how. After all, she was the Hero of Ferelden! Infallible! Indestructible! Indefatigable! She had the audacity to stand in the Landsmeet and back the shy Chantry boy she had been dragging across the country for King, while the Queen, trained her whole life to lead, looked on. When she managed it, she thought she had won, that everything would be perfect. But no. The words came bleeding out of him that night, declarations of duty softened by admissions of love, and all that was left was to throw her weight behind her sword until the Blight was defeated.
And then, nothing.
She couldn’t go back to Highever. She couldn’t stay in Denerim. For all the places she had traveled, for all the leaders who had greeted her as an honored guest, none of them was home so much as the group of people now scattered to the winds. Home meant Zevran bickering with Leliana about shoes of all things while he stirred the cookpot. It meant laughing a little at Morrigan’s smaller camp, set apart from the rest of the tents, but dutifully trekking over to speak with her nonetheless. It meant Oghren convincing Alistair to spar with him while the mabari looked on, barking. It meant gaining the trust and friendship of her companions, learning their stories, and binding them together into a force to be reckoned with.
Skyhold hurt because it could have been what she craved. The Inquisitor had it: advisors gathered tightly around her, loyal companions, and a stronghold that held a sense of dignity and permanence. If Gwen let herself ease into it, the castle walls might welcome her in.
But the Calling would not let her, just as much as she would not let herself. It was her turn to sacrifice happiness for duty.
Her bitter thoughts slowly ebbed away with the wind, and with their passing some of the tension eased from her shoulders. Perhaps this time with Alistair was a gift, not a taunting reminder of what she could have had. Instead of going the rest of her life without seeing him, she had a chance to make things right—to make him laugh, to assure him of her friendship, and, perhaps, to apologize outright.
The realization was like a balm to her troubled mind. Her grip on the stone loosened, and her eyes focused back on the stars and the lake below.
How long had Alistair been gone? That dense cluster of stars had passed halfway beneath the horizon. Once again, Gwen’s mind turned to Alistair’s knowledge of Skyhold. Had he slept at all, or had he spent the entire afternoon wandering the castle?
Just as the question occurred to her, soft footsteps could be heard from the left. Gwen turned and saw Alistair approaching, a blanket draped over one arm, a steaming mug in each hand.
“Oh!” she said. Then a pause, then, again: “oh!”
“Oh, you said you didn’t want to go inside yet,” he said, shrugging, and this was a lot easier when he used to trip over his words too.
“No, yes, that’s an excellent idea. Thank you.”
Indeed, the warmth of the mug was immediately soothing when she cupped it in her own hands. She crouched down beside Alistair and waited for him to throw the blanket around her shoulders before leaning back against the battlements. He tugged the other end of it around himself, careful not to spill his own drink, and they both settled back to watch the stars.
They weren’t quite touching, but Gwen could feel Alistair’s warmth. Feeling slowly came back to her fingers and nose as she drank—hot milk with sugar—and shared his body heat.
“I found out how long we slept,” Alistair said after a few minutes. Gwen’s quizzical expression prompted him to continue. “It’s almost dawn. The kitchen staff are awake, lighting the fires and preparing for breakfast.”
Now that he mentioned it, Gwen thought she could see the beginnings of a hazy light on the horizon. “I’m surprised we both slept so long on that stone floor.”
“After several days’ hard travel, sparring, and a bottle of wine? I’m not.”
“You’re right.” She took another long drink from her mug. “Thank you again for this. Very thoughtful of you.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Well, not nothing of course—I just mean that I was enjoying the stars too, so I’m happy to stay out.”
They sat companionably, the fog from their breath mingling with the steam from their drinks, as the stars inched across the sky and the glow behind the mountains grew.
The sunrise started with a patch of pale blue just over the mountains, cautious and wavering, but soon streaks of lavender and pink faded into existence.
Alistair took a long drink from his mug and threw his head back, sighing. There was that scar again. It started just under the right side of his jaw in a small knot of flesh, extending down his neck in one smooth line—except the place halfway down his neck where whatever blade had caused it must have slipped.
Gwen reached up with a single finger, not quite touching the scar but tracing its path through the air. “What’s this from? Bad shaving accident?”
Alistair chuckled. “Botched assassination.”
Despite the warming influence of her drink, Gwen’s blood ran cold. “What?”
“Yes, some young woman who had sharpened various clever pieces of her armor. She lunged at me with her elbow and got in a good scratch before I could get her off me, then she ran.”
“What, she came at you in a crowd?”
“On the road just outside of Denerim, actually. I thought she needed help. Eamon swears she was Orlesian, but I never heard her speak.”
Gwen sputtered. “You seem awfully nonchalant about it!”
“Well, it’s not like I’ve never been ambushed before. I’ve looked death in the eyes a few times, at your side and since.” Alistair smirked, shrugged. “Besides, that was years ago. I barely felt it.”
In her mind’s eye, Gwen could see the scene: the young king leading his horse towards an armored stranger, Arl Eamon and several guards mounted behind him; one of the guards issuing a warning yell as the girl lashed out suddenly; a spurt of blood, a brief struggle, and the girl running off into the underbrush, leaving Alistair standing with his hands clasped around his own throat, scarlet streaming over them.
“Why are you lying to me?” Gwen blurted.
She ducked to examine the scar once more, confirming her thoughts. “That would have been painful, and nearly life-threatening. You’re telling me you stopped out of goodwill and that girl nearly killed you, and you didn’t care? You don’t care?”
Alistair turned his gaze back to the mountains and the sunrise, now gold and fuschia, and drank deeply. The scar bobbed as he swallowed. “Worse things have happened,” he said finally, and left it at that.
Suddenly Gwen wished more than anything to have been in that scene. The pure want of it was overpowering, almost like a physical ache. She should have been the one to approach the girl, and she would have had her shield up—she was always better about maintaining her guard than Alistair.
And then the image shifted to another, more vivid than the last: she is waiting for his return in Denerim Palace, a report on Darkspawn movements ready, when he rides in with his company of men, bleeding through and over the thin bandage tied around his neck. She helps to ease him down from his horse and kisses his face as soon as it’s within reach. She pulls him through to the quarters they share whenever she can spare time to be in the city, teasing him for his lapse in judgment to hide her worry, and gently cleans the wound before bandaging it afresh. When she is finished, she kisses him again until he laughs, and only when she hears that sound does the tension in her heart ease.
Then the glimpse of that domestic life passed as the sun broke the horizon and shone in Gwen’s eyes. She squinted against the light and finished her drink in an enormous gulp. “Worse things have happened, but that doesn’t excuse it.”
“Perhaps. I’m sure you’ve had your fair share of danger over the years.”
“Ha! You could say that.” Gwen flexed her hand, feeling the knotted scars. “Comes with being a Warden, I suppose.”
“I hope you’re happy as a Warden. I know everything moved so fast, you didn’t have much choice in the matter.”
Gwen looked at Alistair, disbelieving. “I didn’t have much choice, Mr. I’ve-Survived-So-Many-Assassination-Attempts-They-Don’t-Faze-Me?”
To her surprise, Alistair chuckled. “I’m a grown man now, Gwen. I’ve settled into the job a bit. And I wouldn’t necessarily have been safe continuing as I had before, king or no.”
“I should have stayed with you at least. That was the understanding when I supported you—that I would be at your side, as your advisor,” she hurried to clarify.
“I had Eamon, until he retired. And I have advisors. And I hope that I’ve had some positive influence on Ferelden.”
Gwen listened to the sounds of morning in the courtyard below them. The soldiers were beginning to wake up, facing another day in a land torn by civil war. “I hope so too.”
Alistair nudged her with his arm, seeming to sober. She leaned against him as he said, “Come on, Hero of Ferelden. The fate of the kingdom isn’t on your shoulders anymore.”
She let out a shaky laugh. “It’s a hard weight to shake when people won’t drop that title.”
“I know.” He let her tuck her head into his shoulder and rested his cheek against her hair. “I know. Hey, I’d be lying if I said that I’ve loved being king. It’s not always feasting and ordering people around. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that leaders have to face an endless stream of impossible decisions.” He nudged her again, gently. “I’ve found myself thinking of you a lot. The choices I didn’t always agree with, and the ones I did, and how strong you stayed through the whole thing. Especially at first, you really were advising me, whether you knew it or not.”
Gwen smiled, secretly glad he couldn’t see. “Well, thank you. Is that what you were talking about—the ‘worse things’? Redcliffe and Lothering, and everything we went through on the road?”
“Some of them. The nightmares, the slow death by poisoned blood, the call to the Deep Roads—those things have been more or less ongoing.”
“Ah.” And sure enough, as soon as it was named, the Calling swelled to a crescendo in her subconscious. She would never become accustomed to the sensation. Some aspect of it was a physical tug, but it was more like a wave of nausea—more yet like an eerie song heard across a great distance.
Alistair tensed beside her, and Gwen couldn’t believe that she had never considered that he too suffered from the Calling. After all, King or no, he was still a Grey Warden, and would necessarily be affected like the rest of them. They huddled together until the song faded into the background of their minds once more.
“I imagine,” she said eventually, “that that would make leadership difficult.”
“That’s an understatement.” He paused. “Have the nightmares returned for you, too?”
“As bad as they were just after my Joining,” she confirmed. “Not since I arrived at Skyhold—I’ve been sleeping like the dead. But every night before.”
“I sometimes go a few nights without one, but then they return worse than before.”
They both shuddered at the recollection of the horrors that plagued their nights. For the first time in a decade, however, they were each able to find comfort in the other’s presence. Gwen remembered how many nights she had awoken, gasping, by the fire, only for Alistair to quietly reassure her back to sleep. It was months before she realized why he was always already awake. Once they started sharing a tent, she discovered that his sobs were much quieter, and he had years more practice tearing himself from the Fade.
Gwen pushed harder into his side at the memory of that sad realization, and he moved his arm to wrap around her. “It’s cold,” she said lamely.
“Colder than ever,” Alistair agreed, his mind clearly somewhere else.
They both watched as the morning began in earnest. The dawn’s brilliant colors faded to a pale, powdery blue, and the lake transformed from a frightening dark web to the bright shimmering thing Gwen had admired on her approach.
“It looks like I’m going to be at Skyhold for a while,” Gwen said. “The Inquisitor has plans for me, and I hope to make use of the Inquisition’s resources in my quest to cure the Calling. But what of you?”
“I have a few days more here. Teagan is meant to arrive today for further negotiations—that agreement at the War Table was mostly a formality. I need another diplomat present for discussions regarding Orlais and trade regulations.”
“Sounds fascinating,” Gwen commented drily.
“Try to bluff me all you want, I know you’re interested. Teagan will be excited to see you again so I bet I can get you into the meetings.”
“Nice. It seems there are a few benefits to being King.” She tried to affect a lighthearted tone. It was a gorgeous morning with her old friend, and the last thing she wanted to do was weigh down the conversation with more dark topics and regret from the past.
When Alistair didn’t answer for a moment, Gwen sat up, worried she had hit a nerve. In fact, he was looking at something behind her. Gwen turned and saw the Inquisitor with Commander Cullen once more. They stood far enough down the battlements that they had not yet noticed the two figures huddled in a blanket, and Gwen couldn’t hear any of their conversation but for abstract murmurs. Still, the tone was clear as they bid each other farewell, obviously after a sleepless night for them both. Cullen leaned down and pressed a chaste kiss to Lady Trevelyan’s cheek before yawning and retreating into his office. For just a moment, Gwen thought the Inquisitor looked right at them with those eerie, breach-green eyes of hers, but then she turned and descended a long staircase into the courtyard.
“It seems there are a few benefits to being Inquisitor as well,” Alistair mused.
“Yes, I’m sure they both enjoy being kept awake worrying for the future of Thedas.” Her tone wasn’t sharp, but the words were, and Gwen clamped her teeth together to keep herself from saying anything else.
“We all take our turn,” Alistair said, a little too breezily, and offered Gwen his hand as he stood. “And if Lady Trevelyan’s rest is the price being paid for all the good the Inquisition is doing, then I’d have to argue that it’s justified.”
Gwen hauled herself to her feet and folded the blanket before retrieving her cup. In the courtyard below, Lady Trevelyan was laughing with a group of men, showing no signs of fatigue or frustration. An enormous Qunari man clapped her on the back, nearly knocking her over, and their laughter carried throughout the castle.
There had been one morning, Gwen remembered suddenly, where she was beginning her second day without any sleep—her tent had torn, and in sharing one with Leliana, she discovered that the bard sang in her sleep. She was exhausted and hungry, but they were nearing the end of their supplies, so all she had was elfroot tea while she waited for everyone else to awake. Her mood was as foul as it had ever been. But one by one, her companions appeared and joined her around the fire, swapping worn-out jokes and stories like they were all hearing them for the first time. Alistair and Morrigan bickered without any fire behind it while Zevran managed to throw together a meager ration of food into a surprisingly filling porridge. She had nearly fallen asleep walking that day, but Wynne drilled her on herbal remedies until they pitched camp, and then Leliana volunteered to share with the older woman so Gwen could catch up on her rest.
The sleepiness Gwen felt now was just a shadow of that exhaustion, but she could see it in the haggard set of Lady Trevelyan’s shoulders—and that same relief, borne of companionship. Gwen had missed that. She didn’t even realize it until she was back at Alistair’s side.
“Maybe it is her turn,” Gwen said finally, “but it’s all of our responsibility. We all do what we can.”
Whew, finally time for the second half of that scene! I know this is a lot of sitting and chatting, but in Chapter 6 we'll jump back into some fun action. I hope you like it, and I may come back and do some mild tinkering/cleanups later. Shoutout to sonsofmahal who has been supporting this fic all the way and who helped me with the dialogue in this chapter. <3
Chapter 6: Chapter VI
I keep getting really ambitious with my chapter outlines and having to split them up.... anyway this broke nicely and I know I haven't posted in a while so here's what I've got so far in this series of scenes. Enjoy!
Now that the stars and the sunrise had faded, they had no excuse to loiter on the battlements. Alistair showed Gwen how to find the kitchens, where they left their cups with the harried staff and continued on their way into the main part of the castle. Most of Skyhold’s residents were not yet awake. The Great Hall was mostly empty, with the exception of the Inquisitor and a few other people who sat breakfasting with her: a dwarf with sandy hair pulled back from his face, the Qunari man from the courtyard, a breathtakingly beautiful woman wearing a headdress with ornamental horns, and the scarred, scowling woman the Inquisitor had been sparring with the day before.
“Lady Cousland!” the Inquisitor greeted Gwen as she and Alistair entered. “And King Alistair! I hope you’ve been enjoying Skyhold. The grounds are so pleasant, and there are all kinds of nooks and crannies to explore.” Her mouth quirked into a smile, and Gwen suddenly realized that Lady Trevelyan knew she and Alistair had been in that tower.
Gwen cleared her throat. “Yes, it’s a perfect stronghold. We’ve just been familiarizing ourselves with the battlements.”
“Is that what the kids are calling it these days?” the dwarven man muttered just audibly to the Qunari, who snickered.
“That’s enough, Varric,” the Inquisitor said sharply.
Alistair waved a hand. “I’m sure he meant nothing by it.”
“Of course not, Your Majesty. My apologies. Varric Tethras, at your service.”
“A pleasure. Madame de Fer, I believe I was fortunate enough to meet you on one of my visits to Orlais.”
“Indeed, Your Majesty.” The woman in the ornate hat nodded gracefully. “I assume that this visit is in a more… unofficial capacity?”
“You assume correctly.” Alistair turned to Gwen, who was starting to feel like she had lost the flow of the conversation. “Madame de Fer is Empress Celine’s personal enchanter. Lady Trevelyan, perhaps you could introduce us to your other companions?”
“Of course. Your Majesty, Lady Cousland, this is Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast. She was instrumental in the formation of the Inquisition.” The scarred woman bowed her head. “And this is the Iron Bull. He and his Chargers have been a valuable asset to the Inquisition’s forces.”
The Iron Bull laughed. “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me, boss. Nice to meet you two.”
“This isn’t even half the group. We’re a bit of a motley bunch,” the Inquisitor said, shrugging, “but we work well together.”
“Sounds familiar,” said Gwen.
“’Motley’ is a bit of an understatement—for both of our groups, I’d imagine,” Alistair agreed.
Lady Trevelyan laughed. “Yes, Leliana has told me a little about your adventures. A prince, a bard, an apostate, an Antivan Crow… what a party.”
“It sounds like the beginning of a joke,” said Gwen.
“Or an excellent story,” added Varric. “I’d love to hear more about your travels sometime.”
The Iron Bull nudged his companion. “Always collecting material for your books, eh? Don’t you think your readers would notice if you lifted the story of the Hero of Ferelden?”
“Do you think they’d care?” Varric countered. “Come on, they ate up the one about Hawke, and that was about half true.”
“It was what?” Cassandra asked.
Lady Trevelyan grinned. “And you were just getting back into her good books—pun intended.”
Everyone at the table groaned. Alistair chuckled. “Well, when it comes to the Blight, I think there are plenty of stories people have never heard before. There are probably some that would be scandalous enough to grab public interest.”
“Anything involving Zevran, for a start,” Gwen said.
Varric groaned. “I can imagine. Now there’s an encounter I’ll never forget.”
Gwen laughed. “Was this when you were in Kirkwall with the Champion?”
Lady Trevelyan beckoned Gwen and Alistair over to the table, and they sat as Varric told his story. The chairs were clearly fresh-made to satisfy the ever-growing demands of the Inquisition, but the table had been worn by almost continuous use. Gwen took a deep breath of the woodsmoke- and pine-scented air as Alistair helped himself to porridge and passed the bowl. Maybe someday, if she was able to find a cure, she could spare a little time at a table like this one, eating with friends and companions before a roaring fire.
“So we get word of something fishy going on,” Varric said, leaning forward and smirking, “and we head up to the Dalish camp to see if we can’t track down this mysterious assassin who’s been causing trouble. We find him in this cave. None of us knew who he was, except Isabella—”
“Oh no.” Alistair groaned.
“You know Isabella?”
“Pirate captain, based out of Denerim?” Gwen asked through a mouthful of food. She gulped down the porridge in her mouth before explaining, “We met her at the Pearl! She taught me how to duel.”
“Why were you at the—actually, tell me later, that’s one I’d love to hear.”
“That one actually isn’t as salacious as it sounds,” Alistair said.
Gwen chuckled. “Isabella wanted to change that, though. Remember, she propositioned both of us?”
“How could I forget?” Alistair rolled his eyes. “Anyway, I’m sure I know where this is going. She and Zevran remembered each other?”
“Actually, there was just some light flirting there. No, it was Hawke who took to him right away. We helped him get out of the trouble he was in, and then they left together right there in front of us.”
“I’m not surprised,” Gwen admitted. “He’s a charmer.”
“And I’m sure Marion was in need of a little stress relief,” Madame de Fer said lightly, “if she was half as repressed as she was when she was here.”
“I think you’re underestimating how awkward the situation was—” Varric began, but Gwen sat up straight.
“Marion Hawke was here? When? I would have loved to have met her.”
Lady Trevelyan gave Gwen a slightly quizzical expression. “Oh, she was here just before the siege at Adamant Fortress.”
The Iron Bull snorted. “I think she’s probably dealt with enough Wardens to last a lifetime—no offense, Lady Cousland.”
“I’m—I’m sorry, the what?” The siege at Adamant? What siege? Gwen had been there a few months ago, checking in briefly before continuing her search. Warden Commander Clarel had seemed a little distracted, but still enthusiastic about Gwen’s search. She had stayed one night in the bustling stronghold before heading south.
Alistair was frozen beside her. “Gwen, I assumed you were there,” he said hoarsely, not meeting her eyes. “You haven’t—you don’t know what happened?”
Everyone at the table had fallen conspicuously silent. Gwen’s heart seemed to skip as she assumed the worse and tried to convince herself otherwise. “Inquisitor Trevelyan, I’ve been out of contact with the Grey Wardens for over a month. It sounds like there’s some news I’ve missed.”
Varric, Seeker Pentaghast, and Madame de Fer, and the Iron Bull shared a look and silently stood to leave. Lady Trevelyan sighed, seeming to shrink in on herself. “Warden Cousland. I’m so sorry. Were you aware that Warden-Commander Clarel was dealing with Corypheus?”
“That she was what?”
The story came out, haltingly at first, then in a flat, almost disinterested tone. Lady Trevelyan described, as though reciting some distant historical event, her meetings with Stroud, her confrontation with the Wardens in the Western Approach, and finally the siege and her fall into the rift.
Gwen was barely aware enough of Alistair’s expressions to tell that some of this information was new to him, too—but not most of it. Of course he would have known about this. But she had been so determined on her personal quest for the Cure that she had been blind to the increasing desperation of her fellow Wardens. In retrospect, it had only been a matter of time before their fear of an untimely death drove them to do something idiotic, but Gwen was still reeling at the idea that anyone who had sworn to ensure peace in Thedas could seek solutions in such a destructive force as Corypheus.
“Stroud felt that it was his duty as a Warden to stay behind and ensure our escape. To him, I think, the Wardens had incurred a great debt to Thedas, and his sacrifice was the first step in paying that off,” Lady Trevelyan explained, voice still emotionless. “Hawke and I were able to escape.”
“And the casualties?” Gwen whispered. Alistair shifted next to her. In her mind’s eye, blood ran down the walls and staircases of the fortress like waterfalls. She couldn’t stop conjuring the faces of half-remembered Wardens: the young elven mage, freshly free of the Circle, her eyes glazed and lifeless; blood dripping from the calloused hand of the dwarven fighter she had laughed with while she waited to meet with Warden-Commander Clarel. All destroyed, surely.
For the first time, Lady Trevelyan’s voice wavered. “A great many Wardens, and almost as many of my men. We spared as many as we could—especially the youths. They were frightened. They didn’t know better.” She cleared her throat, pushed her uneven hair back from her scarred face. “Warden-Commander Clarel realized her wrongs, in the end. She sacrificed herself. Her actions were her responsibility alone.”
Gwen tried to swallow around the lump in her throat. “And the rest?” She asked. “Those you spared, those who survived?”
“Several of my advisors wished me to exile them,” Lady Trevelyan admitted. “I thought they had more to do yet in service of Thedas. They’ve learned.”
“Good. I—thank you. Maker.” Gwen took in a deep breath and let it out, measuring the heartbeats before she spoke again. Alistair and Lady Trevelyan both watched her with obvious concern. “This is a lot to learn over breakfast,” she said eventually, and forced a laugh.
“I’m so sorry, Gwen,” Alistair said again, softly. “I was sure you knew.”
Sorry doesn’t cover it, Gwen wanted to say. Sorry means nothing. The Wardens were the last thing I had—the closest thing to a family—and now even they have been taken from me.
“I don’t know if this makes my quest for the Cure more or less urgent,” she said instead, and this time when she tried to laugh she surprised herself with a sob. She pressed the back of her hand to her mouth and stood so quickly she saw stars, ignoring Alistair’s hastily outstretched hand. “My apologies, Lady Trevelyan,” she choked out. “I need a moment. Let’s speak more this afternoon.”
And she ran from the great hall, barely catching the Inquisitor’s quiet “Of course.”
Chapter 7: Chapter VII
"Her blade she wields with sorrow,
And heavy is her load,
For though she wanders far,
She is farther still from home."
- Ferelden's Blood-stained Rose
Gwen didn’t make it far before she heard Alistair’s footsteps behind her. She was in a hallway she didn’t recognize, a torchlit staircase stretching up to her right and a closed door before her. She stopped and took a few deep breaths, hands pressed hard to her eyes as though she could force back the tears.
When she lowered her hands from her face, Alistair was standing before her, his face drawn with concern.
“Do you want to talk?”
Gwen shook her head. “I know you understand. It’s just—it’s just difficult.” She leaned against the wall with a sigh; Alistair propped himself next to her. “During the Blight I felt like I had to personally solve every problem—mediate every dispute, kill every bandit, slay every darkspawn. And I never got tired because I could see the good it did. People smiled and thanked me, or even if they never knew, I knew that I was saving lives. I meddled in dwarven politics, with the Dalish clan… you know I’m not being arrogant when I say that my actions were directly responsible for a lot of things across Thedas.
“I guess I just thought that, when I was done, everything I did would stay done. But people I saved have since died in the war, or fled to Kirkwall and died there. Or are still living in squalor after becoming refugees. And now the Grey Wardens are gone again, there are darkspawn roaming unchecked in the north, dragons are appearing across Ferelden and beyond…” She stopped and took a deep breath, her voice growing stronger as her sadness faded and anger replaced it. “Nothing I did really mattered. I can’t guarantee that anyone’s life was improved by my meddling, but I can definitely guarantee that there are a lot of people worse off.”
They stood in silence for a long moment, feeling the cool stone leaching warmth from their backs. After a while Alistair shifted slightly. “I know it doesn’t make it better, but I feel the same way sometimes. No matter how much any of us do, it’s never going to be the end of suffering across Thedas.” He turned to Gwen. “And that’s a heavy burden to assign yourself, anyway.”
“You’re probably right.” Gwen closed her eyes, leaned her head back against the wall. “Maker, Alistair, this was painful enough last time, and the only Wardens I knew were you and Duncan.” She rolled her head over to look at him. “They’re gone. They’re all gone.”
“Not all of them, not by any means—Lady Trevelyan and I spoke earlier about the siege, and it sounds like there were a significant number of survivors. But yes. It’s a heartbreaking loss.”
Gwen took a deep breath and let it slowly out of her nose. Then again. The tightness in her chest had eased somewhat, replaced with heavy, cold grief. The sensation was familiar. After the first hot anger over her parents’ death, she had woken every morning with a weight on her chest as their absence hit her all over again. After she fled the coronation, ashamed and heartbroken, it had been even longer—the mourning made more bitter by the knowledge that those she mourned were still out in the world, conducting their own business, but not together and certainly not with her.
“I’ll be all right,” she said softly. “I always am. But I think I’ll spend the early part of the day walking the castle. Perhaps you could inform Lady Trevelyan that I’d happily meet her in the courtyard in the late afternoon to begin training, and we can discuss how to approach the rest of the soldiers as well.”
“I’ll tell her,” Alistair promised. Gwen nodded her thanks and walked slowly up the stairs she had seen before, though she had no idea where they led.
True to her word, she roamed the castle, grieving. A circuit of the library proved a pleasant distraction; she stopped for a while and watched a woman hard at work at a table of samples apparently collected from the Inquisition’s many conquered foes. A man with an impressive waxed mustache sat by the window, reading his way through a stack of books on Tevinter history and muttering under his breath as he went.
Stairs, coiled around the outside of the room, led her to a roost at the top of the tower. A small shrine to Andraste stood in an alcove. Gwen knelt and prayed for a while. As a younger woman, religion had been performative, a mere obligation of observance; the older she got, the more she took comfort in the idea of a brave woman waiting in the Fade to guide and welcome her throughout her life and after it. Her experiences in her quest to find Andraste’s ashes had sparked her faith back into wavering existence. She whispered to the statue under her breath, pleading for comfort for the fallen Wardens and she knew not what else. When she was finished, her grief was still there, but she felt that she had done something, at least.
Back down the stairs, through corridors and doors and long-abandoned halls still shrouded in cobwebs and dust despite Skyhold’s growing population. She let her feet carry her where they would, never breaking her slow, almost trance-like pace. Once she found herself outside, the refreshing air and vivacious activity further soothed her. By the time she returned to her room to prepare for her meeting with the Inquisitor, she was secure in her realization that she had endured much worse before, and that, ultimately, those Wardens who had died had done so because of their own poor choices made in desperation. She still mourned them, but some of the sting was removed when she stopped picturing the slaughter of young, innocent recruits, cowering in fear, and instead pictured the older Wardens, those who had had time to confront their own mortality and could not come to terms with what they faced. They had corrupted themselves and become a danger—the Inquisition had been right to vanquish them, and the Inquisitor still seemed regretful of the necessity. Not a massacre. An unfortunate last resort performed with full understanding of the weight behind it.
And if that was callous, Gwen found she had trouble caring. Corypheus could already have killed a lot more people with the Wardens under his control if he had not been stopped by the Inquisition.
She sighed and stripped off the shirt she had been wearing since sparring with Alistair the day before. Her arm was no longer sore, but when she unwound the bandage the cut still looked shiny and fresh. Blue and purple bruises had blossomed all along the incision. She wrapped it again in fresh bandages—much sloppier than Alistair’s work—and pulled on a pale blue shirt with silver embroidery at the collar and hem. She had originally bought it with the intention of keeping the Grey Warden uniform when it was too warm for her quilted jerkin; with a set of leather armor instead of her plate mail she thought it would be appropriately discreet. She swapped out her soft shoes for a pair of light leather boots that had been delivered to Adamant almost two years previously, addressed only with her name and a crow’s feather. When she was finished dressing, she brushed and rebraided her hair and splashed her face with water to soothe away the last redness around her eyes.
By this time it was well into the afternoon. Gwen was hungry, but not gnawingly so; she could wait until dinner. She hefted her shield onto her back and strapped her sword at her hip and stepped outside into the fresh mountain air.
She found the Inquisitor waiting for her in the upper courtyard by the tavern. Lady Trevelyan was also wearing light leathers and had leaned a sword and shield against the wall behind her. She looked up from a piece of parchment as Gwen approached.
“Lady Cousland! I’m so sorry if I upset you at breakfast. The subject should have been broached with more tact, at least.”
Gwen waved a hand. “It’s not your job to coddle me, Inquisitor. I was surprised by the news, but I firmly believe that you did the right thing.”
The Inquisitor smiled cautiously. “Thank you. And please, call me Rena.”
“And call me Gwen.”
Rena nodded and made to retrieve her weapons. “I figured we could talk shop while we practice. Is that all right?”
“Sounds perfect.” Gwen pulled her shield from her back and drew her sword. Her arm throbbed slightly as she tightened her grip on the hilt, but she ignored it. “The first and most important thing to remember when fighting Darkspawn is that they don’t have much of a survival instinct, which means they’re not going to back off because of injuries that would disable me or you.”
Rena nodded again, hefting her own shield into a defensive position, and Gwen marveled again that such a slight woman would choose this style of fighting. Still, peering over her shield, face carved by a scar and mouth set in a hard line, she looked nothing if not capable. “So I’m aiming for killing blows,” she guessed.
“Decapitations or solid thrusts to the upper abdomen,” Gwen agreed. “If you think you can sever an arm or a leg in a blow, that could be useful, but otherwise don’t bother. A broken wrist is only going to make it swing harder with its other arm.”
Rena bounced, adjusted her stance. “Ready?”
A clash rang out as their blades collided. Gwen noted with immediate pleasure that Rena had taken her advice to heart: their first match ended after just a few seconds with the flat of Rena’s blade pressed to Gwen’s neck. Their second match, Gwen knocked Rena a few steps back with her shield, but the smaller woman threw her own shield behind her to regain her balance—narrowly missing a young recruit who had strayed too close—and slid forward on her knees to jab up under Gwen’s guard.
“Very good,” Gwen panted, grinning. “I think you have more to teach me than I do you.”
Rena grinned back as she picked up her shield. “I doubt that’s true. I think you’re holding back.”
“I would never,” Gwen said lightly as she shook her arms out before repositioning herself. “Again?”
They threw themselves at each other a third time, but this time, Gwen poured her whole strength into her blows. She obviously outmatched the Inquisitor in terms of raw size and strength, though Rena’s agility and unconventional style kept her on her toes.
“I would have expected you to use daggers,” Gwen shouted over the racket. “You fight like a rogue!”
“I originally trained with daggers! My father wouldn’t let me near a sword.” Rena smirked as she danced out of Gwen’s reach. “When I stumbled my way into the Inquisition, I told them I fought with sword and shield. I figured it out as I went.”
Gwen was so startled she barely managed to block a swift jab at her thigh. “You’ve only been using this style for, what, a few months?”
Laughing, Gwen sliced at the Inquisitor’s arm. She landed the blow and Rena obligingly dropped her shield and tucked that arm behind her back. “That’s incredible!”
Gwen eventually wore the other woman down, though it took longer than she’d have liked, especially with the Inquisitor already incapacitated. By the time they broke they were both breathing heavily, sweat dripping down their faces.
Throwing herself against the wall, Rena pushed her cropped hair out of her face. “That was wonderful. Usually I’m the one doing the training—some of these recruits have never held anything more dangerous than a hoe in their lives.”
Gwen joined her, sighing as some of her weight came off her feet. “I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anyone with your fighting style before. I think we have a lot to learn from each other.”
They both slid down to sit on the grass. For a few moments, they caught their breath and watched the recruits spar before them. Cullen strolled among the soldiers, barking corrections and occasionally stopping someone to adjust their stance. Gwen looked over at Rena and caught the Inquisitor smiling softly at her commander. The expression was sweet and unguarded.
“I hope you don’t mind me mentioning it,” Gwen said, “but the two of you seem to make each other very happy.”
Rena turned her gaze to Gwen. “I think so. Neither of us likes to show our weaknesses to those we lead; it’s nice to know someone always has your back, in combat or otherwise.” She hesitated briefly. “I’m sure you know the feeling.”
“Oh, all too well.” If she had originally hoped to hide her affection for Alistair from Inquisitor, that hope had disappeared quickly under Rena’s perceptive gaze. “You know, when I first met Cullen, I had no idea he would go on to thrive like this. He’s come a long way.”
Something in the Inquisitor’s expression changed. “Ah. So you did meet him at Kinloch Hold.”
Rena chewed her lip for a moment. She watched Cullen with something dark in her eyes, absently playing with the grass by her side. Finally she turned back to Gwen. “Will you tell me? Please?”
“Er…” Gwen shifted uncomfortably. The last thing she wanted to do was reveal history the commander would rather keep buried.
“You don’t have to, if it’s a difficult memory,” Rena hurried to add. “It’s just that I want to understand what—what he faced. I think he tries to tell me, sometimes, but I don’t think he has the words. I don’t even know how much of it he really remembers.”
“Ah.” Gwen relaxed. She remembered the first time Alistair had haltingly explained the conditions he had experienced as a child, and how he had snapped his jaw shut mid-word apparently without meaning to. She remembered trying to tell Zevran about her parents’ death. Sometimes even a desperate wish for someone to understand didn’t make the words easier. “I can tell you some, I suppose. There was a Sloth demon that trapped people in the Fade. It used people’s deepest desires to try and trap them, but failing that, it would try to incapacitate you with a nightmare. Besides that, there were abominations and blood mages roaming free in the Circle, pushed to desperation by the Templars, who had tightened their hold in response to the first mages rebelling, who were responding to the power exercised over them by the Templars, who were acting out of a fear instilled in them since their earliest training…” Gwen sighed and shook her head.
“Civil war has always been unavoidable, I think,” Rena said. “We all trusted the system to run smoothly just because it seemed that it had for so many years. No one outside the Circles really knew the truth of things.”
“You’re probably right,” Gwen agreed. “Anyway, I was trapped in the Fade with my companions when we volunteered to clear out the hold. I met Cullen—just briefly. I couldn’t see what his visions were, but I got the feeling that the demon was taunting him with things that he knew he could never have, even in dreams. He was… young. Younger than me, I think.”
“He was nineteen.” Rena’s voice was low and hoarse. Her eyes followed Cullen across the training ground. After a moment, she seemed to shake herself, and turned back to her companion.
Gwen waited sympathetically. She knew what it meant to love someone completely and know that it still wasn’t enough to cure their pain.
“Thank you for telling me,” Rena said. “I knew the gist of it, but it helps to hear the details.” She looked quizzically at Gwen. “How old were you?”
“I was twenty.”
“Twenty!” Rena laughed, disbelieving. “I can barely manage this situation now. I can’t imagine that I could have done it seven years ago.”
Gwen shrugged. “I didn’t have much choice.” Her voice hoarse from screaming, blood pooling on the floor as Duncan dragged her forcibly out of the castle. She cleared her throat. “And I was in charge of half a dozen fighters and my mabari—hardly the same scale as the Inquisition.”
“Come on, don’t sell yourself short. You killed the Archdemon! We heard songs about you all the way in Ostwick.”
“Oh, I despise most of those songs,” Gwen admitted.
Rena laughed. “My favorite is ‘Ferelden’s Blood-stained Rose.’ Do you know it?”
“I’m not sure I do.”
The Inquisitor leaned her head back and sang, low and quiet.
“Daughter of the Seawolf,
A true warrior born,
Shining armored petals,
Blood dripping from her thorns.
Her sword gleams in the starlight,
Her laugh is like a flame,
When she appears her foes
Wish they had never known her name.
In her tread blossoms compassion,
Mercy sweet on her tongue like wine,
But strength too becomes her;
The pinnacle of her kind.
The loyal prince beside her,
Apostate at her back,
Assassin treading softly,
The Bard with lyric laugh,
Qunari never speaking,
The mage with healing hands,
Mabari never straying,
The dwarf with heavy axe.
The firelight it dances
O’er the faces of her friends,
But though she sleeps in warmth
Her bloody quest never ends.
The stain of darkspawn drips
Black and vicious from her hands,
And her beauty nor her goodness
Can’t save her from fate’s cruel dance.
Her blade she wields with sorrow,
And heavy is her load,
For though she wanders far,
She is farther still from home.
The Warden brings deliverance,
Then returns to the road,
We thank her and we weep for her,
Ferelden’s blood-stained rose.”
When she finished, Rena cleared her throat and grinned sheepishly. “When I was seventeen, I thought nothing was more inspirational. I think I understand the sentiment a little better now.”
Gwen stared ahead, eyes passing over the soldiers before her. “I’ve never heard that one,” she said softly.
“It’s so beautiful and sad.”
“It’s romanticized,” she said, “and overly flattering. But it’s a beautiful song.” She looked at Rena, who was frowning a little. “I look forward to hearing the songs they write about you.”
“Me? The girl who fell from the sky and made enemies across Thedas?” Rena snorted. “I doubt it.”
“The Herald of Andraste, who inspired peace, stood against darkness, and took good care of her men?” Gwen smiled. “I think there’s plenty to say. The gritty bits never make it into the songs—just the abstract tragedy.”
Rena laughed. “Maybe I have a chance then.” She stood with some effort and surveyed the courtyard before her, hands on her hips. “I should probably get back to work. Josie made me promise to read a whole stack of reports before dinner.”
“I’ve really enjoyed this, Gwen. The training, but also the company. I hope it’s not too forward of me to say that I feel like I’ve known you much longer than I have.”
“Of course not. I have to say that I feel the same way.” And she did, even if the familiarity was less that of a friend and more that of a vaguely distorted mirror. “I understand that it’s hard to feel responsible for so much, and so many people. I hope that training you and your men will ease a little of that burden.”
Rena clapped her on the shoulder. “Thank you, I think it will. It’s been a difficult few months, but I’m beginning to see light on the horizon.” She smiled and strode away.
Gwen watched her leave, feeling a little more hopeful about the situation of Thedas. Rena was young, yes, and struggling under her burden, but she was also kind and compassionate. Her strong guiding hand would do great good—had already begun to do so. “Her beauty nor her goodness can’t save her from fate’s cruel dance,” she murmured thoughtfully.
Humming to herself, Gwen meandered back into the castle, seeking dinner and company.
To hear me sing "Ferelden's Blood-stained Rose," albeit quietly and not very well, go here.
Sorry for the long stretch without an update! This one is nice and long, and I also have most of Chapter 8 written and you're all going to LOVE it. Just trust me on this one. So expect that pretty soon as well! Much love to everyone reading, and especially to those of you who comment regularly. You really keep me going and inspire me to update even during rough times.
Chapter 8: Chapter VIII
Two chapters in two days?? I'd like to say this will happen ever again in the future, but I try not to lie lol. Anyway, I'm veeerrry excited about this chapter, and I'm pretty confident that you will be too. ;)))))))) Enjoy!
Over the next few days, Gwen found herself falling into a comfortable routine. Each morning she would wake up, stretch out the previous day’s aches, dress, and go to breakfast. She quickly discovered that the Inquisitor breakfasted early every day, always at a table large enough for several of her companions, and she and Alistair were welcomed into their lively conversations. They got to know more and more of the Inquisition as the days progressed.
After breakfast, Gwen headed to the courtyard to train. Most mornings, she and Rena worked together to train large batches of recruits while Cullen disappeared to do paperwork. Working with the footsoldiers was easy, but on the third day, Rena presented a large group of mages who had allied with the Inquisition, and Gwen had to seriously reconsider her teaching methods. Most of the mages had little or no experience fighting, aside from what they had picked up by necessity during the war. Offensively, they were naturally formidable, but when it came to any kind of defense, they were left wide open.
Starting the next day, Rena and Gwen trained mixed groups of swordsmen and mages. Gwen tried to stick to instructing them on defense against darkspawn, but naturally the lessons sometimes bled over into general tactics. Usually Cullen would reappear in late morning and he and Rena would take over the less specialized training.
After lunch—usually cold, palmed from the platters in the hall and eaten in peaceful contemplation in the garden—Gwen headed to the library to search for clues about the Calling. The Inquisition had a surprisingly large repertoire of reference texts. The man she had seen in the library before turned out to be a Tevinter mage named Dorian. She was wary of him at first, which he seemed accustomed to, but in the end his persistent suggestions for her research proved too helpful to ignore. He helped her to compile a list of books to send away for and occasionally helped her comb through the shelves for anything that could be relevant.
Mostly, they found disputes over the origins of darkspawn, and a great many historical accounts of the Grey Wardens, but nothing that was especially relevant to a cure.
“This is what comes of an order guarding its secrets too closely,” Gwen grumbled one afternoon as the light was slanting low across her table.
Dorian looked up from his own reading a few chairs away. “I’m sure someone has something useful to say on the subject; it’s just a matter of finding them.”
Indeed, this was true in more ways than one: Blackwall, the Grey Warden Rena had written Gwen about, was away from Skyhold. A few casual inquiries hadn’t revealed any information about his whereabouts.
Each evening, after hours of fruitless research, her eyes strained and her back stiff, Gwen would go back down to the main hall for dinner. It seemed that breakfast was the more formal meal for the Inquisitor, for she usually ate dinner alone or during other business. Alistair, however, could usually be found waiting in a corner, equally tired and frustrated from an afternoon of meetings. Apparently Teagan and Lady Montilyet were determined to take several days to iron out the fine details of their agreements—admirable, but exhausting for Alistair, who was a self-confessed hater of the Game. Even Rena commented to Gwen that she found the meetings tiresome.
But after dinner—after they had regained some of their energy, and warm food and ale had eased the tension from their posture—that was Gwen’s favorite part of each day. She and Alistair might retire to one of their rooms, just to talk and drink their way through a bottle of wine, or they might wander Skyhold, marveling at its steadfast beauty. Once they tried the tavern and watched in amusement as soldiers toasted to new friends, old allies, and their hopes for the future until they had drunk themselves under the table. Regardless of how they spent the time, however, Gwen was grateful. They had a lot of years to catch up on.
She lied to herself and said that she didn’t feel guilty about enjoying it so much. You’re not trying to seduce him, she told herself again and again. There’s nothing wrong with two old friends enjoying each other’s company. Besides, are you going to spend the whole evening in the library, too? Or training?
So she let their evening conversations continue and made it her personal goal to make Alistair laugh as many times as possible. If nothing else, she decided, that was a modest repayment for any burden he had suffered due to her actions.
Gwen was so comfortable in her new routine that she was immediately surprised to see Alistair absent from breakfast one morning. He was almost always seated at the table by the time she arrived, trading jokes and helping himself to a large portion of food.
“Good morning,” she greeted the table. Today it was just Rena and Leliana eating together.
Leliana smiled as Gwen sat down. “Good morning! I’m afraid I haven’t seen much of you since you arrived. Alistair has been monopolizing your attention.”
Gwen swallowed and began filling her bowl with porridge and berries. “I’m sorry, Leliana, I’ve been busy with training and research. I’ve been meaning to find you and thank you for taking care of me when I first arrived.”
“Think nothing of it,” Leliana said, waving her hand. “By the way, have you seen Alistair this morning? The Inquisitor tells me he’s usually joined her by now.”
“No, I haven’t.” Gwen scooped up a large spoonful; though her appetite had slowly waned since her Joining, it was still well above that of the average person, and she was usually ravenous by breakfast. “Maybe he slept in?”
“Ah, yes, I’m sure that’s it.”
Gwen took a bite and chewed it thoughtfully. She swallowed before she spoke. “Why, have you seen him?”
“No, I was just concerned. I know that he was quite emotional about Ostagar before; I wasn’t sure if that was still the case.”
“Er… I think he still misses Duncan, yes. But I don’t understand what that has to do with him missing breakfast?” Her voice lifted into a question as she raised an eyebrow at Leliana, confused.
Leliana looked a little surprised. “Oh, it is the anniversary. I thought you knew.”
“The anniversary of the battle?” Rena asked, interjecting for the first time.
“Oh.” Gwen looked down at her food. Leliana was probably exactly right. She and Alistair hadn’t spoken specifically about Ostagar or Duncan’s death, but if she knew her friend—and she thought she did, even with ten years’ absence—she knew that he would probably still be mourning, especially on the anniversary.
“I should probably go find him,” Gwen said slowly. Her stomach growled and she guiltily took a few more rushed bites.
“Cullen has some maneuvers he wants to run with the troops today,” Rena said softly. “Feel free to take the morning off.”
Gwen wiped her mouth and stood, nodding. “Thank you. I hope he’s not in a bad way, but I don’t think some companionship would hurt on the anniversary of such a painful memory.” She chose to ignore the meaningful glance shared by Rena and Leliana as she made her exit.
After aimlessly searching the castle for a while, she found him in a small room off the garden. A statue of Andraste stood before several large windows, an expanse of candles flickering before her. Alistair was alone in the room. He knelt as though praying, but his face was in his hands.
The sight caused her heart to squeeze painfully. All these years later, and he was still mourning his mentor and his comrades. Gwen remembered his tearful greeting when she first woke up after the battle, thankful she was alive but devastated at the loss of the Wardens. Morrigan had mocked him for weeks.
Falling on your sword in grief seemed like too much trouble, I take it?
Not for the first time, she thought of the ten years they had spent apart, and the sorrows they had borne alone. Suddenly that seemed ridiculous. If she had been able to offer him some comfort then, she should be able to now, just as he had soothed her spirit since she had arrived at Skyhold—awkwardness be damned.
Silently, Gwen approached Alistair and placed her hand on his shoulder. He looked up, startled, eyes damp and swollen from tears. When he recognized her his expression melted from shock back to grief and he returned his face to his hands. She knelt beside him, sliding her arm around his shoulders, and waited for him to speak while she felt him tremble.
After a moment Alistair rubbed hard at his face and chuckled bitterly. “Ridiculous, isn’t it. It’s been ten years.”
“I don’t think it’s ridiculous.” Gwen smoothed her hand absently over his shoulder blades. “I still miss my parents. They died just before Ostagar. I can’t—I don’t remember their faces, except when they show up in my dreams.”
Alistair looked at her, face still wet with tears. “I can’t picture Duncan’s face.”
“I know. I know.” She looked up at Andraste’s blank stare, leveled benevolently towards the door, in an attempt to hold back tears of her own. “He’d be proud of you, you know.”
Looking back, they could never agree on who made the first move, but suddenly they were wrapped in a tight embrace, Alistair’s face pressed into Gwen’s shoulder as tears spilled over and rolled down her cheeks. Over the grief and regret, there was an intense sense of rightness that came with his arms around her and his warm chest pressed against hers. She stroked his hair, his neck, curled her arm around his waist as they knelt together among the candles. His broad hands felt hot where they rested on her back, and he bunched the fabric of her shirt in one of them.
“He would have been proud of you, too,” Alistair said eventually, still muffled by her shoulder. “Facing down the Archdemon, avoiding the desperation that took the rest of the Wardens—your parents, too,” he added, and sniffed.
As much as she was enjoying the shared comfort of their embrace, Gwen was acutely aware of the door behind them, still partly ajar to let in the sounds of the garden beyond. “Come on,” she said, regretfully pulling away. “Have you eaten today?”
Alistair seemed startled by the sudden change of topic. “Er, no.” He sniffed again, hard, and swiped at the tears on his face. He looked so young.
“I’ll bring some food up to your room.” She stood, with only some difficulty—ten years of rough living were beginning to take their toll. “Let’s talk there.”
Nodding slowly, Alistair stood. “I’d like that, thank you.”
They each took a moment to let their breathing even out. Gwen used her sleeves to blot at her eyes. She laughed a little when they made eye contact, both wrecked but trying to pull themselves together.
As though that wasn’t always the case.
“All right, I’ll see you in a few minutes.” It seemed like Alistair had shrunk back, perhaps worried that she regretted their embrace, so Gwen reached out one last time to grip his arm, then let her hand slide down to her side.
The garden seemed dazzlingly bright compared to the room she had just left. She hurried between the potted plants and the Sisters milling about, apparently dispensing comfort to the refugees housed at Skyhold, and ducked back through the doorway that led to the main hall.
It wasn’t yet time for lunch to be served to the soldiers, but Gwen convinced the kitchen staff to part with a loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese. She wrapped these in a cloth and strode back to Alistair’s room, very aware that her face still bore the evidence of her tears. She knocked once, briskly, and entered.
Alistair was seated on the floor between his bed and the fire, one leg bent so that his chin could rest on his knee, the other stretched out towards the crackling logs. He looked up when the door opened but didn’t otherwise move or speak. Gwen thought he hadn’t been crying again, at least.
“Hey,” she said quietly.
She joined him on the floor, careful to leave a space between them. Somehow, she was less worried now about complicating things between them—she cared for him and he cared for her, in whatever capacity that may be—but she couldn’t read his mind. She didn’t want to force him into anything.
Gwen needn’t have worried. As soon as she settled on the floor, he moved over next to her, hesitated for a moment, and then leaned heavily against her. They rested their heads together and stared into the flames, food momentarily forgotten. Alistair was right, Gwen thought. There was something satisfying about sitting on the floor before the fire.
Maybe she didn’t need to put too much thought into this. Maybe things between them were still as easy as they had always been, and it was only her worries that had made communication so difficult.
With this hope, she reached over blindly to where she knew Alistair’s hands rested in his lap. They were cold. She wrapped them in her own hands and brought them to her mouth, where she blew some warmth onto them. She traced her fingertips over the veins, the knuckles, and laced the fingers of her right hand with his. His left hand was still tightly closed, and she rubbed softly at it for a moment until he relaxed his fingers.
Gwen froze when she saw the glittering silver amulet that he had been clutching. “Is that—”
“Yes.” He lifted it by the chain, allowing it to twirl and dance in the firelight. The flame pattern on the surface was slightly tarnished, which made it harder to tell that it had been pieced back together from cracked fragments.
Gwen lifted her free hand to carefully brush the pendant. “I’m so glad you kept it.”
“I was just thinking about the night you gave it to me. I think I was yelling at you about letting Isolde sacrifice herself, yes?”
Gwen made a noncommittal noise.
Alistair squeezed her hand in his. “You were exhausted, but you let me burn myself out. And then you gave me this.” The both watched it swing back and forth, heavy and solid.
“You know what else?” Alistair said suddenly. “I kept it with me all the time. It meant—it meant that there was someone left who cared—” He paused as his voice broke, dropping the amulet into his lap. Gwen stroked her thumb over the back of his hand, her teeth pressing down hard on her lip to keep back any reaction. “—someone left who cared after Duncan was gone. It was the first time I felt like I had a real family. You got me through it then,” he said, then laughed shortly. “And you’re getting me through it now.”
And there, the precipice, the point of no return: “I still care,” Gwen murmured, and pressed more securely into his side. “I’m so sorry I haven’t been there.”
“No, Gwen, we’ve been over this—it’s not your fault,” Alistair said insistently. “I asked you to leave, I was young and stupid, and—and scared, Maker was I scared—and I thought I was doing the right thing, putting the Crown first.” He sighed. “And look at me now. Still no heirs, and still regretting—” He cut himself off, and Gwen looked up to see his face for the first time in their entire exchange. He was chewing his lip nervously. When his eyes met hers, he sighed again. “Still regretting the whole conversation. I should have been there for you, too.”
They were so close together, shoulders pressed against one another, right hands intertwined, and it was the most natural thing in the world for Gwen to lean forward and press her lips to his.
Alistair’s reaction was instantaneous: he made a sound halfway between a groan and a sob and reached around with his free arm to pull her still harder against him. Gwen tugged her hand from his to try and keep herself from overbalancing, but they still toppled, Alistair landing on his back and Gwen on his chest without breaking the kiss.
The rush of joy Gwen felt was so intense it was almost painful. His mouth was hot against hers, both of his arms now wrapped tight around her, and it was even better than the first time he had kissed her at the edge of the firelight at camp—even better than every time after, because she had spent ten years not daring to hope for this moment and she might cry with the sheer relief of it.
After a blissful eternity they broke apart to breathe. Alistair was grinning, and she felt her mouth stretching into an equally wide smile. She pressed a kiss to his jaw, to his neck, below his ear; his breath hitched and she kissed him there again, lingering, her nose barely brushing his skin. He moaned and she felt it in his chest.
She felt his fingers in her hair, which was beginning to come free of its braid. “I didn’t let myself hope that you still felt this way,” he said, and if he sounded a little breathless it only made Gwen all the more self-satisfied. “I thought surely there would be—be someone else, or that you would hate me for breaking things off.”
“I tried,” she admitted, brushing her fingers along his forehead, his jaw. “But I never could. And I thought that you must have found someone else.”
“There was never anyone else.” He pulled her down for another long kiss as he finally succeeded in freeing Gwen’s hair, running his fingers through the now-wavy strands and across her scalp, making her sigh into the kiss.
This time they were both panting when they broke apart. “We were both young and stupid and scared,” Gwen said in a breathless rush. “We can’t change what happened, but it’s the past.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” Alistair’s hands roamed down her body, tracing her topography through her loose shirt and vest as he kissed the corner of her mouth, then her nose. Gwen closed her eyes and reveled in the sensation of it all. Suddenly, he was rolling her over, cradling her in his arms as he held himself above her, eyes dark. That was new. Gwen heard the amulet clatter to the ground somewhere to her right—probably safely under the bed.
The bed. “The stone floor isn’t the most comfortable place to do this,” Gwen said hoarsely.
“Sorry, you’re right.” Alistair sat up, pulling her with him, and in short order they were both on the bed and in each other’s arms once more.
“Can you do this? Is it going to cause trouble for you?” Gwen forced herself to ask.
Alistair shook his head resolutely. “I don’t care.”
Gwen smiled. “Me neither.” She kissed him again and again, sloppily now, and threaded her fingers through his hair as she pressed her body against his. They both groaned.
“I’ve missed you so much,” Alistair murmured against her lips. “I thought I was going to break apart with it.”
Gwen responded by tugging at his shirt. “Do you have anywhere to be? Any meetings?”
“Not this afternoon.”
The first time was rushed, overjoyed—too desperate to be sensual, but filled with whispered admissions that gave way to inarticulate pleasure. They laughed after they both finished. Then they remembered their cold lunch, so they brought it to the bed and ate bread and cheese, still laughing and dizzy with happiness.
The second time was slower. It was reverent. It was kisses pressed to every inch of skin, holding hands as their breath mingled. It was long pauses filled by gazing at each other, almost disbelieving.
They lay in each other’s arms until late afternoon, warmed by their exertions and the dying fire. Gwen knew, deep down, that this wasn’t the end of their problems—things were still complicated, there was more to discuss—but she was happy to push that aside for now.
She hummed and pressed her nose against his neck. “Yes?”
Alistair took a deep breath before he spoke, his voice thick. “I love you.”
And if her joy when she had kissed him had been sharp and fiery, this new joy was soft, slow, and comfortable. It was a warm drink after a long, cold day; it was falling asleep in a comfortable bed after an eternity without rest. After ten years. Some lingering heaviness fell from her limbs as she smiled into his neck.
“I love you too,” she whispered, and reveled in the warmth.
Chapter 9: Chapter IX
Sorry for the long wait for a bit of a shorter chapter. I'm back on campus for the semester and I've been facing some physical and mental health challenges that have made it difficult to find time to write, but I wanted to get this one out this weekend! And rest assured, I have the whole rest of the fic plotted and outlined, so I know where I'm headed (if not exactly how many chapters it will take to get there).
They must have fallen asleep still tangled together, because when Gwen next awoke, her arm had fallen asleep where it was pinned under Alistair’s ribs and they were both bathed in dawn’s first pale light. She blinked the sleep from her eyes and turned to see Alistair, head thrown back, mouth open and emitting light snores. She laughed out loud before she could stop herself and he started awake with a snort.
“Sorry to wake you, but you looked ridiculous.”
Alistair smiled, eyes still mostly shut. “I always look ridiculous. It’s a point of pride.” He sat up with a groan. “Did we sleep through the whole night?”
“I suppose we did.” Gwen let her eyes slide unabashedly over his body while he stretched. Gone were the corded muscles borne of endless battle and little food, replaced by a pleasant softness. The strength was still there, but it was a healthy strength, supported by solid meals and plenty of rest. Freckles scattered his shoulders and chest. His skin had faded to a warm honey brown, probably because he no longer spent so much time hiking and fighting outdoors.
Alistair ducked back down into her line of sight, grinning. “See anything you like?”
“Don’t let it go to your head.” She swatted at his arm, a smile creeping onto her own face.
“I just thought I’d ask,” he said lightly, rolling over to brace himself above her, “because I see quite a bit that I like.”
A hard kiss cut off Gwen’s laughter and she felt one of his hands skim over her bare hip where she was half-covered by the blankets. She returned the kiss wholeheartedly but reached down and laced her fingers with his, pulling his hand away from her skin and causing him to groan disappointedly into her mouth.
“What’s wrong?” Alistair’s voice was breathless as he broke the kiss to press his mouth against her cheek and down her neck. “Maker, being with you makes me feel like a drowning man who’s stumbled across a raft.”
Gwen gasped as Alistair ground his hips down against her to show just how great his appreciation was. “Are you suggesting that my body reminds you of a raft?”
He paused his ministrations just below her collarbone to smirk up at her. “A very sexy raft.”
“Yes, well—” Gwen had to stop once more to pull at his wandering hands. “—Alistair, last night was so wonderful, but you know that I—”
Alistair froze. His hands went still against her waist and he sat up to kneel between her legs, his brow furrowed. “Oh. Oh, did I… misunderstand?”
Gwen’s gut twisted at his bewildered expression. “No, no! No, not at all.” She sat up and wrapped her arms around him; he pulled her into his lap and oh it was so tempting to give in and grind down against him and let what would happen happen, but she settled for running her hands through his hair and kissing his face.
“I don’t regret anything,” she reassured him between kisses. “I was just going to say that we can’t spend the whole morning in bed. You have meetings, I have training, and we were both gone all day yesterday.”
Alistair finally relaxed into her and she felt his warm embrace around her waist. “You worried me,” he whispered by her ear.
“No, it’s all right. You can turn me down whenever you want, of course.” He sighed and traced his fingertips over the skin of her back, making her shiver. “It’s just, some of the things we said last night… I wasn’t sure if you meant them.”
“Alistair.” Gwen pulled back a little so that she could see his face. She took her time caressing his forehead and cheeks, drawing her finger down his nose and across his lips, until his jaw started to go slack and his hand stilled against her back. Cupping his jaw with her hand, she fixed him with a firm gaze. “I love you. That’s frightening to say, but it’s true.”
His mouth crooked into a grin, his eyes relieved. “Oh, good. Because I love you too.”
Gwen leaned in for another kiss. This one was sweet and slow, its eventual end hindered by their reluctance to part. When they finally did, they leaned their foreheads together and just breathed.
It was her first opportunity in months to do so, Gwen reflected. Between seeking the cure and everything that had happened since her arrival at Skyhold, she couldn’t remember the last time her mind had felt this quiet. She was warm—a little too warm, between the fire and the blankets and the sun shining against her back—and her body felt soft and healed. So she breathed.
“You’re right, though,” Alistair said after an indeterminate stretch of time. “We should go.”
Neither of them moved.
A loud knock sounded at the door and they sprang apart.
“Your Majesty! We’re supposed to be meeting with the Ambassador in ten minutes. Are you ill?”
The door knob began to turn as the voice, which was unmistakably Teagan’s, rang irritably into the room. Gwen’s heart stuttered and she threw her arms across her chest. “Don’t come in!”
There was a beat of silence as everyone processed what had happened. Gwen covered her mouth with her hands and Alistair looked at her in surprise. After a moment, a deep sigh came from the other side of the door.
“Very well. Please come to the War Room at your earliest possible convenience, Your Majesty.” Teagan’s footsteps retreated down the walkway outside.
Alistair burst into loud, slightly nervous laughter. “Well, I guess the cat’s out of the bag now.”
“Do you think he recognized my voice?”
“Even if he didn’t, I think he’ll probably figure it out.”
Gwen pushed her hair back from her face and huffed out all of her breath. “You’re right.” She could feel her face turning red and she kicked away the blankets with more force than was strictly necessary.
“Gwen, it’s going to be all right.”
“Why?” She retrieved her smallclothes from the pile of clothing on the floor and began dressing. “What’s different from last time?”
Gwen stopped and took a steadying breath. “All the reasons you ended things still stand. You’re supposed to be finding a Queen, having heirs. Maker, Alistair, I love you, but how are we going to make this work?”
She had known. She had known that their moment of peace was too good to last. Nothing that had been worrying her for weeks, months, years had magically disappeared: they both still had conflicting responsibilities, and the Calling still frayed her nerves and sent her disturbing scenes in her sleep.
Alistair chewed his lip thoughtfully while Gwen started putting on her trousers. “Will you make me a promise in exchange for a promise?”
Gwen paused. “All right.”
“If you promise to come to Denerim when you’re done working with the Inquisition, I promise to work things out so that you can stay this time.”
Mistress to the King: not the worst position a Fereldan noblewoman could aspire to. Alistair’s expression was earnest and Gwen knew he meant well, but still, she knew that title would never rest easy on her shoulders.
And yet—she remembered her daydream from days before, where Alistair rode into the courtyard and she was there to greet him. She imagined returning from a long campaign of rounding up Darkspawn in Orlais and sitting down to a hot supper while Alistair told her about his meetings and her aching body relaxed.
“You know I still have my duty to the Wardens,” she began, but Alistair interrupted her.
“I’m not asking you to be my prisoner. I’m just—I’m just asking you to come back. To give it a try.”
His expression was openly pleading now, and Gwen had to admit that she couldn’t think of a better option, aside from somehow convincing Alistair to abdicate the throne and return to his position as a Grey Warden. Maybe life in and out of the palace wouldn’t be so bad: a warm bed, good food, and Alistair, all waiting for her when she could spare the time. And hopefully they could enjoy a few years together before the pressure for him to marry became unavoidable.
“All right,” she said finally. “I’d like to try.”
Alistair smiled. “That’s all I’m asking.”
Gwen bent to pick up her shirt, then paused. “Does this mean we’re telling people? I mean, if I’ll be living with you at the palace, it seems pointless to try and keep it secret. Unless you want to try.”
“I don’t see why it has to be a secret.” Alistair looked slightly puzzled by the question. “Neither of us has been exactly public about our presence at Skyhold, but among our friends… why do you ask?”
“No reason.” Gwen dropped her shirt back on the floor and retrieved his instead. It was a rich wine red with bronze embroidery, meant to be worn under a tunic, but when she shrugged it on and tucked it into her trousers it billowed pleasantly around her arms and waist.
“That’s… that’s my shirt.”
“Is it? How silly of me.” She tossed him a grin and continued putting on her belt and boots.
Alistair groaned. “All right, when you asked if we could tell people, I didn’t realize that you meant you wanted to announce to the world that we just slept together.”
“I’ll take it off if it bothers you.”
“Well, now I’m conflicted; I wouldn’t say that it bothers me—” he raked his eyes over her, mouth curled in a slight smirk— “but I do want you to take it off.”
Gwen crawled onto the bed to press her lips to his. He tried to deepen the kiss, but she pulled away. “You can take it off tonight. In the meantime, you’d better get dressed.”
“Fine.” Alistair ran his hands down her arms—over the sleeves of his shirt. “You really don’t care if people know, then? You seemed worried about Teagan finding out.”
She shrugged. “If we’re going to commit, let’s commit. Besides, I like this shirt.”
Alistair laughed and kissed her nose. “All right, enjoy training. I’ll find you at dinner.”
“Good luck with your meetings.”
And Gwen stepped back outdoors into the fresh mountain air. Her stomach felt knotted, although it was difficult to identify the sensation as excitement or anxiety. Or hunger. Very possibly hunger.
While she let her mind wander to her responsibilities for the day—she’d need her full armor for the exercises Rena wanted to run, and her bracers could do with being cleaned—she ran her thumb over the embroidery at the edge of her sleeve.
And she smiled.
Chapter 10: Chapter X
Sorry it's been a month and a half since an update, everyone! This semester has been a total dumpster fire and also this chapter keeps getting away from me. This is less than half of what's on the outline, but it's 5500 words so I think I'm just gonna post this much for now lol. A good portion of the next chapter is written as well, plus at least one scene from each chapter through the end.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.”
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?”
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.
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?”
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.”
“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?”
“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—”
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?”
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.”
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.
Gwen gets her fix-it fic, but poor Marion is still stuck with her canon tragedy. :(
Please consider leaving a comment if you read! You can also head over to the "Reunion--Bonus Content" fic to read deleted scenes and also find my writing playlist for this fic. Thanks so much for reading. <3
“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.
I felt so guilty about the update gap that I put off studying for my geology midterm to finish writing this chapter. Please validate my decision by leaving a comment!!
Chapter 12: Chapter XII
Wow, it's really been four and a half months since I posted, huh? Anyway, this chapter contains some spoilers for the book The Calling, just in terms of what the Calling actually entails if allowed to progress.
Gwen turned the problem of Blackwall over in her mind as she put the recruits through a grueling test of strength. She lashed out over and over, hacking with strokes that relied on brute force more than any strategy, trying to emulate the methods of the darkspawn they might face. Her opponents were up to the task; after just a few rounds of combat her arms and torso were covered in bruises. It was difficult to tell whether the recruits were effectively putting her training to use or whether it was her own lapses in concentration to blame.
“All right, enough. Enough!” she barked as she just barely blocked a heavy blow with her shield. “You’re all doing well. Why don’t you go work with the mages for an hour before lunch?” Everyone in the small crowd mumbled an agreement and turned to merge with the other group training on the other side of the green. “Remember, shields pointed down to block magical attacks.”
She tugged off her helmet with a grunt and flung it down in the grass, followed hastily by her gauntlets. Every part of her skin not exposed to the air felt sticky and feverish after such heavy exertion. Besides, the sickly-sweet song of the Calling grew louder with every passing day, and it seemed most difficult to ignore when other problems also plagued her mind. A few deep breaths of air helped a little, but not much, so Gwen perched on a nearby crate to allow herself to cool off and to observe the recruits.
Most of them had improved significantly under the training of a Grey Warden. Gwen was not arrogant enough to assume that it was her own innate skill that she had passed along; she remembered how desperate her first meeting with darkspawn had been, and how quickly she had improved under Duncan’s tutelage. The following year on the road had only brought her more experience. No, the darkspawn were formidable opponents, but the greenest Warden recruit could list a few ways to adjust your strategy when fighting them. Gwen was only filling a need that there were few other Wardens left to fill.
Her thoughts returned to the Warden Blackwall—Thom Rainier, as they now knew him to be. She wondered whether Duncan had ever known the real Blackwall. In the short golden years of the Order in Ferelden, had they trained together? Had either of them known Fiona?
Not for the first time, Gwen felt a pang of grief for the history she no longer had any connection to. Duncan’s brief mentorship was the only thread which connected her to the history of the Order in Fereldan. She knew older Wardens, of course—or at least she had, before most of them had perished under Corypheus’s command—but those came from Orlais and the Free Marches. At just seven months older than Alistair, she was the oldest Fereldan Warden. Ten years’ experience couldn’t teach her the history of her predecessors.
Then again, if Fiona had really been a Warden, she might have stories to tell. Perhaps she should find the older woman and try to find out more about her history. Though Fiona seemed to think that her experience could not point to a cure, Gwen wouldn’t be satisfied until she had pursued every possible avenue.
She thought of standing and marching off to execute this very plan, but her arms still felt uncomfortably warm. Still distracted by thoughts of the Order, she rubbed a little at them through her shirt, but was startled back to herself when the motion irritated a patch of skin near her left wrist. Frustrated, she tugged at her sleeve. Had her bracer been fastened too tight? Had one of the recruits nicked her without her noticing?
It took her a moment to realize what she was looking at. A small patch of flesh on her wrist had gone dark and leathery, a bit like a scab and a bit like a burn scar. The skin ringing the patch was an angry pink. It didn’t hurt, really, except when she poked at it, but the texture was alien.
The hair on her neck began to raise but she still wasn’t quite sure why. Panic rising, she yanked back her other sleeve to see a few pink places that seemed to precede the appearance of the darkness. The places felt feverish—wrong—
The realization struck her like a physical blow and her hands stilled their frenzied investigation. She was tainted. This must be the work of the Calling—the eventual price to pay for the protections afforded by consuming Darkspawn blood.
Her grief for the lost history of the Wardens was replaced by a blinding flash of anger. So it wasn’t just the Joining that was kept secret: the end of a Warden’s life was as shrouded in mystery as their initiation. She had thanked Duncan profusely for saving her life their entire ride from Highever to Ostagar and had wondered why he seemed uncomfortable with her gratitude. She had thought that the Joining had given her her answer.
Had Duncan even known what he was condemning her to? Aside from the isolation, the hardships of daily life and the responsibility of protecting Thedas from the Blight, the shortened lifespan, had he even known what happened to a Warden preceding their early death? Perhaps not. Perhaps the first Wardens had discovered the truth and only gone so far as to ensure that no one else would have to experience the same fate. Perhaps no one knew.
Alistair didn’t, of course. Gwen remembered his words from the night before. She had brushed him off then and reassured him that they still had time, but as she slid her sleeves back down to cover her arms, a little dazed, she realized that she might have been wrong.
She might have been very wrong.
“Warden Cousland!” The shout came from across the courtyard, where the little group of recruits were training opposite the mages. As she tried to identify the source, one of the mages waved her hand: a tiny elven woman with honey-brown skin and a shock of bright red hair, wearing old circle robes that looked like she had modified them herself for a wider range of motion.
Gwen scooped her bracers up off the ground and laced them on tight as though restricting the blood flow in her arms would slow the spread of the Taint. Despite the icy sweat on the back of her neck and the persistent burning in her wrists, she had a job to do. She was not, after all, disconnected from the most essential element of the Warden lifestyle, which was being too busy to worry much about your own concerns.
“Warden Cousland!” the young woman called again as she approached.
“Yes, what’s wrong?” The words came out harsher than she intended, so she took a moment to compose her expression and then spoke softer. “What’s your name, recruit?”
“Melona, Warden Cousland.” She twirled her staff once—the orange crystal at the end blurring into a neat circle—forcing the two foot soldiers opposite her to take a step back. “These gentlemen are trying to tell me that I’d be most effective from a range while the two of them rush an enemy, but I think that my magic would be best utilized in close combat. I thought that we should consult you on the matter.”
Gwen frowned, mirroring the expressions of the two soldiers. Most mages did do their best work from a distance, depending on the composition of the rest of the group, and Circle mages tended to be defensively weak. “What is your specialization, Melona?” she asked, eyeing the fiery color palette of her complexion and attire.
“Healing and ice,” Melona replied, a little smugly, as though she were used to being misjudged in that area.
“All right, let’s see what you’ve got. You, keep next to the mage and keep the area around her clear,” Gwen instructed, gesturing to the soldier holding a shortsword and an enormous silverite shield. She pointed at the other soldier, whose longsword was resting casually on their shoulder. “You are the frontal attack. Now let’s see—” A few of the other recruits had paused their sparring to listen, so it was easy to pull in the remaining players needed for their little simulation: a dwarven woman with a longbow to stand behind the trio Gwen had orchestrated, three more large warriors at her own back, and a mage who specialized in spirit attacks to back them up and complete the “darkspawn forces.”
“All ready?” Gwen asked once she had positioned the two opposing groups with plenty of space between them. “Begin!”
Quick as a flash, Melona wrapped both hands around her staff and brought it down against the ground. Pale green energy fountained out of the top and surrounded her and her guard.
The “darkspawn” mage fired off a few crackling balls of energy that were absorbed harmlessly into Melona’s field. Across the training field, Gwen thought she could see the young woman grin.
With a hoarse, wordless cry, Gwen lifted her sword over her head and her shield in front of her torso and charged towards the recruits. The two-handed fighter, who had been cautiously advancing, actually stumbled back a step, sword raised in a poor attempt at a block.
Before Gwen could strike, however, she heard an answering shriek from inside Melona’s field and the unmistakable sound of her staff slamming into the grass a second time. A dart of ice snaked through the ground like a lightning bolt, accompanied by a cracking sound loud as thunder as all of the water in the soil froze instantaneously. Gwen leapt over it, determined not to slip, but the end of the ice curled around and followed her the two steps she was able to take before it overtook her. She needn’t have worried about slipping; as soon as it touched her feet, the ice shot up and encased her boots up to the ankles. She pitched forward but was held upright by Melona’s freezing grasp. She heard cries of surprise from one of the other warriors behind her as they met the same fate. Uncomfortable as she was, she was impressed with the spell.
The fighter who had startled at her approach hefted his sword and came at her again, more comfortable now that she was pinned in place. It was all Gwen could do to maneuver her shield to block his barrage. She had both arms over her head, teeth bared in a grimace as she put all her strength into maintaining her cover, when something hit her chest and knocked the wind out of her: one of the padded training arrows, fired from the archer behind Melona. While this arrow bounced harmlessly off her armor—albeit after a forceful impact—she was lucky that the end was only cloth. A real arrow would have pierced straight through her heart.
“I’m dead!” she gasped, and the warrior engaging her nodded and ran off to find his next adversary. The shackles of ice dropped from Gwen’s ankles and she staggered off to the side to watch the rest of the action and rub at her arms, now bruised on top of their other ailment.
In the end, no one else in her party fared much better. One warrior was also trapped in place by ice; their mage was channeling a weak shield in front of them, but the soldier’s longsword cut through it like water and he landed a solid blow to the lower abdomen. The two other “darkspawn” warriors took the opportunity to flank the taller soldier and take him down, but their ally had already “fallen.”
Melona bellowed again and the veins of ice retracted. She whipped her staff around and pointed it at the earth in front of her, where formed a flat sheet of ice like the surface of a pond in winter. The two “darkspawn” ran towards her, but one went down hard as soon as their foot touched the ice and was easily dispatched by an arrow. The other managed to slip and slide their way across the ice, but the fighter guarding Melona stepped forward and knocked them back with a heavy blow from his shield. They stumbled back onto the ice and fell, this time to be pinned in place by icy restraints that sprung up around their arms and legs.
All that remained on the darkspawn side was the single mage. They spun their staff and conjured layer after layer of shields, but Melona had already begun her march across the field, ducking occasionally behind the shield of the warrior who walked ahead of her. In the end, it was another well-aimed arrow that took down the mage when they dropped their shields to counter whatever spell Melona was trying to cast on the ground beneath them.
“Well done, everyone!” Gwen called as sparkling energy faded from the air, ice melted back into the soil, and fallen recruits heaved themselves back to their feet. “Melona, a compromise: you’re effective at middle range with a strong defender at your side, plus at least one to lead the attack and a ranged fighter at your back. Very well done, all of you; I recommend that the four of you train together as a unit.”
The young elf grinned a lopsided smile and nodded. “Fair enough, ma’am. We’ll do our best.”
Gwen turned to her own compatriots. “We were at a compositional disadvantage, my friends, but the fact remains that Melona is a skilled mage. There are some among the darkspawn who may be even more powerful in their magic. I want you four to work in different combinations the rest of the morning and let me know tomorrow what you feel is the most effective strategy. You might look into Templar methods, but don’t feel restricted to existing wisdom.”
The group nodded and began a murmured discussion among themselves, punctuated with a few sharp gestures and demonstrations of weapon angle. Gwen fought the urge to smile at their earnest expressions.
“Very good. If all of you keep training in mixed groups like this, attempting to best each other at every turn and stretching your wits to do it, the Inquisition will have the best-trained forces in Thedas.”
“The Commander has us mostly training mages against mages and swordsmen against swordsmen,” Melona noted, a touch of sourness in her tone.
“The Commander trained under one set of conditions, and I another. These different strategies will make you versatile, as you may be confronted with situations which challenge any one style of training.” Gwen bit her lip as she thought. “That being said, I will speak to the Commander about how to make our sessions more cohesive. Perhaps we should both be present.”
Annoyance flashed across Melona’s face, as though this was far from the answer she had wished for, but she quickly replaced it with a careful neutrality. “Whatever you think is best, ma’am.”
Gwen made a mental note to check in with a few of the mages on whether Cullen’s presence made them uncomfortable, but she suspected that any friction between him and Melona had more to do with her strong will and his distaste for insubordination than anything else. The thought crossed Gwen’s mind, unbidden, that Melona would be better suited as a Grey Warden than as part of a large force like the Inquisition.
She shook her head. Regardless of the girl’s skill, this was no time to be recruiting for the Order. With its Thedosian infrastructure in shambles and still no Cure in sight, involing the right of conscription for this young mage would only be cruel and self-serving. Perhaps later, once Corypheus was safely defeated. Perhaps someday.
The morning of training had run Gwen more ragged than she thought. She called an end to the session when a wave of dizziness passed over her and she realized that they were well past the usual time to take lunch. She allowed herself to be borne to the Hall with the crowd of recruits, smiling at their laughter and nodding whenever one of them spoke directly to her, but she did not sit and eat among them. Instead, she grabbed one of the small lamb pies stacked on a plate and devoured it while she walked to her room.
With training done, she had a few moments to tend to herself. She removed her armor and stripped off her clothing and did a thorough search for any more of the black marks like the one on her arm. She found none, but there was one suspicious red spot on her leg that might have heralded one’s development or might simply have been a fresh bruise. After all, her already-sore arms were now speckled with an array of bruises in pink and blue and green. The dark, leathery spot was bleeding a little.
She wanted to cry or take a long soak in a hot spring—preferably both—but instead she splashed her face with cold water from the basin until the warmth had receded from her eyes and her breathing was a little more even. She dipped the sleeve of her discarded shirt in the water and used it to wipe down her arms, not bothering to muffle her hisses and groans as her battered skin made its complaints known. It was tempting, oh so tempting, to lie back naked on her bed and sleep away the afternoon and heal a little, but instead she forced herself to retrieve the bandages from her things and begin wrapping her forearms up tight.
It took some time, since it was an awkward task to do with just one hand, but eventually she was happy with her work. The bruising and the taint both were well hidden from view; she could tell anyone who asked that she’d been scratched up while sparring. It wasn’t even really a lie, since the angry red line where Alistair had cut her was barely scabbed over.
Just as she was beginning her second self-examination, someone knocked at her door.
“I’m not decent!” she called, scrambling for a fresh shirt.
Alistair’s muffled voice wafted through the door. “Are you having a moral crisis, or are you undressed?”
“Oh! Undressed. You can come in.” She stuffed her arms into a pale blue linen shirt which she usually reserved for her forays into Orlais because of its lightness and slightly adventurous neckline. The sleeves gathered nicely at the wrists to hide her bandages.
The door creaked open and Alistair poked his head in. He didn’t seem to acknowledge that she wasn’t wearing anything below the waist. “How was training?”
“Rigorous.” Gwen hesitated over her last good pair of trousers and a set of heavy skirts. She wouldn’t be exerting herself for the rest of the day—she wasn’t going back to the library, either, but she might wander the keep and make polite conversation and feel out whether any nobles would be interested in putting resources towards rebuilding the Wardens. She set down the trousers and pulled the underskirt over her head. “How was your morning?”
“I was thinking about our conversation last night.” Alistair closed the door behind him and sat down on her bed. “You’re right, of course. Teagan left just now, and I ride to meet him in Redcliffe tomorrow morning.”
Gwen searched his expression before lifting up the woolen outerskirt and slipping it over herself, trying her best to ignore the pang of sorrow in her own chest. His brow was furrowed and he worried his bottom lip between his teeth, eyes locked on a spot on the floor somewhere to her left. “You’ve decided to return to Denerim?”
“Yes, I think I’ve reached the limit of my selfishness. And my advisors’ patience.” He finally met her gaze as she adjusted the skirt around her waist. “I know it’s sudden, but Leliana tells me there’s a heavy snowfall expected tomorrow night. If I don’t make it through the pass before then, I could be stuck here another week.” Something in his tone made his explanation sound like an apology.
Gwen sat down next to him on the bed and pressed a gentle kiss to his cheek; she could feel his face shift as he smiled. “I’ll be sorry to see you go, but you know I’ll be in Denerim with you soon.” Her arms throbbed once, reminding her of the uncertainty of that statement, and she ducked down to tug her boots onto her feet and lace them up.
His warm hand came to rest on her back and she could feel his thumb stroking the linen of her shirt. “Any obligations this afternoon?”
Alistair slid his arm around her shoulders and pulled her up against him; Gwen relaxed into the embrace, grateful that he couldn’t see her face from this angle because she found herself suddenly fighting back tears for the second time in twenty minutes.
“Will you come with me, then? I have a surprise for you—something nice for our last afternoon at Skyhold together.”
“Of course.” She cleared her throat in an attempt to rid her voice of its somewhat strangled tone. “Where are we going?”
Alistair hesitated as though he could sense her unhappiness, but when she didn’t say anything further he dropped his arm and stood. “I need to get something from my room. Meet me outside in a minute?”
“I’ll be there.” Gwen put on her best smile. “I can’t promise a very exciting conversation, though. I’m pretty exhausted.”
“I understand.” Hands wrapped around hers, Alistair pulled her to her feet and into a kiss. “I’ll be right back.”
“See you soon.”
Gwen watched him leave and shut the door behind him before she allowed her shoulders to sag. She had known she would be sad when he left, but she couldn’t have predicted this almost panicked sensation. It stemmed from her discovery that morning, of course—a recent reminder of her own mortality, and that the loan she had taken out with her Joining was about to be collected—but she thought that she might be feeling much the same even if she hadn’t discovered evidence of the Taint.
Ten years between meetings. One long decade spent apart, and then a few short, happy days together again. She had come to terms with the fact that he no longer loved her and had been ready to accept their brief time at Skyhold as a kind of closure, but this—this was different. There were so many things left to discuss and discover. So many memories she hadn’t shared with him, or with anyone. She realized that she knew almost nothing of his life at Denerim Palace. Even if they were reunited, who was to say that their relationship could survive at court as well as it had in the limbo provided by the Inquisition? And as his mistress—the word still left a bad taste on her tongue.
Still, she chided herself, this was not the time to have doubts. It would hurt them both more to prolong their farewells or to suggest that they had anything except a happy future together. If she died in the following weeks, if the Taint progressed and crippled her body and the Calling drove her to madness, she could die peacefully knowing that she had saved him the pain of leaving when he knew she was ill.
Perhaps it was more selfish than altruistic, she admitted, but she set her teeth hard and glared at herself in the mirror. The woman looking back did indeed look exhausted, but there was steel in her gaze, too. There was some fight left in her yet.
“Almost ready!” She grabbed a wool shawl from the foot of her bed and threw it around her shoulders. It helped stave off a little of the chill when she opened the door and the fire burning in the grate behind her couldn’t hold off the mountain air.
Alistair stood before her, his grin now genuine as could be, one arm resting on the stone railing and his other crooked to support the handle of a large woven basket. “Fancy a picnic?”
Gwen couldn’t help but laugh. Her morbid anxieties might have crept in during her moments of solitude, but Alistair’s sunny smile was enough to banish them. “Alistair, I love you more than words can say. You make me so happy.”
This was clearly not the answer Alistair had expected, based on the bewildered expression that replaced his grin, but it was back so quickly Gwen almost questioned whether she had imagined it. “I suppose you’re pretty hungry, then. Let’s go.” He held out his free arm in a clear offer. Gwen took it, slipping her hand into his.
Chapter 13: Chapter XIII
6k more words with less than two weeks' turnaround time?? who even am I
On another note, though, I fucked up.mp3. As one of you pointed out in a comment, it's startling that Gwen is going through the real Calling when, in canon, Corypheus causes the Wardens to undergo a false Calling. You're right! I done goofed!! So for the purposes of Reunion we're gonna say that the false Calling also includes physical symptoms. I don't want anyone to freak out about this ending horrifically lol. As the tags say, this is angst with a happy ending.
That's all I've got for housekeeping. Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Alistair tugged on their entwined hands and Gwen allowed herself to be led down the walkway towards the main part of the keep. “And where shall we have this picnic?” she asked. “In the courtyard?”
“You’ll see,” Alistair replied, drawing out the words until they oozed with self-satisfied playfulness. He looked over his shoulder and grinned, swinging their joined hands. “It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if I told you, now would it?”
It was hard to suppress a smile at his boyish excitement. “I thought the picnic was the surprise. Now I’m concerned.”
Alistair snorted. “Are you concerned by surprises in general or just mine?”
“To be fair, your surprises in the past have ranged from a flower to a secret connection to the royal family, so I would say that I’m bracing myself.”
“Oh, you’ve caught me, I was trying to get you to myself so I could reveal that I’m also the bastard prince of Orlais. Very complicated family tree I’ve got.” He glanced over at her and smiled crookedly.
Gwen laughed and squeezed his hand as she raised her other arm to open the door to the Great Hall. She loosened her grip a little, giving him the option of letting go for their walk past the visiting nobility who tended to gather there, but he stroked his thumb over her hand once and held on.
No one gave them a second look as they walked through the hall hand-in-hand. Alistair, after all, was dressed in plain clothing that did not advertise his royalty, and Gwen had a sneaking suspicion that her own brother would barely recognize her in a skirt. The only person who seemed to notice their presence at all was Varric, who looked up and met Gwen’s eyes without pausing his conversation with Lady Montilyet, who had her back turned to them. His eyes flicked down to their joined hands and back up to her, and he winked. Gwen responded with a smile.
Alistair led them out through the enormous main doors and down the stone staircase into the courtyard, and at first his path seemed like he was aimed for the enormous forge that Gwen had peeked into once, but he turned at the last moment and opened a small, heavy door set into the outer wall of the keep, finally letting go of her hand to tug at the handle with both of his. A plain stone staircase led down into the dark.
Gwen had never been to this part of Skyhold before, but Alistair struck out confidently into the darkness, so she followed. She picked her way down the stairs, lit dimly by the occasional torch. A cold wind oozed up from below and water dripped down the walls. Alistair turned around and grinned at her when she slipped a little and grunted in surprise.
“Watch your step. Just a little further.”
Gwen grimaced in response and Alistair chuckled. He was right; just a few more stairs and they met a corner illuminated with a diffused white light. Alistair held up his hand and Gwen took it and allowed herself to be steadied on the last few steps. They rounded the corner together and Gwen had to hold up her arm to shield her eyes.
They stood in a large room deep beneath Skyhold. Small, bare cells lined both sides of the room, their barred doors casting regular rows of shadows back on the walls behind. The cells ended abruptly, however, as the floor dropped away. The center of the room was made up of an assortment of platforms and catwalks, all cobbled together from what looked like scrap wood. Instead of a fourth wall, the room opened onto the mountainside. Blinding white snow sloped down and away, glittering in the sunlight as little eddies of wind swirled the top layer of powder.
Despite being unfinished, the room did not seem to be in disrepair. It smelled of fresh-cut wood and torch smoke and the sweetness of the straw which had been scattered over the well-swept floor. The only sound was the whistling of the wind through the mountains; they were alone.
Gwen squinted and lowered her arm as her eyes began to adjust to the glare. “What is this place?”
“Skyhold’s dungeon. Not exactly the most romantic location, I know,” he hurried to add, “but it’s completely unused at the moment. Leliana told me that the Inquisitor usually tries to hand off prisoners to some external authority when she cannot assimilate them into the Inquisition.”
“No, I can’t say that I can imagine Lady Trevelyan keeping a dungeon full of her enemies for her own enjoyment.” Gwen stepped to the edge of the stone platform and looked down between two crisscrossing boards. The fall into the snow below would be long, cold, and probably fatal, whether it was the impact that killed you or the frostbite that set in before the Inquisition could mount a rescue party. She shivered a little, and only then realized that she should have been shivering already. Despite the lack of shelter, the room was quite comfortable—even a little warm.
Alistair seemed to guess the direction of her thoughts. “I enlisted some help to make things a little more comfortable down here.” Setting down his basket, he picked up a pebble near the wall and threw it out towards the open air; the stone arced through the air until it passed the point where the ceiling ended, at which point it slowed as though passing through thick honey. When it reached the other side of whatever invisible barrier it had met it dropped down and out of sight.
“Magic,” Gwen noted, though the explanation was unnecessary. The corner of her mouth tugged up as she imagined Alistair scouring Skyhold for a mage willing to help insulate the dungeon for the King’s picnic. “Who did that? Dorian?”
A little bashfully, Alistair reached up to rub the back of his neck. “Er—Morrigan.”
“Morrigan?” Gwen guffawed. “Sorry, you asked Morrigan to help set up for our date?”
Alistair flushed. “I know that we’ve had our… differences, but I’ve been speaking to her some since I’ve been here.”
“Yes, Leliana mentioned that you’d been bickering in the courtyard.”
“Things were a little tense the first time we spoke, yes, but I think that’s understandable.” He glanced at Gwen, looking a little annoyed. “In light of our last meeting.”
“Ah. Ah yes.” Gwen felt herself grimace automatically at the memory, the expression as involuntary as if she had just bit into an unripe apple. She had been trying not to think of it since she had awoken to Morrigan’s ministrations on her first arrival at Skyhold. Now there had been a difficult conversation: convincing her recent ex-lover to sleep with the exasperated witch they had picked up in a swamp when the two of them had been making each other’s lives miserable for months. A startling thought occurred to her. “Is the child with her?”
Alistair’s gaze focused somewhere behind her as he nodded. “His name is Kieran.”
After a few seconds of hesitation, Gwen reached up to rest a hand on Alistair’s arm. She expected some emotion to surface—regret or jealousy or even fear at what power the child might hold—but, to her surprise, none really came. She was sorry that she had not raised the subject with Alistair sooner, for it seemed to be weighing on his mind, but otherwise nothing. She did wonder idly if Morrigan had been keeping the boy out of her sight on purpose, since she had never seen him around the keep, even when she ran into his mother in the garden from time to time.
It made sense, she realized. This was between Morrigan and Alistair, after all, no matter what role she had played in facilitating it. “How do you feel about it?” she asked softly.
“He’s a good boy, but he’s Morrigan’s child.” His gaze returned to Gwen’s face and he smiled, though the expression held a touch of something else—sorrow? Regret? “I am no more his father than Maric was truly mine. He is doing well.” He chuckled, though Gwen’s chest tightened. “If anything, I think he’s softened Morrigan a bit. I was surprised she let me speak with him.”
Gwen rubbed his arm a few times and let her hand fall back to her side. “I’m glad to hear the two of you have made peace with each other.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far. She asked me if I ever considered sneaking away and leaving a mabari on the throne, ‘as surely its natural aptitude for ruling would be similar to your own’.”
Gwen laughed in spite of herself and Alistair’s smile gained a little warmth. “Then things haven’t changed so much in the last ten years. I’m glad that you’re on speaking terms, anyway. And clearly you’re friendly enough that she helped you set this up.”
“She kept making horrible suggestions about what we were going to use the space for,” Alistair complained. “I couldn’t convince her that we weren’t going to get up to any mischief.”
“We’re not? I’m leaving then, I’ve been misled.” Gwen pretended to turn as though to leave but Alistair laughed and caught her around the waist. “I’m serious, Alistair, if that basket isn’t full of unnecessarily complex Orlesian toys then what’s the point?”
He buried his face in her neck, still laughing, and she could feel his breath against her skin. “What if the basket is full of food?”
“All right, you have my attention.” She ran her fingers through his hair and tried to keep her breathing slow so that her chest would not burst open with the rush of affection she felt. She would never get tired of the way he touched her without thinking about it, as though the trade of warmth from skin to skin was the most natural process in the world. In a way, she supposed, it was—perhaps she was only so easily overcome because of how long she had gone without.
“I thought that might do it.” Alistair pulled away but kept one hand on her back as he retrieved the basket. “I have a good spot picked out, but you’ll have to trust me that it’s sturdy.”
“Hmm. How rigorously has this sturdiness been tested?” Gwen watched with what she felt was an impressively low level of anxiety as Alistair walked over to one of the catwalks and balanced his way over the snow-white void, basket held gingerly before him.
When he reached the wooden platform on the other side, he spun on his heel, smiling wide. “Approximately that rigorously.”
“Why do I feel like this is as much a surprise for you as it is for me?” Gwen muttered under her breath, but stepped out onto the plank anyway. “You’re lucky you didn’t just plunge Fereldan into another succession crisis.”
“I would love to see Teagan’s explanation for why I froze to death near Skyhold when I’m not supposed to have any official communication with the Inquisition.”
Gwen took a little more time to cross than Alistair had, taking a few seconds with each step to ensure that her footing was secure. “I’d say something nice at your memorial.”
“That’s very kind of you.” As he had at the stairs, Alistair reached out a hand and steadied Gwen for her last few steps. “Fortunately, this is our stop.”
The platform was just large enough for them both to sit side by side, legs dangling down into the emptiness below. It could only be accessed by the plank they had taken or another board which ran to the side of the room; it was difficult to discern what was actually supporting the structure. Still, it seemed steady enough, so Gwen forced herself to stop fidgeting around and instead turned her attention to Alistair, who had begun emptying the picnic basket.
He pulled out two plates, which he set next to each of them, then the battered metal mugs he kept in the chest in his room. Then he produced a round loaf of bread, a jar of some honey-colored preserves, a cloth that turned out to hold cold meat and another that hid a large chunk of yellow cheese, two small pies, and a corked bottle of dark liquid.
“You made all this yourself?” Gwen joked, secretly impressed by the spread. Meals at Skyhold were not sparse, but they were often plain and the sort of food that could be cooked in enormous quantities.
Alistair furrowed his brow and pointed at each part of the meal in turn. “The West Hill Brandy was from Lady Montilyet upon my arrival, bread and cheese and meat from the kitchens, apricot jam that was probably from Zevran because it arrived at Redcliffe Castle with a crow’s feather—”
“That’s how I got my boots!” Gwen exclaimed, wiggling her feet to illustrate. “He sent them to Adamant a few years back.”
“You know, I never thought I’d say this, but I actually miss that man.” Alistair tore off a piece of bread and gestured for Gwen to do the same, so she set about loading up her plate. “He really grew on me.”
“On all of us,” she agreed.
“Oh, you had a soft spot for him from the beginning and you know it.”
“Yes, I like to think I can sense loyalty in someone when it’s there. Besides, you warmed right up when he took over cooking every night.”
“Hey.” Alistair pointed at her, hand still full of bread. “You can’t make fun of my cooking skills, he outdid you too.”
“I wasn’t making fun of your cooking skills! I’m just saying that you didn’t seem so worried about him murdering us all in our sleep after that spiced vegetable thing he made.”
Alistair’s eyes glazed over a little. “I didn’t know root vegetables could taste like that.”
Gwen laughed and smacked his shoulder. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about! That’s such an arbitrary reason to change your opinion of someone.”
“I trusted him because you trusted him.” A calm seriousness crept back into Alistair’s voice. “It took a while, but that’s why. I hope you know that. I trusted—trust—your judgment absolutely.”
The sudden change in tone took Gwen by surprise. “Oh, I—I didn’t—thank you.”
“Sorry. Too serious?” Twisting off the lid of the jar of jam, Alistair relaxed his posture. “I may have drunk a little already.”
“The King of Ferelden, tipsy before mid-afternoon? Nervous about our date, were you?”
Alistair gave her a curious expression that had some intense but unidentifiable emotion behind it. “Something like that.”
“That’s sweet,” Gwen said, but she could hear the confusion in her own voice. She followed Alistair’s lead and dipped into the apricot jam. It was thicker than she thought it would be; large chunks of fruit clung to the spoon and for a moment she was genuinely absorbed in trying to coax it into an even layer atop her piece of bread.
They both made sounds of delight when they tasted it. Something of the Antivan sun had been preserved along with the fruit, and in addition to being deliciously sweet, the taste spread a pleasant feeling of warmth through them.
“Mmf, how is Zevran still impressing us with food when we don’t even know where he is?”
Alistair shook his head in wordless incomprehension.
Gwen swung her feet back and forth a few times like a small child, legs too short to reach the floor, delighted by something their parents had fed them. “Would it be unethical to ask Leliana to track him down so that he could send us more jam?”
“We should probably at least wait to finish this jar.”
The rest of the food went slowly, nibbled at through conversations about nothing of much consequence. They covered everything from fruit to fashion, both expressing their distaste for the Orlesian style, and then lamented that the brandy was too sweet for both of their tastes.
If she hadn’t known better, Gwen would have thought that Alistair was distracted; he paused a long time before he spoke, and his responses did not always match well with whatever Gwen had said before. However, she too was carefully skirting any topics that might be uncomfortable or sobering. The wyvern in the room, of course, was their impending goodbye. They both were so busy dancing around their uncertain future that their exchange had become meaningless.
The conversation sputtered to a halt some time after they had both pushed their plates away. They sat in silence for several minutes, just listening to the moaning of the wind through the mountains. Gwen noticed that Alistair was tapping his fingers against his thigh and then tried to forget that she had noticed; the motion made her feel anxious.
“I think that we need to address something,” Gwen said, just as Alistair said “There’s something I need to ask you about.”
They both started and laughed uncomfortably. “Sorry, you go first.”
“No, go ahead.”
“All right.” Gwen inhaled deeply and hissed it out between clenched teeth. “Can we—can we acknowledge that we’re not really sure how things are going to go? That’s hard to—hard to talk about, but, uh, everything is very up in the air right now. Not just this,” she clarified, flapping her hand between them to indicate their relationship, “but everything. Thedas. The war. Corypheus.” Alistair tilted his head, frowning slightly. “I’m not trying to use that as an excuse for anything, and, and I know that we’re both going to try our hardest, here. I just think it would be irresponsible for us to act as though everything is definitely going to be all right when we don’t know. Maybe we shouldn’t make—shouldn’t try to make concrete plans.” She swallowed as her arms stung. She might not have been able to bring herself to tell Alistair about the Taint, but she also didn’t want to give him false hope for a long future together.
Alistair frowned harder. “Do you think it’s a bad idea for you to come to Denerim?”
“No! No, I want that so much.” She grabbed his hands with hers and tried to elaborate, but no sounds came out when she moved her mouth. It was too much—paralysis was upon her. There was nothing she could do that would make this parting easier. If she told him why she was so uncertain, he would feel guilty for leaving, but if she didn’t he would doubt her commitment.
While he waited patiently for her to speak, Alistair lifted her hands to his mouth and kissed them gently, pressing his lips to the knuckles and then turning them over to kiss the palms. “Do you know something I don’t?” he asked finally, his voice soft.
Gwen couldn’t stop the truth from springing to her tongue. “Yes.”
“Something you can’t tell me?”
Alistair hooked one of his ankles around one of Gwen’s and nudged the picnic basket out of the way so that he could press his side up against hers. He held her hands tight. “Is it something that’s going to have immediate implications?”
“I don’t think so.”
He tugged a little on her hands and waited until she looked him in the eyes. “Do you honestly believe that you will be able to meet me in Denerim after your mission with the Inquisitor?”
Gwen thought about the size of the Tainted patches on her arms and about how long it could take for it to spread. “Yes.”
“Then we will take care of it then.” He leaned in and kissed her, hard and hot and determined, and the sensation of it put some of the iron back into her spine. When he pulled away, his mouth was set in a firm line. “Gwen, nothing in our lives has ever been certain. Every single day is a gamble—especially as a Grey Warden. I know that you try to carry Thedas on your shoulders, and Maker knows I wish I could change that, but I also know that you can’t tell me everything. But you don’t have to carry me, too. I know very well that there are a thousand reasons this might not work out. I’ve prepared myself, as I’m sure you have—you don’t need to set my expectations.” He kissed her forehead and pulled her into a tight embrace, which she returned willingly. “I love you. If there’s a one-in-a-million chance that we get some kind of happy ending, I’d like to try.”
Gwen’s first attempt at a reply was thwarted when her breath caught in her throat. “You’re right,” she croaked after a few seconds. “I’m sorry for trying to coddle you. It’s just hard not to worry.”
“I know. And you have more worrying to do than the average person,” he added, and she could hear the smile in his voice. “In fact, you’re all booked up. Oh, look at that, absolutely no time left to worry about the uncertainties of the universe.”
Gwen chuckled and nestled her face into the crook of his shoulder. “I trust your judgment. Absolutely.”
It was Alistair’s turn to have his breath catch; Gwen felt the quick tremor in his chest. Then she felt his hand rubbing slowly up and down her back. “I’m stronger than I used to be, you know. We both are.”
“And that’s saying a lot,” Gwen joked. “You once lifted that huge log on a dare from Sten.”
“Oh, the inside of that was rotted out.”
“It was what?” She pulled away, mock-betrayed. “Alistair Theirin, you have wooed me on false pretenses.”
He laughed, and it lifted Gwen’s mood as much as she hoped it did his. “If I had known you only liked me for my brute strength, I might have spent more time maintaining that for the last decade.”
“Well, you have plenty of time to train up before I join you in a few weeks.” She poked him in the chest. “Brush up on your shield work, too, while you’re at it.”
“Oh, now you’re just mocking me. Perhaps you should refresh your court etiquette, Lady Cousland, as I see that you have crumbs all over your skirt.”
Gwen brushed the offending crumbs down into the snowy void below. “Excuse me, Your Majesty, it’s just that I’m unaccustomed to wearing a great Maker-forsaken sail between my legs on a regular basis.”
Alistair startled her by leaning in for another kiss, this one slow and shaped by his smile. Gwen wrapped both arms tight around his waist and pulled him against her, enjoying the unevenness of his breath as the kiss deepened and the sensation of his fingers gripping her shirt. When they broke apart, they leaned their foreheads together, huffing out little gasps of laughter while their heartbeats regained something resembling a normal pace.
“What did you want to ask me?” Gwen asked after a long moment.
She felt more than saw Alistair’s smile. “It’s a conversation for another time.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” He pressed one last quick kiss to the corner of her mouth before pulling back. “A different question, though: we’ve got a bit of the afternoon left. Do you want to go to the tavern?”
“A bit of levity might be nice. Sure.”
Alistair looked sheepish as he began packing their picnic materials back into the basket. “Sorry, I promise I intended this to be lighthearted.”
“It’s all right, I had a nice time.”
The smile Alistair gave her when he thought she was busy trying to re-cork the brandy was almost enough to make her heart stop. Instead, she handed him the bottle so that he could make an attempt and turned away to retrieve her plate to hide her own lovesick expression.
The Herald’s Rest was bustling, as usual. Most of the Inquisition’s personnel were finished with work for the day, and those who were preparing to toil through the night also seemed to have stopped by for a fortifying drink. Every table was crowded with soldiers, scouts, messengers, stonemasons and builders, ex-Circle mages and fugitive Templars, informants and strategists and spies. Gwen even thought she recognized several members of the kitchen staff.
She and Alistair ended up on the second floor, sitting with their legs dangling down over the staircase and leaning against the railing and each other as they nursed large flagons of mead. Below them, anyone not laughing and conversing listened with rapt attention to the woman singing near the foot of the staircase. Her melody was a wistful one: a memory of a time before the war and the rift, and a promise to protect the families back home who now lived in fear.
As the song went on, a hush fell over the tavern. Gwen wondered if this was a new song. Some people nodded along; a few soldiers ducked their heads to hide their pained expressions. One man simply stared, tears running freely down his face. Still others smiled, clearly filling in the framework of the lyrics with their own memories of better times.
Gwen felt transported back to the Cousland estate in Highever, young and small and crouched by the fireplace in her fine gown, scratching the ears of a Mabari puppy while she strained to hear the music over the chatter of the guests at one of her parents’ gatherings. Fergus would be at the door, beckoning her outside to escape the crowded room and run around the darkened grounds playing at the pirate stories they had heard from their mother. Later, their parents would find them dozing in the kitchens, full of leftover sweets and sleepy with warmth, and carry them to bed. She was not afraid of the night; night meant her mother joking about the stiff etiquette of her father’s friends when she thought her children were asleep and the warm blankets of a familiar bed.
Once we were
In our homeland
With strength and might.
Once we were
Not afraid of the night.
The last chord from the performer’s instrument faded in the almost silent room, and there was a distinct pause as everyone absorbed the melody.
Those memories had almost been lost to time, but the bard’s song brought them rushing back. It was not a painful remembering, however; Gwen was struck by her certainty that better times had existed, once, and they would come again. A little of the ache seemed to disappear from her shoulders.
This. This is what had been lacking for longer than she could recall. She had felt like she was always fighting a losing battle, always doing damage control, and nothing could ever be counted as a success because there was still so much suffering to combat. But this sweet surety, this steadfast promise to protect, this… hope was foreign after such a long time without any hopes. Gwen almost laughed out loud at the distinct sensation of a dying ember being coaxed back to a flame in her chest. Calling or no, she had work to do.
She looked over to Alistair and wondered what memory had been conjured for him. His eyes were glazed over and he stared at nothing, a slight smile pulling at his lips. These few days with him had reminded her of what she had fought her in the absence of a family to protect. Even one life saved, even a single laugh from a comrade or the joy of fighting side by side for a common goal could validate the entire struggle. And now, the promise of even a few more days together—a promise made to themselves and to each other, to endure until their reunion, could be enough to sustain her through whatever the coming weeks might bring.
After a few seconds, however, the bard’s spell broke and sound washed back through the room. Gwen drank deeply from her flagon to hide how much she had been moved, wondering if the strong drink had anything to do with it.
“She is a talented singer,” Alistair observed, sounding a little shaken.
Though the noise around them grew again, they waited in silence as the singer adjusted the tuning on her instrument and took a draught from the bottle by her feet. When she began singing again, Gwen bumped Alistair’s leg with hers to capture his attention. It was unnecessary; neither of them had looked away.
This song was slower and lower, almost haunting. It was hard to pick out the lyrics at first, but when she did, Gwen’s spine stiffened.
Oh Grey Warden,
What have you done?
The oath you have taken
Is all but broken.
All is undone,
Demons have come
To destroy this peace
We have had for so long.
Gwen took another drink and avoided Alistair’s gaze.
Ally or Foe?
Maker only knows.
Ally or Foe?
The Maker only knows.
The stronghold lives on,
And the army's reborn,
Compelled to forge on.
What will we become?
What indeed? Rebuilding the Wardens for the second time in a decade would be no small feat. Even with her renewed sense of purpose, Gwen found herself scowling at the prospect. She was running out of time for all this nonsense.
Can you be forgiven
When the cold grave has come?
Oh will you have won,
Or will battle rage on?
And when the Taint took her? When her body succumbed to the Calling in the coming months or weeks? It would be some time before more Wardens could be brought in to help, and only the Maker knew what the situation at Weisshaupt was. Alistair would be too busy ruling the kingdom and dealing with his own Calling. She needed someone with a backbone to help her—someone who wouldn’t have to worry about the Calling anytime soon.
Oh, Grey Warden,
What have you done?
The oath you have taken
Is all but broken.
Grand-Enchanter Fiona’s face materialized in her mind’s eye, furious over the War Table that morning.
All is undone.
Ash in the sun,
Cast into darkness
The light we had won.
“Not very lighthearted, is it?” Alistair noted, gesturing with his drink as the song concluded. “How is it our fault that there’s always a crisis? We have one niche job and we do it! And we don’t really take an oath, it’s more of an ideology.”
“Fair points,” Gwen agreed absently. She stared into the depths of her flagon. “Alistair, did Duncan ever mention a Grey Warden named Fiona?”
He screwed up his face in concentration and Gwen realized that they were both ambling towards drunkenness. “I don’t think so, I think I’d’ve remembered. Not many women in the Order in Ferelden, y’know?”
“Yes, I remember your confusion when we first met.”
“I wasn’t confused—” He stopped when Gwen huffed out a sigh and leaned her head against one of the railing’s vertical supports. “Why, what’s wrong?”
“Just thinking about a conversation I had this morning. I’m having a realization, and I don’t like it.”
“What’s the realization?”
Gwen tipped up her flagon and drained it. “The Grey Wardens recruit anyone with skills, regardless of their background, yes?”
“Anyone who can hold their own against the darkspawn, even if they have a shady history? Giving an opportunity to make amends, all that?”
“So if someone made a horrible choice a long time ago, and they’ve proven themself a capable fighter and even stepped up to take responsibility for what they did, and with the Order almost entirely depleted… and if this person is under someone else’s responsibility and that person might decide that the best punishment is to have that person executed… and that person—the, the first person, the fighter—had expressed admiration for the Wardens…” Gwen trailed off as she realized that she was rambling.
Alistair was watching her intently, even if his gaze was a little unfocused. “That’s a very specific hypothetical,” he said after a moment. “Should we go outside and talk?”
“All right.” She was reluctant to discuss the details with him when, as far as she knew, Leliana had not given him any information about Rainier, but on the other hand, she only had one Warden with whom to consult.
They disentangled themselves from the railing and pushed through the crowds to get back outside, leaving their flagons with the barkeep as they passed. Just as they reached the door, the singer strummed her instrument and began the first line of “Ferelden’s Bloodstained Rose.”
Alistair perked up and tried to turn around. “Oh, I love this song!”
“You would.” Gwen grabbed his arm and pulled him outside. Dusk had fallen while they were in the Herald’s Rest; colorfull clouds skimmed by above them as the sky dimmed to a deep blue. A few Inquisition soldiers were sitting with their backs against the wall, clearly drunk.
Alistair linked his arm with Gwen’s and set an ambling pace along the edge of the courtyard. The air was cold, but it felt refreshing in contrast to the stuffiness of the tavern. Once they were well out of earshot, Alistair leaned in and spoke at a murmur. “You’re considering conscripting someone?”
“The Warden Blackwall is not who he claimed to be,” Gwen said slowly, choosing each word with care, “and the Inquisitor has gone to attempt to retrieve him from the… consequences… of his past actions. It was suggested to me this morning, but I felt like there was no point. Just now, though, that song—” she shook her head—“I will not let the Order die out in Ferelden. I need to have someone with me who I can train, in case I am not able to see the rebuilding through.”
“Hmm.” Several more seconds passed in silence as Alistair absorbed this partial explanation. “I take it this is another situation where you can’t share the details?”
“The Inquisitor only just sent word that I could be brought into the loop. I really want to tell you, but I don’t want to betray her trust.”
“Well, if the Inquisitor is able to bring this man back to Skyhold, you should speak with him before invoking the right of conscription. See if he’s really Warden material.” He nudged her side, perhaps harder than he would have if he were sober. “Hey, you could be a mentor! You’d be a good one. That’s something I wish I could do, sometimes. Duncan gave me a good start, and, y’know, it might be nice to pass that on.”
Gwen looked sideways at Alistair. “I did that, once. Not long after the coronation.”
“Yes.” She looked up at the sky. The clouds looked like an assortment of confections in a shop window in Val Royeaux. When she looked back at Alistair, he was still watching her, waiting for an explanation. She nudged his side in return. “It’s not a pleasant story, and I want this to be a pleasant night. I promise to tell you in Denerim.”
“All right then.” He leaned towards her and whispered conspiratorially. “You know, if this is to be our last night together for several weeks, I do have a few ideas about what might make it very pleasant.”
Gwen grinned. “How interesting. I have a few ideas of my own.”
“Oh, we shall have to compare, then.”
And together, they turned their steps back towards Skyhold proper, unhurried and content.
Edit 8/24/18: the art in this chapter is a lovely commission from https://budgetfantasy.tumblr.com/ ! Please check out their blog for more fantasy art.
Chapter 14: Chapter XIV
The time has come for our heroes to say farewell.
I can't even apologize for the update schedule at this point, but just know that I think about this story all the time and this chapter has been written/rewritten/workshopped since last November and I'm finally ready to post it. Plus a little bonus art of Gwen during the Blight and during Inquisition! (See the last chapter for new art by @budgetfantasy on Tumblr as well.) Please enjoy.
Gwen at 20:
Gwen at 29:
All good things must come to an end, and Ferelden could not be without its King forever.
Gwen awoke early that morning when Alistair slipped out of bed beside her to stir the fire. She rolled over and felt the warm impression his body had left in the mattress. Dawn had not yet broken. His poking caused little flurries of sparks to whirl up from the embers, which had ebbed to a deep cherry glow during the night.
“It seems like you just got here,” Gwen said, watching the soft orange light dance over Alistair’s features.
He replaced the poker next to the hearth and turned back to her. His expression was carefully neutral, but he could not smooth the gentle worry lines that creased his forehead as he leant down to kiss her. The kiss was slow, tender—the kiss of a tradesman leaving for work in the early hours of the morning with the knowledge that he would return to his family come nightfall, not the kiss of a king bound by duty to return to his palace.
“These days have been some of my happiest,” he murmured against her lips, and she sat up a little to tangle her fingers in his hair. “I never dreamed that the Maker would give me a second chance to fix my mistake.”
Gwen wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pulled him down toward her; he shifted his weight forwards onto the bed and obliged. “There’s no need to dwell on past unhappiness.”
Alistair paused the gentle kisses he was pressing against her cheek and temple. “Promise you’ll come to Denerim? After your travels with the Inquisitor—sooner or later, you’ll come?”
“I’ll come. And in the meantime, I’ll write you as often as I can.”
Alistair slipped his arms under her back and pulled her into a tight embrace, his face pressed into the curve where her neck met her shoulder. “I’ll be waiting for you.”
“Starting now, I’ll always come back. There will always be things to call me away, but I’ll come back.” It was a harmless lie, she told herself; a lie for comfort now, in a moment already painful enough. She didn’t know which of them it was meant to comfort.
She could feel his grin against her collarbone, but he composed himself before he pulled back. “There won’t be time for proper goodbyes before I leave—just breakfast before I ride to meet Teagan at Redcliffe.”
“I know.” Gwen traced a finger around the edge of his face, relishing the way his brow furrowed at the touch. “We can say goodbye now.”
They both sat up, arms still wrapped around each other. Everything about the moment was soft—soft sheets against Gwen’s bare thighs, soft pressure from Alistair’s hands on her back, soft strands of hair falling forward in the soft light of the fire.
Alistair slid his hands up to cup Gwen’s face, and her heart skipped at the intensity of his gaze as he met her eyes. His thumb grazed over her cheek and warmth blossomed in its wake. “Goodbye.” His voice caught on the second syllable.
“It’s not goodbye forever, you ridiculous man,” she teased, and though she tried to make her voice light, her breath felt trapped in her chest.
He chuckled flatly and leaned forward to press his forehead against hers. “Let’s hope not.”
They rested together like that for a long time. Their breath mingled and their hands skimmed across each other’s bodies, but they did not speak. Gwen could feel the doubt and guilt from yesterday coiling in her stomach like a disease, aided by the throbbing of her still-bandaged arms—Alistair had accepted her explanation of a minor injury while sparring—and she clenched her jaw to keep it from spilling out of her mouth.
“I love you,” she croaked eventually, allowing a little of the desperation to slip out and make the words heavy.
“I love you too.” He pulled back and started to say something more, then sighed, pressed his lips together, and began again. “Be careful. Not just for my sake—I mean, of course I want you to be careful, but—the Grey Wardens are in a bit of a precarious situation at the moment. And I can’t do much if you, you know—”
“Snuff it?” Gwen laughed a little in spite of herself. “I see. So your concern is purely professional.”
“Purely professional,” he echoed, and crushed his lips desperately against hers. They both clutched each other closer, harder, until the embrace was almost painful. When Alistair broke the kiss a few seconds later, he ran his hands down her arms and clasped her hands as he smiled. “I have something for you.”
Gwen sat back while he slipped out of bed and went to retrieve something from his desk. He returned with a little packet of parchment, which he placed in her hands as he sat back down.
“Should I open it?” Gwen asked, catching her fingernail on the edge of the seal which held it closed: Ferelden’s royal crest in fiery gold wax.
Alistair placed his hands over hers to stop her. “Not now. Open it on the road sometime—whenever you want to. It’s just a little note.”
Gwen could tell by the lump in the parchment and by Alistair’s anxious flush that the parcel contained more than just a note, but she smiled and kissed his cheek. “I’ll write you when I’ve read it. I didn’t realize we were doing heartfelt gifts; I would have brought you something.”
He smiled a little uncomfortably. “Not a gift, just a letter.”
“If you insist.” She took in a large breath and released it in a slow hiss between her teeth while they looked at each other. “Well. Breakfast?”
“Breakfast,” Alistair agreed.
They sat and watched each other for a moment more, then both shifted on some unseen signal to stand and gather their clothes.
Breakfast passed much too quickly for Gwen’s preference. There was little formality without the Inquisitor present—not that there was ever much to begin with. Time slipped by as she forced herself to chew and swallow tasteless porridge and acknowledge small talk from her companions. Alistair’s conversation was stilted and he seemed engrossed in the contents of his bowl. All too soon, diplomatic well-wishes had been exchanged and Alistair excused himself to finish packing.
Gwen sat for a while longer and listened to Varric’s conversation with Madame de Fer and Dorian. The sounds washed over her like so much meaningless noise beating against the shore of her own thoughts. Not that she could decipher those any better—they were heavy and solid but she picked and prodded at them without any real understanding. She knew that later she would be full of feeling, but for the moment—noise. She rose and followed the others when they went out to the courtyard.
She stood apart from the rest of the group as they all watched Alistair mount the horse that had been led out from the stables. It was a fine Fereldan Forder, sturdy and patient as Alistair swung up into the saddle. Only the trained eye could pick out the details of his armor that set him apart from any other knight on the road; his luggage would be sent after in a discreet Inquisition caravan that was already making the trip to Redcliffe. He wore an older cloak that was dull and stained with travel.
He looked over at her and smiled, warm and reassuring even across the distance between them, and she returned the expression. Then he turned and waved at the small assembled crowd.
“Many thanks for the hospitality of the Inquisition,” he called. “Please give Lady Trevelyan my regrets that I was not able to make my farewells in person.”
Lady Montilyet stepped forward and bowed. “Thank you, Your Majesty. We wish you a safe journey.”
Alistair nodded, smiled, nudged at his mount with his heels as he steered it towards the gate. Only once he had Skyhold at his back did Gwen raise her hand in farewell.
The crimson blot of his cloak wavered and rippled as it shrank with the distance. Gwen thought he might have turned once to look back, but it was difficult to tell; there was a strong glare from the low morning sun off the mountainside.
That evening, when Gwen had forced down a few mouthfuls of hot food that did nothing to soothe the ache in her chest, she lay on her bed and stared at Alistair’s letter on her desk. The folding of the parchment was a little irregular as though he had done it himself in a hurry. The golden seal glittered and shone in the light of the fire.
Open it on the road. On the road.
Whenever you want to.
She stood and went to the desk to pick up the letter. That odd little lump still creased the parchment near the bottom of the packet. She slipped her finger under the top flap and broke the seal, which cracked neatly in half in the cold room.
Inside was a piece of parchment with writing on both sides in Alistair’s irregular hand. She couldn’t help the smile that crept over her face as she read, hearing the words in his voice as though he were next to her:
I admit that I’m a bit of a coward to be writing this. There was something important I wanted to ask you last night, but something you said told me that it wasn’t the right time. Still, patience has never been my strong suit, and I can’t bear the thought of waiting for you to conclude your business with the Inquisition and return to Denerim. And yet I can’t face working up the courage again to ask before I leave—
First to address the thing which held me back before—
“The fear of death is in your eyes; its hand is upon your throat.
Raise your voices to the heavens! Remember:
Not alone do we stand on the field of battle.”
She made a startled noise, both at the quote from the Chant and its contents. She squinted and read faster.
Sometimes I think you forget, love, that you are not the only Grey Warden between us. I too am experiencing the Calling, and I too fear what will happen as it runs its course. I too have found certain changes—
She could read no further for a moment as her eyes squeezed shut of their own accord and she bit her lip in a white-hot flash of pain. Stupid, stupid. Then she forced herself to open her eyes and continue.
--certain changes, which I can only assume are plaguing you as well. Perhaps going forward we should each spend less time trying to shield the other from concern and more time on—well, anything else, really. Anyway, rest assured that I am not continuing blithely on without regard for what this means. I am doing what I can to find answers.
In the meantime, are we any more sure of our imminent death than we were during the Blight? I cannot live every moment of my life fearing that it will be my last. I must allow myself some hope for even a little more time, a few more happy days in your company. Besides, it would be irresponsible not to plan for the future that we might stumble into if we manage to solve this particular problem.
Enclosed is my question. It’s the Inquisition’s finest craftsmanship, though not a family heirloom, I’m afraid. Not that I have many of those at my disposition. Anyway, I hope that you will write me your answer, though we have already discussed our plans in the abstract.
It’s hard to consider that these may be the last words we exchange for some time, love. As I write this now, you are asleep just behind me, and I dread tomorrow night when I will not be able to hear the rhythm of your breathing at my side. I do not claim to be an eloquent correspondent, but I hope that, wherever in Thedas you find yourself at the moment, you know that I am assured to be thinking of you, as I always am.
(Maker, it is freeing to admit that. You’ll forgive my effusiveness, I hope? You already know that I’m a bit ridiculous and I needn’t keep it a secret.)
Until we meet again, my love, I am most affectionately yours,
Gwen’s chest ached and she drew a quick breath, barely realizing that she had not done so during the entire last part of the letter. She set the parchment back down on her desk and upended the packet over her hand.
Out slid a ring; it landed cold and heavy in her palm. It was dark iron ornamented with an intricate rose cut from blushing purple dawnstone. Hands trembling hard enough that she was worried she might drop the jewel, she crouched next to the fire and leaned in to read the inscription around the outside of the band:
The deep dark before dawn's first light seems eternal,
But know that the sun always rises.
Chapter 15: Chapter XV
Me: *ends the last chapter with a proposal cliffhanger* *doesn't update for five months* Oh well. Uhh this chapter contains major spoilers for the DA novel "The Calling" in terms of Alistair's heritage and the long-term effects of the Calling, so be warned!
This letter is probably going to chase you across Ferelden and arrive in Denerim just as you do—I write two days after you left, and I know you’re stopping in Redcliffe. In fact, I haven’t even left Skyhold yet. I opened your note the same night you left.
I can’t help but think that Wynne would crack our heads together for being so stubborn if she could. If you mean what I think you mean about “changes” caused by the Calling, then yes, I have been arrogant enough to think that I could conceal them from you until I found a solution—perhaps the bandaged arms were not as subtle as I hoped. As disappointed as I am that you are as affected as I, it heartens me more than I can say that this is no longer my secret and that we may now openly seek a solution.
A little more honesty: I never once dreamed that you meant to marry me. In retrospect it may seem obvious that we had two different ideas of our future even as we discussed it, but I want you to know that I was ready to come to Denerim as the King’s mistress and accept whatever that might mean.
If you’ll forgive a little stalling before my answer, I had to take some time to consider this new situation. To be Queen of Ferelden—a concept which barely even crossed my mind ten years ago—what would that mean? I called myself a Teyrn during the Landsmeet when I believed my brother dead, but apart from those weeks, “Warden” is the only title that I have ever possessed or wanted. And I’m sure you remember the paralyzing stress of making choices which would shape Thedas, as we were both forced to do during the Blight—I have crowned two kings, killed two elder gods (I have a very interesting story to tell you about Flemeth when we next meet), resurrected the Grey Wardens in Ferelden, and fraternized with, among others, the Orlesian Imperial Enchanter, a strong candidate for the next Divine, the most accomplished assassin in perhaps all of Thedas, and one rather scruffy bastard prince (all of these within the span of a year or so, mind you). Originally I was leading to a point about Wardens not involving themselves in politics, but on rereading my last few lines, I find that I would be a hypocrite to quote Duncan’s words on that front now.
Anyway, it has taken me these two days to wrap my head around the concept of being Queen when, until reading your letter, I had imagined my future as another long series of Warden encampments in muddy ditches and barren rocky fields stretching out until my own blood finally poisons me, interspersed with a few cherished moments at your side—and even now I know that you will understand the mixed emotions it brings me to declare that my first duty is still to the Wardens.
But—perhaps—if you can bear it—and if the people of Ferelden can bear it, for I suppose they must now be considered too—if you are willing to have a Queen who is a Warden first—then maybe that future could be inverted, with the uncomfortable camps and hard battle interspersing our time together, instead of vice versa.
(If I have misunderstood your question, then please send your reply with your quickest messenger to set me to rights. Perhaps I should have led by asking for clarification. Oh well.)
All of this presuming, of course, that we both survive the year, but my answer to your (beautiful!) question is: yes.
I have no graceful way to transition from accepting a marriage proposal to discussing other business, so my apologies! The Inquisitor will hopefully be returning within a fortnight with “Blackwall,” and I hope to convince her that he should accompany us to face the darkspawn in the north. That will give me an opportunity to judge his character as a candidate for conscription. Meanwhile, I continue to train with the Inquisition recruits, narrowing down the group that will be best suited against the darkspawn. There may be a few future Wardens among them too, if they manage to survive the next few months.
Your absence is forcing me to spend my evenings socializing, which is probably a positive, although I miss you. In the interest of being more up front: the way I miss you now reminds me of the way I missed you when we were on opposite sides of Denerim preparing for the coronation. But this time I’m heading to the city instead of away from it—many differences, I suppose, but the same intensity.
I’ll see you soon.
All my love,
P.S. On rereading the following morning before sending, this is a bit all over the place, but I think the important things are in there. Ride safe!
Your letter caught me before I left Redcliffe, so this response may be sooner than you expected.
Allow me to reassure you: you did not misinterpret my question!
Your answer is gratifying makes me I love you so much, and the prospect of spending whatever life I have left with you is the best thing I could possibly imagine. Yes, your duty is to the Wardens, and I would wish for nothing else besides your continued dedication to the Order, but I hope you will find that there is more than one way for you to serve Ferelden.
Wynne would indeed laugh at us if she could hear us trying to sort things out. I apologize for not making myself clearer, and for not discussing the Calling with you before leaving. You’re not the only one who sometimes falls prey to unfortunate bouts of stoic self-sacrifice—if I remember correctly, one of the reasons we work so well together is that we each stop the other from indulging that urge too often.
Good luck with this “Blackwall.” When you asked me for advice the other night, I should have mentioned that there are some cases in which one’s past crimes far outweigh the benefit which they would provide to the Wardens, but I know that you know this because of how quickly you rejected Riordan’s suggestion to recruit Loghain so long ago. Even so, be wary of brushing aside his past simply because you were not involved. And if he is a good candidate for the Joining, you might consider waiting to perform the ritual until we manage to sort out this business with the Calling.
Apologies, but duty calls—or rather Teagan does, at great volume, from downstairs. I look forward to seeing you again, ideally in one piece if it can be arranged.
Gwen laughed at the sign-off and put the letter back down on her desk, stretching. The morning’s training had gone well, although the Commander might feel differently when he returned to find that she had been rearranging his companies without his permission. Today was the first day since Alistair had left that she intended to spend her afternoon away from the training grounds; she had finally decided what her next steps would be.
She needed to spend some time with Leliana and Morrigan, she had decided, however resistant they seemed to conversation. She needed to discuss strategy with Commander Cullen and pass along Melona’s concerns about group composition. Most urgently, however, she needed to meet with Grand Enchanter Fiona to truly rule out whether she held the key to curing the Taint.
It was easy to find the mage in the library where she sat out of the way, watching the comings and goings. She stood when she saw Gwen approaching.
“Lady Cousland. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Gwen gestured for her to sit down and pulled over a nearby chair. “I wanted to let you know that I have considered your suggestion to conscript Thom Rainier. I was initially dubious, but I now realize that I cannot in good conscience turn down any willing recruits given the current state of the Wardens. I intend to interview him upon his return with the Inquisitor—given that she is able to secure his release—and hopefully move forward with his training from there.”
Fiona nodded thoughtfully. “I believe that this is a wise decision. Some of the Wardens’ greatest assets have come from less than savory backgrounds.” She tilted her head slightly and looked sideways at her companion. “You fought at Ostagar, yes? Did you know Duncan?”
“Yes!” Gwen exclaimed, perhaps too eagerly. “He was the one who recruited me—he saved me when Rendon Howe attacked my family.”
“Did he ever tell you how he came to be a Grey Warden?”
Gwen shook her head. “No. No, I’m afraid that I did not know him very long. He seemed like a good man.”
“He was that. But before he was a Warden, he was a common thief. He fought against his conscription tooth and nail.”
“Who conscripted him?”
“Warden Commander Genevieve. They met when Duncan slit her betrothed’s throat during a botched robbery.”
“And she conscripted him?” Gwen asked, trying to imagine the man she had known as an accidental murderer.
“Yes, she snatched him from the gallows. I’m sure you would agree that he was a valuable addition to the Wardens.”
“Well yes, of course—”
“As will be Rainier, I believe.” Fiona sat back. “I knew the real Blackwall. He was a good man. If Rainier has been trying to maintain his legacy for all this time, then there is no reason why he should not be allowed to join the Wardens.”
Chuckling under her breath, Gwen shook her head again. “Things are never as simple as they seem, are they?”
Fiona tipped her head back to look at her appraisingly. “Almost never, I have found. Just as you did not come only to tell me of your decision—you want to know more about how I left the Wardens.”
“Yes,” Gwen admitted, lowering her voice and scooting her chair closer. “I know you said that it was a fluke, but I’m running out of leads.”
“And time,” Fiona agreed. “My Joining was undone during a dangerous mission in the Deep Roads. I cannot say how it happened—I mean that I do not know,” she amended, cutting off an interruption. “I wish I did.”
“Can you tell me what happened in the Deep Roads? Why were you there before your Calling?”
This time Fiona watched her for a long moment before answering with a question of her own. “Tell me, do you know what happens if the Calling is allowed to run its course? You know of the nightmares, of course.”
Gwen hesitated. Fiona had been a Warden once, yes, but she knew almost nothing else of the other woman aside from the fact that she had led the mage rebellion. And yet—if there was a chance that her knowledge could help, then perhaps it was better to come totally clean.
“There’s a kind of song at the back of my mind all the time, as though it wants to pull me somewhere. And there are certain physical signs which I have never heard mentioned by another Warden.”
Fiona frowned, her eyes full of sorrow. “Oh my poor child. The transformation has already begun?”
The hair on the back of Gwen’s neck stood up. “…Transformation?”
“Indeed.” Fiona reached forward and covered Gwen’s hand with her own. “I do not tell you this to alarm you, Lady Cousland, I tell you this because you are moving into dangerous territory and you must understand the full reality of what you face. Wardens who do not die early in the process of the Calling undergo the slow, painful change triggered by the darkspawn blood ingested during the Joining. By the end, they themselves become Darkspawn.”
“No,” Gwen whispered.
“They retain their mental faculties for a while,” Fiona continued, ignoring her horrified interjection, “but then slowly they lose that too. The song you hear is the call of the Old Gods. They pull you to them to assist the darkspawn in their eternal duty: to free the next dragon and release the next Blight.”
It sounded like something out of a novel, and yet Fiona’s voice was perfectly solemn. Her expression held no hint of this all being some cruel joke.
Gwen rubbed her hands up and down her arms, which suddenly felt like they were burning. “How long does it take?”
“I’m not sure. Months?”
Realizing she was shaking, Gwen forced herself to stop her nervous hand movements and clench her hands into fists instead. This was horrific. It was the worst fate she could possibly imagine, worse than death, but the part of her that was melting down was removed from the logical part of her that knew that this could never get out—it would ruin the Wardens forever.
“Who else knows?”
“No one who yet lives. The only two survivors of that mission were Duncan and—King Maric.”
Eleanor Cousland had often lamented to her children that she lacked their father’s familiarity with the Fereldan nobility, but where she was outmatched by Bryce Cousland in terms of encyclopedic knowledge of their nation’s political history, Eleanor’s years as the captain of a small crew had bought her something much more valuable: the ability to quickly and efficiently size others up. It was this inherited instinct, albeit unfounded on any conversational proof, which made the hair on the back of Gwen’s neck stand up for a second time as she processed the hesitation at the end of Fiona’s sentence.
“Oh,” Gwen said, her voice full of manufactured ease, “Maric was with you?”
“Yes, he was the only one with knowledge of the tunnels. We were seeking a Warden who was lost—but as I said, that is a long story which is of no use to you.” Fiona was apparently absorbed in some minute speck trapped under the edge of a fingernail. “Although, this reminds me. You are friends with King Alistair, yes?”
Struggling to subdue any outward sign of the alarm bells ringing in her head, Gwen nodded. “We had not spoken much since we fought together during the Blight. We were able to—catch up—while he was at Skyhold.”
“Oh, yes, wonderful.” Fiona sounded distracted. “Tell me, does he seem… happy?”
“I ask as a friend of his father, of course,” Fiona hurried to explain.
“Grand Enchanter,” Gwen began, “I apologize for answering your question with a question, but were you and Maric… close?”
Fiona tipped her head to one side, her eyes suddenly piercing like a hawk that had just spotted its prey. “If you are implying what I believe you are implying, Lady Cousland, then that is a very serious suggestion indeed.”
After a long look, Gwen relented and nodded her head. “He seems well. A bit overworked, perhaps, but I assume you mean broadly. He is an excellent man, an excellent warden, an excellent king. He is pleased to help the people of Ferelden, wherever and in whatever capacity he can.” She could not help the smile that crept onto her face. “He is kind, and in good humor. He seems happy.”
The sharpness in Fiona’s expression had given way to a curious softness. “You love him?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re implying, Grand Enchanter,” Gwen said lightly.
Fiona laughed. “Yes, very well. We all have our secrets, Lady Cousland—there are some things which are better left unspoken.”
“If you should ever change your mind, you would be a welcome guest in Denerim.”
Fiona seemed to sober. “I doubt it—either that I would change my mind, or that I would be a welcome guest. His Majesty was not happy about the events at Redcliffe. I, along with the rest of my mages, are banished from Ferelden, and we live here only under the protection of the Inquisition.”
“I heard a little of what happened at Redcliffe,” Gwen said. “Perhaps we can make an agreement: I will speak with Alistair when we reunite, and you come to Denerim if and when you receive an invitation.”
“I am not interested in entering into deals with you. I wish you the best, and I will appreciate any arguments you are able to make on behalf of the mages—but as I said, there are certain things better left unspoken.” She rose and dipped her head in farewell. “Thank you, Lady Cousland. Good luck in your travels.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
But she was gone. Gwen chewed on the end of her tongue and tried to push down all the things she still wanted to ask.
She was so absorbed in picking apart the conversation that she didn’t notice Leliana’s approach until the spymaster was suddenly before her, blocking the candlelight.
“Oh! Hi Leliana, I was actually just going to look for you—”
“Unless it’s urgent, it will have to wait,” Leliana said, her voice solemn. “The Inquisitor just sent word. It seems the situation in the Storm Coast is escalating. She needs you there now.”
Apologies for my handwriting, I’m writing this quickly. Leliana just told me that the Inquisitor has sent word that she desires to meet me at the Storm Coast. She has secured Rainier’s release—she will bring him along. Meanwhile the Commander will return to Skyhold and prepare a company to follow us if I decide that we need reinforcements after evaluating the situation. I am to leave first thing in the morning with Dorian, Varric, and the Iron Bull and sweep for Darkspawn as we travel.
In case it should become relevant, we travel through Redcliffe and then north. The Inquisition will be able to provide more specific details on our path if something happens. Your letters will still find me, but with an added delay.
All of my careful plans for the next few days thrown out the window again, it seems, but I’m glad to be moving again. My time at Skyhold has been pleasant but too quiet. I’ll leave notes for those I didn’t find time to speak to and hope that things will work out.
I’ll kill a few extra Darkspawn for you.
Hoping to see you soon, my love,
Who knows where you will be by the time you receive this, but I hope that you’re stretched out on your bedroll next to a fire somewhere sheltered, swapping stories and cleaning your sword. It’s hard to picture you anywhere else.
My reports show that you’ll want to divert farther east than you may have intended—and no, this isn’t a ploy to get you as far as Denerim. The areas around Lake Calenhad have been quieter recently but there may be some scattered Darkspawn companies off the old road.
I’ll restrain myself from offering other advice, as I know you are more than capable. Keep safe. As welcome as the information is, I’d rather not have to write to the Inquisition because you disappeared suddenly in northern Ferelden.
All my love,
P.S. Apologies if this is a bit short. Not much sleep last night—the nightmares are getting worse.
Gwen grimaced and folded up the parchment. Her nightmares were worsening as well. She had almost forgotten the embarrassment of shouting herself awake only to find that the others in her close encampment had been able to hear every cry. Even worse, the corrupted patches on her arms had worsened to the point that she had resorted to keeping them completely bandaged at all times, which had not gone unnoticed either.
The Calling aside, it was reassuring to be back doing what she knew best. The speed and competency of their small group meant that they were making good time, even with frequent diversions to take down a Darkspawn or two dozen.
“Ready to get going?” Varric asked.
Tucking the letter hurriedly into her pocket, Gwen looked up and grinned. “I’ve been packed for ten minutes while the rest of you fooled around. Are you ready?”
“Don’t start something you’re not willing to finish, short stuff,” Bull called from where he waited with Dorian by the path that would take them back to the main road. “We could make up the ten minutes easy if you all didn’t have such short legs.”
Gwen feigned offense. “I’ll have you know that I’m above average for human women, thank you very much.”
“Then how did that Genlock knock you onto your ass so easy yesterday?”
“Oh, as if you don’t hit your horns on every low branch,” Dorian retorted as they finally set off.
The morning passed uneventfully, barring the companionable bickering. This part of the road was well-traveled by Fereldan patrols, and they didn’t find much trouble on foot—until Varric held up a hand to interrupt the conversation sometime in the late morning. “Wait,” he said sharply, then lowered his voice. “There’s a trap up ahead.”
Gwen drew her sword. “Where?”
“There. Center of the path, four yards up.”
Sure enough, the sharp teeth of a bear trap poked up from among the foliage that littered the path. Gwen crept up towards it, taking care with every step to scan for signs of any other tripwires or traps, but she saw nothing. Muffled rustling came from the rest of the party behind her as they drew their weapons and shifted into defensive positions.
Something white was partially obscured underneath the ground cover at the center of the trap. Using the tip of her sword, Gwen flipped a few leaves out of the way and then chased the object over to her without triggering the trap.
“What is it?” Dorian asked in a stage whisper.
“It’s…” She ducked down to pick it up, turning it over a few times to be sure. “It’s the royal crest. It’s the Theirin crest.”
“…A threat?” Dorian wondered, just as Varric shook his head and grumbled something unintelligible.
“I’m not sure.” She surveyed the surrounding brush, even going so far as to duck behind a few of the bushes, but she found no sign of anyone nearby. Failing that, she tossed a stone into the center of the trap; it snapped shut with enough force that it jumped off the ground for a fraction of a second. “If it’s an ambush, it’s either a very bad one or a very good—”
She was cut off by the sight of a single black feather drifting down out of a tree at the side of the path.
“Crows?” she said aloud, prompting Varric to heft his crossbow, but she knew as she said it that that couldn’t be right—no one would bother sending the Crows after her now, when the Grey Wardens were a non-issue, and no one had heard from them in years besides—which left only one option.
Her sudden loud laughter startled her three companions, who gripped their weapons tighter in response. “What is it, Cousland?” Varric insisted.
“Your ambushes are getting worse, my friend!” she called up into the tree where the feather had fallen. “You would have been in trouble if I had caught my leg in that trap.”
Just as she expected, a dark, lithe shape dropped out of the branches. “Here we find ourselves again, Lady Cousland. Not the first time the Fereldan crown has sent me after you.”
As though the accent had not been identifiable enough, the figure threw back their dark hood to reveal long blond hair, tattooed sand-brown skin, and a winning smirk.
“Zevran!” Gwen said warmly, arms thrown open wide.
The assassin accepted the invitation and embraced her, immediately lifting his feet off the ground so that Gwen had to stagger forward to support his weight.
“It has been too long, my friend,” he said when Gwen’s laughter finally died down and she had set him back on his own two feet.
“It has,” she agreed. “We have a lot to catch up on.”
Zevran frowned. “Indeed. Alistair alluded to a few things, but I suspect that there is much more to the story than even he told me.”
“Ah yes, when you say the Crown sent you…?”
“Your beloved king had Leliana track me down. He seemed to think that you would appreciate the help.”
“I do! Maker, Zev, you have no idea how glad I am that you’ll be with me on this one.”
He nudged her with his arm, smiling crookedly at her. “Perhaps as glad as I am to be at your side once more.”
They were interrupted by Varric loudly clearing his throat. Zevran turned and winked at the little group where they had not advanced since spotting the trap. “Varric, was it? Always a pleasure.”
“Yep. We should get going,” Varric deadpanned.
“Varric’s right, we can do introductions as we walk.” Gwen put her hand on Zevran’s shoulder. “I still can’t believe you’re here, but unfortunately we’re on a tight schedule.”
“Ah, the Darkspawn again, yes? Let’s get going then. I’d hate to keep them waiting.”
Chapter 16: Chapter XVI
Sometimes I go so long between uploads that I worry you've all forgotten this fic exists. :') Anyway, if you need some reading in the interim, I HIGHLY recommend "The Falcon and the Rose" by Lykegenia for some more good Alistair/Warden AU longfic. Hooray for completing a fifth round of finals since starting this fic! Happy reading!
When Varric informed Gwen that they were just a few miles short of the rendezvous point with the Inquisitor, she moved them off the road to steal through the brush. Zevran ran ahead to scout while the Iron Bull led the rest of the company and Gwen took up the rear to make sure they weren’t being followed. It didn’t take long before her neck ached from being constantly craned around, but if it prevented them from leading Darkspawn right into the Inquisition camp, it would be worth it.
The extra caution turned out to be unnecessary when Zevran came sprinting back to inform them that the Inquisition party was struggling to fight off a large company of Darkspawn. They returned to the road, running as close to full tilt as they could maintain in their armor.
Before any of them could even hear the clash of the weapons, Gwen involuntarily slid to a halt as her hair stood on end. It was difficult to describe the sense that allowed Grey Wardens to recognize the presence of Darkspawn, but it was similar to the smell of blood and the feeling in the air just before a lightning strike. “Maker, Zev, there are dozens.”
“I did say a large company, yes?” he called back, barely slowing his run and not looking at all winded. “So no time for stopping!”
Gwen swiped at her brow before breaking into a run once more. The harder her heart pounded, the more she could feel her pulse throbbing and aching in her blighted arms.
It wasn’t much farther before they could hear the shrieks of the Darkspawn and the accompanying commotion of battle. The five of them came skidding around a bend in the road and suddenly there they were: the Inquisitor and a man who must have been Rainier, standing back to back with their shields raised and surrounded by perhaps two dozen Darkspawn. A Genlock emissary stood off beyond the treeline sending bolts of electricity that occasionally incapacitated Lady Trevelyan so that one of her other attackers could land a hard hit—it was difficult to tell how they were doing from this distance, but beneath her helmet her face was slicked scarlet with blood.
Even as her companions stopped to evaluate, Gwen drew her sword without breaking her stride and let loose a scream from the bottom of her ragged lungs. As she used her momentum to carry her blade clean through the first through Darkspawn, a familiar and not entirely welcome thrill raced through her. The creatures’ leathery, emaciated faces and stinking black blood made it feel so right to cleave through their bodies like an axe through so much dry tinder—but each time her bloodthirsty joy was reined in by her wish that she did not enjoy the carnage quite so much.
Zevran had no such reservations, as she well knew; he spun past her, daggers darting out to cut strategic tendons and render limbs useless. A hail of crossbow bolts flew past her on the other side to skewer the emissary who was sniping from the brush.
Rainier and Lady Trevelyan rallied with the arrival of their allies and the seven of them made short work of the rest of the Darkspawn. When they all looked around to see Bull send the final enemy flying with a sweep of his axe, Gwen sheathed her sword and returned her shield to her back.
“Lady Trevelyan. Rainier. Are either of you injured?”
“Only bruised,” the Inquisitor replied. “You made good time.”
“We were trying to avoid exactly this sort of situation,” Dorian said, wiping a splatter of Darkspawn blood off of his staff with a handkerchief. “It’s lucky we came along when we did.”
“Indeed.” The Inquisitor leaned heavily on her sword, but righted herself and sheathed it when Dorian looked at her suspiciously.
Rainier said nothing. He had removed his helmet to reveal dark greying hair plastered down with sweat and blue eyes that shifted nervously between the conversational parties. Gwen sized him up: he was uneasy, slightly unkempt, but strong and good on his feet in battle. Perhaps she could work with this.
“We should make camp for the night.” Varric’s voice was calm but firm as he looked pointedly at the blood streaming down the Inquisitor’s face. “We could all use a rest.”
Rena pointed up the craggy hillside most of a mile down the road, but lowered her hand when it began visibly shaking. “Meet me at high ground. Lady Cousland and I will gather firewood on our way to meet you—we have something important to discuss.”
Gwen looked the battle-worn Inquisitor up and down and decided that she had enough strength left to carry her to camp if she collapsed before they made it up the hill. Rainier looked as though he would rather not be left alone with the other men, who seemed to be pointedly ignoring him, but she trusted Zevran to keep them away from each other’s throats based on the sketch she had given him of the situation.
“Yes, we’ll catch up. You all go ahead.”
The two women stood silent until the rest of their party was around a bend in the road. When the last of them was out of sight, Gwen turned and put her hands on her hips. “All right, there’s a stream a few minutes’ walk from here. We can talk, but I’m going to get you cleaned up while we do.”
Rena made a gesture that was probably intended as a casual shrug; it looked more like a wince. When she pulled off her helmet, it was Gwen’s turn to wince at the long, deep gash along the younger woman’s hairline. It must have been bleeding for a long time if the old blood drying all the way down her neck was anything to go by. She wanted to throw Rena’s arm over her shoulders and help support her, but she suspected that the gesture wouldn’t be welcome unless it was unavoidable, so she simply led the way towards the stream and waited for Rena to speak.
She didn’t have to wait long. “Josephine and Leliana tracked down Rainier in Val Royeaux. One of the men under his command was going to be hanged for the murder. He couldn’t—” Her voice faltered as she audibly tripped, and this time Gwen did turn around and sling Rena’s arm around her neck and put her other arm around her waist to keep her upright. Rena coughed a little but did not otherwise acknowledge the support. “He couldn’t let that happen, so he stepped forward and confessed. Cullen and I managed to secure his release, but now I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having a known murderer among my trusted advisors. And he impersonated a Warden, of course.”
“A difficult position indeed,” Gwen agreed as they reached the stream and she was able to gently deposit Rena onto a fallen log. She unclipped a vial of concentrated elfroot tonic from her belt and passed it to the Inquisitor, who knocked it back in one smooth motion with the ease of one accustomed to drinking. In the gathering shadows of early evening, Gwen could see the faint glow that appeared at the site of her wound as the flesh began to knit itself back together.
Rena bent down and filled the vial again with water, sloshed it around to collect any residue, and drank it again, then a third time, before she continued. “Lady Cousland, you are the most senior surviving Warden in the south.”
“Most senior active Warden, yes.”
“I hereby hand Rainier off to you. He impersonated a Warden, and you are free to deal with him as you see fit.”
Gwen paused from rinsing out a kerchief in the shallow water. “What, just like that? You don’t need to do this formally? Isn’t that what Skyhold’s fancy throne room is for?”
Shrugging, Rena pulled her satchel over her head and rummaged through it until she came up with a flask that seemed to be made out of dragon hide. “I’m the Herald of Andraste and the fucking Inquisitor, I think I can make the odd executive decision.” She held up the flask in a “cheers” motion and took a long draught.
Gwen held out a hand; when the Inquisitor handed her the flask, she sniffed it but immediately recoiled, eyes burning. “Maker, I think this could actually melt my flesh off.” She upended the entire flask onto her now-clean kerchief. “Tilt your head back so I can clean that gash before it gets infected.”
If she hadn’t already been concerned about Rena’s head wound, she would have been concerned at the burning glare she received for confiscating her drink, but after a moment she tipped her head back. “That was direct from Par Vollen, you know. Bull gave it to me.” She hissed like a struck animal when the alcohol made contact with the lesion.
“The Darkspawn will be happy enough to tear up your entrails without any help from this poison. It does no favors to your fighting or your healing.”
Rena didn’t respond. Gwen examined her while she wiped away the blood; in just a few days, the Inquisitor had gone from tired but cheerful to exhausted and discouraged, if the circles under her eyes and her reckless disregard for her own wellbeing were anything to go by. It was a look she knew well.
“How much have you eaten today?” Gwen asked, and grimaced when she heard her father’s voice come out of her mouth.
“Not much. We were pursued by that company of Darkspawn as soon as we broke camp.”
Gwen handed her a roll from her bag—inspecting it first to make sure it was free of Darkspawn blood—and sat down on the bank to drink from the river. The water was quick and clear and fresh. When she had drunk her fill, she splashed it over her face, careful to avoid wetting her bandaged arms. Meanwhile, Rena picked at the bread, still apparently lost in thought.
“The issue of Rainier has been weighing on you?”
“Yes, it’s disconcerting to find out that someone you’ve considered a friend and a confidant has been hiding his true identity from you.” Rena flashed a wry smile. “I will be fine. By the time I return to Skyhold, I’m sure that this whole incident will be low on my list of priorities.”
“I know that there are days when things seem impossible. I know how exhausting everything can be. When the world is against you, and then suddenly even the people you rely on most are absent or untrustworthy, it feels like you’ve always been seconds away from falling into despair.” She gestured to the roll Rena was now ignoring completely. “Keeping yourself well-fed and –rested can help make those times easier.”
“Do not lecture me on resilience, Lady Cousland.” Rena’s voice was sharp. “I admire you and your accomplishments, and I trust you as a friend and as an advisor. But I am no fool. I know the dangers of despair and of self-deprivation. And I did not invite your opinion.”
The Inquisitor’s tone was startling. Gwen had expected a different reaction to what she perceived as sisterly advice. “My only intention—”
“I know your intentions. Perhaps you should consider that part of my exhaustion comes from being surrounded by advisors who are all determined that they understand my situation, when in fact none of them have walked in my shoes.” The green rift-fire in Rena’s eyes flared as she shot to her feet and turned to stalk off through the underbrush. As she strode away through the dusk, her limp was absent, and Gwen saw her take a huge bite of the roll she still held in her hand.
I’m enclosing this note with my report to the Inquisitor to inform you that I am sending reinforcements to the Storm Coast based on Lady Trevelyan’s initial evaluation of the region. While we are a bit depleted at the moment from our operations in Emprise du Lion, there are a few outspoken recruits at Skyhold who seem to have flourished under your training—and are now making things rather difficult for the rest of us here. Melona sends her regards. Expect a small but capable company of familiar faces to intercept you at the coast.
The Inquisitor is a force of nature, and one which I fear will burn itself down to ashes if allowed to do so. We found her miles from the Storm Coast with only “Blackwall” at her side, assaulted by several dozen Darkspawn, and by the time we cleared the road she was nearly unconscious with injury. She insisted on speaking to me about “Blackwall” before making camp and I took the opportunity to heal her a little and get some food and water into her. I’m afraid that I am not in her good graces at the moment; the Bryce Cousland in me turned to nagging when she needed a listening ear more than advice. By the time we got back to camp she was worn thin enough to snap, but she ate and went to sleep and was at least alive to avoid me the next day. My hope is that she will confide in her companions while Zevran and I keep “Blackwall” out of her way as we march. As much as I value her friendship, I value her life more—but I may have misjudged how much her resolve is tied to the normality of her relationships, and I am at least the second person this week to disappoint her on that front. I should have known better.
I mention Zevran on the assumption that you did in fact send him and that he is not simply spinning an elaborate web to try and complete his assignment to kill me a decade late. His company has been invaluable these past few days, if for no other reason than morale. I know we’ve already spoken at length about his skill with provisions, but MAKER can that man cook. And he seems much more willing to leap back into friendship than Morrigan and Leliana were, although I cannot blame them for their distraction. Anyway, thank you for contacting him. I’m working on him to come back to Denerim with me when we’re finished.
“Blackwall” seems like he will be a good match for the Wardens. I still have yet to get the details of what he did, although I believe that it involved the murder of innocents. I will get the full story from Lady Montilyet before I commit to anything. If there was ever a man to show repentance, I think he has. He follows the Inquisitor like a mabari and seems ready to put himself in harm’s way if it will save her even a scratch. And when I spoke in vague terms of conscripting him, he reacted with disbelief. He had gone to save a man under his command from hanging, I think, and I truly believe that he had resigned himself to death. Apparently he took the name of Warden Blackwall to try and honor the man’s deeds and ideals by continuing them after his death. There are Wardens who have shown less dedication to the cause—myself among them, I’m sure, especially at the beginning. You’re right that the Joining must wait until after the Calling is no longer a threat, but whether he returns to Skyhold with the Inquisitor or accompanies me to Denerim, I hope that I live to see him wear the uniform. He does not aspire to glory—only diligence. That is what the Order needs above all else right now.
It took us nearly a week to reach the Storm Coast after our rendezvous with the Inquisitor. I am only able to send this now because we are stopped at an Inquisition outpost on the bluffs above the sea. It’s been so long since I’ve seen the water this close, and I can’t help but think how near we are to Highever. I wonder if Fergus is tied up dealing with the Darkspawn there too. I wonder if I could divert us by a few days to check. But I must hope that there will be time for that later, for there is certainly none now.
It’s lucky that we picked up the Inquisitor and “Blackwall” when we did, for we have only met greater and greater Darkspawn patrols as we made our way north. I’ve checked the known entrances to the Deep Roads in the area, but all the ones which the Wardens sealed remain shut tight. Their reappearance either speaks to a renewed effort to breach the surface or the enormous magnitude of their numbers elsewhere in Ferelden—I fear it is both. I shudder to think that I might be witnessing the beginning of another Blight within my lifetime, but regardless, there is something deeply insidious at work across Thedas. I pray that these problems can be resolved by Corypheus’s defeat.
Sorry for a heavy letter. This is the first time I’ve had an hour to myself in two weeks. I would love to tell you about the glorious sea air, about the fresh fish we’ve been enjoying for supper, about the contemplative silence when my footsteps are muffled by the forest floor, about the joy of sleeping around a fire in a well-guarded outpost when you’ve been on the road for ages—and I’m sure you would delight in hearing about the things I think of you in the nights, snug in my bedroll while everyone else sleeps, and the creative plans I make for the first night I am with you in Denerim—but alas, I am out of parchment and time, and we move on from this camp with tomorrow’s dawn. You will have to wait for me to show you.
Yours, as always,
You’re going to have to stop ending your letters like that. I read these in front of people sometimes. (Actually please don’t, I can adjust my reading habits accordingly.)
I admit that I don’t much know where to begin on the rest of it. Yes, I did contact Zevran, and I’m glad you appreciate the company. I’m sure that Lady Trevelyan will realize your good intentions soon? Unless you said something unforgivable, in which case you should apologize. (I think that covers all the options. Should I arrange my next letter in flowchart format? “If you’ve self-reflected to decide whether you were in the wrong, skip to step five.”)
Your evaluation of Blackwall sounds impressive, but can we return to the “murder of innocents”? I feel like you skimmed over that a little quickly. Of course you’ve had time to consider it, and I don’t know how long ago it was or how much the man has changed—and the Wardens do take all types—but, ergh. Call me old-fashioned but I think there are better candidates for the order.
Those notes on the Darkspawn presence are worrying. I will divert some of my soldiers north from the Hinterlands, which are almost entirely stabilized due to the Inquisition’s fine efforts. Still no word from Weisshaupt as far as I can tell, but I’ve decided that we’re officially in a Warden-necessitating emergency and I’ve sent a guarded company of fast riders to try and make contact. And a rider to Highever for good measure, although with directions to make contact with a few others on the way. You don’t have to do all the checking up.
Apparent end of the world aside, I wish I had some more interesting news to share, but things have been relatively quiet around here. Teagan has returned to Redcliffe now that things are settled there. I spend my days worrying and attending meetings and reading reports, and my nights worrying and missing you.
I can’t. I can’t do this via letter. The eyebrows are too much a part of it. Come home soon so I can woo you properly. And for the love of the Maker, burn this and all previous flirtation attempts so that they can’t fall into the wrong hands.
Truly, achingly yours,
It was a cool morning on the Storm Coast. Though the Inquisition camp was set just out of sight from the cliff’s edge, Gwen could hear the surf breaking forcefully somewhere below. The sun had not yet broken the horizon, but it illuminated the clouds a soft blue—a promise of clear azure skies to come once the fog burned off in late morning. Every sound of the forest coming awake was made quiet and distant by the dense foliage and the needles carpeting the dirt. Unlike elsewhere in Thedas this time of year, where a fire was only a necessity for preparing food, the residual warmth from the well-banked coals was welcome.
The aching in Gwen’s arms no longer allowed much sleep; when she finally managed a few hours of unconsciousness, she would be inevitably shaken awake by the same nightmares of wandering through the Deep Roads, drawn deeper by the song of the Calling. There was something spitefully pleasant about giving up altogether and sitting up like this, watching the light steal silently through the forest and blinking away the dry tightness around her eyes that lack of sleep always brought.
She didn’t notice that she was no longer alone until Zevran settled down on the log next to her, gave her a bleary early morning smile, and began stirring the embers of the fire.
“Zev? What are you doing up already?”
“I suppose you are immune to that question, as a Grey Warden?” he countered.
Sighing, Gwen scrubbed at her eyes with her bandaged hands. “Yeah, just the usual nightmares and the slow painful corruption.”
“Breakfast will help.”
“It always does.”
Zevran smiled again as he filled the pot with water and set it over the fire. “I hope you do not think me too cheerful—I know you are suffering, and I am sorry for that. But I think that you are probably able to wallow well enough on your own, yes? Besides, I will not believe your mortality until I see it for myself. You’ve cheated death so many times that I can hardly worry about a little corruption.”
If there were a Thedas championship for masking worry with humor, it would have gone to Zevran for two decades running, Gwen thought, but she allowed herself to be distracted. He was right about the wallowing. She had been staring into the trees for some time now, her eyes stinging with woodsmoke and exhaustion, imagining herself safe and healthy and lying in a soft bed beside Alistair until the image felt like a vice around her chest. She was dangerously close to standing on the cliffs and shouting her complaints at the sea like a tragic heroine in a novel.
“The Inquisition reinforcements should get here today.” Gwen stood and stretched her arms over her head until something popped. “What do you make of the Darkspawn patterns?”
“You don’t want to hear it.”
Pausing to taste the porridge he was stirring, Zevran shrugged. “It reminds me of the Blight. They’re scattered everywhere.”
“Yes,” Gwen agreed grimly. “That’s been my thought as well. I’m almost tempted to tell Lady Trevelyan that we need to turn back around and go about our separate business. Whatever’s going on, it’s either going to require the Inquisition to succeed against Corypheus, or the Wardens to rally and prepare for an Archdemon.”
“If only you’d reached that conclusion before we’d traveled all the way here,” a dry voice said behind her, and Gwen and Zevran both turned to see the Inquisitor buckling up her armor. She had deep purple circles stamped under her eyes and she was favoring her left hand, where the mark flared fitfully.
“Lady Trevelyan. The trip hasn’t been in vain,” Gwen hurried to reassure her. “I think that we’re close to finding at least one of the openings where the Darkspawn are emerging here. And it was good to be certain.”
“But we are fighting the symptom, not the illness. I understand. Thank you for your evaluation.” Pinning her poorly-cut hair back from her face, Rena nodded in a way that made it clear that her thanks were genuine. The two women had not discussed the Inquisitor’s outburst, but over several days their conversations had returned to something approaching normality.
“We will stop as many as we can,” Gwen promised. “One Warden can do a great deal, especially with so many fighting alongside her. But as long as Corypheus is exerting his influence, they will keep pouring out across Thedas. I can travel as I did during the Blight and keep them down as well as I can—”
“But once again, the world looks to the Inquisition,” Rena interrupted with a wry smile. “I will do what I can. Right now, however, I’m going to ride to meet the recruits—I know which road they will be on, and the last thing we need is for them to take a wrong turn and run into a spider den.”
“Yes, alone. I need to think. We can’t very well turn the entire company back around as soon as they arrive, but nor can I have half-trained recruits wandering around the Storm Coast when there are so many Darkspawn about.” She punctuated her statement with a short whistle, which prompted an answering whinny from her well-trained Fereldan Forder some way off through the trees.
“We’ll have everyone ready when you return.”
Zevran waited until the Inquisitor was out of earshot before speaking. “It’s going around, I see.”
“Insomnia and a bad case of ‘saving the world’.” He winked. “I hope it’s not too contagious. I need my beauty sleep.”
Gwen laughed in spite of herself. “There’s always something needs doing. I do worry about Rena, though.”
“You could stay with her, perhaps. Guide her. An experienced Grey Warden could do a great deal for morale.” He looked at her out of the corner of his eye.
“I wish I could. She has good people around her—if we can get her back to Skyhold in one piece, she’ll be fine. My path leads elsewhere.”
“’Hm’?” He didn’t respond. “What, you think I’m doing the wrong thing?”
“I said nothing of the sort. I know why you return to Denerim. But…”
He turned to look at her now, his expression serious. “Gwen, you must understand that it pains me to say this. You and Alistair are my friends, and I want nothing more than to see you both safe and happy. But if you are both succumbing to the Taint regardless, and if the only solution is to defeat the Darkspawn, and the Grey Wardens have been nearly dissolved…” He trailed off, allowing them each to reach their own conclusions.
Angry betrayal flashed bright in Gwen’s chest for a moment. “You think that I should go back on my word to Alistair? Go back on the road and almost certainly die before I could ever go home?”
“I would never ask such a thing from my friend. To you, to Gwen, I say that you should ride back to Denerim as fast as you can and celebrate with an expensive bottle of Orlesian wine when you get there.” He put a hand on her shoulder, and the earnest pain in his eyes punctured Gwen’s anger. “But to Warden Cousland, I ask this: you were once the inexperienced recruit with the weight of Thedas on your shoulders. You once watched the slaughter of the Order and found yourself almost completely alone. What would you have given then to have a Warden with ten years’ seniority to guide and advise you?”
“Oh.” The weight of the question impacted her chest like a cannonball. “Oh, Zev. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck, you’re right.”
Squeezing her shoulder, Zevran made a convincing attempt at a smile. “It’s hard to hear, I know. But what a waste to have both of the Wardens who defeated the Blight sitting in Denerim while the Order bleeds out.”
“I wasn’t going to stay long,” Gwen whispered, and allowed herself to be pulled into a hug in response. “You know, you’re right, but I wouldn’t have expected to hear this from you.”
“You think I should be telling you to catch what happiness you can before the world crumbles? I have some very stupid friends with some very stupid ideas about the greater good and the safety of Thedas,” Zevran chuckled, easing his iron grip slightly as he chuckled. “Perhaps they’re wearing off on me. Or perhaps I don’t like my chances against the Darkspawn if we part ways here, and I selfishly want you as my shield.”
It took some effort to acknowledge the quip with a half-smile, though she realized belatedly that Zevran could not see it when her face was pressed into his shoulder. “No, you’re right of course. There isn’t time to spare, and I’ve already avoided the survivors of Adamant longer than I should. I should have gone to them as soon as I heard. And now we have Blackwall, and he needs training, and the Inquisition is busy with politics and Red Templars and the Fade…” Gwen pulled back and wiped tears from her eyes. “I would have given anything to have an older Warden with us ten years ago. I can’t pawn this off on anyone else.”
“Leading doesn’t mean doing it alone,” Zevran reminded her. “I made a pact to stay by your side until the end of the Blight. If your task is not done, then neither is mine.”
“Zev… you don’t owe me anything. I can’t ask you to risk your life for this again.”
“Living in Thedas has become a risk in itself, it would seem.” When he saw that his nonchalance was not enough to satisfy Gwen, he sighed. “I would rather fight at your side than cower somewhere waiting to see what happens.”
“You could go to Alistair. Keep each other safe.”
“If I return alone with the news that you’ve gone on to Adamant, he will kill me. And then probably do something stupid like try to come meet you.”
“You make a fair point.” Gwen looked back to where someone shifted in one of the tents; the camp would be awake soon, and filled with Inquisition soldiers soon after that. “I will be more than happy to have you at my side, but I need a few minutes alone. I’ll be down at the shore. I should be back long before the company is ready to move on, but if I’m gone more than an hour, come find me. Bring backup.”
Zevran seemed to bite back a question, then smiled sadly. “I will be here.”
It was a long scramble down to the shore, but at last Gwen stood on the thin rocky beach between the cliffs and the surf. The wind whipped cold and strong around her, drying the sweat that had accumulated on her face and threatening to rip her hair free from its loose tie. She dropped her bag into the pebbles.
Guilt and longing welled up inside her as soon as her mind was not occupied with finding handholds. Each thought—of Alistair’s grief to come, of the young Wardens who had been alone for months, of the Calling taking her before she ever had a chance to return to Denerim or Highever—was like a blow.
When the hot, sick feeling had filled her to the brim, she closed her eyes and screamed. She emptied her lungs entirely, then gasped and did it again, bellowing a wordless cry out over the water. A handful of nearby sea birds startled and took flight. She didn’t stop until her voice cracked and her throat hurt and her head spun, and then she hefted a rock a little bigger than her head and threw it as far as she could.
The exertion was gratifying. It felt good to feel her muscles straining—to feel the vitality that she still possessed, even beneath her sickly exterior. She threw a few pieces of driftwood for good measure until her muscles ached stronger than her blighted sores.
The ocean absorbed the abuse without comment. Pewter waves tipped with white foam stretched to the horizon, where they met a sky quickly becoming pale as the sun rose. Somewhere across the Waking Sea lay the Free Marches, Gwen knew, and Antiva farther still. These were the waters where her mother had reigned as the Sea Wolf, and where her parents’ disastrous first meeting had taken place when Maric had stationed Bryce Cousland on her ship. Gwen and Fergus had played along the shore as children but she had never really sailed. Later, her mother had always promised, when there is trade to be done with Kirkwall. I will teach you.
If it were not for the Wardens—for Duncan—Gwen would have died in the cellar of Castle Cousland with her parents. She knew almost immediately that she had traded a painful death then for one later. She could not regret that trade. That second chance had brought her a new life, a new family, a new purpose—an opportunity to enact her revenge on Howe and to fall in love with Alistair.
Stripping off her clothing and unwinding the bandages from her arms, Gwen tried to feel gratitude. Ten years was not nothing. Ten years in exchange for this last happiness, for a duty that would save countless lives. She would choose it a hundred times over, whatever pain it brought her now.
Gwen sprinted down the beach until the surf swirled around her feet and then leapt forward into the water. The frigid plunge wiped her mind and body blissfully clean; each wave beat back the pain, the sorrow, the anger, the ache. All that remained was cold.
She forced her body to overcome its shock response and swim. Stroke. Stroke. Breathe. Stroke. Stroke. Breathe. Slowly, the rhythm replaced the cold, and her lungs burned as she dragged herself through the water.
When she emerged, the steadfast pace of the sea and her breathing remained constant, and she donned her clothes and replaced her bandages feeling steadier than before.
“I’m invoking the right of conscription.”
Rena’s brow furrowed in confusion but she steered her horse closer to Gwen’s. The rest of the group trailed behind them, guiding their mounts around downed logs and treacherous slick rocks. “For Rainier? We already discussed—”
“Yes, for Rainier. And for Melona.”
“But… Melona is one of our strongest recruits,” the Inquisitor protested, glancing back to where the mage was freezing the petals of a flower for a comrade’s amusement while she walked. “Why would you take her?”
“You have a great number of men and resources at your disposal, Inquisitor,” Gwen explained. “The way Cullen commands your troops in units, Melona is wasted. She’s a great strategist who shines in single combat. And with the Wardens apparently reduced to a handful of junior—”
“Ah. You’re planning the rebuild.” Rena looked at her sideways. “Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? Shouldn’t you wait until the Calling has been addressed before recruiting more Wardens?”
“I’m afraid that the only way to fix the Calling may be to defeat Corypheus, and it’s possible that the only way to defeat Corypheus is with a Warden. If he is an Old God as you say he claims, then the same rules may apply to him as apply to Archdemons. If that is the case, then only one who has been officially accepted into the order can kill him.”
“And if that is not the case?”
“Then you will have a strengthened force of Wardens under my own guidance who can take care of the Darkspawn in Thedas while you focus your attention elsewhere. Either way, it is problems off of your plate.”
Rena chuckled. “You know, some of my advisors would be extremely unhappy if I allowed any of our own men to go towards the Wardens. There are many in the Inquisition and beyond who felt that I should have dissolved the order in the south.”
“But you disagree, or else you would not have invited my consultation in the first place.”
“Yes. But that does not mean that I like the idea of the Wardens being rebuilt before the force which drove them to desperation has been dealt with.”
“Lady Trevelyan—Rena—” Gwen swallowed the sisterly tone which had inspired anger before and imagined instead the way her father had held himself when he had conducted business. “The Wardens serve one purpose: to protect Thedas from the Darkspawn. That is a purpose to which I have dedicated my life since my Joining. The weeks I spent at Skyhold were pleasant, but the time away from my duties reminded me that I have a great deal of work left to do.” She lowered her voice, glancing back to make sure no one was near enough to overhear. “The Calling forewarns of a Warden’s death. I am dying, and I don’t know how long I have left. I was tempted for a time to pursue my own interests, but I see now that I cannot allow the order in the south to founder in my absence. The Inquisition may be best equipped to handle Corypheus, but in the meantime, there are Darkspawn pouring from the ground, and that is something I know very well how to deal with.”
“It sounds like you have made your decision, then.” Rena’s face remained impassive, but Gwen thought that she saw her posture relax a fraction. She took this as a good sign.
“I am informing you as a courtesy, yes. And reminding you that there will be someone to answer if you must call upon the Wardens, though it may not be me.” Seeing that Rena did not intend to offer any real resistance, Gwen let her firmness slip away and be replaced by a friendlier cadence. “I know that I am not a member of the Inquisition, but I heard things at Skyhold. Red Templars in Emprise du Lion. Venatori spreading from the north. You have your hands full, and I can do more to help by taking my sword where it is most needed than by sitting at Skyhold or by following you around Ferelden while you try to deal with foes you have not been trained against.”
Rena smiled. They rode side by side in silence for a while, Gwen watching the ground before them for tracks and Rena turning back frequently to make sure that the group was still together. When Gwen looked behind her, Zevran waved from where he and Rainier rode at the back of the group.
“I would welcome your help, and I trust your leadership of the Wardens,” Rena said eventually. “Even if I had not heard stories from the Blight, I have already known you to be steadfast and determined. I do value your friendship.” She looked Gwen full in the face for the first time during the whole exchange. “I’m sorry for snapping at you the other day. I told you when we practiced together that I thought I saw light on the horizon—the last week has brought the darkness’s return, and I find it difficult to be optimistic.”
“No apology necessary. You’re worn thin, and you have every right to be angry right now. Her blade she wields with sorrow and heavy is her load, for though she wanders far she is farther still from home,” Gwen sang softly, and they both laughed.
“I understand now why you don’t like that song.”
Gwen shrugged. “It’s hard to hear others sing about your own troubles as though they’re inspirational.”
“May I ask, did you choose to join the Wardens?”
“Hm.” Blood pooling on the floor, the jagged sadness in her parents’ eyes as Duncan dragged her away, an apologetic hand over her mouth so her screams would not alert Howe’s men as they fled. “Yes and no. I was interested in the Wardens when I first met the man who recruited me, but in the end, my choice was between the Wardens and death. I chose the Wardens mostly because I wanted to live to kill the man who had killed my family.”
“But you’re choosing the Wardens now.”
“What do you mean?”
Rena hesitated. “You and King Alistair are close. I thought that you might go to him.”
Gwen tipped her head back while she considered her answer. Though the Storm Coast was known for its foul weather and treacherous waters, she had always found it beautiful. The waving boughs overhead were filled with birdsong and the chittering of small animals. A lonely beam of afternoon sunlight, one of the few to penetrate through the foliage, passed over her face, and she closed her eyes for a moment against the glare. Stroke. Stroke. Breathe.
“I intended to,” she said finally. “But as I said, I am bound to the Wardens, whether I knew what that entailed when I joined or not. My energy is waning. It will be better to spend what I have left on creating a safeguard for Thedas’s future than wasting away in Denerim.” Better for who? the selfish voice at the back of her mind whispered, and she pushed it away.
Rena unhooked her waterskin from her belt and raised it to Gwen. “To dark days and difficult decisions.” She drank.
Gwen wanted to point out that it was not the first time she had made this choice—that she had faced down certain death once before and lived to celebrate after, and that broad swaths of the south were already safer for the Inquisition’s influence—to reassure them both that dawn did not break suddenly, but in a gradual fade to light—but she spotted the twisted silhouette of a Darkspawn scout far off between the trees and raised her voice in an alarm instead. Rena reined back her horse to fall into step beside her men while Gwen galloped ahead, sword drawn, the weight of their conversation left temporarily behind on the hoof-churned path.
I can’t come to Denerim yet. That’s the part of this letter I hate the most to write, so there it is. I know that you know how disappointed I am, just as I know how disappointed you will be when you read this. Every time I picture your face when you receive this I almost change my mind, but I can’t. If the Wardens are to continue in Thedas after our deaths—which may come quicker than we would like, if Corypheus is not defeated soon—then I must start laying the groundwork now.
There’s nothing I can say I miss you so much I’m so sorry I promise that someday
I intend to ride to meet the survivors from Adamant, accompanied by Zevran, Blackwall, and a promising Inquisition recruit. I hope to take us south through old Lothering before cutting west to Orlais, but if you know of another route where we would make a greater difference against the Darkspawn, please write as soon as you get this. With any luck, a few weeks will be enough to get them established and make contact.
Without luck, I’m afraid I
There is absolutely nothing I want more than to ride to your side at once and stay there, but I could not forgive myself if I left other Wardens to the same uncertainty as we faced during the Blight. If I can be a guide, a guard, a sword, a resource, then I must go.
I love you more than I can say. With the Maker’s blessing, I’ll see you yet. In the meantime, be safe and be well. I’m sorry this letter is so sparse. I cannot court sorrow right now—I am filled with determination and I must let it carry me as far as it will. That may be selfish and I apologize. Expect a longer note as soon as I am able.
In war, victory. In peace, vigilance. In death, sacrifice.
Hi, thank you so much for reading! I don't usually do this on this fic, but some life updates from me just because:
- I have spent the whole summer SO brainfogged because I had undiagnosed severe anemia, so it's been difficult to summon the energy to rework the outline as needed before continuing this fic, but I'm BACK! And, more importantly, so is Gwen, making some choices that I promise I am just as frustrated with as you are. Fear not, the "angst with a happy ending" tag is still active, and we're gonna get there together.
- Other than avoiding this fic, I've spent the summer writing some shorter stuff (if you like Good Omens or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, check out my profile), running an Uncharted Worlds campaign for my friends, and doing research with my university. It's honestly been really good, constant lack of spoons aside.
- If you ever want to talk to me about DA, check in about updates, or request a sneak peak of upcoming chapters, you can find me on Tumblr @athenasdragon
- It's not an exaggeration to say that I think about this fic every day. Even when I'm not actively writing, I'm re-plotting and reworking, and sometimes rereading everyone's lovely comments, which always give me a huge boost of motivation and positivity. I've been writing it for almost two and a half years and it (and everyone who has been following it) have seen me through some crazy highs and lows, so this is me formally saying THANK YOU SO MUCH and hang in there because there are just two more chapters to go!
Here is a longer letter, as promised. I’m sorry if my last note seemed callous—as I said, though I believe this is the right decision, it’s hard to dwell on the fact that our reunion has been delayed. I try to focus on the work to be done, but I think of you every spare moment.
An update to my fellow veteran Grey Warden: “Blackwall,” really Thom Rainier, is a fearsome warrior. He is willing to put himself in the immediate path of danger time and time again. He can take a beating, and he can return each strike tenfold. When not fighting, he stays fairly quiet; I know more of him from Lady Trevelyan than I do from speaking to him personally. Still, I trust her judgment that he truly seeks atonement for his past crimes. He will make a good Warden, and is happy to follow.
I don’t know if you met Melona during your time at Skyhold. She’s a firebrand; one of Grand-Enchanter Fiona’s rebel mages, barely twenty and with little memory of her life before the Circle. I believe that her family is in the Denerim alienage—perhaps, if we live to see things settle down, we can facilitate a reunion with them. She’s quick on her feet and is as adept with ice magic as she is at healing. In fact, she absolutely demolished me during training. In our few conversations she seemed interested in the Wardens, so I spoke to her about conscription as soon as she arrived at our camp with the rest of the reinforcements. She enthusiastically accepted. It feels horrible to accept her support without telling her what is involved in the Joining or what limitations the life of a Warden brings, but I don’t know any other way than what has always been done. Perhaps that’s something I can change. The old way of doing things is what led to this mess in the first place.
Yesterday we cleared out what I believe to be the last Darkspawn outpost on the Storm Coast. We found an opening to the Deep Roads so far back in a cave system that it’s no wonder the Wardens were ignorant of it. I led Melona, Rainier, and Zevran in on a strike while Lady Trevelyan waited near the entrance with the rest of the Inquisition troops. I wanted to see Melona and Rainier fight together. Alistair, it was beautiful. I have rarely seen such chemistry between two combatants who have never fought together. Rainier set himself before her and did not waver once, allowing her to send wave after wave of freezing blasts without taking a single injury. The two of them wiped out every Darkspawn in the place (excepting a smallish ogre, which Zevran and I took care of), and when we were finished, Melona used her ice magic to freeze and thaw the rock of the tunnel ceiling until it collapsed and blocked the entrance. I am reassured that the four of us can make significant progress against the Darkspawn even travelling without the Inquisition, and that Melona and Rainier are choice recruits with which to begin the order’s fresh start.
I write this now from our last camp before parting ways with the Inquisitor. The two of us are on good terms once more. She told me that, where before she saw light on the horizon, the events of the last few weeks have brought the darkness down again, and I know what she means. It’s nearly impossible to keep good spirits or exercise patience when you feel no hope. I am fighting off that feeling now—I get less and less sleep as the corruption spreads on my arms and the pain worsens. My forearms are almost entirely covered. Thinking through our previous letters, I am not sure I shared Grand-Enchanter Fiona’s warning with you: that the Calling, when allowed to run its full course, ends with the Warden’s transformation into a Darkspawn. I pray that we can stop it before it reaches that point, but I have informed Zevran, and he knows that if my mind starts to fail he must do what needs to be done. I advise you to take someone into your confidence similarly. It may also be wise to start spreading the news that you are falling ill. If you need to step out of the public eye as the Calling progresses, it will seem less sudden.
Horrible Blight, nightmares, and sleeplessness aside, I still have some hope. Rather, I have hope that goes beyond myself. (If any of this is unclear, please blame my tiredness and the fact that my writing is continuously interrupted.) It is very possible that I will fall before the Calling can be reversed. I have accepted that fact. Even so, I look to Rainier and Melona and I see two young Wardens whose skill and loyalty will plant a fresh seed in the rotting remains of the order. I look to the Inquisitor and I see a woman who is systematically moving through every region where conditions are worst and responding with kindness and compassion to those who have been hurt. Maybe it’s only that I’ve faced the apparent end of the world before, but when I look around me now, I find it impossible to believe that peace and goodness will not triumph.
Writing later now—everyone else is asleep, except for the soldiers on watch. I turn your ring over in the firelight and I watch the way the rose glows before the flames, and I remember another rose you gave me all those years ago. Do you remember what you told me you thought when you found it in Lothering? “How could something so beautiful exist in a place with so much despair and ugliness?”
I think that now when I look at your ring. This little piece of metal and stone means that you love me as much as I love you, and that we found each other again after a decade apart because that love was too strong to be broken. It represents a promise. I am not breaking that promise now, I don’t think—I am yours and always will be, no matter what happens. Every time I see it, or every time I feel it on its chain against my chest as I ride, I wonder how such a beautiful thing can exist in such a dark world. Love is too warm and soft to be in the same place as death and suffering.
And then I wonder if tragedy is not the intruder—if light and beauty and love do not make up most of the world. Everywhere I look are things that grow, and the sunlight on the water, and people who march every day on weary feet to protect those they love. The fire is warm and beautiful; I am full of Zevran’s cooking and dozing against a log. There are forces in this world trying to erase that, but even through my own pain and weariness I know that goodness blossoms in the most unlikely places.
One of the things I love about you the most is that you always make me feel this way, even when you too are tired and upset. Though we are far apart, I can hear your laughter and feel your arms around me and feel that all will be well. I press your ring to my lips and hope that you can share some of that same warmth.
In war, victory. In peace, vigilance. In death, sacrifice. And in love, strength.
Please do be safe and be well, my love. I may not be able to reach from my fireside to yours, but this letter can, and I look forward to your hands resting where mine do now.
I’ve started my response half a dozen times and I still don’t quite know where to begin. How do I express that I both admire your strength and dedication as a Warden and miss you so much that I can’t sleep? The decision is yours to make, and I know as well as you do that the Wardens must maintain a presence in the south, especially now. But there is a very large, selfish part of me that doesn’t understand any of that and wants to run away with you and live in a cottage somewhere, probably with climbing roses by the door like the atrocious romantics we are, and ignore everything else. Oh, and raise puppies. Barrels worth of puppies.
That’s not helpful, of course. And I don’t really want that. Or—I do, but I also wouldn’t be able to. Both of us are bound by duty, but if I may presume to compare our feelings, I think we are bound by more than that. Even if we were not Wardens and I not the king, we would not be able to stand by and watch the world burn from the comfort of domestic bliss. We’re both meant to be looking wistfully off into the distance between battles and reports. It’s in our nature. Instead I’ll say that I look forward to whatever moments we can find together. When things have settled down, perhaps we can at least make time for the roses and the puppies.
(All that to say that I love you unendingly, even the parts of you that are so determined and honorable that they take you farther from me in the name of duty. You are the best woman I know in every regard. Every moment would be improved with you at my side, but every moment has already been improved just by knowing you. And I refuse to believe that, after everything, we won’t make it to see each other again.)
Do you trust Fiona’s claim? Have you found out anything else about how she left the Wardens? It would be a cruel thing to lie about, and I fear that she is correct, but if there was bad blood between her and the order then she may have an interest in exaggerating things. Still, I will take your advice. I have a few people who could be trusted to make that decision. Like you, I continue to grow more ill, and it’s hard to not even have the comfort of other Wardens with whom to commiserate. I suppose you don’t either.
I miss Duncan.
I’m glad you have Melona and Zevran with you, although I’m still wary of Rainier. I hope you and the Inquisitor are correct in trusting him. Give my best to the survivors of Adamant. I remember their situation well. And hopefully they’ve learned not to go scraping before magisters as soon as the going gets tough. You’ll be a good mentor to them, I’m sure of it.
It’s hard now to see the world as you write it (mostly beautiful, only tainted with suffering), but I will try to keep that spirit. I look around my chambers now—I am very fortunate to have a warm bed with soft drapings and a large hearth to keep the chill from the room. Being up late working means that I can see the full moon through the window and the pale light it casts on the floor. All very beautiful. Most beautiful of all, however, is the image of you somewhere smiling and kissing that ring. Maker, I almost can feel it as though you were kissing my fingers, my palm—smiling at me—pulling me towards you for a proper kiss, holding me tight while we sleep so that all I find when I awake in the night is you and your warmth and your scent and your breathing.
I won’t let that picture slip into melancholy. Not tonight. As you say, my hand rests on your letter where you held it, and that secondhand touch will keep you at my side while I finish these reports and my candle burns down.
Be safe. I love you.
I’m sorry it’s been so long since my last letter. As I’m sure you can infer, things have been busy.
I was at Skyhold recently, training some of the Inquisition’s recruits for combat against Darkspawn. On the road for a long time before that. On the road now, in fact. Headed to rendezvous with the surviving Wardens after their clash with the Inquisition. Taking a handful of recruits & an old ally from the Blight for protection. Tired but surviving and not discouraged just yet. Inquisitor is a fearsome woman and I like her odds.
How are things at Castle Cousland? Any rifts in the area? Darkspawn attacks? And how are you? Are you well?
You remember the Highever breeder where I got Magnus? Is he still in business? Some mabari could come in handy with a group this green. If you could get a few to an Inquisition camp they’ll know where to find me—same with any letters.
Love you brother. I wish I had visited more when things were quieter. Hope to see you soon, when this is over—would like to visit the family’s graves, see your restorations of the castle, possibly match-make as obnoxiously as possible. Hold tight & keep people safe.
All my love,
This letter should arrive with half a dozen yearling mabari. Jenkins told me this litter was too far on the feral side to trust with young trainees, which I know is your specialty. I’m trusting your experience and that famous Warden mettle to keep the teeth pointed in the right direction.
Thank you for writing, by the way. I wasn’t sure whether you had been at Adamant and was beginning to worry that I’d never hear what became of you. There are all kinds of rumors going around about what happened, and I look forward to sitting down with you in person and sorting them out. You know I’ve never been the order’s biggest supporter, you aside, and I wasn’t too surprised that Clarel bit off more than she could chew, but I was surprised to hear the scale. I hope your friends in the order are safe and that you’re not suffering any ill effects.
(Speaking of things I can’t wait to ask you about in person—any news I should know about regarding our illustrious king? For example, why I received a messenger direct from His Majesty with orders to report on the city’s safety when I know that neighboring lords received no such courtesy? Rumors indeed, dear sister. Perhaps I should be enclosing mother’s ring…?)
There’s been plenty of excitement here, but no rifts or direct attacks on the city, thank the Maker. Some upset on the Storm Coast that seems to have quieted since the Inquisition arrived in the area. I’m glad you have a positive impression of the Herald, but people here remain somewhat suspicious of her growing reach.
Do try to stay safe. After your few months being “last of the Cousland line” you had a grey streak in your hair, and I don’t fancy what it would do to me. (I left flowers with mother and father for you. They’d be very proud and very worried, as am I.)
There’s a bed waiting for you here when the road next brings you this way. Bring whatever guests you like.
Teyrn Fergus Cousland
You are the only person with the power to make me feel so loved and so annoyed in one letter. I have no idea what you’re implying about the king; I haven’t seen him in years. On a completely unrelated note, do you have mother’s ring? Don’t send it, but perhaps you should have it on hand.
All six healthy mabaris were received. Jenkins was right, they’re nearly unworkable—I love them. They’re perfect.
Don’t look out for me for a little while yet. I have more than enough to keep my hands full. But when I’m done here, I look forward to coming to you. I can’t wait to be with mother and father again.
Whatever you hear, whatever else is happening in the south, do not take news of me from anyone besides the Wardens or my old associates from the Blight. I won’t have you worrying unnecessarily over rumors.
All my love,
I’ve received word from the Inquisition that I am to expect a company of Wardens in Redcliffe village. You are welcome to meet them there, but I humbly request that you move them elsewhere for training. Redcliffe and the Hinterlands are only recently stabilized, and the Wardens are unfortunately in low public opinion at the moment. I would hate for your presence to stir up any uneccesary concern among the people.
Please let me know if I may provide any resources to aid you. My sincerest wishes for the health of you and your brother, the Teyrn.
Arl Teagan Guerrin of Redcliffe
Do you know just how adorable you are? I know you pretend to hate it when I call you cute, but you can’t protest when I write that you are the sweetest, sappiest man I know. Climbing roses? Puppies? Cute. I look forward to filling Denerim to the brim with roses next summer.
It took us longer than it should have to make contact with the rest of the Wardens, even with the Inquisitor sending word ahead so that they could move towards us. We connected with them in Redcliffe before moving southeast towards Ostagar, at Teagan’s request, where I could be sure that we would go somewhat undisturbed. (Does Teagan have something against me, or does he merely see me as a potential pitfall for you? I thought we got along quite well when we first met. Perhaps he has simply forgotten a time when Redcliffe was overrun by the living dead. Do not tell him I asked you this.)
Adamant’s survivors are fewer than I had hoped. They number thirteen in total, bringing our numbers to sixteen counting myself, Rainier, and Melona. All but two of them are young, and those two are just a few years older than I am. Only one mage survives. I will spare you the details of their various brokenness, but I think that my work in helping them to confront their experiences with the order thus far will be more valuable than any physical training I can provide them. Zevran has befriended a few, and Melona a few more, and I spend most of each day trying to reach the rest. Most of them are not as far into the Calling as I am; they may even have months before their situations become dire. Still, they are exhausted, directionless, most of them injured, and all more than happy to have someone to give them simple directions and a camp to sleep in away from the ruins of Adamant.
(I don’t suppose there are any handy unoccupied keeps in Ferelden…? Amaranthine, perhaps, although something more central would be better. What pleasure it would give me to see the Warden crest waving over the towers of Howe’s old keep.)
Anyway, this lot know well enough how to fight, and they’ve seen too much combat recently. Besides, I am beginning to grow too weary for much training. I oversee Melona as she heals their scars, I gather firewood, I speak with them about our experiences and about the order, I take my turn on watch, and when I am through, I fall heavy onto my bedroll and sleep the whole night through, which should not be as unsettling as it is. Not even the pain in my arms can keep me awake. The other morning Zevran had to spend some time shaking me before I woke; he’s concerned, I can see it, but we’re both too busy now to find much time to talk heart to heart. I do think that Fiona was right. The sores on my arms continue to spread, and there are fresh ones on my neck which are harder to disguise.
Cheerier news! You inspired me to write to Fergus and ask him to send a litter of mabaris from my favorite breeder, and they have arrived. (Fergus is suspicious, by the way, after the rider you sent to check on Highever. I don’t know how much you see him, but be aware that he may ask you about us.) They are absolutely untamed and I love them all to pieces. These six shall be Wardens in duty if not in technicality.
One has large grey patches and likes to sit at my side and growl at anyone who approaches, except Rainier, who she also likes. I’ve named her Wynne. The smallest two are Bryce and Eleanor, and Gilmore is the reddish pup that runs between all the others until he finds one to play with him. Melona took a shine to the red and brown pup and named her Andruil after the elven goddess of the hunt.
The largest mabari is a bit of an odd one. He’s brown and black and fearsome when he wants to be—the other day he tore through a Hurlock like wet paper—but most of the time he is not fearsome at all. He is quiet, and steadfast, and he takes turns lying next to each Warden at night when they suffer their nightmares. I call him Duncan.
Strong personalities aside, they are largely untrained, and Eleanor keeps snapping at the younger recruits (I would expect no less) so the rest of my time and energy goes towards reining them in and teaching them their commands. They will make a welcome addition to the Wardens, both as protection and companions, but first they must learn their manners. (Not that manners are a required prerequisite for the Wardens. Maker’s breath.) I don’t intend to choose one for myself; were I to partner with another mabari, I would go to Highever myself to choose a pup. Someday, I hope!
If things continue as planned, we will soon begin a northerly sweep through Ferelden to eliminate as many Darkspawn as possible. Hopefully the Inquisition is making good progress against Corypheus and we can all take a moment to breathe soon.
I think of you always, sweetheart. Please take good care of yourself.
Morrigan thinks that she has a way for us to defeat Corypheus. The situations in the Western Approach and the Emerald Graves are much stabilized, and the red lyrium mines in Emprise du Lion are cleaned out, but there are a hundred problems in other regions demanding my attention. I think that the best course of action is to bet on Morrigan’s expertise and confront Corypheus as soon as possible. Hopefully that will grant us the time we need to clean up the rest of the messes.
I write this in a few spare moments before heading to the courtyard to see off Cullen and our troops, who I will follow to Haven tomorrow. This letter serves both to inform you of our plans and as a farewell if I do not return. It was my pleasure to meet you. I truly wish you success in your efforts to rebuild the Wardens.
Notes from Morrigan and Leliana enclosed.
I feel that I owe you some explanation of what I have learned about Flemeth in light of our former friendship and your attempt to kill her for my safety. She is a vessel of the goddess Mythal. She tried to take Kieran; instead, she took the Old God that was within him as a result of the ritual we completed before your final stand against the Archdemon. He is mundane now. I do not know her plans, but should you meet her, be wary. I guarantee she remembers you.
Leliana tells me that you are ill. I am sorry for your suffering. I have a strategy for the Inquisitor to try against Corypheus, and his defeat will solve many (not all) of our problems. Keep your strength.
Zevran has written to tell me that your situation grows dire. I am sorry, my friend. We are working as fast as we are able. I pray that it is fast enough.
I wish there had been more time for us you speak while you were at Skyhold. The last ten years have been difficult for us all, but I treasure the time we all spent together during the Blight. May we all find ourselves by friendly hearths once more.
“Blessed are they who stand before
The corrupt and the wicked and do not falter.
Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just.
Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow.
In their blood the Maker's will is written.”
May the Maker watch over you.
Good news from the Inquisition. The end draws near.
We cannot move north. I am too weak to travel, and Zevran tells me I have moments where my memory is poor. In this too, the end draws near.
I love you. I know you are going through the same all alone in Denerim. I wish I could be there with you now.
“Are you all right?”
Gwen startled out of her reverie and dropped her armful of kindling. “Hm?”
Zevran looked at her sympathetically and bent to add her pile to the firewood he already carried. “You look tired. I think Melona and Rainier have people comfortable for the evening—you could sleep.”
She knew why he was asking. She didn’t know what exactly she looked like, of course, but she could feel how sunken her eyes were and how creased her forehead. She knew Zevran had seen the leathery brown patches spreading on her neck and chest in addition to the ones on her arms. The Calling was so loud she could barely think through it; for the last few minutes her mind had been empty except for its tugging rhythm. Only Zevran’s worried expression was enough to bring her back to herself.
“I don’t want to sleep yet.” They both winced at how rough her voice was, but she plowed on. “I keep having nightmares that I’m transforming.”
“I can sit with you. Wait until you wake up.”
“Zev…” Gwen frowned as she forgot what she had been about to say. “Where… where are we going?”
Zevran quickly swallowed a stricken look and she didn’t know why. “Back to camp. Put your hand on my shoulder—it’s just through these trees.”
Gwen obeyed and stumbled in silence for a minute. Her whole body ached. “Zev?”
“What am I waiting for?”
“What do you mean?”
She frowned. “I’ll feel better when something happens, but I can’t remember what.”
“Ah. You are waiting for the Inquisition to defeat Corypheus. They marched for Haven more than ten days ago now. Any time the Calling should end and you should feel better.”
“Yes.” Zevran waited while she stepped laboriously over a root. “Just a little longer.”
“I’m right here.”
Gwen squinted towards where their camp’s two fires were dimly visible through the trees. “Fires?”
“They’re going dim.”
Quick as a flash, Zevran threw down the firewood he carried and pulled Gwen’s arm over his shoulder before she could sink to her knees. “Come on, my friend, you need rest.”
Gwen agreed, but when she opened her mouth, nothing came out. She looked at Zevran. His mouth was set in a hard line as he practically dragged her through the woods. The familiar sight of her friend sparked a pleasant warm feeling in her chest, but it was almost immediately washed away by the pain and the cold that filled her—and then her vision went completely dark. She felt herself fall to the ground as Zevran’s calling faded away.
She was in the Deep Roads. The walls were crumbling, the dwarves’ chiseled designs worn down by centuries of slow-dripping water. Her footsteps echoed like a drumbeat through the empty expanse of tunnels. Each ringing impact fell in time with the song urging her deeper, deeper, deeper, and she turned and slipped down a narrow fissure that sloped down towards her destination.
Everything was perfectly dark. Besides her footsteps and her ragged breathing and the feeling of rough stone where she trailed her fingers along the wall, she might as well have been in an empty void. This was where she needed to be. Down here, deep within the stone, were the others like her, and when she found them, they could continue their search. Deeper and deeper still until they unearthed something powerful—
A sliver of daylight suddenly pierced the darkness. Gwen shielded her eyes, which burned from the unaccustomed glare. The dark silhouette of a hand appeared, its fingers curled invitingly.
“Gwen.” Someone said her name just once, firmly. The hand reached more insistently.
She raised her hand but hesitated when she saw her leathery skin and her gnarled, clawed fingers. She wasn’t a thing of the daylight anymore. She wasn’t meant to go back.
The hand remained. The light looked warm and unthreatening.
Steeling herself, she reached out and took it.
When Gwen’s eyes blinked open, it took her a moment to recognize that she was in a tent. Sunlight streamed through the opening where the flap had been tied back, and she could hear activity outside. She was tucked into a bedroll. When she turned her head to look around, it throbbed so forcefully that she groaned aloud.
“Ah, good, you’re awake.” Melona’s face appeared above her, recognizable through her blurred vision mostly by her shock of red hair. “Drink.”
Obediently, Gwen drank from the vessel pressed against her lips. It was cold elfroot tea; as soon as she took the first swallow, the pain in her head eased and her vision began to sharpen. The potion drained the tension that held her muscles locked and she felt her blood begin to reach her fingers for what felt like the first time in a while.
“What happened?” she gasped when she was allowed a moment to breathe.
Melona grinned. “Something big must have happened, because before dawn on the night you collapsed you and the rest of the Wardens went into a high fever. You’ve been sweating out something awful for days.”
It was impossible to believe, but in the silence that followed, Gwen’s mind was quiet. She could hear birds and the crackling of the fire outside, and her own heart was pounding, but the Calling’s endless pulse was gone.
“Maker, it’s—it’s over.”
“It’s over! Now keep drinking, you’re dehydrated as a nug in the desert.”
“What—” She wasn’t allowed to finish her question before Melona had a cup to her lips again, this time filled with fresh, cold water. Gwen drank as though she had never tasted water in her life.
When she had drained the cup, she gasped for air once more and struggled until she was sitting upright. “I have to—I need to write—my brother, I need to speak with the Inquisitor—”
“Not right now, you don’t.” Melona pushed her back down. “Go back to sleep. The Inquisition will still be there in a week, as will the Darkspawn, and you can deal with them both then. I have a feeling that I wouldn’t enjoy the people I’d have to answer to if I let you wander off and pass out in the woods just when things were looking up around here.”
Somewhat against her will, Gwen allowed herself to be pulled back down into sleep.
Final stretch! I tried something a little different with the formatting this chapter since otherwise it would have just been a lot of choppy scenes over a couple of months--let me know if you find it difficult to read or follow.
Chapter 19: Chapter XIX
To get into the reading groove for this, our final chapter, I recommend listening to "Love Will Set You Free" by Kodaline.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I’m going to come back here after we get everyone settled at Amaranthine,” Gwen told Zevran as they picked their way through the soft, waterlogged ground at the edge of the Korcari Wilds. “There was a herb that the dogmaster at Ostagar used to treat mabari that swallowed Darkspawn blood. If I can find it again and learn how to prepare it, it may be a cure for Wardens as well—and if not, it’ll at least be useful to have for the dogs. That would be nice, right boy?”
This last was directed at the mabari Duncan, who barked where he trotted beside Gwen.
“You’re cheerful.” Zevran grimaced as he pulled his boot from the mud with an unpleasant squelching sound and accepted Gwen’s offered hand to pull himself up onto a rock.
“It’s hard not to be! I feel strong again, Zev. Besides, it’s nice to know exactly what I’m doing: we get Darkspawn reports, that’s where we go.” She gestured behind them to the group of Wardens struggling through the swampland.
“Ah yes. We. Remind me why I am still following you through the wilderness when you are no longer in need of babysitting?”
“What, did you have a prior engagement?” When he stopped short in the mud for the fifth time in as many minutes, Gwen bared her teeth in an overly-wide smile and took a step towards him.
“No no no—”
Ignoring Zevran’s protests, she picked him up, making sure that neither of his boots stayed stuck in the mud, and carried him like a child for a few steps before setting him on a patch of solid earth.
“Come on, we need to get to dry ground to make camp and it’s getting dark.”
Zevran grumbled something and dusted himself off performatively. “Your point has been made, I can see that you’re better. Why don’t we go to Antiva City on market day and then we’ll see who covers ground faster?”
And she did feel better. In less than two weeks, Gwen had gone from feverish and faint to feeling as though she was seeing, hearing, and thinking clearly for the first time in months. Everything felt easy—even packing up camp and marching the Wardens east, which should have been exhausting enough even without the rigorous nightly trainings she had begun, seemed like nothing in comparison to the bone-melting weariness she had been fighting since the Calling began. Her appetite was as hardy as it had been just after her Joining. The patches of blighted flesh shriveled and peeled away when she scrubbed them to reveal fresh, healthy skin beneath. Even the knowledge that her Calling would come again in two decades or so couldn’t dampen her mood.
She could only laugh at Zevran’s ruffled feathers. Had the assassin not spent the morning pestering her in his own high spirits she might have apologized, but after one too many pointed innuendos about how she and Alistair might celebrate their reunion she was fine with letting him stew for a little while.
Melona bounded up beside Gwen as they resumed walking. “Think we’ll see any Chasind?”
“We might. They’re very nice people, in my experience. Saved my brother’s life.” Spotting movement off ahead, Gwen held up a hand to stop the party; the object moved again and she recognized it as a bird. She beckoned everyone forward. “Anyway,” she continued, “they’re so cut off from the rest of Ferelden that they could lose a lot of people to any Darkspawn that may be in the area. We’ll do a lot of good by doing a careful sweep.”
“Wait,” a voice behind her said, and Gwen turned to see Rainier pointing at something. “There’s high ground over there. We’d have a dry place to camp and a good vantage to keep watch from.”
Following his gaze to a craggy hillock with ruins at one side, Gwen nodded. They were close enough to the place she wanted to visit. “Good eye. Let’s stop for the night.”
Pitching camp was the highlight of Gwen’s days. Not only did it mean that it was almost time for supper and sleep, but it meant that she got to switch from watching for physical danger to observing the Wardens as they socialized more naturally. This and this warrior were always the ones to feed the mabari; Melona bounced around from task to task until Rainier handed her something to do with her hands; this thief sat apart by themself, unless this older mage came to draw them back into the circle. It was all information that would be useful in fostering the collaboration and trust that she needed as the foundation for the rebuilt order.
Tonight she let everyone take the night off from training. Instead Zevran indulged them all in one of his taller tales about his days with the Crows. Gwen had heard the story before, so she turned her attention to the Wardens as always. Rainier especially was beginning to come out of his shell; he had been speaking with a couple of the other swordfighters, swapping techniques and working together around camp, and now they sat together to listen to Zevran’s story.
“And so I swung down from the balcony, knife in hand, curtain in the other—and tearing fast, mind you—and the Duke was seconds away from turning around when I felt a hand grab me from behind!”
The little audience gasped collectively and Gwen hid a smile. Alistair was right about so many things, not least about the therapeutic benefits of sitting on the ground around a fire. All the day’s exhaustion and frustration faded in the face of companionship, warmth, a hot meal, and a clear goal for tomorrow. Letting the camp fade from her focus, Gwen leaned back and watched sparks whirl and extinguish below the overcast night sky.
This time, Gwen was awake as dawn broke because she had volunteered for the second overnight watch. Cool, damp air that smelled of rot chilled her ears and nose as she paced around the crest of the hill and waited for the others to wake up; dawn failed to bring any color to the grey landscape of water and bare trees. She nodded at Rainier as he took her post and slipped away into the wilds.
It took longer than she hoped, but after nearly an hour of searching, she found the familiar hill with its precarious stacked rocks. Years of nightmares had burned the silhouette into her memory. Gwen almost pinched herself to make sure that she wasn’t in the Fade again. Instead, she clenched her fists and picked her way around the hill to the cliff face on the other side.
There at the base of the drop lay a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones. It had settled some over the years. Moss grew between and over the rocks; swamp vines netted the surface. A stream lapped nearby in near-silence.
Gwen took a deep breath and allowed herself to picture the body beneath—the body of her first Warden apprentice. There couldn’t be much left after nearly ten years in such a damp resting place. She had left his staff and provisions with him, perhaps out of some deep-seated un-Andrastian instinct that he might still have use for them, and they too would be almost gone. At least the grave looked untouched. The Chasind probably knew better than to go meddling with unknown bodies in the wilderness for fear of malignant spirits.
“Hello, my friend,” she began, and surprised herself with a steady voice despite the sorrow roiling within her. She sat on the spongy earth beside the cairn, her armor biting cold and hard through her clothes. “I’m sorry it’s been so long. I feel bad for leaving you alone, but I suppose you’re used to time by yourself. And the quiet.
“There’s so much to tell. Life is—the depths of sorrow and the heights of joy will never stop surprising me.” Gwen laughed. “I miss you. I wish you had been here for all of this nonsense. You were always so sensible. To have another veteran Warden with me who I trusted completely—you’d be twenty-eight this summer, right?” She shook her head. “You deserved that time. You deserved the time to find a home in the order.
“I didn’t do everything I should have. I should have told you about the Joining before we recruited you and I shouldn’t have taken you away on a mission so soon. And I absolutely shouldn’t have let my guard down while you were under my charge. You were a wonderful friend, but I was a poor mentor.”
She paused. The cairn did not respond.
“I’m going to do better now. No more carelessness and no more putting my wants before the needs of recruits. I’m going to build an order strong enough that it won’t fall to desperation again. But more importantly, I’m going to make the order a home for those who need it.” She rested a hand on the largest rock: a blank black-flecked headstone. “I can’t help you now, but there are a lot of mages who are displaced and frightened these days. And plenty of others—it’s been a hard few years. Even those who don’t wish to complete the Joining will strengthen the order. There’s so much to be done…”
A smile crept over her face. “I hope that you’re somewhere comfortable and safe. I hope that you’ve found a better family.” At last her words caught in her throat as tears welled up, but still she smiled. “I thought I was going to see you soon, but I guess I have work yet to do here. If you can, would you say hello to my parents? And Oriana and Oren. I love you all. I’ll see you when I can.”
In the silence that followed, a single bluish pebble tumbled down from the hill above, bounced twice down the cairn, and landed at Gwen’s feet.
Gwen wiped the tears from her eyes and picked it up. It fit perfectly in her hand, the dip in the middle an ideal place to rest her thumb. “Thank you, my friend.” She stood, feeling where the seat of her trousers was damp from sitting on the ground, and looked over the grave one last time. It looked pleasant, at least, quiet and out of the way. Exactly what he would have liked. “May we both find peace.”
Her only answer was the wind in the trees.
By the time she got back to the Warden camp, everyone was awake and packing up their tents. Wynne barked when she saw her coming, alerting Rainier, who had been sitting stiffly watching for her return.
“Warden Cousland,” he greeted her formally as she climbed the steep slope to where he waited. “We haven’t seen anything but wildlife all morning, but those tracks we saw yesterday would lead us southeast, deeper into the Wilds. We’ll be ready to move out in thirty minutes.”
“Thank you Rainier. I see things have been in good hands.” She clapped him on the shoulder. “Could you come with me for a moment? I need to speak with you and Melona.”
Brow furrowed, Rainier obeyed. Gwen beckoned the young mage over and sat down on one of the logs they had dragged into camp the night before, inviting them to do the same.
“All right you two. You stand to be the first two Wardens recruited as part of the rebuilt order, and I want you to know exactly what you’re getting into.” She reached into the front of her shirt and pulled out the chain she always wore: it held her engagement ring and the vial of Darkspawn blood Duncan had given her after her Joining. “This amulet was given to me by the man who conscripted me for the Wardens. It represents the Warden’s oath to stand between the Darkspawn and all that they would destroy.”
Rainier nodded seriously, but Melona looked bemused. “We know it’s dangerous work, Warden Cousland. We’re prepared to make that oath.”
“You think that you are prepared, but there is more to being a Warden than swearing to protect Thedas at the cost of your own life.” Gwen held up the vial and tipped it back and forth so that Rainier and Melona could see the black liquid inside. “The Joining, the ritual that officially makes a Warden, is blood magic. Recruits drink Darkspawn blood and either become attuned to the Blight or die a painful death. Either way, it is unpleasant.”
Both winced; Rainier sucked in a surprised breath.
“This ritual grants Wardens the power to sense Darkspawn and grants us immunity against the Blight, but at great cost. Firstly, only a Warden can kill an Archdemon, and doing so kills them.” Melona held up a finger but Gwen anticipated her question. “To avoid this cost, I resorted to more blood magic—magic of which I still have yet to learn the cost. Only time will tell whether I doomed us all by putting my own future before my duty as a Warden. Secondly, after the Joining, a Warden typically has a lifespan of thirty years before they experience the Calling. When their time comes, they are faced with a painful death—you saw me in the throes of such a fate. Instead, Wardens traditionally go to the Deep Roads to die taking out as many Darkspawn as they are able.”
“If that’s all,” Melona said, a little nervously.
“It isn’t, but that is the worst of it.” Gwen sighed. “The Joining and the Calling have been kept secret for centuries, but all this has brought us is an order full of those who were not able to make informed choices about their futures. Those who chafe under their fate are most likely to fall prey to desperation. I am giving you the chance to decide for yourselves whether you want to make that sacrifice.”
“I will,” Rainier said immediately. “I owe that to the Wardens.”
Gwen held up a hand. “I want you to think about it. If you choose not to undergo the Joining, you can still be of service to the order. I intend to rebuild our presence in Thedas on a new basis of trust and transparency, and there will be room for allies.”
The confusion and fear on Melona’s face made Gwen’s heart twist. It pained her to be the cause of them, but she told herself that it was better for the girl to learn the cost now than to discover it piecemeal as Gwen had.
She stood, tucking her amulet and ring back safely into her shirt. “I will leave you to think. We can discuss this more, if you would like—I will tell the senior Wardens to answer your questions as well.”
“Thank you, Warden Cousland.” Brushing off her robes, Melona also stood. “This is… much to think about.” She pushed a hand through her vibrant hair. “May I ask you one question before we head out?”
“Knowing what you know now, would you still join the Wardens?”
Gwen sighed. “That is a complicated question. I had very little choice—it was the Wardens or death, and I had chosen death before the Warden who conscripted me invoked the right of conscription. But now, at my current age, with everything I have seen…” She hissed a breath through her teeth and shrugged. “I think that I would. Fortunately, I can’t change the past, so I don’t have to wonder. All I need to decide is how best to use my experience to serve the Wardens. You are the ones who must decide what is right for you.”
When it was clear that the two recruits had no further questions, Gwen smiled. “I’m going to help pack up. Marching always clears my head; perhaps our time in the Wilds will be a good time for you to consider your options.”
Arl Teagan Guerrin,
Thank you for your courtesy in your last letter. I am well, as was the Teyrn when I heard from him last. I hope that you are also in good health.
I have received word from the Inquisition that you have requested reparations for the damage done to Redcliffe by the rebel mages. How convenient that the Wardens are nearby! We have just finished clearing the Darkspawn from the Korcari Wilds and will turn our steps next towards Lake Calenhad. If the people think so little of the Wardens, as you say, then it will cheer them to see us contributing to repairs around the village. We thank you in advance for your hospitality.
I do look forward to returning to Redcliffe. Though I enjoyed my last long visit, I have not had the pleasure of exploring the village for any length of time since its recovery from the undead attacks. I remember how fondly the people spoke of you and of Eamon—I am sure that the area has prospered under your guiding influence.
Lady Gwendolyn Cousland of Highever
Redcliffe, three weeks, brings an intersection of our business. I will see you there, my love.
I will write more later, but I am safe and very happy and plan to visit soon. Please send mother’s ring to Redcliffe.
“Oh Maker, watch your step.”
Melona rolled her eyes and stepped lightly over a place where the roof had crumbled while Gwen watched with some anxiety.
The two Wardens were perched on top of the Redcliffe chantry with hammers and nails, helping to undo some of the damage done by the magister Alexius during his residence there. Faced with Gwen’s cheerful insistence that the Grey Wardens be allowed to repair their apparently damaged reputation, Arl Teagan had reluctantly accepted their presence in Redcliffe village. Their little company had beds and hot food in the inn, the villagers had the security of knowing that the Hero of Ferelden herself patrolled the Hinterlands at night, and Gwen had much better access to messengers and supplies.
“This whole beam’s rotted, they’ll have to replace it.” Melona crept over to a smaller hole, this one obviously made by a magical blast. “We can do something with this one. I think the crossbeam is cracked, but if we patch it we just need some shingles.”
Gwen obediently handed over a plank for patching the crossbeam and waited ready with a handful of nails. “I’m glad you know what you’re doing. I probably shouldn’t be left unsupervised with a hammer.”
“Warden-Commander Cousland can’t even patch a roof? Shameful.” Melona sniffed in mock-contempt. “You’re lucky you have such competent recruits.”
“I am!” Gwen replied, unable to keep the genuine warmth from her tone. “But hey, I’m much better at taking things apart with hammers than building them.”
“Taking Darkspawn apart, you mean?”
Melona held up the plank where it needed to be affixed to the crossbeam and froze it in place with a few thick bands of ice before beginning to hammer it in. “Speaking of Darkspawn, I’ve been thinking more about the Joining.”
“Oh?” Melona had been largely silent on the subject since their first conversation in the Korcari Wilds. Rainier, on the other hand, had waited until the next morning to fulfill Gwen’s insistence that he consider his options, but he reiterated to Gwen that he intended to complete the Joining to pay off his debt to the Wardens. After all, he had said, as a warrior and a wanted man, his chances of living another thirty years were slim regardless—he was happy to dedicate his borrowed time to protecting others. He had only agreed to postpone the ritual when Gwen pointed out that his colleagues in the Inquisition might have use of him. He and Zevran had departed a few weeks before for Skyhold, carrying with them a thick packet of letters for the Inquisitor, Leliana, Morrigan, and a handful of others, along with a whittled mabari figure as a gift for Kieran.
“Yes. Actually, I was thinking about life in the Circle.” She looked up at Gwen for a moment. “I don’t want to do anything that would leash me. I’ve seen mages and Templars alike manipulated by the chantry because of blood magic and lyrium—and we all saw what happens to the Wardens when someone manipulates that weakness.”
“I understand.” Gwen smiled, trying to arrange her face so that she looked as understanding as she felt. “I don’t want the Order to feel claustrophobic or controlling for anyone. You have every right to be wary of the Joining.”
“But could—you said that the new Order would have room for allies?”
“That is my intention. I hope that having some Wardens who have not completed the Joining might prevent something like what happened at Adamant from happening again.”
“Then I would love to be a part of that.” Melona melted away the ice bonds with a gesture, leaving the expertly repaired crossbeam.
“Wonderful work there!” Gwen said warmly, earning a grin from Melona.
“Thanks boss.” She pulled her staff from her back and tapped it lightly against the roof, summoning several shingles from their pile and arranging them easily within the roof’s pattern.
Gwen laughed. “Now you’re just showing off.”
“I would never.”
They worked together to nail down the shingles. Melona had more questions about the new Order—would these not-quite Wardens have a different title? Could she choose the title? How many rebel mages could they take in?—and Gwen answered them as well as she could, occasionally turning them back on Melona for her own thoughts. She would need to consult with the rest of the Wardens, of course, as being chosen for Warden-Commander did not grant her executive power, but she could feel the beginnings of change taking shape under her hands like receptive clay.
They were just beginning to discuss the march to Amaranthine and whether they should travel along the Storm Coast or sweep some of the less-populated farmland in the interior of Ferelden when Melona pointed behind Gwen.
“Wait, who is that?”
Gwen followed Melona’s gaze and saw an ornate carriage pulled by four horses rolling down Redcliffe’s main road. Mounted guards accompanied it before and behind, gleaming in expensive armor; the two in the lead carried pennants. When Gwen squinted, she could just make out…
“The royal crest,” she breathed.
Melona laughed. “Sounds like you have places to be. I’ll let the others know that you’re busy at the castle.”
“Thank you Melona. Be safe, and come get me if there’s any trouble.” Gwen grinned and left her hammer and stash of nails where others could use them. She was so eager to get down the ladder that she missed a handful of steps and slid down so fast her hands grew hot, barely concerned for the height. When her boots hit stone she took off running for the carriage.
One of the guards drew their sword as she approached, but before they could demand to know her business some signal caused the carriage to stop. Gwen danced back and forth in anticipation as the door opened and a tall figure unfolded itself from inside: Alistair, dressed in an embroidered jerkin and a maroon traveling cloak. The sunlight caught the simple golden circlet that rested atop his head. His face lit up when he saw Gwen.
“She may approach,” he said told the guard through a grin.
Gwen forced herself to take measured steps until she stood before him. It felt as though the entire might of the Waking Sea roared in her ears and pounded in her veins. She bowed low, a formal gesture made habit by her parents’ training, and when she straightened she stared at his face as though she meant to drown in it. He looked tired but healthy, the skin around his eyes crinkled by his smile and his eyes themselves bright. Her gaze hungrily traced the freckles over his nose and forehead, the soft curve of his lips.
“Lady Cousland.” He took her hand and bowed to kiss it; his touch set fire to her skin but she could not break their performance just yet, so she kept her hand lightly in his even as she longed to pull him up so that his lips could be put to better use elsewhere. He smirked up at her as though he could hear her thoughts. “Are you on your way to Redcliffe Castle?”
“I am, Your Majesty.”
“Allow me to transport you, then.” Alistair stepped aside and guided her towards the carriage with the hand he still held.
Gwen thought her smile might split her face in two. “How very kind.”
She stepped up into the carriage, which was decorated in simple dark wood and some soft, muted fabric. A pile of furs lay in the corner of one of the seats, no longer needed in the warmer afternoon. And it was completely empty. Biting her tongue to avoid saying anything unfortunate before the door shut, she took a seat and waited.
It only took a few seconds for Alistair to climb in behind her and shut the door. He drew the curtain over the small window set into the door, throwing the interior into gloom, rapped on the ceiling to resume the carriage’s progress, and settled onto the seat opposite Gwen, so close that their knees nearly knocked together.
“Well,” he said, and they stared at each other for a minute.
“Well,” Gwen agreed. “It’s good to see you.”
Alistair started to reach for her but hesitated with his hand outstretched between them. “I think we have a moment—”
Gwen grabbed his arm and used it to pull herself forward, crashing her lips into his as she cupped the back of his neck with her other hand. It was awkward to maneuver in the small space and she nearly lost her balance when the carriage bumped, but she was unaware of the cramped angle of her neck as she tried to pour every drop of relief and joy and love into their kiss.
Alistair groaned appreciatively and pulled her closer until she was kneeling on the seat straddling his lap. When she stopped for breath, the details began to filter in, almost too wonderful to experience all at once: the warmth of him against her, the feeling of his hand on her back, his breathless elated laughter as he kissed the corner of her mouth. He tilted his head back to kiss the tip of her nose and his circlet began to slide off his head—Gwen caught it and held it in place, fascinated by the way it held the warmth of his body. His hair was soft and tousled. His eyes—his eyes. He was staring at her like she was the most wondrous thing he had ever seen.
“Alistair,” she choked out, and set the circlet on the seat beside her so that she could cup his face in both hands and just look at him. After so many nights spent wishing for his face before her and his arms around her, it was hard to believe that he was truly here. But he was. He was here and so was she, and they were together and alive.
When she failed to produce any words, Alistair covered her hands with his own. “I missed you so much. I can’t believe you’re really here.” His voice was reverent.
“I can’t either! Maker, that was a close thing. You’re all right? You’re well?”
“I am very well,” he said so earnestly that she laughed a little. “What?”
“You’re very cute.”
He frowned, and even the wrinkle between his brows and his deliberate pout were adorable. “Kings aren’t cute.”
“Hmm, of course, Your Majesty.” Nuzzling his neck, Gwen nipped at the spot that made him whimper. “Would you prefer handsome? Dashing?”
“Roguish?” Alistair supplied breathlessly, his hands on her hips and pulling her down against his lap almost as though he didn’t realize he was doing it. “Charming?”
“What about incorrigible?” She moved up his neck to his ear and followed his cheekbone down to his nose, pressing a trail of open-mouthed kisses as she went. When she kissed his nose, he groaned and pulled her face down for a desperate kiss, sharp and heated.
The second time Alistair’s hips bucked, Gwen sighed into the kiss and reluctantly pulled away. Alistair followed the movement with a slightly dazed expression, his face flushed and eyes bright.
“We… shouldn’t do this here,” she explained, nodding to the carriage door. “It’s not far to the castle and it’s not a good idea to arrive looking—well—”
“Ravaged?” Alistair guessed. “Fine, fine. But I think we should tell Teagan about our engagement today. It’s time to start making official announcements.”
“Oh!” Gwen slid off of Alistair’s lap to sit beside him, still pressed against him as much as she could manage. He waited curiously while she pulled out the chain around her neck and unclasped it so that she could remove its contents. “I can put this on now,” she said, sliding her dawnstone engagement ring onto her finger, “and I wrote to my brother to ask for this, which means that he is now extremely suspicious and probably riding to Denerim as we speak.”
Alistair took the second ring she offered. It was difficult to make out in the dimness of the carriage; he slid back the curtain to examine it in the light and smiled when he saw Highever’s crest. “A family heirloom?”
“The ring my father used to propose to my mother. She gave it to Fergus when he proposed to Oriana, but—well. It’s found its way back to me.”
“I’m honored.” Alistair slid it onto his finger, turning it back and forth to admire it. Seeing her family’s crest on his finger filled her with something she couldn’t quite describe: it was warm and solid, certain and overjoyed. They had made it. They were going to be married.
Alistair must have been thinking something similar because he paused after a moment and looked her in the eye with something like surprise in his expression. “I suppose things are pretty official now, huh?”
“Having cold feet?”
“No! Maker, not at all!” Alistair put his arms around her and she leaned into his embrace. He was so warm, even if the brocade of his tunic was a little scratchy. “No, I just honestly never thought we’d make it this far. I mean, of all the people to live to get married, what are the chances we’d both live this long? And now it’s going to happen and I—Gwen, I’m so happy—”
“Don’t cry! If you start crying I’m going to cry, and I don’t want to see Teagan like that either!” She squeezed her eyes shut to keep happy, overwhelmed tears from spilling over.
“I’m not crying,” Alistair protested, his voice thick. “I mean, I know we still have a long time to go. We’re lucky we could make this meeting work and I probably won’t see you again until you’re posted up at Amaranthine. But—it’s close. It’s possible now.”
“I know what you mean.” Gwen reached over to hold his hand, enjoying the look of their rings side by side and the warmth of his hand in hers. “I love you, you know that?”
“So I’ve been told. I love you too.” She felt Alistair kiss her forehead and turned to grin at him.
“I’ve been thinking about after the wedding.”
“As have I, believe me.” Alistair waggled his eyebrows.
Against her better judgment, Gwen allowed herself to be derailed. “I—I don’t even know what you mean by that. We’ve already slept together.”
Alistair clapped his hands to his face in exaggerated shock. “I was talking about holding hands in public! What did you think I meant, dear lady?”
“Alistair!” Laughter overcame her while Alistair grinned, self-satisfied.
“Sorry, you can finish.”
“Many thanks, Your Majesty.” She poked him in the ribs, earning a squawk. “I was going to say that I can’t wait to visit Highever with you—you know, after. I know you’ve met Fergus but I want you to meet him officially as his brother-in-law. And we can visit my family’s graves—mother and father would have loved you—and I want to visit the breeder I got Magnus from, maybe find a mabari to take back with me. And we talked about a memorial for Duncan. Fergus would be all right with us putting it in the city.”
“Oh?” Alistair asked, sounding amused and enamored by her barely-punctuated ramblings.
“It will be so lovely to split my time between Amaranthine and Denerim. That’s not too far, and maybe you can visit the keep sometimes. And all the people we’ll get to see on business! Zevran will be around I’m sure, and there are rumors that Leliana is the pick for the next Divine, and—”
Alistair cut her off with a kiss. Gwen happily accepted the distraction, reaching up at once to run her hands through his hair. She was already laughing when they broke for breath.
“Apparently I don’t quite know what to do with myself,” she said, pausing as Alistair kissed her again. “I don’t know whether to be—mmf—happy or emotional or—”
“Consumed by lust?”
“Sorry.” She could feel him smiling where he kissed her collarbone, her neck. “I’m as happy as you are, my love. I’m glad you’re so excited about our future.” He pressed a long, open-mouthed kiss to her neck. “By the way, how do you feel about hickeys featuring in our formal announcement of our engagement?”
The carriage came to an abrupt halt, causing both of them to nearly slide off the seat.
“Ah.” Alistair sat up sheepishly. “We’ve arrived.”
Gwen grabbed him and pulled him down for one last hard kiss. When she could almost feel him melting under her hands, she broke away to whisper in his ear. “We’ll continue this tonight.”
“Unfair,” Alistair whimpered.
Grinning, Gwen fixed his hair and returned his circlet to its rightful place. He watched her, his eyes too soft to bear. She still was not tired of just staring at him. “Let’s go. Your uncle is expecting reports from the King of Ferelden and the Commander of the Grey.”
“I’m sure they’d be happy to take over while the two of us slip away somewhere—”
“Come on. We’ll have time later.” Gwen nudged him out of the carriage, accepting his hand once more to help her step down. It was a bright, clear day, through a cool breeze chilled the castle courtyard; her ring glittered bright and hopeful in the sunlight. She could not believe that the walls above her were the same ones that had seen the horrors she remembered from the Blight. They still stood, tall and silent, unmarked, waiting.
Just as Alistair stood waiting, tall and perfect and with little besides faded scars to advertise any of his troubling past. Gwen felt scrubbed clean by his presence. By love. Her scars were just scars, much less present than the look on his face right now.
She looked at him, and he looked at her, and she did not let go of his hand.
This fic has spanned four school years, three calendar years, two research labs, two D&D campaigns, the development of one chronic illness, close to 100 hours of Dragon Age playtime, and a whole lot of living. Thanks for sticking with it! I recommend staying subscribed on AO3 for the epilogue whenever that drops—what kind of English major would I be if I didn’t end with a wedding? ;)